Saturday, March 18, 2017

Early Rock

Here in the early 21st century, as musicians we must now compete with the entire history of recorded music. Popular music is basically a form of cultural communication. We vie with preconceived notions of style and quality in the now digital marketplace. On the local level, we are held to high standards of excellence - a home theater system, Pandora and iTune streams, a good FM radio station - many sources of well-crafted music inform our listeners values. Additionally, corporatism controls the promotion of well-recorded alternatives to struggling hometown performers who divide their creative time with more mundane exigencies to eke out a living.

Around 1925 the general public became aware of the new phenomena of mass produced sound recordings - phonograph records - and the advent of broadcast radio. This started a shift away from indigenous and local music, although originally it seemed a celebration of previously cloistered art forms. Born in 1943, I was raised by musically and technologically aware parents. The player piano, radio and record player were our sources for joy through music. We had player piano rolls recorded by both popular and classical musicians. One could pump the pedals, change the tempo, watch the keys while playing the Poet and Peasant Overture, Tishomingo Blues, Honeysuckle Rose as played by Fats Waller, or hits of the day like Cool Water by the Sons of the Pioneers. Hoagy Carmichael and Nat King Cole had weekly radio shows. And though the popular music of the day was sometimes insipid, the radio also brought us Duke Ellington and other big bands.

But the more permanent phonograph record allowed one to hear full blown ensembles without being tied to a scheduled program, and Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Bix Beiderbecke and a plethora of New Orleans and Chicago jazz artists were in constant rotation in the homes of record collectors. My parents ran a “Dixieland” record collectors club and had a one night a month show on radio KPOJ in Portland, Oregon. Parties at the house brought a crowd of smoking, drinking, “hot music” fans into our living room. The impetus was discovering great new recordings, or finding previously undiscovered platters to wow the assemblage. There were several record companies capitalizing on the technology and providing previously unimagined views into the American culture. Here’s a link to a Wikipedia description of just one of them, the Okeh label:

Our family moved to California in late 1952. We got our first black and white TV set (Portland had no TV station) and San Francisco provided us with the three network channels - Nat King Cole had a show, there were variety shows, and “Your Hit Parade” brought America’s top 7 songs of the week performed by their studio artists. In contrast, the 24 hour a day outpouring of jazz, rhythm and blues and “top 40” from Bay Area radio stations was compelling. The living room console radio had been replaced by the TV, but the kitchen AM radio was almost always on, providing a contemporary soundtrack. By the mid fifties there were “pop” stations KYA and KOBY, R&B stations KWBR and KSAN, and at night KROW played New York Blue Note style jazz. My love for what is now known as “trad” jazz quickly expanded to include the exciting new form known as rock and roll - and all it’s tributaries.

I started junior high school in 1955 already well aware that many of the new hit records associated with white performers were originally recorded as black r&b releases. The Portland record collectors had spirited discussions concerning cultural theft and the invalidity of white artists, and the Dixieland “revival” of the 50s was anathema to many. The advent of rock and roll brought America’s historical racism into bas relief, and the energy and cultural validity of rhythm and blues stood out in stark contrast to the white “covers.” The pain of the Jim Crow era, segregation, and real estate red-lining still predominated, and the fight for civil rights was just beginning. The inherent honesty and vibrancy of black music was the vanguard - proof of equality - and quality, denied!

Another component of early rock and roll was the tributary known as “rock-a-billy.” Elvis Presley, Ronnie Hawkins, Carl Perkins, even pianist/showman Jerry Lee Lewis emerged as exponents of this true form. Their artistry was a product of honest evolution - not stolen. As teenagers we had many favorite artists and styles. East Coast doo-wop was a contender, too. We pictured the romance of street corner harmonies, racially mixed ensembles using sweet song as an escape route from their ghettoized existence. Alas  now we know too well that escape and stardom was, for most, an illusion shattered by unscrupulous agents, promoters and record companies - no matter what style your music. Nonetheless we idolized rock and roll performers. And those of us who loved the music enough to learn to play an instrument were exposed to concepts of artistry and skill, and we prized authentic and intellectually honest creation.

Early on the tenor saxophone was the chosen instrument to provide an exciting interlude within the story of the song. Rock and roll always had a strong dance component - picture Little Richard or Fats Domino at the piano, multiple saxes swaying to the rhythm - always a hot sax break in their records! But cultural streams started to diverge in the 60s. Rock and roll became simply “rock” and R&B and jazz went their own ways. During the height of America’s civil rights era, rock became global in scope and the electric guitar took center stage. English artists who profited from a secondary school system that featured art schools for those not interested in traditional trades took over. The Beatles, The Stones, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Dick Clark Five - most all of the English “invasion” - had studied their art, and the business of art. The Beatles received their MBE awards because they corrected Britain’s trade imbalance! (In addition to their prodigious talent.)

Then came the Summer of Love, 1967. “Folkies” amplified their guitars - amateurs adopted the style and mores of the day. Some of them had hit records before they learned how to play, either through sheer luck or record company promotion. Monterey Pop was the first venue where people actually sat in a performance arena to hear this new “psychedelic” music. Within a few years the original thrust of the counter-culture was diluted, forgotten or commercialized. For a while the modus operandi of the moneyed record producers was to discover, groom and publicize naive, home grown musicians and posturing poets. Then that was superseded by production of “hot-house flowers” - manufactured groups no longer in touch with their roots. The buying public was no longer seeking previously undiscovered Americana the way Dixieland record collectors and early rock and roll fans did.

Even the uniqueness of hip-hop fell prey to the moguls and big-money producers. The visual art, the dance styles, the purity of the streets, the undisputed creativity and skills of the DJ rappers became preempted. Some hip-hop and (offshore) Reggae forms still maintain some semblance of purity, folk art and funky originality, but instrumental music and popular vocal styles today are largely manufactured, corporate products. The popularity of diverse forms such as world music, bluegrass, alternative, house, electrónica, even Gospel - may stem from a subconscious need for validity and relevance in relation to a culture - which is lacking in the more popular formats of today’s “music.” Quotes around “music” because contemporary forms are obviously entertainment, staging and posturing before they are music!

This all leads to the need for a new charter for the modern musician living in the USA. The question is, “Where would American music be today if there had been no English invasion, no co-opting of styles by corporate culture thieves in the wake of the 60s psychedelic revolution, no turntable scratching, no sampling, no drum machines?” Can we “find our way back to the garden?” We can’t close our ears to the “progress” that’s been made, but if we dig deep enough maybe we can get back to the roots of Americana that suffused earlier forms. Regaining the purity of pioneers like Woody Guthrie, Bob Wills, the Mound City Blue Blowers, Robert Johnson, early B.B. King - the New Orleans heritage - and eschewing manufactured assembly line “product” is the goal.

This is dangerously close to opinionated curmudgeonism, but it also means very little Motown, if any. No “Tin Pan Alley,” no Brill Building music. No TV music, no jazz fusion, not much “Great American Songbook,” maybe a selective look at the “British invasion.” With so many styles excluded, then what is left? The answer is: anything that represents cultural honesty, true individual creativity, played by real people with real instruments, stemming from an understanding of the original threads of American culture. And lest that sound too jingoistic, let’s remember that for millions of people, America is plural! Extrapolate the philosophy to all the Americas and the question then becomes: Even if one has been raised in a household steeped in various musics of the Americas, how can we possibly do justice to these diverse forms, are we even allowed the attempt? Our interest in replicating, and hopefully transcending indigenous forms - playing “other folks music” - is this cultural misappropriation?

It seems intellectually dishonest to borrow a style for personal profit alone. But if our performance is motivated by respect, study and understanding of these genres imbued with cultural integrity and history, we can only be faulted for our skill level. As long as we are honest about our relationship to, and love for music that is not intrinsic to our own experience, we will be recognized for our sincerity and intent. And our intention is to keep the origins of cultural diversity intact, not pandering to commercialism, not seeking self-aggrandizement. Throughout history, the troubadour has not only provided a song, but a means for introspection and the delivery of moral precepts. In the broader scope of historical definition, we as artists, are prophets. It is our ability to see through the veil - acting as emissaries who explore the antipodes of consciousness to bring back messages of truth, wisdom and joy - that is our value to society and our charter as creative artists.