Thursday, March 23, 2017

Pop Backstory, Chapter 4: The Rise of the Machines


Me. Thought I'd start with a smaller elephant...
The phonograph was invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison (hey, turns out he actually invented that one). Those first six words come out so easily, but it’s worth sitting with the idea for a while, because it’s nuts: for the overwhelming balance of human history, recorded music did not exist. (Seriously, what did college kids talk about when they were stoned?) 140 years later, we’re all walking around with record stores in our back pocket, so a little awe seems appropriate.

John Philip Sousa, the hip godfather of band geeks, viewed the invention with hostile ambivalence (mild oxymoron, intentional). He believed that once people could hear music without having to have someone immediately on hand to play it, they’d stop learning how to play music, which would result in them losing their ear for and understanding of music. And, for what it’s worth, I think the passage of time proved him right. I won’t pretend I don’t have my regrets – I mean, I can keep time and all, but I can’t play a single musical instrument to even coherence, never mind semi-proficiency, but, again, record stores in back pockets.

I’m not saying anyone “won,” so much as I’m acknowledging that upsides don’t always go straight up.

I last posted to this project back in late January. As much as I hate gaps in production (5 Year Plan!), but I took a break for good reasons. The last post I put up was on minstrelsy, a form that truly does feel like the first manifestation of specifically American popular entertainment – e.g., something that people paid professional performers to do in front of them. Other people found ways to make money in music (Lowell Mason, for instance; the subject of this series second chapter), but most of the revenue generated from that came from sales of song sheets and collections of songs to amateur musicians, and specifically for them to play at social gatherings. The settings could be formal or informal, secular or religious, but the broad reality featured people getting together to play instruments, sing songs, etc. Professional performance continued and progressed after minstrelsy’s pre-Civil War heyday, but it was pretty simple in the end: if people wanted to hear music, they had to learn to play it for themselves, or find a whole bunch of friends who could.

At any rate, this project stalled for the simple reason that I came across one name I’d learned from Minstrelsy in another context. The man was Stephen Foster and, the more I read about him, the more his presence in 19th-century American musical history felt like a super-group made up of The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson and Willie Nelson, only in the body of one man. Taking him in pieces, as Richard Crawford did in the original source-work for this project, American’s Musical Life: A History, didn’t fit within my evolving plan for this project. The idea is simple enough: I want to learn about how American popular music developed and where it wound up. Once I got to “where it wound up,” I picked up a case of major brain-freeze.

Or, to put that another way, the more I look at this project, the more it feels like wrestling an elephant. It’s just sitting there, sure, but it’s so goddamn big that I have no idea where to start.

That’s where this little reset comes in. I wanted to pivot to future chapters by making a couple modest points – in this case about technology. To give an example, it doesn’t take a ton of imagination to wrap your head around how the arrival of the railroad made it possible for musicians to scare up fresh opportunities; after all, people can’t get sick of you if they’ve never heard you and, again, no recorded music, so traveling from one city to another opened new markets for every outfit from a five-man minstrel act to a big-city brass band. Other technologies, however, had less predictable effects.

In a chapter I can’t find, Crawford acknowledged the contribution of the telegraph. This is all kinds of non-obvious until you really think about it, but the spread of the telegraph made possible the simple, useful act of, say, letting a venue know that the band won’t make it tonight (probably because the goddamn trains). With that invention, you, the theater operator gets a heads up that his planned revenue stream won’t make the gig, only now he’s in a position where he can at least salvage something by calling in a last-minute replacement. And, with that, your small business (the theater) has a more stable revenue stream and now that particular business is more viable…or at least as viable as anything like that will ever be, and the show goes on, less because it must, but because it can.

I’m going to close out this post with another weird one, a question specifically: when was the first valved brass instrument invented? Answer: in 1810, by a Dubliner named Joseph Halliday. In Crawford’s (approximated) words (I only fixed syntax in what follows): Halliday “cut holes in the side of a bugle and fitted the holes with keys.” By doing that, he could vary the “effective length” of the tube – which is all a bugle/trumpet/trombone/tuba really is – to make an orchestra’s worth of sound, only from one instrument. Crawford cites the recollections from a musician whose life straddle both sides of the popularization of valved brass instruments when he noted what made up a brass band in the good ol’ days:
“…two E-flat bugles, first and second French horns (without valves), the post horn, and E-flat trumpet. We had the brilliant tone of the slide B-flat trombone and the F-bass trombone for bass, ophicleide*, and the serpent (a wooden instrument with keys), cymbals, snare and bass drums.”
(*Yes, I see the valves. Yes, I don't get the distinction. Can't we all just learn together?)

In other words, if you wanted to produce a range of sounds, you had to find enough people with the right instruments, and the talent to play them well, and in concert (as in together) – and you had to do that in the horse-and-buggy, pen-and-paper, not electric lighting days, because that’s how people lived back in the back-in-the-day. Or, popularly, the mid- to late-19th-century.

Once you developed the trumpet, one guy could blow all those sounds. And, if you’ve ever wondered why jazz didn’t arrive before the early- to mid-20th century (is that right? is that at least ballpark? Dunno. That’s a future chapter), there’s your answer. A valved brass instrument doesn’t just expand the range of sounds any one musician can make, it liberates him (and, later and happily, her) from having to get 14 other people on the same page, and not just in terms of playing together in time, but in getting everyone to agree on what to play. Once you can do that, you can concentrate on, and develop, your role as a little corner in a much smaller band.

I doubt I explained that wonderfully – in fact, it reminds me of my dabbling on steel guitar in the chapter on Hawaiian music – but I think it’s easy to overlook how technology impacts the kind of music American culture produces, even as we’ve all lived through fairly obvious shifts within our own lifetimes. There, I’m thinking about hip hop, sampling, the hell of the copyright battles, and the evolution to where artist like Open Mike Eagle or Childish Gambino (as I understand) creates loops and beats with what, in my ignorance and old age, I’ll call a sound-board.

And, with that, the band shrinks to one man. And grows in specific artistic freedom.

Looking forward to the next chapters, even as I have no goddamn idea how long this is going to take. If I get through everything that’s in my head, we’re talking years. I’m OK with that, even as I think I’ll lucky to take anyone with me beyond a year (just know I’ll drag your carcass as far as you’ll let me). What I do know is that I find all this stuff deeply fascinating and I’ve got this massive goddamn elephant that I’ve got to wrestle. With that in mind, it’s time to start grabbing at a leg, or maybe the trunk or the tail. I’ve gotta start somewhere, goddammit.

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