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Friday, July 16, 2010

Themes in 20th Century Popular Music: Christmas and Food

   A basic dividing line between types of popular music in the 20th century is "instrumental" vs. "vocal."  That's especially relevant when you consider the relationship of Jazz and Blues to Rock and Roll.  It is true to say that the sound of Rock and Roll came from Jazz... just like you can say Christianity came from Judaism.  Yeah, it's technically true but it doesn't really work that way in reality.  That is a common analytical mistake of intellectuals writing about popular music.  They are much more likely to look for distant ancestors as an explanation instead of more obvious, direct connections.

  In terms of lyric themes, it is difficult to establish any clear dividing line between Popular Music and Rock Music.  Rock and Roll appeared into a space that was already occupied by Pop music, and perhaps the more interesting story about Rock is how it adopted to Pop music, not the other way around.

  An example of this principle can be shown in Christmas songs.  The Christmas song is an enduring institution of popular music, dating to before the 20th century.

  Here's an early, "pre rock" example in the context of jazz blues- It's called Boogie Woogie Santa Claus by Mable Scott (1948):

   The first thing to notice here is the vocal, distinctive as it may sound in the context of white singer from the period, is a conventional song about Santa Claus.  There's nothing inherently "jazz-y" about the lyrical content of Boogie Woogie Santa Claus.  And singing about Christmas... that's an example of the music industry recording a song based on existing audience taste.

   Another easy example is "songs about food."  Songs named after foods was used in the rock era repeatedly, even repeatedly by the same act.  Booker T & the MGs, an instrumental act released Jellybread (Stax 131:1963), Mo-Onions (Stax 142:1964) and My Sweet Potato (Stax 196:1966) in addition to their classic hit Green Onions (Stax 127:1962.)

  At the same time, it's not like an instrumental simply named after a food represented some kind of innovation within the world of popular music.  in 1940, the Ink Spots, an African American music group had a hit called Java Jive:  It's a whole song about how great coffee is.  The whole cut is kind of permeated with racism, but this song was a hit.
    In the Sun Records book, Good Rockin Tonight, Roy Orbison describes driving around listening to the radio, trying to figure out thematically what would work with the audience wanted to hear. He sat around the studio, playing instruments on other artists tracks, and generally learned as much as he could about the business of music.  He was smart, it's obvious, but he undoubtedly had an advantage because he was white.

   The bottom line here is that an interesting issue in the emergence of rock and roll is the way that young artists adopted to existing popular music to gain an audience. The black artists who were doing the same thing were simply stopped dead in their tracks because of their race.  I mean you could write a "Java Jive" but it couldn't have been artistically satisfying to the Ink Blots.

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