In 1963, just after my parents were divorced and I lived alone with my father, he regularly drove me to school in the morning and picked me up in the afternoon. The British invasion was in full swing, and besides the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Herman’s Hermits and so forth on the radio, Motown music was also popular, with groups like the Chiffons, Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandellas, and the Miracles. Even though Dad complained about the popular music of the time, he let me control the car radio, and I kept it tuned to WSBA that served Harrisburg, York, and Lancaster, PA. It was an exciting time for music. Now, several events and conversations over the past few days have caused me to reflect on my early musical influences and my father’s reaction to them, and put them into the larger context of changing tastes in popular music within and across generations and subcultures.
It started when my friend Ruth and I were listening to one of our favorite podcasters commenting on how right-wing politicians have “appropriated” the term “woke” for their own purposes. The podcaster (David Pakman) was explaining how “woke” was a term popular during the civil rights movement to denote an awareness of social injustice, racism, and the need to work to overcome them. People on the left still use the term in a similar way, while politicians on the right seem to use it in a derogatory sense to imply that liberals who are “woke” are trying to corrupt America with vaguely defined progressive trends that are in opposition to fundamental Christian values. Ruth said she had heard that one of the first documented uses of the word was from the folksinger Lead Belly, as a spoken comment after he performed the song, “Scottsboro Boys.” In that instance he was warning young Black youth to be constantly alert to the threat posed to them by racists. This led to a discussion about cultural appropriation, and the irony of Lead Belly’s influence on folk music, along with his having been an early user of the word “woke.”
I believe cultures advance through the blending and sharing of art, science, technology, and other innovations. The influence that African Americans have had on popular American music is undeniable. Bela Fleck documented that the banjo came from Africa. We know that many woodwind and percussion instruments came with slaves from Africa as well. African Americans also brought many rhythmic and harmonic innovations to traditional European instruments and vocal stylings. Would we have blues, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll as we know it without the influence of African Americans? But I think it is important to distinguish between being inspired by, influenced by, borrowing from, and building on art from another culture on the one hand, and appropriating it on the other. The former happens when there is respect and sharing between and among cultures. The second happens when the contributions of one culture are denied or repressed by another, and when the art, science, technology, and/or other innovations are exploited for profit. I know that Lead Belly had tremendous influence on the American folk music scene. I don’t know how much recognition he got during his career, but I suspect he was highly respected by those he influenced, although I’m sure racism limited his opportunities to perform and earn a living doing so.
Elvis Presley is often accused of taking influences from the Black musicians in and around Memphis without given them credit. He clearly capitalized on their creativity, but did he give them their due? Did he recognize that he would not have been who he was without them? I do think that Elvis inadvertently made mainstream America aware of the amazing Black musicians that until then were making great music, but were out of the view of the music-consuming public. Similarly, there were so many great blues musicians who were not recognized by the general music-consuming American public, but who greatly influenced the music of British musicians like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, John Mayall, Jimmy Page, and others. The list includes B.B. King, Albert King, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Freddie King, Muddy Waters, and many others. These blues musicians had careers that took off after British guitarists made young White Americans aware of the brilliant Black musicians who had been playing music in their own country for decades. My sense is that the British blues musicians always recognized, honored, and gave credit to their American inspirations.
I’m grateful that in my late teens I was able to hear the music of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Sonny Boy Williamson, Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell and others who broke through racial barriers to have their songs reach White listeners, albeit not until after they had been playing for many years while being forced to earn livings outside of music. I hope my friends and I who tried to imitate their brilliance would not be thought of as appropriators. I didn’t set out to write a piece on cultural appropriation, but it seems important to consider it when talking about popular music in America.
This past Sunday morning, CBS presented a piece on the Everly Brothers in which it was mentioned that when they first emerged, the popular thinking was that Rock ‘n’ Roll was a passing fad. Maybe the Everly Brothers had something to do with its endurance, smoothing the edges of Elvis’ rebelliousness, appealing to a country audience, and adding tight, accessible harmonies that Americans could relate to. Later that Sunday afternoon three friends and I got together in my living room with guitars (and one mandolin) to share songs, including at least one Everly Brothers song, as well as songs from the forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, and beyond. When we get together our eclectic tastes are apparent. We enjoy listening to and playing traditional Irish music, American folk music, music of the sixties and seventies we came of age to, country music, and anything else that we become aware of that we are challenged to learn to play. When our gathering was finished three of us went down to a local brew pub to listen to a bluegrass jam.
Bluegrass is enjoying a resurgence of popularity today, similar to what happened when my generation was introduced to it in the early 1970s. Bill Monroe gets credit for developing the style in the 1930s and 1940s, along with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, by evolving it out of more traditional southern acoustic music. In his early career Monroe was influenced by his association with Arnold Shultz, a fiddler, guitarist, and son of a slave who developed what is today known as the “Travis picking” style of guitar playing. Bluegrass has always appealed to a largely White audience, although its roots drew from music that was not the exclusive domain of White performers.
The crowd at the brew pub was almost exclusively White that afternoon, as had been the crowd at the Midwinter Bluegrass Festival in suburban Denver a few weeks earlier. I had remarked at that festival how the crowd was mostly older and not very ethnically diverse. Traditional bluegrass musicians might be assumed to be conservative, but those recording and performing currently write songs with progressive political themes and appeal to a more liberal, urban audience. Still, my sense is that their fans are mostly White. How ironic that Bill Monroe cites the son of a slave as an influence on his playing. Regardless, bluegrass is energetic, personal, acoustic, participatory, and often available live. Today, if there is discrimination associated with it, I suspect that people of color hold it in distain for its old association with the racist south, even though today’s fans and practitioners are nothing like that with regard to their politics or their attitudes.
After playing our own music for over two hours and then listening to another hour of live music, Ruth and I were energized and hungry. We walked several blocks through dropping temperatures and increasing winds until we found a restaurant that had opened a few years ago in a redeveloped area on the southern edge of Sloan’s Lake where St. Anthony’s Hospital had previously stood. Ten years ago the hospital had been surrounded by old bungalows, duplexes and single-story apartments built in the thirties and forties. When the hospital was razed the residences were cleared as well, and replaced with condominiums in structures ranging from six to twelve stories high. The condos were sold to or rented, apparently, to young singles, who also were the primary patrons of the restaurant in which we found ourselves. Young women sat together at the bar talking excitedly to each other. Couples at the bar leaned into each other intimately. Other young couples sat at tables or in booths talking as if on a first date, trying to get to know each other better. The menu featured craft beers from local breweries, creatively named cocktails, and a trendy mix of Mexican, Asian, and burger offerings.
As Ruth and I sat down and tried to converse I found myself asking her to repeat almost everything she said. Speakers embedded above us, behind us, and apparently all around us broadcast a constant thumping bass that might have been part of a larger musical arrangement, but if there were any vocals, guitars, keyboards, horns, or strings, they were inaudible due to the imbalance of the mix. The longer we sat there the more irritated I became, and the more I wondered who was responsible for the environment created within the restaurant, and who would choose to be in that environment if given a choice.
There was a time not too long ago when hotels, restaurants, and stores all played soothing mood music constantly in the background. Some criticized this as subtle form of brainwashing, dulling the senses and numbing the public to the world around them. Was what Ruth and I were hearing something similar, but rather than attempting to numb us, trying to keep us in a state of excited agitation? I don’t know, but I thought about what I would play if it were up to me. With an almost infinite selection of streaming music to choose from, why select a booming bass at a volume that drowns out conversation? Why not put on a playlist of chamber music, or swing jazz, or fifties doo-wop, or disco, or blues? I also wondered how many patrons of the restaurant were paying attention or even cared. Were my old ears really the problem? This was not the first restaurant we’d been in recently where the music was so loud that it discouraged conversation and the bass overshadowed all the other tracks. Had research been done that determined that young patrons preferred this? Did new restaurant owners say to themselves, “I want to open an establishment that pipes in constant, loud, booming bass sounds”? And who is producing this music?
The next morning I turned on the radio and heard an interview with Ricardo Valdez Valentine, Jr., who records and performs under the name 6LACK. The interview made him sound like an interesting singer/songwriter. I had never heard of him, so I thought I’d look up his music. I expected it to be sensitive and personal, based on what he revealed about himself in the interview. An internet search revealed that he is signed to the record label Love Renaissance, whose creations are distributed by Interscope Records, which falls under the umbrella of Interscope Geffen A&M. When I heard 6LACK’s music I was disappointed. There was nothing about it that allowed me to connect personally with the songwriter or the singer. While I’m sure the musicians on the recordings were outstanding and the singing was amazing, what stood out was the engineering. The music was highly digitized. 6LACK’s voice had so many electronic effects applied to it that he sounded robotic. The instrumental tracks were all synthesized with pulsating volumes and rhythms. I don’t want to take anything away from the production and the engineering of the recording. It was amazing, but it hid who Ricardo was, in my opinion, and what he had to communicate. I wondered how much control he had over the production. I listened to some other artists signed to Love Renaissance and the few that I sampled had production values similar to 6BLACK’s. The same holds true for their live performances. Most rely on pre-recorded tracks, sound effects, elaborate light shows, moving stages, and exotic costumes.
I’m not the target demographic of the artists signed to Love Renaissance. They are an extremely successful company founded by a small group of students at Georgia State University in 2012. They have probably found many talented artists and made them successful, but I do wonder how much creative control their artists have to give up in the process, and how different the popular music scene would be without the control of recording companies and their promotion and distribution mechanisms. Maybe there wouldn’t be a popular music scene. If not, would it be so bad if we just had live performers in coffee houses, bars, brew pubs and street corners, who posted their performances on YouTube? Certainly no one would be getting rich off of music.
The other night I watched “Hallelujah,” a documentary about Leonard Cohen, his career, and perhaps his best-known song. The film documents that Columbia records rejected Cohen’s album “Various Positions” for release in the United States in 1984. That album contained the single “Hallelujah,” and sent Cohen and his team on a search for an independent label to release it a year later. Cohen already had a well-established career by this time, and the album had been released in England, but had he been struggling to establish himself and been rejected, he might never have had a music career and his beautiful, influential song might never have been known. How many brilliant, deserving performers and songwriters have had their careers thwarted due to the fickle, unfounded whims of record company executives? And how many boring, tasteless, untalented groups have made the airwaves because these same executives thought they could push them onto the public?
I want to believe that my tastes in music are eclectic – that they are not bound by eras or genres or languages or cultures – but I’m probably wrong. I’ve probably proven that I’m wrong by what I’ve written here. I started this piece by related how my father would listen to the Beatles but complain about how the music made him tense and irritable. Now I hear myself sounding like him when I discuss the music that’s being recorded and released today. At the same time, I wonder why I don’t see a connection between the music the artists signed to Love Renaissance perform and the music that has shaped the popular music that appeals to me. If the first bluegrass musicians were influenced by Arnold Shultz, why does bluegrass only appeal to White audiences? Many say jazz is the greatest American form of music, born from the blues when Black musicians moved to the cities and applied the blues to keyboards and horns. So why are people born in 1990 and later rejecting it in favor or hip hop, rap, and highly-produced electronic music? If the folk music scene of the early 1960s was spawned by Lead Belly, Josh White, Big Mama Thornton, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Odetta and Elizabeth Cotton, I ask the same question.
My only conclusions are that I could listen to Jaco Pastorius, Tal Wilkenfeld, Victor Wooten, Charlie Haden, Stanley Clarke, and Charlie Mingus forever, but I don’t want a thumping bass drowning out my conversations over dinner. I wonder what Ricardo Valdez Valentine Jr. would sound like if he presented his lyrics simply with just his voice and a guitar? I think bluegrass music has something for everyone. It’s easier for me to appreciate my father’s music than for him to appreciate mine. It’s easier for my son to appreciate my music than for me to appreciate his.