Tag: popular song

Chuck Berry, Emancipation & Problematic Art

Chuck Berry, Emancipation & Problematic Art

It’s hard to pin down what I love in Berry’s recordings. They are bluesy, for sure, but in combination with an unsubtle pop sentimentality which generally wouldn’t be my thing. They also undeniably represent a commercialisation of black aesthetics. (Whitewashing, if you like.) But there’s more to it than that.

Today I’ll quickly discuss my three favourite aspects: powerful performances in the bluesman tradition; an incredible gift for songwriting; and his recasting of black church music’s utopian politics as an emancipatory youth culture.

Performance

Check out his entrance in this 1965 TV performance:

Berry casts doubt over even his bare engagement with the situation – exactly the attitude discussed by Questlove in that article on Black Cool I’m always linking. Now check the intro to this song:

Berry’s pompous and mannered crowd talk, “And in fact, a relished memory in my mind was”, his ambiguous attitude (between mockery and reverence) towards Beethoven and indeed to his audience, his switches between impassivity and completely over-the-top moves, all tie in to complex traditions of enactment of black identity for white audiences. As in the Louis Jordan video I discussed, the star opens a space for multiple simultaneous meanings, quite possibly up to and including bitter contempt. Both performers reference racially-stereotyped symbols (Beethoven and chicken), present themselves mock-stupidly (“I love chicken”, “I ask him to forgive us”), and have a manner that is apparently friendly and explanatory yet mystifying.

Berry lengthens “Roll Over Beethoven” with extra solos and choruses. The aesthetic of “doing it”, manifesting energy and rocking the crowd, is prioritised above content or thematic development. I love the risk-taking – he even forgets the proper end line “I wanna hear it again today” in the first verse. That attitude is rare now in pop and rock.

Berry restrains his wildest dancing and guitar work until the end of this, the third song in the set. That’s good showmanship, and also I think demonstrates one of Questlove’s elements of Black Cool: unleashing hidden power – which Berry embodies generally with his switches between grotesquerie and stillness, i.e. 2:16-2:36, and dance moves that take over some limbs while others remain still.

Songwriting

Moving on. Chuck Berry’s incredible lyrics can’t be appreciated without recognising their reliance on myths. Berry connected (among other things):

  • the American dream of hard work, success and consumption,
  • conventional boy-meets-girl romance (with mild objectification of female bodies “tight dresses and lipstick”, “lookin like the cover of a twenty-dollar magazine”)
  • black music’s utopian politics (a phrase from Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic)

… into a rock’n’roll ideology of emancipated youth expressing itself and looking for romance in the countercultural forms of listening to records, going to dances and concerts, and driving fast cars.

Here’s a verse from the late-career hit “You Never Can Tell” (it comes in at 0:52), about a couple who marry real young but find happiness against the odds:

They had a hi-fi phono, boy, did they let it blast
700 little records, all rock and rhythm and jazz
But when the sun went down, the rapid tempo of the music fell
“C’est la vie,” say the old folks, “it goes to show you never can tell”

The theme of the first two lines is individualist freedom to shape a countercultural lifestyle via consumption (“700 records”) of new technology and rhythmic music. The third and fourth lines then frame this as conventionally romantic and part of a cycle of generations.

Notice the deft loading of emotion into evocative words: “hi-fi phono” is slightly mystical jargon conveying the thrill of powerful new technology, and is also a satisfying sound that Berry stylises with a dive on “phono” resembling an exclamation of appreciation like “damn” or a whistle.

“Let it blast” hints at unleashing hidden power, transforming everyday situations, while the pitch dive on “blast” has a timbral effect again imitating appreciation (the onomatopeic slang word “phwoarr” conveys something similar) very much like “reel and rock” here. “Little records” is an affectionate phrase – the affection of obsessive “rock, rhythm and jazz” fans. Groove music’s power is conveyed by those alliterative word sounds and a descending blues melisma on “jazz”.

The third line gets me every time I hear it. It makes great use of cliches, with strong overall feeling of relaxation and cooling. “But” evokes a quietening-down after “they let it blast”. The parallelism of “sun down” and “tempo fell” invite the listener to imagine what else might be lowering or calming – the mood of the party, perhaps? This implication of a more intimate mood, and the images of “night” and “slow tempo”, suggest to me “slow dance”. “Sundown” has the implication of twilit mystery and fading warmth, and it brings us into a specific moment. “Rapid tempo of the music fell”, by starting the line with “rapid”, takes us through the cooling-down, which is also sketched by the unwinding rhythm. These ideas unite for me in an impression of cool-of-the-night sensuality and slightly illicit romance – feeling the “rapid tempo” of a dance partner’s heartbeat, perhaps.

The fourth line, zooms out of the storytelling to contrast this with the old folks’ square perspective. Berry uses this effect in many of his hits, contrasting teenage rebellion with convention: the “teacher” of “School Days“, the “back in class again” and the off-stage parents of “Sweet Sixteen“, the “jubilee” that gets all rocked up in “Rock and Roll Music“. I suspect this is derived from a technique of juxtaposing hip, black-coded viewpoints with square ones that crops up all over black music. The point is, Berry basically remoulds the opposition from “white-black” into “authority-youth”, handing over black hipness to American teenagers.

And the way in for white youth is mass-market consumption. The protagonists of “You Never Can Tell” create a hip lifestyle through their glamourised acquisitions: a nice record player and a huge record collection. This way they access the identity-forming power of black music. In the subsequent verse it’s a car that gets romanticised, a “souped-up jitney, cherry red ’53” – both the car and the record player are liberating, empowering technologies that allow free performance of one’s identity. The car motif taps into an American romance of the road trip which predates World War II and lead to publications like the Automobile Blue Book and the Negro Motorist Green Book.

So, we have consumerism, mass-market technology, black rhythmic music, the open road, boy-meets-girl and the American Dream. Berry’s ability to fluently intermingle these myths, have them resonate, and release their power in expressively-sung key phrases and words, is uncanny.

Utopianism

I believe there’s one factor that keeps these highly conventional myths and emotions from being too sentimental. It comes straight from black music. It is, I would say, a spiritual orientation towards joyful freedom, or as Paul Gilroy puts it, the politics of utopianism.

Gilroy distinguishes two strands of utopianism: the politics of fulfilment, which demands that society lives up to its own promises of equality and justice (Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, spirituals e.g. “Let My People Go”, roots reggae, etc.); and the politics of transfiguration, which, within the music itself and its immediate circumstances of production and distribution, manifests new and fairer modes of friendship, happiness and solidarity between black people, and between blacks and whites – generally on a non-verbal level and in signs whose brokenness (dirty timbres, fragmentary phrasing) maintains a memory of slavery’s unsayable terror. That is, the great-feeling moments in black music invoke a utopia where all of society could feel and interact in such joyful ways.

Gilroy goes on about how these attitudes form an effective critique of capitalism and Western scientific racism, and you should read his incredible book if you’re interested. But let’s look at utopian politics in Chuck Berry’s song “Promised Land”

It’s about the centuries-old American trope of going West, which featured in previous r’n’b songs such as Route 66. Here’s the 8th verse of “Promised Land”:

Swing low sweet chariot, come down easy
Taxi to the terminal zone
Cut your engines, cool your wings
And let me make it to the telephone

The song title and the first line of this verse are taken from famous spirituals. To simplify (and this is a topic I know little about), both of the original spirituals are about finding redemption in a welcoming heaven that was both the far-off opposite of the socially-unjust, uncaring and prideful world of today; and an ecstasy momentarily attainable in the grooving call-and-response and group connectedness of church music and preaching. I find those emotions incredibly appealing even as a foreign white atheist whose origins are more imperialist than oppressed (seeing as some of my ancestors worked in Dublin Castle for the British administration, and another was a mining engineer in colonies and was briefly in the French Navy).

Berry neatly channels the feeling of an approaching, inevitable freedom into the national myths of going West and making it big. So the song is not just about travelling and getting rich. It’s about finding something you and yours have a birthright to, an emancipation from misery.

The rest of the verse once again shows Berry’s skill: the affectionate addressing of the aeroplane “Cut your engines, cool your wings” conveys strong affection for the empowering new technology. Like the “sun down” line from earlier, it uses the sensation of heat. (I guess all these references to cooling off would appeal to listeners in a heaving dance!) “Let me make it to a telephone” creates a character, a drive, and a scene in seven words.

Later verses also once again use contrasting worldviews, i.e. that of the “poor boy” narrator (reminiscent of Johnny B. Goode) and the citified plane pilot, rich friends and the phone operator.

So, Berry tied together expressive singing, great phrasing, emotion-laden words and images, characterisation, national myths and black spirituality. And, I want to say, all this stuff happens concurrently, within individual syllables and yet permeating not only whole songs but his whole output. Add that to the solos, backbeats and the secret sauce of Johnnie Johnson‘s sophisticatedly rippling and tumbling blues piano lines…. No wonder this music defined America as the land of the free, shaping global youth culture for decades.

Problematic Art

I didn’t have time to research Chuck Berry’s political views on race and how it affected him and his music. So I’ll leave that massive topic. It comes up somewhat though in the last thing I want to talk about: Berry’s criminal record that shows him to have been a misogynist creep.

He went to jail in 1959 for transporting a 14-year-old across state lines and having sex with her. The girl was an Apache Native American who had worked as a prostitute and who testified against Berry. Berry claimed the judge had made racist comments to turn the jury against him, and that he only wanted to give the girl a job at his racially integrated nightclub, Berry’s Club Bandstand. (The conviction was under the Mann Act which was used against both real predators and social dissenters like polygamists and black boxer Jack Johnson.) Both his appeals failed.

Berry also had to pay out to a woman who claimed he punched her, in 1988, and to women whom he secretly videotaped going to the toilet in a restaurant he owned, in 1990. That’s pretty low!

And I heard a story recently about him inviting an underage girl he had spotted in the crowd to come backstage at one of his Irish gigs.

There’s a lot we could look at here, especially about the whole “can the artist be separated from the music” angle. But I’m bringing it up because I found it remarkable, when Berry died a few weeks ago, how hurt I was by people denigrating him on Facebook.

My point is that we identify with art and build some of our self-image on it. That feeling of hurt illuminated for me how sensible people can defend unpleasant causes if their self-image is attacked. In particular, I’m thinking about the gamergate online movement which fed into the rise of the alt-right. It came out of passionate fans feeling hurt when outsiders took the high moral ground to disparage their favourite video games as misogynist and sexist.

If I pick up that someone is saying “I don’t know much about Chuck Berry’s music but he was evil”, I don’t think that would bother me. But if I pick up “You are wrong to like Chuck Berry’s music”, even if that wasn’t the intended message, I get angry and upset.

So what do I think now about the position of those people who leapt to their keyboards after Berry died to dismiss him? Well, firstly that they probably don’t fully get what he gifted to mass culture –  all the stuff I mentioned above, as well as the raw craft and the use of transcendent myths. (His songs were justifiedly ubiquituous for decades, required learning for rock, pop and r’n’b players, especially in England.)

Secondly, that he got so far having started as a black r’n’b musician.

Finally, that I agree Chuck Berry was predatory and venal and that we should keep that in mind as we enjoy his brilliance. That way, we can evaluate his achievements, rather than just throw them away. For example, how much of Berry’s success was due to his celebration of, perhaps surrender to, consumer capitalism as an American value? Does he represent a continuation of a black tradition of subverting capitalist/white commercialised music distribution from within? What about his hewing to standard, sexist depictions of women? (Which gets kind of sinister in “Carol” when he mentions the “little cutie” who takes your hat… hatcheck girl was the job he gave his victim in the trafficking case.) Was his stage demeanour reflective of an inner anger? Etc., etc. Keep at this and you can get pretty deep…. Doesn’t the virulent misogyny of a number of my very favourite artists (say Chuck Berry, Skip James, Miles Davis) demonstrate a problematic link between patriarchy and my favourite genres? What drew me as a teenager towards such hyper-masculinised styles as country blues and funk?

All questions for another day as I’ve been writing this thing for weeks now. Please leave comments, I love that.

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.