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My New Book!

Saturday, December 14, 2019

December 14-15, 2019: Crowd-sourced Musical Icons


[On December 10, 1949, Antoine “Fats” Domino recorded “The Fat Man,” his first recording at New Orleans’ legendary J&M Recording Studios and one of the first rock ‘n roll recordings ever made. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied 50s musical icons, leading up to this crowd-sourced post drawn from the responses & ideas of fellow AmericanStudiers—add yours in comments, please!]
My most recent Guest Poster, and one of my favorite current musicians, Kent Rose offers a few responses to the week’s posts:
Responding to both Monday’s post and the week’s focus on Fats Domino, he writes, “Impossible for me to think of Fats without Dave Bartholomew, who produced, arranged and wrote for Fats and many others. On major Jewish influences, Fred Rose who came from Brooklyn, wrote show tunes, produced, arranged and co-wrote with Hank Williams, Sr.” He adds, “Another fascinating story for me is that of Doc Pomus, an oft overlooked musical giant.”
And responding to Friday’s post, Kent writes, “I would respectfully disagree that Buddy Holly's sound was like Bill Haley's. Holly's original songs were lasting gems, covered many times, and that's why he's remembered more than Ritchie Valens, whose career was so brief that his catalogue was less substantial.”
Also on Friday’s post, Jeff Brenner adds, “Favorite song of all time. Saw him live at Symphony Hall early 70s; lots of folks hate the song; I’ll have to avoid looking at replies.”
Other responses:
Anne Holub writes, “The history of the Louvin brothers is fascinating and sad. More country music but they also kind of fall in that category of early rock and roll.”
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other musical icons or moments you’d highlight?

Friday, December 13, 2019

December 13, 2019: 50s Musical Icons: “American Pie”


[On December 10, 1949, Antoine “Fats” Domino recorded “The Fat Man,” his first recording at New Orleans’ legendary J&M Recording Studios and one of the first rock ‘n roll recordings ever made. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy 50s musical icons—share your own thoughts on them and any other musical icons and moments for a hard-rocking weekend post!]
On the straightforward and subtler sides to the beloved eulogy to 50s music.
Like I imagine many teenage boys in the nearly five decades since its release, I memorized the lyrics to Don McLean’s “American Pie” (1971) during my high school years. Partly that had to do with one very particular moment in the song, and just how much every teenage boy can associate with watching that certain someone dance with a certain someone else in the gym and knowing that the object of one’s romantic interest is instead “in love with him”—and how much we thus all felt at times like “a lonely teenage bronckin’ buck.” But partly it seems to me that McLean’s song captures and allegorizes a more general part of teenage life, the life and death significance that we place on music, relationships, friendships, social status, all those potentially fleeting things we care about and worry about and love and hate with such force.
As this piece on McLean’s official website indicates, McLean intended the song as a tribute both to his own turbulent teenage years and to the even more turbulent American moment with which they coincided—a moment that began (for McLean and in the song) with the February 1959 death of Buddy Holly (among other popular artists) in a plane crash and would conclude a decade or so later with American society and culture in one of our most fractured states. His song thus became an anthem for two seemingly unrelated but often conjoined narratives: “The Day the Music Died,” the story of one of the most tragic days in American cultural history; and the decade-long loss of innocence that is often associated with the 1960s and all the decade’s tragedies and fissions. These aspects of McLean’s song are contained in every section: the February 1959-set introduction, the increasingly allegorical verses, and the far more straightforward chorus.
But there’s another, and to my mind far more ambiguous, side to that chorus and to McLean’s song. The question, to boil it down, is this: why do the chorus and song focus so fully on Buddy Holly, rather than (for example) on his fallen peer Ritchie Valens? Holly is generally cited as far more influential in rock and roll history, but at the time of the crash he had only been prominent for a year and a half (since his first single, “That’ll be the Day” [1957]); Valens, while five years younger, was on a very similar trajectory, having recorded his first few hits in the year before the crash. Moreover, while Holly’s sound paralleled that of contemporaries such as Bill Haley, Valens’ Latino American additions distinguished him from his rock and roll peers. So it’s difficult not to think that an Anglo-centric vision of America has something to do with McLean’s association of “Miss American Pie” and “good old boys” with Holly rather than Valens—an association that, aided no doubt by McLean’s song (if complicated a bit by the hit film La Bamba [1987]), American narratives too often continue to make.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben
PS. So one more time: what do you think? Other musical icons or moments you’d highlight?

Thursday, December 12, 2019

December 12, 2019: 50s Musical Icons: Sinatra and Elvis


[On December 10, 1949, Antoine “Fats” Domino recorded “The Fat Man,” his first recording at New Orleans’ legendary J&M Recording Studios and one of the first rock ‘n roll recordings ever made. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy 50s musical icons—share your own thoughts on them and any other musical icons and moments for a hard-rocking weekend post!]
On the differences between influential and interesting, and why even the former can be problematic.
It seems to me that you can’t tell the story of American popular music in the 20th century—and thus the story of American popular music period—without including Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley in prominent roles. Indeed, given each man’s forays into acting, entrepreneurship, and other cultural and social arenas, I’m not sure you could leave them out of a broader 20th century history of America either. In their own ways, and in their own particular, most successful periods (Sinatra’s career extended well into Presley’s, of course, but he was at his most successful in its first couple decades, between 1935 and about 1955; Presley rose to prominence in the mid-1950s and was at his peak from then until about 1970), the two artists dominated their respective musical genres time and again, leaving legacies that extend well beyond record sales or awards (although both are among the most successful artists of all time as measured in those ways as well).
So I wouldn’t necessarily argue with definitions of Sinatra and Elvis as among the most influential musical artists of all time (although I might, in a moment, argue that point too). But influential isn’t the same as interesting, and on that score both artists fall short for me. Partly that’s just about taste and how there’s, y’know, no accounting for it (de gustibus, non est disputandum, as our Roman friends knew); I’m not a big fan of either crooners or rockabilly, and thus likely outside of the ideal audience for either man’s biggest hits or signature styles. But my point here isn’t simply about my personal tastes, which I don’t expect are hugely interesting either—I’m thinking as well about the nature of the men’s mainstream popularity and prominence. Despite the unquestionable (if, in retrospect, very silly) controversy over Presley’s hips, that is, I would argue that both men succeeded as consistently as they did because they were largely unobjectionable, hitting cultural sweet spots with regularity in a way that doesn’t seem as interesting as artists who push the envelope or challenge norms.
Moreover, I’m not sure that describing these two artists as influential is entirely justified either. After all, a significant percentage of both men’s songs were written by other songwriters or were covers of other artists; clearly their stunning voices and signature styles played a prominent role in making the songs as successful as they were, but I don’t know that simply singing and performing someone else’s songs qualifies an artist as influential. To be clear, I’m not trying to rehash the old argument about Presley exploiting African American music; that issue is part of the Elvis story to be sure, but the truth (as I argued at length in Monday’s post) is that a great deal of early rock and roll, if not indeed the entire genre, crossed racial and cultural boundaries. Instead, I’m simply trying to differentiate between what we might call performers and artists, and to argue that those whom we would locate in the former category (such as two men whose most consistent successes were as performers singing others’ words, or similarly as actors reciting others’ lines) might be more important than they were influential or interesting.
Last 50s icon tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other musical icons or moments you’d highlight?