Martha Bayles is the author of the best book on pop music I know, Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music. For its final chapter, she borrows the title of a William Bell song, You Don’t Miss Your Water ‘til the Well Runs Dry, so as to refer to the pop-music situation that has held from late 70s on. It is a situation of decline and loss.
How did that loss occur? I’ll provide a sketch here, but buy the book for the full story–in telling it, Bayles provides what amounts to a pretty comprehensive history of American popular music. Or should we say Afro-American music? For Bayles says that most of what is distinctive about America’s major genres is due to “the imprint, however light or heavy, of the black idiom.” So imprinted: spirituals, ragtime, New Orleans jazz, country, much of our folk-song, blues, swing jazz, “American Songbook” pop, modern jazz, jump, black gospel, rhythm and blues, rockabilly, soul, and funk.
Bayles is not unaware of the necessary qualifications one must make here, of mixtures that have nothing to do with black influence, or, of stereotypically “purely black” elements having other roots, such as the way black gospel is unthinkable without considering its historical origins in (bi-racial) Pentecostal doctrine/practice. I also think, joining Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, that we must stress the impacts upon our music of the modern American idea of freedom and fact of social mobility. I give a fuller account of these sorts of issues in Rock and Roll Patriotism Defended.
What is so special, then about this broad Afro-American music tradition? Here are a few tastes from Bayles’s larger review of music theory on this point:
All European rhythm, even the liveliest baroque beat, sounds mechanical when compared with Afro-American rhythm. …Moreover, the structural beat is frequently implied rather than played… The important thing about rhythmic polyphony is that it helps to define that essential quality known as “swing.” …like so many qualities in music, swing eludes verbal definition. [Andre] Hodeir comes closest when he states that swing depends on five things: ‘infrastructure’ (structural beat), ‘superstructure’ (rhythmic counterpoint), ‘getting the notes in the right place,’ ‘relaxation,’ and ‘vital drive.” But as Hodeir then admits: ‘The first three are technical in nature and can be understood rationally; the last two are psycho-physical, and must be grasped intuitively.’
What has to be grasped intuitively can only occur in two ways: a) through participation in a musical community, b) through apprenticeship. Musical excellence is usually rooted in both, but access to records and opportunities to play paying gigs heighten the possibilities of b). Bayles insists that commerce has, at the least, as often been the friend of our music as its enemy, contrary to a number of bohemian and “folkie” dogmas. The aspirant to Afro-American musical excellence has needed to sing with the locals, often on a front porch, but that porch needs to have a gramophone just inside, so he can also listen to what the master musicians like Louis Armstrong or Mahalia Jackson or Roy Acuff are adding to the larger tradition. And if he’s going to learn in person from masters outside his town, he needs to travel, or have them travel to him. As in any rural culture, pockets of amazingly unique “old-time music” could be found hidden away in Weird Old America, but the high-points of Afro-American music, even many of the most apparently “rural” ones, are unthinkable without trains, records, automobiles, radios, and big cities.
Why, then, did the wells of Afro-American musical excellence, which for much of the last century we assumed would always be there, increasingly “run dry” as we got to the late 70s and beyond?
Well, here I break it down, outline-style. Consider this 70% Bayles, 30% Scott. If you want the really short version, skip down to this post’s last three paragraphs.
1) General homogenization and middle-class-ization of our culture:
1a) more urban, suburban, and connected—folk community musical traditions fade
1b) more secular—gospel roots of soul and country music become thinner
1c) less racist oppression and economic deprivation, therefore less blues-motive
1d) TV and internet use allow greater opportunities for “fools gold” pop-music merchants to huckster—inexperienced listeners seduced, and they experience less and less of the communal reception of music that occurs live. (real contest shows, like American Idol, actually often counter this tendency)
1e) false perception emerges that “people from the right background” can do rock n’ roll better; i.e., make it artier, more serious, etc.; this leads to initially interesting experiments that in the long run remove the swing. Such rock done in a pop-art or an “alternative” spirit becomes a common phenomenon, albeit not usually a chart-topping one.
2) The producer/d.j./collage-artist replaces live musicians—DISCO in all its forms
2a) basic economic reason: cheaper, more convenient
2b) see 1d
2c) a cultural reason: makes interaction of international differences easier
2d) often reflects reductive attitude and fatalistic futurism about music: robots will be our musicians
2e) often reflects reductive (and racist) attitude that sees sexual abandon as the heart of Afro-American music
3) What Bayles calls “perverse-modernism” (she distinguishes this from healthier forms of modernism—its fine arts precedents are Dada, etc.)
3a) as a white “primitivist embrace” (similar to 2e) this produces hard rock
3b) it also reinforces reductive trends in disco: consider the various industrial and synth genres that offer themselves as dance music, but which have none of the basic “friendliness” of classic disco
3c) it is largely responsible for punk, and the related anger-indulge-ment and shock-art escalation across a number of genres,
3d) so that along with a certain conception of black male identity, it got the gangsta-rap scam going
4) A general overdose of hedonism in the late 60s and early 70s—reflected in the regularization of 2e: both disco and hard rock over-sexed and over-drugged the music, at expense of the swing. Bayles is particularly strong on this point.
So those are the Four Horseman of our musical Apocalypse. Now one has to admit that 1) and 2) (with exception made for sub-points 2d and 2e) are largely inevitable. Yes, we can and must push back where possible. Believers fight against the secularization trend, true liberal and military educators inculcate aristocratic habits against the broader democratic stream, and I say we all must fight for Porcher ends as much as is possible. But even if the Porchers somehow win and revive agrarian and small-town living, the Internet/TV facet of our lives isn’t going away, and we can’t justly revive the economic deprivation, to say nothing of the racism, of 1c. Middle-class and connected life is our democratic destiny, as Tocqueville knew.
But does this mean that musically one has to lay down and take the full implications of this? Absolutely not. Notice that 3) and 4) are far from inevitable. There’s no reason we cannot learn from our mistakes, particularly when they are nauseatingly embodied in musical forms so obviously inferior as punk, hard rock, and robotic disco.
And from Bayles’ perspective, the key thing is that the Afro-American tradition is still chugging along and apprenticeship can still be sought out…if Eric Clapton or (The Paladins’) Dave Gonzalez schooled themselves in it, without themselves growing up in the old down-home environment, there’s no reason others cannot. And the Hard Old America is still out there to an extent, as are small towns. So Bayles is for “root doctors” and anyone who can replenish the water that has drained out of our well. Musically, the South will Rise Again, as more and more people admit that the hip-hop and punk detours, to mention only a couple, were just that, not inevitable directions, but by and large, mistakes.
Of course, this is to get into the debate about how to go forward—and regarding that, who can really say what is possible? Let’s just focus on what Bayles and I are establishing about what’s happened.
All the factors boil down to our society having fewer musicians who really have the “Afro-Americana” chops, the swing and such, and fewer opportunities for apprenticeship in those traditions. What is undeniable is that by the late 70s, and becoming ever-more obvious through the 80s, 90s, and aughts, is that our musical well had run dry–those musicians became scarcer, as did the audiences who could appreciate them. Everything said in Songbook #s 37 and 38 has to be understood in this light. Rock and disco, and the related (yet admittedly less repetitive) groove of hip-hop, throbbed on, of course, ever-more tending to recycle themselves. And critics kept repeating the false Larger Rock and Roll Story that denied the break that had occurred.
Ever since that late 70s moment, the need for us culturally middle-class persons, black and white, rural and not-rural, to think more seriously about what “our water” consisted of in the first place, has become more necessary. For those with a Futurist spirit will tell us Afro-American music was bound to go the way of the Dodo, that it was all just about sex in the first place anyhow so why not reduce it down to programmable disco, and that we should be somehow ashamed to try to preserve or revive it.
But musical decline is also a choice. Will you resignedly half-convince yourself that they’re probably right, or will you say, in the spirit of Songbook #38: you’ve got to be kidding me!!! Martha Bayles is one of the few critics that gives you the tools to do so thoroughly.