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Some of the following first appeared in the defunct apa GAPS & on the Mudcat.

Reading: How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music by Elijah Wald (Oxford U.P., 2009).  The subtitle gives the actual subject; I dare say the main title was tacked on by a promoter at Oxford in the hope of selling some more copies by making a scandal.  Bought, in December 2011, at a lecture by the author at MIT.  The lecture was part of a course (open to the public) in folk music, about which he knows a great deal; but I was attracted to the book because his tastes & interests are much broader, and I hoped that it would contain some data that might check my own opinions on its subject.  Data, not arguments: my own tastes & interests are so deviant that I cannot hope anyone else would countenance their existence to the extent of presenting arguments.  (My subhuman response to the arts is documented at http://come-to-think.livejournal.com/28660.html.)

Briefly, in my book popular music peaked about 1900 and became vile about 1940.  Jazz was the beginning of the decline --- but of course, the best of anything includes the beginning of the decline.  The fact that one cannot say such a thing without sounding patronizing shows what is wrong with the rest of you, and with reading histories.  The value of a piece of music is determined, not by its place in the history of music, but by its contribution to the pleasure & edification of the performer & listener --- most particularly, of me.  (Jazz got its start, innocently, as music to wait for whores by.  By the time I was born, the gangsters had gotten hold of it & turned it into music to beat up whores by.)

The deviance of my tastes is easily accounted for:  I was not brought up in the popular culture.  I learned my first songs from my mother, at age 2, and they were a great variety, from the various stages of her life (b. 1908).  In childhood (1940s), we did have the Hit Parade on the radio, but that was not as important as Burl Ives, whom we had both on the radio and on records.  From 1950 to 1954 I was in a boarding school in Vermont that forbade private radios & phonographs and that had a vigorous official tradition in classical music & a vigorous unofficial one in folk music.  So by the end of adolescence my mind was permanently warped.  Also, in case you want to psychoanalyze my hostility to mass entertainment, you might start with the fact that my father was a screenwriter.

Alas, the book merely confirms & informs my prejudices.  It tells in detail a story whose outlines I already knew.  In the 19th century a hit was a song that sold a lot of sheet music, so that people who liked it could play & sing it themselves.  Sales, even of hits, were modest & unpredictable.  Then, in the 1890s, "After the Ball" became unprecedentedly popular (with the help, it seems, of John Philip Sousa at the Chicago World's Fair), and the smell of the money attracted all manner of vermin to the business.  It couldn't have happened to a nicer song, and Sousa's role in the process is tragic in that he himself was a vigorous opponent of it.  (Wald compares him to Pete Seeger!)

I found the later parts of the book tiresome, not only because I do not care for their subject, but because Wald takes for granted an assumption that I find dubious & in need of defense: that commercial statistics (record & ticket sales, ratings, etc.) are a good index of listeners' tastes & entertainers' accomplishments.  He mentions the payola scandal disdainfully (how silly to be shocked at what had always been going on!), without taking note of the abiding scandal it displayed: the market is dominated by cowards --- people who care more about choosing like other people than about anything they might choose.  (They do not have to be anywhere near a majority to dominate the market.  As Norbert Wiener sagely observed, "where the fools are present in sufficient numbers, they offer a more profitable object of exploitation for the knaves".)  If they had more self-respect, plugging a song would be profitless, and the charts (if people bothered to compile them) might have looked different.  Consequently I have trouble taking the parade of actual sales figures seriously.

There is no reason to suppose, either, that the size of one's audience is a measure of how much good one is doing, even if "good" is defined as some increasing function of individual preferences, with no intrusion of morality.  The marginal individual who is induced to buy into an audience might well have received more satisfaction in another, smaller audience.  It is true that large audiences sometimes support valuable works that require great labor, but no sane person would confine himself to such fare.  For particular persons at particular times & places, the best audience size may be zero (whistling or masturbating), one (singing a lullaby), or some other small number (singing rounds, playing bridge, proposing a toast).  The tendency of the market to horn in on such pleasures deserves all the resentment & resistance that is owed to depravity.

From my point of view, the great engine of degeneration in popular music has been the microphone.  First people learned that they could croon into it (the Gangster Sleaze era), and then they learned that they could yell into it (the Mechanized Tantrum era).  But, as we have seen, the microphone only set the seal on the alienation of production from consumption of music that was already underway for economic reasons.  Already, around the turn of the century, Chesterton was complaining that men no longer sang around the table, they sat & listened to one man sing, "for the absurd reason that he could sing better".  That's the spirit!  It's not just oldfashioned music that I like, but especially low-class oldfashioned music.  "Back to Bach!" Mencken used to say.  Well, back to Bach, by all means, say I, but even more, back to campfire songs, to Gilbert & Sullivan, to dirty blues & Welsh hymns, to beer-hall choruses & barber-shop quartets, to vaudeville & music hall, to Sousa marches & Strauss waltzes, to Child ballads & Christmas carols, to dominant sevenths & tonics!  Probably 9/10 of the songs that have ever been written were written in my lifetime --- & possibly 1/10 of the songs I have bothered to learn.


There are always exceptions, and I will stipulate that I own many Marlene Dietrich records.  I suppose that is mostly due to the charm of her foreignness & to her making fun of the conventions of sexuality, but it may be partly Oedipal --- my mother was tall & blond.  I do wish, tho, that I had a way to filter out those slimy whiny grubby thumpy orchestras.  Also, come to think, my Fugs record was classified as "rock" in the collection at Twin Oaks, but I don't believe it: they seem to be having too much fun.  If real rock bands are enjoying themselves, then so are professional football teams.

Another of Wald's accomplishments was to complete Dave Van Ronk's posthumous memoir (The Mayor of MacDougal Street, 2005).  A repellent tho not surprising story appears on pp. 92--93.  Several of Van Ronk's Folkways records had (to his observation) been selling pretty well, but resulted in only derisory royalty payments.  He was bitching about that to his lawyer, who volunteered to fire off a nasty letter to Moe Asch, threatening to sue.  Presently, sure enough, Van Ronk received a check representing at least a much larger fraction of what he was owed.  He was afraid he might have offended Asch, but the next time they met, Asch merely said "So, you're finally getting smart".  So, the folkways of Folkways were the same as those of the rest of show business: lie & say "So I lied", cheat & say "Sue me".

I have listened to the Smithsonian's Web page on Moe Asch.  It & the rest of Van Ronk's book both confirm that impression.  I did not like seeing Van Ronk excuse Asch on the ground that he was a soft touch for small loans.  (I'll bet he wasn't terribly fussy about repayment either.)  Be generous with the people you've swindled; with a little luck, they'll feel they owe you something.  Reminds me a little of what I've read about the relationships between pimps & whores --- and also about the way professional poker players manage their suckers.

Likewise, earlier in the book (pp. 188--189) we read:


John [Hurt] never had a bad word to say about anyone, not even people who really did deserve a few bad words.  We were sitting around one night, and someone brought up [...] Tom Hoskins, the guy who had rediscovered him.[...] Hoskins had signed John to a contract where he earned a ridiculous percentage of John's wages, owned his publishing, and controlled all his business, and John actually had to go to court to get out from under his thumb.  Naturally, we were filled with righteous indignation, and I was cursing Hoskins up hill and down dale, and John was just sitting there[...].  Finally, I paused[...].  And John said: "Well, you know...if it weren't for Tom, I'd still be chopping cotton in Mississippi."  No way to argue with that.

No way to argue with it, in that the bargain was within what game theorists call the negotiation set: it was Pareto optimal (it could not be made still better for either party without making it worse for the other), and it was better than the status quo ante for both parties.  Nevertheless, there are ways to avoid approving of such bargains, and I am happy to know that Van Ronk & some judge happened on one or two of them.

Of course, if you are a communist, as Van Ronk & I used to be, you ought to argue that talents do not belong either to their possessor or to their discoverer, and any bargain over the division of their proceeds is illegitimate:  They belong to the community (perhaps by the grace of God), and the possessor will be happiest, & the community best served, if they are exercised for the pleasure of giving pleasure.  It is possible to take that attitude, and people who manage to do so are much to be admired; but there seems to be no way to institutionalize it or to teach it to children --- least of all with the instruments of government.


Asch's video does, however, argue against one favorite notion of mine, concerning the origin of the vileness of entertainment business relations (as described also in other books such as What Makes Sammy Run?, The Love Nest (Lardner), & The Revolt of Mamie Stover; essays such as Mencken's "Valentino" & Calvin Trillin's "You Don't Ask, You Don't Get" (New Yorker, 25 Feb. 1991, pp. 72--81); and even movies such as Ace in the Hole, A Face in the Crowd, & Once upon a Time).  I would like to blame it on mass entertainment, by which I mean entertainment in which the chief measure of success is the size of the audience.  To maximize the audience (& thus sales, or ratings leading to advertising revenue), it is no doubt helpful, and perhaps even necessary, to produce something that large numbers of people will enjoy.  But it is not sufficient.  People have different tastes, and are in different moods at different times.  In order to drive them into a huge demand herd while supply is short, extraneous motives are required.  The most important of these, in our era, are peer pressure & intergenerational hostility, that is to say, fear & hate.  Those are emotions we cannot escape, and devising harmless ways of enjoying them is a public service; but as motives they are base, and the business of exploiting them is bound to attract bad people & make them worse.  No wonder, etc., etc.

That, clearly, does not account for Moe Asch.  Of course, he wanted to sell records, but that was only a means to an end, which was to record things he thought were worth recording.  In that, he resembles, not a movie mogul, but a book publisher of the old, respectable sort.  Get the stuff printed, and then, even if it sells very slowly, it will get its chance in the long run.  People with that attitude can be immensely valuable in distorting the market to mollify some of its vices.  But one would think they would also be moved to do without lying, cheating, & stealing.  Well, maybe Mr Asch was so moved, until the advent of the Folk Scare put visions of sugar plums in his head.  Or maybe he had to make obeisance to the foul canons of his profession in order to preserve his self-respect.  Stranger things have happened.  But most likely, I am missing something, as I generally am when I try to think about human beings.

In the mainstream there is no need to make excuses.  Let us now dispraise famous men.  Here is Pete Hamill, in "Sinatra" (1980), in Piecework (1996):


     One rainy evening in the winter of 1974, I was home alone when the telephone rang.  I picked up the receiver, looking out at the wet street, and heard one of the most familiar voices of the century.
     It was Frank Sinatra.
     "What are you doing?"
     "Reading a book," I said.
     "Read it tomorrow.  We're at Jilly's.  Come on over."
     He hung up.  I put the book down.  I didn't know Sinatra well, but despite all the rotten things I'd read about him, I liked him a lot and was sometimes touched by him.[...]

Mr Hamill took no notice that he had just added to the corpus of rotten things one may read about Frank Sinatra.  I have never experienced precisely the social interaction he recounts, but I believe that among decent people it goes something like this:

     "Hello, Pete.  Are you busy?"
     "Not particularly.  Why?"
     "Well, I'm at Jilly's with some friends of mine, and your name came up.  I wondered if you'd like to join us."

Now look at how Sinatra does it.  He cannot invite a friend out for a drink without turning it into a command performance, preceded by a determination of his friend's activity so that he, Sinatra, can judge its importance.  He hangs up without even giving his friend time to say "Yes, sir".

As noted, Hamill was not offended.  He is part of the same racket as Sinatra, on a lower (print) level --- several best sellers, a spell as editor in chief of the New York Daily News.  He is probably proud to have been ordered around by Sinatra (as Dwight Macdonald was proud to have been insulted by Trotsky).  The two of them are entitled to their folkways.  But equally, I, from the vantage of my one-thread fringe, am entitled to judge that the creation of such monsters as Sinatra, and the holding of them up as objects of admiration & envy, is a high price to pay for his artistry, which I gather involved the ability to seem as if he didn't have to breathe.  I have to put up with such people, and what is more, I ought to have to put up with them, for liberty's sake; but I do not have to pretend to respect them.


I think this would be a better world --- better entertained, and morally better --- if it somehow became extremely difficult to make a living in the arts & entertainment, and flat out impossible to get rich.  I have no scheme for bringing that about.  However, as old technology facilitated the massification of entertainment, I have some faint hope that new technology will help undo it.  It is refreshing to notice that there is now a substantial subculture in which "Hollywood" is a curse word.  The Internet not only subverts property interests in entertainment, but also helps people who are interested in hospitality & conviviality find each other.  To the confusion of our enemies!

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Already, around the turn of the century, Chesterton was complaining that men no longer sang around the table, they sat & listened to one man sing, "for the absurd reason that he could sing better".

Well, you're pretty much preaching to the choir here. I figure music was killed the moment it was first recorded. All the fancy highly produced stuff has its place, but some of my favourite musical memories were indeed around the campfire, ranging from "The Marinol Song" to a drunken version of "Stairway to Gilligan's Island". The tradition is not completely dead.



Edited at 2013-06-22 03:03 am (UTC)

Not by a damn sight. I myself hover on the fringes of several fringe groups that are keeping it up: filkers, maritime singers (a curiously vigorous movement in recent years), and various other organizations & individuals that have singing parties. So far, however, such performances have been confined to special occasions for the purpose. AFAIK, it no longer happens (as it did so recently as the '60s) that people throw parties at which the guests sang & played instruments from time to time without formalities and without interrupting the other amusements; for the vast majority, a party isn't a party without blasting speakers. Likewise, when Hamill was a boy (1940s --- he is about my age), his daddy, in making the rounds of Brooklyn Irish bars, was often asked for a song. We are a long way from getting back to that kind of conviviality.

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