AMERICAN POPULAR MUSIC AND ITS BUSINESS
AMERICAN POPULAR MUSIC AND ITS BUSINESS
AMERICAN POPULAR MUSIC AND ITS BUSINESS
POPULAR MUSIC IN ENGLAND 1840-1914:
IRVING BERLIN AND RAGTIME AMERICA
Even in a world where cultural historians snub the popular arts as a matter of habit, the inequities of music history are outrageous--musicologists would sooner decode Mozart's watermarks or Wagner's budgets than sully their sensitive souls with the art of Marie Lloyd or John Philip Sousa. Primary sources are barely charted, interpretive research (with significant but none too numerous exceptions) divided between anecdotal popularizations and the positivist leavings of academics afraid to tackle anything more prestigious. It's conceivable that even Russell Sanjek's haplessly monumental compendium might have come to a better end if professional scholars had done more spadework for him.
As its stands, however, Sanjek's book is a giant disappointment--it promises so much, and it's primary research at best. A classic pop autodidact who worked 41 years for Broadcast Music, Inc., the radio-backed anti-ASCAP licensing organization that provided an institutional framework for rock and roll, Sanjek was a music-business good guy in the mold of Atlantic Records' Jerry Wexler and pop historian Arnold Shaw. His reading was prodigious, and starting in 1976 he poured everything he knew into a history that began with Sir Francis Drake in 1579 and took a whole volume to get to 1790. From 1977 onwards he wrote while undergoing surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatment, turning out five pages a day after retiring in 1981; cancer finally killed him, four years behind schedule, in 1986. The finished work is some 1500 closely printed pages long, with 100 more of index and 80-plus of bibliography. I can't believe I read the whole thing.
Tragically, the story of Sanjek's lifework is more compelling than all but a few of the hundreds of tales he essays within it. He has excellent credentials: writing experience, academic interest plus practical knowledge, a hunger for perspective that's rooted in the present yet assumes that American culture begins in England, and a taste for the blues-based forms that in the years since 1945 have transformed popular music--maybe utterly, maybe not, and only someone who's fond of them is likely to provide a cogent answer. But Sanjek doesn't try. The one question he cares about is "What happened?," and if ever a work illustrated the pitfalls of "objective" history, this is it. Faced with a scholarly void, he undertook to fill it with the facts he'd come by so laboriously, and placed end to end these facts reach nowhere. Maybe he thought there were underlying theses, but he never states them, so the information has no charge or forward motion. Granted, a gifted storyteller might have breathed life into the same facts; maybe someday one will. But that will require more than the condensation Oxford has in the works; it will take reinterpretations that do violence to Sanjek's unjudgmental intentions.
American Popular Music and Its Business is about as rewarding a read as the national budget--only if you know what you're looking for can you get anything out of it. The prose is syntactical and graceless, providing no pleasures of its own. Without topic sentences you can't even skim the thing--the detail that rings your chimes may well be hidden midparagraph, the shard of idea in a boilerplate transition--and there are no footnotes to aid independent investigation. Since as a concept popular music dates no further back than the 19th century, it's understandable that Sanjek's definition is soft in the early going, but you know one reason Handel gets 20-plus pages and John Gay two is that there's more written about Handel. The other reason is that Handel was an innovative impresario--the honest title would be a straightforward The American Popular Music Business. And though the biz is important, Sanjek fails to establish that it's 1500 pages important. The acronym-studded, statistic-sodden Volume III scarcely mentions musical developments at all. It also distorts biz history by overplaying the publishing and broadcasting pros Sanjek spent his life among--chapter after chapter details ASCAP-BMI squabbles while altogether ignoring such significant bookers, managers, promoters, retailers, and record execs as William Morris, Herbert White, Leonard Chess, George Goldner, Morris Levy, Bill Graham, Frank Barsalona, David Geffen, Russ Solomon, and Irving Azoff.
Sanjek's interest in publishing and steadfast attention to Afro-American tradition insure the fairness if not the vivacity of his account of pre-WWI, when Tin Pan Alley, musical comedy, and the dance craze were born. But by 1850 or so England is out of his picture--by then influences run in the other direction. Dave Russell's Popular Music in England 1840-1914 was not designed to fill this gap. Russell is one of that healthy breed of U.K. popular culture scholar who retained the lessons of Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, and Stuart Hall while weathering the bullshit epidemic that came over from France in the early '70s. Though the sure sophistication of his ideological skepticism wouldn't be possible without the structuralist critique, he neither writes jargon nor pats himself on the back for begged tautologies. His book is sane and stimulating. But its emphases reveal the limitations of the belief--at its most fruitful in Williams's comments on voluntary organizations and the best Hall-inspired subculture studies--that true working-class culture is the culture the working class constructs, not the culture it consumes. Leaving any exhaustive investigation of music hall to his colleagues, Russell devotes less than a quarter of his narrative to the burgeoning entertainment industry, not counting the many times he bemoans its incursions. Instead he details the brass-band and choral-society movements that flourished in provincial England during the time of his study. And though the story he chooses to tell is a stirring one, making a strong case for the notion that ordinary people lost more than they gained with the coming of leisure capitalism, unstated aesthetic prejudices circumscribe its usefulness.
Russell believes that both "active" and "passive" popular music have a conservative political thrust, and his belief carries weight, because unlike so many leftists he's clear on the main reason why--not so much song-factory jingoism or the patronage on which many voluntary organizations depended as the inexorable consumption of scant nonworking time in apolitical pursuits that individuals found genuinely rewarding. This effect was doubly decisive in the active variants he prefers: "Through their own musical experience, not through blind acceptance of ruling-class platitudes, amateur musicians discovered that society as it existed had much to offer them." The italics are Russell's because he knows how unorthodox he's being. I'd add that "as it existed" might be italicized as well--respecting satisfactions that don't jibe with their own vision of human progress is so wrenching for academic lefties that they need all the signposts they can get. And then I'd suggest that, original and persuasive though his analysis is, Russell's discussion of music hall falls victim to the same kind of short-sightedness.
It's not that Russell is dismissive of professional entertainment--having made the usual point about limited melodies tailored to limited voices, he stresses "the skill of the singers" and takes unmistakable pleasure in the easy wit and enduring melodies xxtunes of their best-remembered songs. But he assumes that the classical tradition, the Handel and Haydn and Italian opera the bandsmen and choristers learned to love, is superior--that their "musical experience" was richer than that of the musichall audience not just because they were participants rather than purchasers (he's so dubious about "active" modern-day guitar-owners that he puts their "bands" in quotes), but also because the music they performed was more complex, "composed" rather than "produced" (Russell's quotes). This assumption clearly arises from personal conviction--like most people who find classical music attractive enough to devote time to it xxworth their time , he's commited to its usages. It never seems to occur to him that this aesthetic also carries ideological baggage, privileging hierarchy, reason, and a bourgeois-romantic notion of "beauty." Maybe the deconstruction bug should have bitten him harder after all. His sensibility is earnest to a fault, like a cartoon of Williams's. He knows the culture industry provides real satisfactions, but he can't get behind its exploitative vulgarity. He's such a partisan of British localism that every intimation of American pop makes him queasy. And with a class analysis keen enough to deflate the myth of proletarian hegemony in brass bands and music hall both, he doesn't know what to make of class renegades, tossing off the term "bohemian" to mean a wastrel culture of swells and snobs as if no true proletarian would stoop to such frivolity.
Ian Whitcomb is the swell and snob Russell's mentors warned him about. A British-born Trinity College dropout who's parlayed the freak 1965 hit "You Turn Me On" into a lifetime on the pop fringe, he never lets his passion for Americana block his view of home nor his fondness for bizzer whiz-bang to slow the growth what he proudly calls his "mouldy fig" tastes, and like the middle-class "bohemians" who frequented London music halls, he thinks there's something inherently delightful and fundamentally innocent in the hustling rapacity of turn-of-the-century pop. Irving Berlin and Ragtime America is the long-promised sequel to his 1972 After the Ball, the first published attempt by any rock and roller to come to terms with popular music history. I suspect one reason it took so long to get here is that Whitcomb never gave up on his dream of reaching his ostensible subject and beau ideal, who hasn't granted an interview xxgary giddins since 1961. The book begins with a 3 a.m. phone call from Berlin that I presume is imaginary, though such quotes as "I never found out what ragtime was" aren't. Did the man whom Jerome Kern claimed "is American music" "compose" his songs or just "produce" them? Whitcomb's Berlin doesn't mince words: "Listen, I wrote about what people wanted to hear. I packaged their feelings and sold them back. They wanted to laugh, they wanted to cry, they wanted to dance. I serviced them. I met the market."
This may be a real quote, too, but Whitcomb isn't letting on-- xx his book is entirely unsourced and for that matter unindexed, forestalling any objections to its impressionistic scholarship by avoiding all concessions to academic utility. But Whitcomb has plenty of axes to grind, most prominently the thesis he advanced in After the Ball: that the circa-1910 rhythm identified with "ragtime" is Eastern European rather than African in origin. This isn't as offensive a notion as it might seem, because it concerns not the piano innovations of Scott Joplin and his confreres, but appropriations, bastardizations, and shameless misnomers. He believes the newly Americanized Jews who ran Tin Pan Alley were in the exoticism business, suggesting the comic/noble patina minstrelsy had put on African-American music with a few surface devices, but staying away from its substance, which they translated into the similar rhythmic and emotive languages they'd absorbed in synagogues and shtetls. I'd credit this conjecture with an aura of crackpot plausibility, but it hasn't improved Whitcomb's standing among ragtime scholars, and I wish he'd find the wherewithal to argue it fully (and probably get shot down). Here he devotes a provocative if at times obviously wrong-headed chapter to "The Myth of the Hot Coon" that deemphasizes the Eastern European connection: his "Alleymen" were only "the perfect riders for this prancing, jiggling music--the eternal wanderers on the back of a hot black horse." Maybe next time. Or maybe not.
Like the music it celebrates, Irving Berlin and Ragtime America is neither renegade nor respectable--it's a novelty number with a catchy beat. Sanjek and Russell would never go near prose like: "Sheet music is selling like never before. A medium hit sells 600,000 copies while a smasheroo starts at a million and may sail as high as five or six million." Nor would they dare a not totally unsubstantiated but rather speculative tale of how Rasputin was lured to his death (and the fall of the Romanovs sped on its way) by the promise of the Dixieland Jass Band's (never-released) test pressing of Berlin's "Everything in America Is Ragtime," passed from Al Jolson to British Ambassador Bryce to the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovitch. I'm glad there are more serious accounts available. But I'm also glad Whitcomb is here to remind us that in pop music seriousness is never the whole story. Like love itself, labors of love come in many different guises.
Village Voice, 1989