Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Pop Backstory Chapter 1: Broadside Ballads and the Birth of American Music

Instant classic of its age...
Some controversy surrounds the question of the first American to “produce a Musical Composition.” A guy named Frances Hopkinson staked claim to the honor, but, upon a little digging, a music historian of some import named Oscar G. Sonneck unearthed a second candidate, a guy named James Lyon. Sonneck went with Hopkinson in the end (composition titled “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free”), but still others noted the year of composition (1759) and argued that Americans can’t predate America (touche) and that brings in another work by Hopkinson (“Seven Songs for the Harpsichord or Forte Piano”), written 1788, as the first “American” work, so the credit still attaches, if for a different song.

Few Americans had access to classical music back then; Thomas Jefferson often lamented how damn hard it was to scare up a band in the wilds of Virginia, and he was a big fan of music (“the favorite passion of [his] soul”). Amateur enthusiasts made do, playing mostly in the home and with whomever came to hand; scaling up was hard and musical education, while possible, not only cost money, but required the correct address. Even then, the songs came from the Old Country, not the States, and (as noted above) original composition took a century and two-thirds (or thereabouts) to happen, and it was never an object of mass popularity.

It was another borrowed form that seems closest to the first truly “popular music” to take hold on these shores. These went by the name of “broadside ballads,” and were little more than tales of adventure (and sometimes bastardry) set to familiar songs that already existed. Different poems often borrowed the same tune, too: for instance, both “The Children in the Woods” and “Chevy Chase” (not a typo) could play over the tune of "Ponder Well," from a production called The Beggar’s Opera. (That's the whole thing, btw; buckle up.)  (Also, The Beggar’s Opera actually comes up a lot, see “Our Polly Is a Sad Slut,” which played under “The Lawyer’s Pedigree”). The themes vary quite a bit – e.g., “Chevy Chase” records a fateful day of battle (not to mention the aching stupidity of fighting over an intangible like “honor”), while “The Children in the Woods” tells the sad tale of young children getting victimized by a treacherous relative. (Another classic, and a charmer, “The Spanish Lady” also shows up in Richard Crawford’s book).

“Broadside ballads” owe their name to how these poems circulated – e.g. via “broadsides,” aka, over-sized pamphlets (near as I can tell). Americans made a few of their own, “The Rebels Reward” being the one dissected in Crawford’s work (can't find a clean link to the poem, but here's the alleged tune). They turned these around pretty damn quickly, too: “The Rebels Reward” appeared just two weeks after the incident that inspired it (something called the Battle of Norridgewock; also, not a high point in military history). I don’t recall Crawford’s book going into any detail as to where these things got performed, but I’d assume it’s anywhere people gathered. He does, however, make clear that the sheets spread far and wide enough that anyone who wanted to know the words could.

The closer events got to the American Revolution, the more topical (that is to say, political) the ballad’s themes became. These were native works in that respect, covering, in Crawford’s words: 

“…the settlement of the North American colonies, Indian wars, dissatisfaction with English rule, crime, love, and religion.”
For all that, it sounds like the music was first borrowed, then recycled. The beginnings of truly unique musical forms that are specifically native to the United States grew up within our nation’s infamous “peculiar institution.” Yep, slavery. And so, once again, it’s impossible to talk about American popular music without heavy reference to African Americans.

Crawford’s titled his chapter on the black experience in Colonial America, “Maintaining Oral Traditions: African Music in Early America,” and that seems appropriate. Much as white Americans borrowed from Europe, so African Americans borrowed from Africa. He characterizes this African tradition a number of ways, while noting commonalities like the use of “call and response,” the tradition of combining music and dance (go figure), the idea that “African musicians tend to approach singing as well as instrumental playing in a percussive manner,” the use of some instruments original to Africa, drums in particular, etc.

To read between the lines of Crawford’s work a little (actually, no; he was explicit; see the end), the thing that probably enabled the development of an original American music came when African American communities started using European instruments into their public gatherings. More than a few slaves were trained in how to play European instruments – some extensively – and that led to the kinds of things white witnesses put in the historical record, events like election day festivities in Newport, Rhode Island. Here’s most of Crawford’s paragraph on that:
“…singing was accompanied by fiddle, tambourine, banjo, and drum, a combination poorly suited to blending. Yet African musicians are said to prefer a piling up of different-sounding lines to a blending of lines into one homogenous sound. The Newport example, with ‘every voice in its highest key’ singing a babel of African languages mixed with English and accompanied by instruments, also illustrates a third African trait: the tendency to pack a series of musical events as densely as possible into a relatively short time, thus filling all available musical space.”
So, that’s where “wall of sound” came from. (Kidding; just having a Santa Claus Is Coming to Town moment. Wha...snap! That's the whole thing!)

Crawford discusses a handful of regional peculiarities, but his passage on Louisiana taps into what happens when all a variety of influences come together with a little less friction – i.e., what’s latent and potential becomes actual. He notes, especially, the presence of free blacks and the related openness of the musical culture in particular (in his words, “mixing freely, even intimately, with Europeans, Indians, and mestizos”), as allowing the kind of intermingling that accelerates cultural transmission. Local laws afforded African Americans to opportunity to hold thinly-regulated, big-ass outdoor festivals, even back then, and I imagine that inspired some enthusiasm, and therefore inspiration to take hold.

Crawford ends the chapter on black influence on revival meetings during the First and Second Great Awakenings (1730s-1740s, and 1780s-1830, respectively). Here, I’ll finally touch on a theme that Crawford notes throughout this chapter, one that I’ve avoided so far (in service of flow) – e.g. the reality that large gatherings of black people doing black things freaked out a lot of white people. In the section on the revival meetings, Crawford uses a stodgy Methodist named John F. Watson as a sort of voice for this discomfort. In fairness to Watson, he hated all versions of informality. In his mind, the expression of the sacred should come only from the pen of “a first-rate poet, such as can only occur in every ten or twenty million of men.” So, yeah, real hardass.

From that vantage, small wonder that Watson clocked “black influence” on revival meetings with horror. In reality, what that influence really did was make the revivals more fun, looser and more emotive. Rather than lug around great hymnals and droning out some classics, African American events (actually, these were often segregated events within larger revivals) adopted simpler forms in order to keep the focus on getting people excited. Crawford invented the following chorus to illustrate the point:
“Go shouting, go shouting.
Go shouting, go shouting.
Go shouting, go shouting.
Go shouting all your days.”
In the next verses, the prayer leader might switch up the verb, e.g., use “singing,” “praying” or even “rejoicing” (that’s Crawford’s phrasing, btw) to switch things up a little, all while keeping the song going. The goal wasn’t to get people thinking about faith, but to have them experience it, to meet it with in some loosely decorous space of ecstacy.

That theme of discomfort, even rejection, forms a common response throughout the chapter. No matter where they encountered it – Connecticut, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia, New Orleans – there was always the reaction that the music was too wild, the accompanying dancing (which was always, always there) indecent, and a mild, but noted sense of indecency lurked in all of it. In between the critiques, though, you’ll read anecdotes of white people connecting to popular forms (e.g. an all-night fiddle/dance party in 1690 in the home of Reverend Thomas Teakle, that featured a black fiddler, and that was organized by friends of the right Reverend’s daughter). Fun is fun, people. The smart ones get that.

Crawford ends this chapter with one sentence that summarizes the various processes above, even if it’s specific to the revivals. I’ll close with that:
“The story of the camp-meeting spiritual reflects two complimentary processes from which much of the distinctive quality of American music has flowed: blacks infusing Euro-American practices with African influence, and whites drawing on black adaptations to vitalize their own traditions of music making.”
It’s a beautiful thing when you let it happen…

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