Let's Get Busy in Hawaiian

100 Years of Ragged Beats and Cheap Tunes

The decade is a dandy organizing device—a convenient construct. Generalize a little? Why sure. The most important thing to happen to pop in the '90s was a tenfold increase in the amount of music recorded. That's the factoid bandied about, anyway—I've never seen the documentation. Even if the truth is half as much, it would add up to more hours of music than there are in a year, a symbolic threshold. No one can hear it all, folks. It's out of our control. Good. Daunting, overwhelming—but good.

The millennium, on the other hand, is a chimera—an inconceivable vastness for anyone who isn't a professional historian and almost anyone who is. No wonder the idea produces false prophets and religious manias. We know quite a bit about things that will pass for popular music in the 1200s (the jongleur-troubadour continuum) and the 1600s (when the governor of Cape Town owned a slave orchestra). But to wrap this info into a thousand-year package would be a waste of time.

In between these two accidents of the decimal system falls the century, which if it happens to be the 20th means something in pop. This is due to the technological action that closed the 19th—especially the development of the phonograph. Charts going back to 1890 have been devised, but musical sound recordings really do more or less begin with the century. In Evan Eisenberg's conceit, records turn music into a thing. Of course it's also living process—often crucially unique process. Of course it will and must continue to be created in the heat of the moment by and among musicians interacting with an audience; of course (although not so unequivocally) it will and must reflect local cultures. But now and forever music will be storable, portable, reproducible. And for those reasons it will be pervasive—in all industrialized places and many that aren't, an assumed fact of the aural environment.

Anyone can produce music—you just sing. Consuming it doesn't come so easy; except at special sites like markets or churches, the consumption of music was for the privileged through most of history. But as the world urbanized, performance venues proliferated. By 1845, the minstrel circuit was organizing the young male audience that has been with pop ever since; in post-Commune France, the café-chantant drew a more self-consciously aesthetic crowd to its music hall-cabaret; and from the refined English assembly rooms to the lowlife hot spots of New York's Tenderloin, public dance spaces were a fact of courtship well before 1900. Songwriting for these venues was professionalized, following neither the folk pattern, in which songs were created by local celebrities who had other jobs, nor the classical one, in which composers scribbled for the aristocracy or church. As Charles Hamm tells us in Yesterdays: Popular Song in America, these new professionals usually took it to the stage as well. By 1850 songwriting was also well commodified, as sheet music. But publishers targeted a more genteel market than performers—namely, owners of pianos, the great status symbol of the emerging petit bourgeoisie.

Recordings didn't simply overrun all this music for the people; not until after World War II could they even be said to dominate it. But along with radio they greatly intensified its dissemination. Internationally, records are everything. The Americanization of world pop is neither an imposition of capitalism nor the inevitable outgrowth of our irresistible Euro-Afro meld—without records, our cultural imperialism would have been far less monolithic. And here at the source they've always been learning tools for listeners and musicians both. To repeat: Live performances and one-on-one interactions are crucial—as in the epochal blues culture of Clarksdale, Mississippi (Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, and more), or the Benny Goodman-Eddie Condon generation of young white jazz players that emerged in Chicago at the same time, shortly after Louis Armstrong followed King Oliver up from New Orleans. But even at this point we have pathfinders like Bix Beiderbecke and Bing Crosby studying records in the boonies. And though Billie Holiday used to attend dances just to listen to the band, it was a Victrola in a whorehouse sitting room that introduced her to Bessie and Louis.

** As the century began, operetta and minstrelsy had already spawned the powerful promotional medium of musical comedy, with the very American George M. Cohan and the very European Victor Herbert pioneering beneficiaries, and the very Jewish, very American Irving Berlin just around the corner. Demographically, Broadway's melting pot was white—African Americans were present there primarily in the all too symbolic form of blackface. But as an artistic force if not people getting paid they were at the heart of what was called ragtime. Ragtime wasn't just the piano style it's reduced to today. It was an addictive compulsion to syncopate the beat—to "rag" it, make it ragged—that was felt throughout pop, Broadway included. This rhythmic foregrounding had its counterpart in the sexualization of social dancing—black-derived "animal dances" (turkey trot, bunny hug, eagle rock), a tango craze, and the canny commodifications of two world-class society hustlers, Englishman Vernon Castle and his American wife Irene, who with decisive input from black bandleader James Reese Europe popularized many steps, most enduringly the fox trot.

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