Dedicated to classics and hits.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Where Does Folk Music Come From?

Book Review
A.L. Lloyd
p. 1967uk/1975us

     I've been thinking about folk music.  Folk music is a category of popular music that precedes the term "popular music" itself.  Folk song is the original popular culture "revival."  The first folk song revival occured in the UK at the turn of the century inspired by the collecting of people like Cecil Sharp and Vaughan Williams.  The second folk song revival started in the United States in the 1930s.  This revival was brought about by a combination of spontaneous and state supported conditions, i.e. union activity in the appalachians and the work projects administration.  Lloyd appears to have written Folk Song in England before the hippie revolution, which was obviously and deeply influenced by what Lloyd calls the second folk song revival.

     I'm not sure if the post-60s hippie folk rock scene would constitute the "second folk song revival" or represents a "3rd folk song revival."  At any rate, Lloyd, writing in the 1960s adopts cultural marxist attitude towards popular music.  In fact, he specifically makes a distinction between folk song and popular music of the 19th and 20th century.  Lloyd's description is priceless until he gets to the industrial revolution- the later chapters on Sea Shanties and Industrial Work Songs pretty much stink of tired 60s academic marxism.

     It's interesting to see how Lloyd handles references to non-English folk music cultures.  He is aware of similarities between folk songs in different Indo European languages but simply doesn't have the back ground to make any kind of in depth analysis.  Lloyd is at his strongest marshaling sources that were cited by the first wave folk revival writers in the UK.  For example, he talks extensively about "Common Place Books" that were kept by merchants in the 18th century- they would write down song lyrics, recipes or whatever.   He's read these books.  While Lloyd is obviously aware of American sources, he hardly mentions the fact that many English folk songs were preserved in the Appalachians into the 20th century.

   Lloyd gives copious amounts of song lyrics- he prints the musical notes, too.  Folk Song in England is pretty rad in that regard.  What a treasure trove of proven lyrics.  You could cover these songs and have a big hit with the geriatric crowd in the UK.  GREENSLEEVES.

   The design of the book itself is worth nothing- it's a 70s era paperback- with a cool illustration of a man carrying broadsheets for sale in the country side of England in the 18th century.  Broadsheets- selling lyrics to a song a sheet- was an established business in England as early as the Elizabethan period.
 Lloyd repeatedly notes that educated people thought folk music was not worthy of attention. Much of what might be known about song of the 16th through 18th centuries was also lost because censorious collectors substituted "proper" lyrics for bawdy ones.   Lloyd also notes that many of the attributes that American writers attribute solely to Blues and African American folk idioms are common to many folk traditions-both in England and in places like Hungary and India (not to mention France, Germany and Scandanavia.)


The Triumph of Vulgarity
Rock Music in the Mirror of Romanticism
by Robert Pattison

     I've come to the conclusion that is pretty cheap to blame "major labels" and "technology" for the decline in music sales.  I think a more accurate observation is that the forms in which artists sell music to audiences have become obsolete, in the same way that the rolls that powered player pianos became obsolete when people stopped buying player pianos.  Blaming the institutions that mediate the artist/audience relationship for a decline in audience support is like blaming the mayonnaise because your mayonnaise and broken glass sandwich cut your mouth up.

     I've come to the conclusion that the failure lays jointly with artist and audience, and that the specific failure involved is an artistic analogue to shitty parenting.  In other words, contemporary artists and audiences interested in popular music have absorbed the artistic equivalents of ignorance and laziness from their artistic idols.  Those attitudes have in turn been transmitted from artists to their audiences (and back to the artists) in a  feedback loop whose end result is contemporary popular music culture.

  But what attitudes, specifically?  What is the original sin that can explain the triumph of youth oriented popular music in the late 1950s all the way to it's present, oft maligned state?  That is the subject of this book, Robert Pattison's The Triumph of Vulgarity: Rock Music in the Mirror of Romanticism, published in 1987.

    In Pattison's opinion, the original sin in rock music, and all music derived from rock music since, is the projection of contemporary middle class fantasies about Romanticism and its idols onto African American artists who played blues and jazz in the United States in the early part of the 20th century.  Although written in 1987, what Pattison says about rock can be equally applied to any popular music artist today.  Pattison is also arguing against people who deny the validity of rock music as an artistic form worthy of appreciation.  Surely, it is this part of the argument which sounds stale.  It's hard to say that rock music is less

    To really understand what Pattison is talking about you need to understand the influence of romantic poetry from the 19th century on British and American rock musicians of the 60s and 70s.  You also need to understand that there was a time before which popular music wasn't treated seriously by academics, so that an entire book written on this rather obvious subject was not written until the mid 1980s, and by an assistant professor at Long Island University at that- it was published by Oxford University Press, so that tells you something, too.

     Artists quite consciously address the themes of the romantic tradition via their lyrics.  One of the most winning aspects of the Triumph of Vulgarity is the author's recognition of the Ramones as one of rock's greatest bands.  That reminded me of the recent musical history of New York where the author claimed that the Ramones initial performances at CBGB's were perceived as "performance art."

         The most significant aspect of this book is its winning refutation of the "don't talk/write about music- just experience it." school of artist/intellectual.  Pattison points out that rock and roll wouldn't exist without a self conscious emulation of 18th century and 19th century poets, coupled with an appreciation for American musical forms.  Rock music and its descendants: punk, new wave, heavy metal, indie, emo, etc etc etc could not exist without both influences.  Furthermore, starting with the Rolling Stones, such attitudes fully dominated artists and audiences for 20 years, only to be usurped by punk/new wavers who were even MORE obsessed with the same subjects.

     Without the self awareness inherent in any modern revival of 18th century poetry, rock music would not exist.  Therefore, any discussion of popular music possessing some inherent authenticity beyond the revival of romantic fantasies is tainted by conceptual failure.  Pattison also points out that rock lyrics are not poetry, and the power of rock lyrics lies in the accompaniment by music, rather then as having any independent worth.  To me, good popular song lyrics are like haiku, so I'm not sure I agree with him about that.



Sunday, September 05, 2010

Forgotten History of American Independent Music

Record Makers and Breakers
Voices of the Independent Rock n' Roll Pioneers
by John Broven
p. 2009

     I was stunned to learn that this book was published LAST YEAR.  It is, to my knowledge, the ONLY comprehensive history of the Golden Age of American Independent Record Labels, from 1949 through 1960.  Golden Age?  By Golden Age I mean that in 1957 independent record labels had 60% of the chart records, and the majors had 40%.  Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, modern indies.

   This is a time period that should be openly worshipped by those who participate in the production and consumption of independent popular music today.  Independent record labels never had it so good either before or since.  I blame the neglect of this pioneering period on the romantic affections of the 60s rock scene- 60s rock guys act like the Beatles invented rock and roll and like the youth market didn't exist before Woodstock.  Independent label owners have also picked up a bad rep from the artist canonizing writer intellectuals of the last 30 years.  You can't pick up a book about a black musician from the 20th century without hearing about some white independent record label owner "ripping them off."   Like these guys got rich while the artist starved.  FALSE.   As author John Broven demonstrates, reality was much more complicated then simplistic artist vs. capitalist exploiter narrative.

   Perhaps the single most insightful observation in a book filled with 500+ pages of interviews is made by Mimi Tepel.  Mimi Tepel was the department manager for London Record in America- the American licensing arm of Decca in the UK.  It was through this relationship that rock came to the UK and Tepel was the WOMAN who made the arrangement between the NYC/American indies and Decca itself.  When asked about the payment of royalties by American Indies to their artists- and we're talking about th 1950s here- she says "It's hard to blame the label owners because they were taking artists who were simply being ignored... and making it into something."

   As this book recounts, as soon as the major labels figured it out, the independents started to die.  The story of the record men of the 1940s and 1950s is the most inspiring case study in the history of the culture industry.  Individuals with little or no resources, acting loosely in cooperation with one another, were able to beat corporations at their own game for several years running.  During this period they partnered with individual artists to create an enduring artistic movement (early rock and roll) that stands up in terms of quality, with any group of french painters or greek sculptors.

   I suppose there are people out there who don't think that Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley stack up to Beethoven or Rembrandt, but I'm guessing those folks don't read this blog.   Also, I have to circle back to the fact that this book was published in 2009.  The paperback edition was published in January.  I'm 100% sure that there is nothing else even APPROACHING this book in coverage of this subject.

     The analysis of economic history was most striking, specifically because it is such a f****** train wreck.  The individuals- artists and business men alike, who come out alive are the ones who held on to the rights to hit songs and those who moved up the ladder of corporate capitalism.  EVERYONE gets absorbed or goes bankrupt before the end of this book.  Record Makers and Breakers is primarily a book of interviews- no grand historical narrative here, but it's hard to ignore the financial ruin that accompanies every #1 hit.  The immediate response of every business man who scored a hit record during this period is to pour more money into the pursuit of another hit, and failing.  The economics of record production in this period were simultaneously flush and incredibly harsh in a manner that reminds me of Dickensian era factory capitalism in Manchester, UK.  The people in this book- the businessmen- would sell millions of records in 1957 and literally be out of the business in 1958.  Most of the interviews were conducted in 2006-2008 with these old former label owners and Broven actually writes sentences like "he would never recover from the loss of those copyrights."  Unbelievable.  Sobering.

    Here is the take away from Record Makers and Breakers:  If you are an artist or a professional, and you get a hit, you better hold on to the rights.  If you're an artist, it is much better to be a song writer then a song performer.  There is an amazing infrastructure to maintain and maximize payments made to song writers.  Song performers on the other hand, can eat a big ole dick.  The 60s rock romantic rock star image has def. blurred what used to be a fairly straight forward division between the song writer and the song performer.  Usually, they aren't the same person- or they weren't in the past.  If you have a long term hit, more money will be made through administration of the performing royalties and the publishing (paid to the writer) then any money that can be made through the sale of the recording or payment for the live performance of the song.

  Whatever crazy crap has happened to artists and record companies, none of that bothers the performing rights societies (ASCAP/BMI/SESAC) and music publishing.  That shit is...rock solid.  It's so rock solid you don't even hear about it.  In conclusion, it was hard to ignore the role of the "hit" in this massive history.  Broven actually notes chart position when he talks about specific recording.  The history can be complicated because it used to be quite common for different companies to pay separate artists to record the same song, and then the songs would compete on the charts.

   This book made me appreciate my friend Josh Feingold, who works for SESAC, which like ASCAP and BMI, administers performance royalties for song writers.  Some of my musicians friends are so successful that they get quarterly checks to represent the fact that their music is widely distributed and listened to.  After reading this book I realize that this system has been supporting song writers (but not the performers unless they wrote the song) since the recording industry existed, and it is many of those people who continue to play a role in nurturing contemporary independent musicians.

   None of this works unless you have a song that you wrote, that is recorded and then widely listened to.  If you are a musician who writes and performs music but doesn't understand how publishing and performing rights royalties work... you are an amateur.  This book conclusively proves that fact.


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