In the spirit of Carl’s music posts, I figured I may as well do more than defend good American bar bands like NRBQ.
So like Carl, I will take a page from the ‘60s too and speak of the ’60s band The Kinks, but I will do it from the early ‘70s instead of the ‘60s. Namely, I will speak of one of the Kinks’ “concept” albums, viz. “Muswell Hillbillies.” Already the title makes an acknowledgement to American folk music, i.e., hillbilly music. Now as Carl has let us know, all American music is African American music. Jazz, blues, R&B, rock and roll, etc. has its roots in the southern society which integrally included the enslavement of blacks. Out of this experience of oppression came all the music that we all today love in American music. So to be authentic, such music must be based on this basic experience of the brutality of slavery even if indirectly and diluted over decades. Even as these official modes of oppression became illegal and over time became socially unacceptable, one must wonder of the hidden sources of such good music. This music has existed in the last 50 years or so since the ’64 Civil Rights Act. The good music somehow has remained, and many people (including white people) have carried it on. So what is the authentic context of such music if it lacks the serious experience of oppression?
Across the pond, Englishmen like John Mayall, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton were ‘60s epigones of African American music who could somehow mechanically reproduce the sound of the American south, but who apparently had no real idea of what they are playing in that their experience (even as working class whites in an English class system) was entirely alien to the modes and mores of the American south. But if this is true, I suppose this was also true of Elvis Presley in that he was not black and was promoted by Sam Phillips in some tawdry hit making studio factory in Memphis. Perhaps tawdry hit making is the result of “equality of conditions.”
Of course, I don’t think this is entirely what Carl is saying, but the implications of his posts have this idea at heart. However, I’m not sure this race and oppression issue is the case in fact. Frank Tirro’s history of jazz shows a much more complicated history of musical types and influences. One should not forget the Paul Whiteman Band (no pun intended) and Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman in the early history of jazz. This is not race counting, nor is it a denial of the importance of the suffering of black Americans shown through their experience of oppression—it is simply a matter of fact regarding the origins of modern American music. Likewise, Harry Smith’s Smithsonian anthology belies the belief that American music was simply Stephen Foster and John Philip Sousa before there was folk, blues or jazz.
Yes, the jazz and blues and ragtime artists who left a mark on American music were predominantly African American, and they should be applauded in a way that they were not in the past. For that matter W.E.B. DuBois wrote of the distinctive sublimity of the “negro” spiritual, and he claims that only through the experience of slavery could such spiritual strivings come to the fore.. This history (written by the likes of DuBois) should not be forgotten. Black American music is surely some of the best American music that exists. Perhaps such music was always popularized by the white American middle-class (like Beiderbecke), but who can say, because the white kids were always there simultaneously? The music is the music.
For instance, in hip hop the Beastie Boys, Third Base and even Vanilla Ice were early musical pioneers in this so-called genre of black music of hip hop.
So the ‘60s English rock band The Kinks came out with “Muswell Hillbillies” in the early ‘70s. On this album, which includes such rockers like “20th Century Man,” The Kinks take American music and blend it with old English folk music. “20th Century Man” is surely a late coming white Englishman’s lament written in the idiom of black American music. Yet it is also a song made of its own, and the desire to not wanting to die here (in this 20th century) shows a universal theme (at the time) that rock (as opposed to rock and roll) was not simply some playing out some version of a perversion of the desire for freedom found in traditional African American music. Some may argue this, but I agree with ray Davies—”You can keep all your smart modern writers”–and if you’re reading this you too have survived the 20th century!
And so I also think of The Kinks song “Complicated Life” also from “Muswell Hillbillies.” It incorporates both English folk and black American music. It is neither parody, nor is it an antiquarian piece. It is amusing in its “ol’ timeyness” of song structure and arrangement, but it also speaks the truth as much as any Johnny Cash or Kris Kristofferson tune. It speaks of Tocquevillian individualism in terms of literal heart disease. Still, it doesn’t truly advocate what it advocates, and hence it speaks otherwise and is therefore truly ironic.
After listening to this song, I think that DuBois was perhaps wrong about the “color line.” Or rather, perhaps in his celebration of the negro spiritual, he was speaking about music which rises above the “color line” in the same way that he says Shakespeare and Goethe do.
In my view, The Kinks’ “Muswell Hillbillies” does this, and is therefore worth a listen.
For “20th Century Man”–
For “Complicated Life”–