The creation event of twentieth century popular music – its big bang if you like – can, to my mind, be traced back to a singular event in January 1865. That moment could be characterised as a dark black explosion, the shock waves of which reverberated for the following one hundred and fifty years. Despite the myriad creative ways in which this basic story has been retold by the powerful and the political, it is, to me, a tale of slavery, of freedom and of novelty.
In this piece I’m going to ask you to suspend the accepted narratives and to think hard about the origins of what we now call pop music. Through this I hope to arrive at some conclusions about the trajectory of music – and society – in this the second decade of the twenty-first century.
Firstly, consider some of the major mainstream popular music icons of the past century. I’ll name a few:
- Bing Crosby
- Fred Astaire
- Frank Sinatra
- Elvis Presley
- The Beatles
- The Rolling Stones
- Michael Jackson
Now ponder the way in which the language that this music gave rise to frames our everyday conversation, primarily through the use of slang words and phrases such as:
- Rock and roll
- Back in the day
Done that? Good. Keep these thoughts in the back of your mind.
At some level you are probably aware that what we call pop is in large part the music, the attitude and the language of black american culture. When this culture surfaced from the indenture that both created it and kept it from the world, its novelty and energy was irresistible. It is widely acknowledged that this release of originality seduced countless young people during the early and middle twentieth century. It is less often discussed that given the (then?) prevailing narrative about race, superiority and inferiority, this creativity was always likely to be repackaged to make it acceptable and usable by those who sought to profit from it. Somewhere along the line the true origins of it all became a little obfuscated, accidentally on purpose, as we used to say as kids. So below I hope to try my hand at revising the revisioning.
What is not the biggest of biggies is the question of who started it all. I mean, going back further, the (involuntary) African immigrants certainly picked up on the European folk forms that they were surrounded by. Careful listeners can hear Irish, Scottish and English in the early styles (blues and jazz) which were the kindling for all the sub-genres to come. Nevertheless there are two important points about the aetiology of twentieth century popular music which I’ll be exploring below. The first is that its dark origins explain the particular power that this music once held over us, and secondly, these same origins can offer an understanding of why pop music and its attendant power are on the wane here in 2015.
At this moment, while we’re still struggling to come to terms with the death of the old century and the maturing of the new, something other is quietly emerging. This other is very similar to the recent past, so the differences are almost imperceptible, but difference there is. More interesting still, the unfolding new story is not a completely novel one. Its shape suggests that we are slipping back into an old a familiar narrative of another type of slavery – alien to mid- and late twentieth century minds but oh-so-very familiar to those who existed in millennia gone by.
Note that the use of the word ‘slavery’ in the preceding paragraph diverges from that employed at the start of this essay. In the opening it was my intention to conjure images of the transatlantic slave trade: Africa to the New World to Great Britain – that triangle of humanity lost. However, immediately above I am referring to a different kind of subjugation. It’s a working class thing, recognisable to the poor in pre-revolution France, to those subsisting in industrial revolution Manchester and to the unfortunate residents of early twentieth century workhouses.
This other type of slavery is people without a voice, it is masses ruled by the remote and uncaring; folk who are manipulated by the powerful and the greedy. It is on the rise. Today our slavery is psychological rather than physical. For certain chains do still exist, but the links of these modern binds are made of media, propaganda, prevailing narrative, technology. Marketing. We think we are free, but as Rousseau observed as long ago as 1762, this itself indicates a most complete form of thralldom:
“Il n’y a point d’assujettissement si parfait que celui qui garde l’apparence de la liberté; on captive ainsi la volonté même.”
“There is no subjection so complete as that which preserves the forms of freedom: it is thus that the will itself is taken captive”
The music of the twentieth century was born of freedom, and it is that same freedom which now slips from our grasp. The loss of our existential liberty swings in step with our diminishing ability to make meaningful music.
In my interpretation (and I hope yours too), twentieth century music was conceived in slavery and bondage. It was incubated in chain-gangs, and grew through the beatings and lynchings. The robbery of even the hope of self-actualisation was nourishment to the nascent artform. The individuals who owned the art – the lowest of the low; the slave – had one thing. Music. They could sing while they worked in the fields, sing while they worshipped and prayed to be relieved from their misery. They could sing when they were happy and when they were blue. It was all they had.
Our infant artform grew strong through this adversity (but note this was no substitute for the adversity, it was a means of relief). It became complete unto itself. Norms, styles and new modes developed. The language grew to be understood by all in the community. In glorious isolation, an entirely new creativity and culture had been born, and more than this, it developed into a fully mature thing of beauty.
If history had turned out differently, this strand of culture might have been lost to the modern world. However the slaves were given freedom (January 1865 in the USA) and the newly-emancipated expressed their joy in the monumental new language which they had created, that had been born out of such extreme hardship. Music. Black music.
The jazz that can be heard on early twentieth century recordings contain the essence of that jubilation. Listen to Louis Armstrong, to Jelly Roll Morton, to Scott Joplin and Fats Waller. In their music you can hear the sound of a people shouting “I’m free!”. Keep in mind that slavery was abolished a mere 3 years prior to Joplin’s birth, 25 years before Morton’s, 36 years in advance of Armstong’s coming into being and 39 years before Fats Waller appeared on the Earth.
To put it into contemporary terms, if Louis Armstrong was born today, slavery would have been abolished as recently as 1979. We still talk of the influence of the punks of 1977 on modern music, how much more of an influence on the players would breathing the air of liberty after hundreds of years of oppression be!
So when I listen to twentieth century black music I hear mainly an irrepressible exclamation of joy. I hear this in jazz, in (original) rock and roll, and in soul. Of course in many blues recordings I hear something much darker too: the echoes of enslavement – let’s face it, life remained difficult for the emancipated ones. But despite this, even in the blues (which in itself was an essential part of jazz and rock and roll) that ebullience and hope can still be heard. It was these highly-charged emotions in my estimation, which gave the music its irresistibility, which spawned imitation, which changed the shape of popular culture, and perhaps even defined it in the form that we know today.
I occasionally encounter debates about whether rock and roll was created by white or black musicians. It’s a daft question. It’s not about the colour of the originators – it’s about the circumstances. To my mind such novelty and energy is only possible through profound and seismic activity beneath the surface of society. Despite the revisionist text it is clear (to me at least) that the moment at which the DNA of the music was created, was the great emancipation. It is the single event that had the power to catapult the new forms of music into the midst of a reluctant society. Then, as life became easier for the former slaves and their descendants (migrations to northern US cities and the like) the music became evermore joyful, hopeful and filled with an energy that enchanted us all: Motown, Atlantic, Stax.
If you listen to just one song – which in my opinion captures all of this – make it Heatwave by Martha and The Vandellas. Such an ineffable sound isn’t borne out of a few executives conjuring up a ditty to make themselves some cash, and a bunch of girlies singing for a little fame. It is something that had been percolating for three hundred years in the harshest of conditions. The emotions powering this recording (and thousands like it) were passed down through generations and that three minute yelp of liberated joy – a wonderful historical artefact – was captured for posterity on acetate.
It therefore comes as no surprise that from the very start of the last century these joyful noises became massively influential. The list of artistes that I opened this essay with were all influenced by black music. Why? Well I like to think that it wasn’t because they had any particular affinity with nigrescence (although most did), rather, it is because they were unable to prevent the power of this music, this profound movement of the spirit from charming them to the very core. Talented as they all were, they put their own particular stamp on the original forms and in their turn contributed to the twentieth century popular music cannon.
It was a century-long cry of freedom. It began as a rising note initiated in New Orleans by the early jazzers, and reached the ears of the mainstream via what is referred to as the Jazz Age. It fell out into big bands and swing and Basie, Ellington, Glenn Miller and such. The cry continued into the forties with swing and be-bop and vocalists such as Sarah, Ella and Billie. The note was sustained through jump blues and early rock and roll; and in doo-wop and soul and ska and reggae and funk it continued. The power of the note weakened towards the end of the century finding late modulation in forms such as house and drum and bass.
And now we have only echoes.
The musical forms above describe only the spine of that cry; the core melody if you would. Many were the harmonics that arose from this – blues beget rock and roll beget rock beget punk beget new wave beget indie. Soul beget disco beget house beget techno. Soul also beget funk beget hip hop. Blues beget ska beget reggae beget dub beget downtempo. And here we are, century twenty one. Nothing begetting nothing. Creativity dried up. Derivatives all. Echoes.
In the shiny now, black music has lost its power. That resource which black people could once barter for respect, influence and wealth has been exploited to extinction. It’s a memory. It’s the woolly mammoth. The dodo. The mining industry in Yorkshire, UK. It’s fossil fuels in century twenty-two. The emotional energy which sustained this priceless and exuberant one-hundred year yelp is now spent, and with it that which made twentieth century music special.
Twenty-first century musicians are attempting pastiche of what went before, hoping to capture just a little bit of that ol’ black magic. They supplement insipid modern facsimiles with technology, video and sex but rarely do they recreate the spark of the original. Imitation can reproduce the appearance but not the soul of the original, in the same way that a photograph of a person looks like the person, but is not the person. As far as powerful music goes, there are a very few exceptional sub-genres, recordings and artists at the current time, but on the whole we should face it. It’s over.
If my thesis is correct, where does it leave popular music in our new digital century? It may be that we have returned to pre-twentieth century modes – folk forms, bawdy songs, minstrelry and complex high art. That which was special and affirmative and popular is with us no more.
But our ability to make great pop is not only compromised due to the death of the post-slavery freedom cry. To make the point I will join the dots and return to an idea introduced at the start of this essay. This is a now, a future, that is new yet old. Musically we are returning to the past. The hundred year yell has subsided and we are left with what existed before. I am afraid that I see this also being the case in society as well as music. The twentieth century was about freedom in so many ways: existentialism, post-war class freedoms and the like. We as humans; black, white, poor, educated pushed back the frontiers of oppression. We reduced wealth inequality, created new forms of social contract in which the state would support the disadvantaged.
The dream of equality and justice pursued by the descendants of slaves during the twentieth century was mirrored in other areas; in movements such as those advocating universal suffrage, the national health service, comprehensive education, feminism, gay rights, and so many others. We had much to sing about – from Bob Dylan to Billy Bragg, Billie Holiday to James Brown, and Robert Johnson to Paul Robeson.
We may be returning to a normality within which the twentieth century was a blip; an anomaly. This centurion outlier was one in which the masses drank from the cup of existential liberty and, orchestrated by the black man, sang about these freedoms, and of other freedoms hoped for. In this lay the power of popular music. And now, as we surrender these hard won liberties to the marketers, to the technologists, and the powerful and the persuasive; and as we descend out of the bright light of liberty into the underworld of submission we lose our authentic voice.
And what scares me is that we’ll lose so much else besides.
Happy new year