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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Popular Music Existed Before Rock & Roll

BOOK REVIEW
Popular Music In England
1840-1914 A Social history
Dave Russell
McGill-Queen's University Press
p. 1987


  One of the cool aspects of reading about history is that it has a tendency to stay the same over time.  By understanding wider swaths of time, events in the present look less confusing.  A difference between the production of knowledge and the production of a product is that the market for knowledge has no motivation to move on to the next idea.  In fact, given the limited number of people who care about acquiring knowledge in more esoteric areas, an idea needs to stick around for 20-30 years before it can make a dent.

  Popular Music is not an area that lends itself to history for two reasons.  First, people who wrote books were not sure that Popular Music was intellectually important until the middle to late part of the 20th century.  Second, those who wrote about music in this time period were largely people who talked about the relative aesthetic value of different types of music and musicians (musicologists) rather then people who talked about the social nature of Popular Music as a phenomenon.

  Popular Music In England is a great example of an early attempt to shift the dialogue about music out of musicology and into the realm of history.  It's right there in the sub-title "A Social History."  The place and time period chronicled is important because it really represents the best documented place and time of the emergence of  Popular Music as a widespread phenomenon.   The word "popular" pre-supposes wide spread, and the difference between "Music" and "Popular Music" is the existence of a narrow or limited audience for the former and a broad audience for the latter.

  Popular Music in England is useful because it clearly and simply illuminates the emergence of Popular Music in the mid 19th century.  All the changes outlines happen as a direct result of the industrial revolution and the changes it made in England at the time.  One of the most indirect, but significant changes was the move by the Victorian Middle and Upper Classes towards being interested in the welfare of Workers.  This shift increased at the same time as the wealthy were themselves increasing demand for Popular Music, largely in the form of religious songs.  A third shift was the growth in people who were interested in profiting from the sale of music: performers, song writers, bar and theater owners.   These shifts were set against the back drop of a working class that was gaining outlets and time for leisure, and music was a popular choice, as indeed it always has been in rural, pre-modern communities.

  At the end of the time period surveyed (1914) the outlines of the modern Music Industry have been sketched.  The only major piece missing is the mass media, and that is a story well told.

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