Let's Get Busy in Hawaiian

100 Years of Ragged Beats and Cheap Tunes

It says something about the secondary importance of recordings before World War I that composers like Cohan and Berlin remain legendary while the era's hit artists—uptempo ballad specialist Billy Murray, barbershop harmonizers the Peerless Quartet, blackface singer-comedian Arthur Collins—are forgotten. Crucially, it was only in the '20s that record companies thought to single out the "race" and "hillbilly" markets. Besides providing access to America's most original musicians, most of whom were Negroes, this development belatedly recognized pop's rural strain, which in a drama of modernization and accommodation with worldwide parallels has been infiltrating our urban-suburban culture ever since. Combine a booming economy, an impatience with the morality of repression, some youth culture, and a few dollops of postwar alienation, and it was the perfect time for blues and jazz to come into their own.

It cannot be reiterated too often that "rural" doesn't get us to the naive, untutored, not-for-profit "folk." Everywhere but church, rural music had a commercial purpose, and its creators were knowledgeable and ambitious. Old-timey icon Uncle Dave Macon, for instance, went into music professionally after his transport business failed and learned many of his songs at the Nashville hotel his family owned. And the blues—well. The blues are a lot more certainly 20th-century than, for instance, jazz. There were plenty of black marching bands and songsters after the Civil War, but nothing like a bluesman existed before the 1890s. Primitive though the 12-bar form may appear, it was brand new, and the individualism of the blues within its stretched and reimagined constraints constituted an existential leap for the unreconstructed black people who played them. That individualism is intrinsic to the blues's enduring attraction. But just as intrinsic, Peter van der Merwe argues in his fascinating Origins of the Popular Style, has been the blues's appetite for melody—not rhythm, as is always said and also true, but melody, melody that encourages variation and hence both individual expression and the generation of "tune families," which van der Merwe believes often suggest a common ancient origin for African and Celtic music.

Blues and country are still cordoned off commercially in the '20s. Sustained by rubes without money, they'll make their move 20 years later. But "race music" also signified "jazz," which as a loosely defined genre soon lent its deracinated name to the "age," and closely coexisted with a Tin Pan Alley then starting to peak with the harmonically ambitious pantheon composers of so-called classic American popular song. Since even today it's commonplace for literate ignoramuses to claim a monopoly on artistic worth for the Berlin-Gershwin-Porter-Rodgers axis, there's a temptation to ac-cent-chu-ate the negative about musical comedy song, as do van der Merwe and Hamm. But from "Always" to "Body and Soul" to "Hello Dolly" to "Send in the Clowns" (would you believe maybe "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina"?), it stands as a titanic cultural achievement by hundreds of composers and lyricists whose great songs number in the thousands. And however overrated pop chord changes' legerdemain, they are a precondition of bebop and hence all postwar jazz.

Defying sociological determinism as riders of formal upsurges so often do, Berlin-Gershwin-Porter-Rodgers-etc. just kept on writing songs and shows during the Great Depression. The Jazz Age, on the other hand, took a nosedive, and the record business very nearly died; its tiny country blues branch, in fact, did die. By 1935, however, jazz had staged a comeback and pulled the biz back up with it, with Benny Goodman, a student of black dance bands who hired Fletcher Henderson to do his arrangements, leading the charge. The swing era quickly morphed into the big-band era and was essentially over by 1940, but it occasioned a connoisseurship barely approached in previous pop. This was the first time black singers and players attracted anything like a mass audience, and the only time in America that a predominantly instrumental music did, although fans of rock improvisers from Jimi Hendrix to Sonic Youth come close enough. In its capacity for abstract development by and for an in group, swing was a subcultural dance music that presaged disco, funk, and techno. It was the first pop to inspire serious critical dialogue. Its hipper admirers evolved into the jazz aesthetes who assure the real if parlous viability of jazz as both an avant-garde and an institutionalized art music. It was only a moment, but a tremendously pregnant one.

** The swift demise of swing, which saw formerly peripheral singers become bigger stars than Goodman or Miller, is blamed on many things, including the musicians union and the decimation of the male youth audience by World War II, but in retrospect it was inevitable. Swing was too hard. Pop connoisseurs habitually insist on the agency, expressiveness, originality, aesthetic acuity, and progressive political thrust of the music we treasure, and we should. But chugging alongside all the effort and invention we honor has been crappy music we really could do without. More should be made of the supposedly bad things pop also is, and of the right of its audience to revel in them until such time as leisure is wrested from ordinary people by implacable capital or an angry God. To name names, pop is easy and it is escapist, often at its best and almost invariably at its least momentous. There's nothing so mysterious about cheap tunes. People love them because they're a stroll in the park—scenic, diverting, even surprising, without ever tempting anyone to get lost on the way home. Vernon and Irene Castle are credited with dispatching the parlor ballad by pushing songs with a beat, but all they really did was to speed it up a little. Sentimental slow ones never go away, and sometimes they take over, especially after virtuosic energy has one of its runs; we should be thankful that their '40s comeback gave us Frank Sinatra and, less directly, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole.

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