Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Music Project Continues: Climbing the Big Wall of Context

Some of them should be cute, so that we can carry on.

I’ve been posting on music for a while, but on a personal, almost too personal, level (look, I chose the name for this site for a reason), via the One Last Pick Thru the Bins series (sidebar links pending; plus sample). The word “series” dresses it up a bit, because it’s just a tour through the audio files on my computer, aka a review of all the music I’ve collected through my lifetime, thoughts on what inspired the choices, plus what I’m guessing is pretty goddamn uneven thoughts on each of the acts.

To cover the basics, though, I’m hyper attuned to lyrics, and I mean that up to and including the fact that any instrumental that appeals to me is a rare one. I don’t stray that far – as in, ever – from popular music, and even virtually all of that comes from English-speaking parts of the West. (e.g., my tastes only aspire to “eclectic” in the context of a very, very small pond). I think most Western kids (and old farts) only track American pop, so that doesn’t read like an actual fault.

Even my “pop” bandwidth is a little narrow, in that I generally prefer (to coin some useful categories) “expression” over “performance.” By that I mean, I like musical acts where the artist composes, sings and, best case, performs his/her songs. That kind of work just strikes me as more personal, immediate, even intimate in some settings. Performance, meanwhile, is what you get, not just with Britney Spears (sorry, stupid-old reference; trying again), Ariana Grande, or Taylor Swift…uh, sorry, I have two girls, so most points of reference go to female performers, but neither kid really likes those…never mind. At any rate, the majority of contemporary pure “pop” acts perform songs written by other people – a lot of ‘em Swedes for some damn reason (and that's a great book) – and, for the same reason that a play doesn’t (often) feel like real life, the whole thing feels more like “entertainment widget” than someone baring something unsightly onstage. Of which, my favorite. Some artists do, however, come close to selling performance as expression, but, Jesus Christ, enough about me.

Tonight, I’m finally going to get started on the main act of this barely-received series on all things musical. It was always my intent to include a contextual element to the One Last Pick Thru the Bins project. The thing got put on hold for a variety of reasons, but the biggest grew from the actual problems I experienced in trying to find a good book on the whole history of American popular music. I could find (and kept checking out) scores of books on very particular aspects of that popular music, but – and I say this knowing they’re out there – there are simply not a lot of books at my local library that take a long, broad view of American popular music.

During the months when I lamented the lack of good (paper) source material, I did poke around the web for resources. And, as with all lazy bastards, it didn’t take long to slump into Wikipedia. And that’s been fine, but also a rabbit hole I dare not enter, at least not before thinking through how I want to present the material (because, rabbit hole). Per the “rabbit hole” allusion, Wikipedia actually crawls with resources – I mean I could spend months clicking through link after link after link, until I drilled down to, say, Chuck Berry’s belly button and favorite ice cream flavor. To begin, though, I mostly stuck to one specific page titled, “Music of the United States.” To its credit, though, it owns the reality that word “popular” is earned – e.g., it’s what most of us listen to - and that’s exactly what makes it useful.

One other thing about Wikipedia’s “Music of the United States” page: it’s pretty goddamn woke. One sentence, in particular, comes early (this one):

“The development of an African American musical identity, out of disparate sources from Africa and Europe, has been a constant theme in the music history of the United States.”

But that idea seems to carry through pretty damn well, especially in the pages that relate to the earliest forms of American pop (e.g. vaudeville). What musical knowledge I have hints pretty strongly to the idea that African Americans pioneered the beginnings of most American popular music, so that’s fair in my book. For all that, I intend to learn as I go, to listen to what the internet tells me, and in the faith that some white nationalist putz (deliberate) hasn’t gone through and doctored the pages in order to preserve a couple myths, y’know, for The Cause.

I’ve been probing the various paths to discussing Wikipedia’s content. Damned hard stuff, that, because there are a million trails and they all go to different parts of the same enormously vast country that comprises American popular music. I can’t wait to get started on that, honestly, but I’m also glad to have been granted a reprieve at long last.

I finally found a book, one titled America’s Musical Life: A History, by Richard Crawford. First of all, it is well-written and informative, at least so far as subjects of which I’m functionally ignorant, but it also feels, in a word, scholarly (euphemism for dry). It's also enjoyable because genuine interest makes for one hell of a motivator, I intended to start the book with the birth of Vaudeville, but there was something about the titles to the book’s earlier chapters that forever beckoned me closer to Page 1. I finally decided to start on page 56 (of, goddammit, page 859, because, compromise), which bears the irresistible heading, “’Old Simple Ditties’: Colonial Songs, Dance, and Home Music.” I know, right? (EEEeeeeeeeeeee!!!)

The One Last Pick Thru the Bins series will continue (up next, The Coup from the Bay Area (good stuff, guys)), but I’m going to start working in the contextual stuff starting with the fastest reasonable read of Crawford’s tome. Since the library owns it, and I don’t, this should (or needs to) go pretty fast, but we’ll see. I promise nothing. (And that’s one of the benefits of writing for you own fuck-off sites instead of working for someone else.)

The first post in all this context stuff, however, will start with a singular piece of weirdness that I kept coming across in Wikipedia’s post. Apparently, that site can’t talk about American popular music without going deep on “Hawaiian Music,” which, not to devalue it, but…no, this one I’m not getting. It’s like calling Zydeco a defining player on the popular music scene, and Wikipedia’s volunteer editors didn’t do that, so…

Anyway, that’ll be Feature No. 1. After that, it’s the march through Crawford’s book. Even if I have to buy the thing. [For this last sentence, I want anyone visiting to read this in what they imagine to be the most-PBS of all PBS presenter voices. Here goes…]:

So, I hope you’ll join me on this journey back into America’s musical past. All you need are tapping toes.

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