Wednesday, August 05, 2009


First, a whole heap of thanks to Erudite Redneck for linking to the following video:

World Science Festival 2009: Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale from World Science Festival on Vimeo.

ER asks a good question. Since it seems we are able to sing in harmony, and to follow the pentatonic scale, without a whole lot of help, why don't we? One answer he receives is so wildly off the mark, I have been assembling a response to it.
Why don't we? Because we were born in a western rationalistic, protestant culture that has been suspicious of music and how it moves the soul for some time now.

If you get into homes that aren't so hegemonically identified, you get music, harmony, rapture, and then dinner. Or dinner first.

Same thing in Brasil or Mali or Tibet.

Any attempt to make broad ideological statements such as this, that have whole histories and facts militating against them, make me itch.

From the early 19th through the early 20th century, the music business was more specifically the music publishing business. As America grew wealthier, and pianos and other instruments became a staple even of lower-middle class homes, it created a demand for music to be played. The greatest popular song-writer of the 19th century, Stephen Foster, was nothing more than a hired gun of the music publishing business. In the days before copyright, he remained poor even as his songs made quite a bit of scratch for his employers.

The invention of the phonograph was not initially considered a threat to music publishing; indeed, after the first couple decades, as it became less expensive and more popular, and recording shifted from classical and opera (the first big recording star was Enrico Caruso, whose popularity stemmed from the sale of recordings), the hunger for more popular musics, ethnic music, regional and local music, expanded not only the possibilities of recording, but also publishing (this is still reflected in many contracts recording companies make with artists, wherein publishing rights to the music are too often surrendered to the company; thus, for example, when the Beatles created Apple Records, they signed publishing rights over to the company, only to have those rights become another commodity to be sold at auction when the company dissolved; they were bought by Michael Jackson in the 1980's, creating more legal headaches for the surviving Beatles, who sued over Jackson's decision to sell "Revolution" to Nike for commercial use). Up until the Great Depression, which shuttered many recording companies and sheet music publishers, the early days of recording and publishing were a wonderful array of everything from jazz and blues, often on subsidiaries of big recording companies, hideously referred to as "Race Records", to companies making colloquial song and spoken-voice recordings in Italian, Polish, Russian, Greek, and Yiddish. Unfortunately, many of the original acetate masters were lost when the small companies (including Black Swan, the first all-African-American company) had to be sold off during the Depression. The large companies either put the masters in poor storage conditions, or tossed them in the garbage outright. Yet, enough of the recordings still exist that one can find them in private collections. My father's collection of 78's includes an entire recording of a Shakespeare play (I can't recall which one off the top of my head), a collection of songs performed by Cab Calloway and his Orchestra (recorded live at The Cotton Club), and Beethoven Symphonies.

While it is true there were many who detested early Rhythm and Blues and Rock and Roll because of its overtly racial nature - all those pure white kiddies being led to dancing and other immoral behavior by those crude colored folk, don't you know - because it was wildly successful as a business, the attempt to co-opt it became part and parcel of the history of the music. Once the initial surprise and excitement of the earliest pioneers passed - Chuck Berry ended up in federal prison on a Mann Act conviction; Elvis had the double strike of having his contract at Sun Records sold to RCA for a pittance (the head of A&R at RCA at the time was Mitch Miller, who had many misgivings over the deal) and being drafted in to the Army; his label-mate, Jerry Lee Lewis got busted for marrying his underage teenage cousin; Little Richard, in a fit of moral confusion, quit music for a time to become a minister - the center of popular music shifted from emerging small, regional labels (like Sun, one of whose A&R men was Ike Turner, who is credited with recording the first true Rock and Roll record) to . . . music publishing firms in New York. The center of the action was The Brill Building. They turned out hit after hit after hit, some of them excellent ("You've Lost That Loving Feeling"), and some, well not so much ("Calendar Girl").

The backlash against, first rock and roll and r&b, and later rap music, is largely overblown. Part of the problem, in the former case, was that the rise of this wonderfully mongrel music coincided with the Civil Rights movement, stirring race-hatred and fear among white elites (particularly but not only in the South). The initial reaction against rap music was fueled not only by racial fears, but also, I believe, a rural-urban divide. Many older artists tended to trace their roots to the Delta Blues and country music; rap, like jazz, is an urban phenomenon (like the difference between spirituals and gospel music). The age-long urban-rural split in America is manifest in much of the disdain for rap in its early days.

Yet, through all this time, all sorts of people in America make all sorts of music. Part of the music industry's problem right now is the collapse of a business model that worked for a short time (roughly the mid- to late-1960's through the mid- to late-1980's) in which, in collusion with the radio industry, had a rough monopoly on what was and was not considered "worthy" of being heard. In the heady days from, say, 1965 through the late 1970's, before the American economy started to stagnate, record companies managed to sign all sorts of acts, tossing all sorts of sounds in to the mix. Thus, King Crimson could combine jazz, fusion, rock, and even Indonesian Gamelan due to Robert Fripp's experimentation. While the industry tried desperately to control "America's Music", C&W with offices and song-writing workshops on the ground in Nashville, performers like Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson proved that an artist could break the strangle-hold and be successful.

With burgeoning technology - everything from the democratizing of recording and musical technology through MIDI and music editing software for the home PC to the rise, first, of Napster to YouTube and even MySpace and Facebook providing a forum for all sorts of bands to get their music out there to a wider, even worldwide, audience - along with a stubborn refusal to reduce the cost of actually purchasing music (it costs roughly a buck and a quarter to make a finished CD including the gatefold and jewel box; yet still costs anywhere from twelve to seventeen dollars to buy a single CD, the same price as when the technology was introduced a quarter century ago, despite ongoing promises that someday the price will come down), along with certain business practices that refuse to die (the aforementioned publishing rights nonsense) are sinking the music industry.

But not music making. On the contrary. There is more variety available to a wider taste public than ever before. Even as I write this, I am listening to Pandora, internet radio I can program. I have seven distinct channels on Pandora, ranging from prog through Baroque Choral music (I even have a channel dedicated to the Dead, the Allman Brothers, Umphrey's Magee and other jam bands). There are other internet radio sites as well as XM radio competing with commercial radio on the EM spectrum. For a very small fee, one can download thousands of songs from iTunes and other music-sharing sites.

The notion that we don't make music because we are scared of it is just preposterous. Not only do we continue to make music, there is a wider variety available to a wider audience at low and no cost than at any time I for one can think of. Musical instruments remain relatively inexpensive and most folk can get a handle on simple guitar chords, keep a beat on a drum, and with MIDI, even compose rudimentary songs. We are in the midst of a musical Renaissance, and it is a wonderful thing to be able to take advantage of it.

Virtual Tin Cup

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