Book Review: Origins of the Popular Style

Book Review: Origins of the Popular Style

I’d been meaning to read Origins of the Popular Style by Peter van der Merwe (published 1989) for quite a while. It’s a musicological look at the origins – European and African – of 20th century styles like popular song, jazz, blues and rock’n’roll. I finished it a few days ago.

Basically, author Peter van der Merwe has turned around my ideas on the development of black music, including ideas I’ve written about on this blog. Today, I’ll first of all look at these revelations.

After that, I’ll evaluate the book’s approach and style.

So, first up, what are the big ideas? Number one is the complex connection between British folk music and blues. Van der Merwe is great at matching up variants of a song or song type, on different staves, so you can identify bar-by-bar how they changed over time and in passing between cultures. This reveals how blues song forms slowly evolved. For instance, the “4 bars of verse, 8 bars of refrain” structure of “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Long Tall Sally” are traced back through the early blues “Tight Like That” then to Mississippi John Hurt’s “Frankie” to the hillbilly song “Josie”, itself a variant of a Scottish folk song, “Tattie Jock”.

As well as stanza shapes, melodic skeletons can be traced back to Europe. So, a prison work song like this one recorded by Alan Lomax, as stereotypically African-American and rootsy as one can imagine….

… uses a melodic skeleton from 15th century France, known as “Le Petit Roysin”.

An example that amazed me was the use of the flat 7th in blues. This note often features beautifully on the V chord of blues songs, for example at 0:30 in Barbecue Bob’s “Going Up The Country” (you can also hear it in both the improvised harmonies and the main line of the prison song above, e.g. at 0:50). I had always assumed that it was an African-derived use of the 7th harmonic of the root. This book neatly points out that it is a feature of British song known as the English cadence. But this is not to discount the African lineage. Van der Merwe is at pains to show how similarities between two different cultures reinforce each other during cultural interchange. He makes that point about, for instance, the originally separate British and African tradition of songs of complaint. I think it applies well to the merging of separate African timbral and British folk music derivations of the flat 7th.

Another aspect with much emotional resonance for me, the lyrics of blues songs, also turned out to have more British ancestry than I realised. For example, “One Kind Favour” (here in a seriously great boogie version by white hippy blues experts Canned Heat) is a  compilation of floating couplets of English lyric and poetry.

Moving on, the second major discovery for me in this book was about jazz and blues harmony. Van der Merwe paints a convincing picture of 32-bar popular songs (which became jazz standards) being the end result of harmonic/melodic trends initiated by great Romantic composers. To over-simplify, melody became more and more independent of harmony, by granting the 3rd, 7th and 6th greater modal power. A classic example is “Mack The Knife”. The melody is completely built off the 6th, which becomes a chord extension over standard major harmony (e.g. the 9th of the V7 under “und die tragt” at 0:31).

One of the great insights of the book is that such techniques pioneered by Liszt and Schubert became too vulgar for “serious” or “art” music in the middle of the 19th century but thrived in the trashier end of Victorian music: music-hall, salon music, arrangements for amateurs, dance music, etc. (The book names all of this “parlour music”). From there, they went directly into the jazz standards.

The biggest surprise for me in “Origins of the Popular Style” was the origin of blues chromatic parallel cliches. I’m talking about the descending 6ths used by almost all blues guitarists, discussed in this article, and the descending minor thirds that permeate music as disparate as Chuck Berry, Skip James and Thelonious Monk, discussed here. Very simply, these are Romantic-era innovations that became cliches of parlour music, and from there, ragtime and early jazz and blues.

That descending 6ths figure? Here it is in 1841 (at 2:16, in the bottom right of the score on the video).

Last year when I first discovered the extent of these parallelisms in jazz and blues, I thought they were a basically African-derived phenomenon, of treating chords or chord fragments as “timbre-harmonic” units – sounds prized for their physical quality rather than harmonic function. So I’m really glad that this book opened my eyes. Now I would say the parallelisms are European material that fitted the African timbre-harmonic conception and so gained a new life, and completely new and sophisticated meanings, in African-American music.

A third idea from the book is blindingly obvious and yet blew my mind – that many folk and blues songs have a “mode” or melodic basis of as few as two notes! This is an extremely refreshing perspective for anyone with classical or jazz training. Van der Merwe is really strong on analysing melodies and dealing seriously with the simplest of tunes, sometimes irreverently comparing them with Western art music. For instance, placing Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony beside “Oh! Mr. Porter” as two examples of a pentatonic mode.

And how well does he treat African music? Well, for one thing he’s clear about the unparseable variety of musics found on that continent and the impossibility of tracing African-American techniques to particular African styles (because of the cultural destructiveness of slavery).

Beyond that, though, the author impressed me with some insights into African-derived style. He mentions “the “false trail” introduction, in which the listener is presented with a rhythm which turns out, once the main beat is brought in, to be something quite different from what it seemed at first.”

Van der Merwe also mentions African “tapering” melodies that settle towards a powerful low “floor” note. “Devil Got My Woman” is a perfect example.

All in all, van der Merwe is not a specialist in African music, but his ideas seemed sound to me. And this is a general trend in the book. He doesn’t have academic rigour, (notably, he doesn’t work in a university or have qualifications as far as I can find) but everything he says is on-the-ball and backed up by examples. This position as outsider scholar frees him up to make bold but attractive generalisations. Out of many examples:

“Most African languages have… a fixed melodic relation between syllables…. This makes ordinary speech musical, and greatly narrows the gap between speech and song.”
“With most classical tunes, if you get a note wrong you spoil the whole. This is not true of the great folk tune patterns.”
“Bad taste, in the arts, is always a sort of failed good taste.”

Van der Merwe’s thinking style, based on bold, sometimes surprising connections, added a lot to the appeal of the book for me. Probably because I have a similar generalising, transcendental (“this thing is really that thing!!!”) thinking style.

Well, I better stop soon. All in all, this book gave me new ways to interrogate so-called Classical music and deepened my understanding of jazz and blues history. The lesson I learned is that connectedness and interchange are much stronger forces than we imagine.

Paradoxically, even though this book revealed a stronger European contribution to black music than I had expected, it still deepened my respect for the black music tradition. This is because I got a glimpse of how absolutely massive and sophisticated jazz and blues are. The mind-blowing achievements of 20th century greats like Parker, Ellington, Basie, Monk, etc., etc. were built off a subtle and complex body of work resulting from many decades, indeed centuries, of previous musicians’ experimentation and transformation.

After thinking about this development process, more and more I’m learning not to look for “roots” of African-American brilliance. Techno, hip hop, funk, bebop, swing, blues, etc. feature African stylistic retentions, but these were consciously developed and improved by black musicians. There is no mystical essence of African-American music filtering down from a forgotten past. Instead, African-derived approaches are constantly being reconsidered and recast to make new music.

To finish, let’s take a van der Merwe-influenced look at this jazz classic.

What do we have?A simple melody likely built off a folk skeleton. (Another famous Rollins track, “St. Thomas”, actually is a folk melody from England via the Caribbean.) Parlour music harmony such as extended dominants and use of the chromatic 5 b5/#4 4 voice movement. Almost banal reliance on the AABA form of popular song. Yet all of these materials are completely transcended by the sophisticated, part-ironic, bluesy, Signifying approach – and the remorseless swinging – that I don’t think could have been matched by any white band at the time.


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