My “Rock n’ Roll Patriotism” 4th of July post was meant to be fun little confection of you-tube music, a music-lover’s way to show the colors. But Peter got me thinking again…so look out! He commented: “How much we can be proud of this is questionable: No blues and jazz–and no rock ‘n roll–without race-based SLAVERY. And our friend Bob Cheeks might add that even country sort depends on the South having been reduced to a kind of third-world country by the big war…” Here’s what that little comment elicited, resulting in something of a preliminary version of my songbook’s Big Picture on popular music.
1. What is distinctively American about American Music comes mostly from the South, out of the following four-part formula:
a) African culture +
b) slavery/racial oppression +
c) freedom/democracy +
d) British/European culture(including Christianity) =
2. It is a funny fact for American mainstream patriotism, because perhaps you can’t really love American Music without loving the social situation of the segregated or even antebellum South, and isolated/impoverished situations like the hollers of Appalachia to boot. Such love would be repugnant both to our foundational sense of justice, and our vision of civilization/progress.
3. It is a funny fact for “Southern” pride since white Southerners have to admit that the musical features most worth taking pride in come from those they oppressed. And/or, from when they were themselves economically pressed-down by the North!
4. How funny a fact is it for contemporary blacks, no longer that familiar with their musical traditions, given the quarter-century reign of hip-hop? Despite the officious black debate/rhetoric about how much freedom has been achieved, everyone knows that the overt and more intentional sorts of oppression that existed North and South have been defeated. So could successful suburban blacks long for limitations only recently got over, for the sake of musical excellence? (And who, suburban or ghetto, really has the guts to declare the decline in the first place? To not only attack the twisted manliness-mania that gripped rap from ’87 on, but to further question the limiting groove-focus of hip-hop as a whole?) Nonetheless, there presently seems to be greater interest percolating among blacks in moving South-wards, culturally and physically, than we’ve seen in some time.
5. The U.S.A. American Music formula should be compared with the Caribbean/Brazilian American Music formula. (I coin this label because Latin American Music indigenous to regions wherever there are few blacks, such as Peru, Mexico, etc., does not allow for useful comparison, and has had less international appeal.) Here it is:
African culture +
slavery/racial oppression +
European culture(usually Iberian or British)=
Caribbean-Brazilian American Music
6. So, I hold that the idea of freedom and the social fact of democracy were far less at work in places like Cuba, Columbian coast, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Trinidad, etc., than in our America. That perhaps marks me as incorrigibly Tocquevillian, but it puts me in harmony with the many commentators on blues/jazz who stress the influence on the music of the idea of freedom. Our musical heritage cannot be reduced to “slave music.” A better description: “slaves in the land of freedom-modernity-evangelicalism music.” It’s the tensions, possibilities, and tragedies of that situation that probably give our music its peculiar charge.
7. Major aspects of Caribbean/Brazilian American Music re-crossed the Atlantic back into Africa. You hear this in much of contemporary Afro-pop—I find it particularly vivid in the lovely Nigerian and Ghanaian genre of the 50s-70s known as “Highlife.” Now obviously U.S.A. American Music has influenced pop all over the globe, but its impact in Africa has been nowhere near as significant as that of Caribbean/Brazilian American Music. Fat tomes could be written attempting to explain this, accounting for region-by-region and genre-by-genre distinctions, high or low miscegenation rates, high or low slave mortality rates, Latin v. British cultural patterns, etc. etc., but the simple difference between my two formulas remains the best explanation. Something about the U.S.A. hit the souls of enslaved black folk harder than did the dominant cultures of the Spanish, Portuguese, or British empires, and gave them less musical affinity with Africans than the Caribbeans and Brazilians.
8. Can we take pride in any of this? As per Tocqueville’s distinction, the patriotism I’m talking about is more of the organic kind, less so of the reflective kind. Of course, here I am reflecting upon it, and there I was promoting it, wishing more Americans cherished the golden era of their pop music (1918-1968) than presently do. But I wouldn’t bother unless I felt the cultural rivers here run deep, and that they matter for our future.
We of course have other things that inspire organic pride–there are the places, the technological wonders, the sports, the literature, the manners, the cuisine, and the overall convenience/modernity: anything you want they got right here in the U.S.A.But some of these are dearer than others: if evil Bloombergian aliens ever were to conquer us and ban all hamburgers, it would pain and offend us, but if they banned all American sounds, I say it would feel like an attempt to kill and erase us.
9. What my post really sought to do was to pose American Music against Rock. This is part of my larger agenda of emphasizing, somewhat hyperbolically, the departure Rock took from its Rock n’ Roll roots. This agenda goes beyond America, as I have no desire for the Brits or any middle class people anywhere to pledge perpetual allegiance to Rock.
10. Organic pride for American Music has at least the potential to bring Americans black and white together. Our basic a) Rock v. b) Black Music v. c) Country divide is not good for us, and it is below my pay grade to know if mainstream pop is now shaped by American Idol Principles in a way significant enough to help us see past that divide. I do know that the old rock-magazine tactic of emphasizing the shared “rebelliousness” of a) and b), so that hip hop belongs to the grand rock/rock n’ roll family, is quite misleading.
11. Somewhere in the depths of my confused soul, the previous point has a bit to do with why I’ve never converted to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy even while finding many of their criticisms of my evangelical Protestantism convincing. Part of the Christian Hope, as I understand it, is that the nations matter to God. Those saved will not live eternally insofar as they become one with eternal ideas, but will live as persons, persons shaped in part by their embodied, temporal, familial, and national backgrounds. Dante, we may hope, will continue to be in some way in Italian in word and thought. And Americans may continue to Hope that Gabriel Likes their Music, and I would add, to hope that they can join Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr. in singin’ “Amazing Grace” as they parade down the Azusa St. of the hereafter. Whatever is sung there, it sure won’t be in a Byzantine key. So, to turn from Protestantism feels to me like a turning away from America, and from peculiarly American Christian hopes most powerfully expressed in music. Take this report of a feeling for what it is.
12. Peter asks, “Is there any white, middle-class music that is not a derivative watering down of the real and profound experience of the oppressed?” Well, the story of music is one of endless derivations, and not every watering down is a bad thing. The Beach Boys were a pretty good model of what thoroughly middle class folk with no blues or country apprenticeship possibilities can aspire to do, working to keep a rhythm n’ blues feel while trying to work something fresh out of elements (barbershop, surf instros) that reflected their backgrounds. The Songbook will some other time consider their example and compare it to the likes of the Zombies, CCR, and Glenn Miller.
Still, I accept that this will be an important question for a long time to come, albeit rephrased thus: Is there any middle class popular music that is not a derivative watering down of the real and profound experience of the oppressed-and/or-isolated? The black/white divide just matters less on this nowadays.
13. And I’d answer the scary implication about our musical future that this question contains as follows:
We certainly cannot seek to reintroduce “the experience of the oppressed.” Nor can we hope to match the experience of learning music in an isolated rural community.
Similarly, almost none of us can become as cultured as real aristocrats could.
What we can do is cultivate self-limitation. We can tend to the roots as best we can, and learn what skills we can from the old-time experts still with us, classical and American. We can seek out all the kinds of community life for their own sake, and wherein we might sustain older cultural forms or even come up with new ones. Singing together. Dancing together. Conversing together. And because we know that there is a bigger community and tradition we belong to, hiring music teachers together and attending concerts together, thereby losing our unhealthy post-50s aversion to being merely “middle-brow” appreciators of the culturally fine. And finally, we can whisper to Liberals the fact that democratic nations actually have a cultural need for disadvantaged poverty and advantaged aristocracy to still exist.
14. In sum, we have to deal with the cultural middle, while not surrendering to it. This is part of the reason my Songbook focuses upon Rock, without being it’s champion.
But there’s no way I’m not going to give whole blues-swingin’ American musical tradition, which for the purposes of these two posts can accurately enough be dubbed “Rock n’ Roll,” its proper due in the Songbook, and on the 4th especially. Hail! Hail! And there’s no reason that tradition has to be regretfully relegated to the days of old, because as Tocqueville’s last words in Democracy in America indicate, there is a large part of decline that really is a choice.