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Saturday, December 16, 2017

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You're an amazing guy, X. Thanks.

This is an excellent offering and it should be developed into a form for publication, pace to Mav’s blog.

The Cotton Club was as you say it was, racist terrain on the NYC entertainment scene, but dwelling on its inherent racism doesn’t fully describe its contribution to American culture. Many a tune in the Great American Songbook was introduced at there. The music was mainlined. It became part of a whole larger than itself. Rap music, it seems, has no such part-to-whole relationship, because the whole doesn't exist anymore.

Thanks for the comment, Jim. Merry Christmas.

>>doesn’t fully describe its contribution to American culture

Of course, and I alluded to this in Part I

Rappers rejected the integration that was fundamental to the golden years of American popular music. Paul Robeson sang ‘Old Man River’, written by Jerome Kern. Billy Holiday sung ‘Strange Fruit’, written by Abel Meeropol. The embrace of violence is essential to the rap of the late 1980s, but I shall discuss this later.
It all went horribly wrong in the 1960s with the idea of ‘singer songwriter’. Some singers are good songwriters, most are not, and vice versa. The whole point of the American songbook is that it is music composed by one person, lyrics by another, interpreted by a third or more. A lot of the early bebop was from the songbook.

>>The whole point of the [Great] American songbook is that it is music composed by one person, lyrics by another, interpreted by a third or more.<<

That's an interesting claim. Never thought of that before. Thank you!

Does every song in the GA songbook satisfy those conditions? (I don't know enough to supply counterexamples.)

It sounds strange to say that the GAS has a point. It's just that these songs got written and performed during a certain period of time and that subsequently one could see that they shared certain attributes that justified lumping them together into the GAS.

Things "went wrong" before the '60s: Chuck Berry was writing music and lyrics of songs he himself originally performed in the '50s.

And I wouldn't say things "went wrong." Some of us in the '60s thrilled to see the scrawny Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, Bobby Zimmerman, up there on stage all by himself with guitar and harmonica singing songs he himself wrote, songs with meaning, unlike so much of the pablum of GAS.

One could say that that was truly American: the lone individual, a musical and lyrical maverick similar to Bobby Fischer who alone, without state support, defeated the state-supported best the Evil Empire could produce back in the summer of '72. A wonderful presagement of the coup de grace delivered to the Soviet commies by Ronald Reagan with help from Margaret Thatcher, Lech Waleska (sp?) and the Pope.

Boris Spassky was, I will grant, a much nicer and saner man.

>>Does every song in the GA songbook satisfy those conditions? (I don't know enough to supply counterexamples.)

Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer are possible exceptions. This excellent one is by them both (Mercer, lyrics and singing, Arlen, music). The version by Sinatra is more well known. ‘We’re drinking my friend – to the end – of a brief episode’. Like many GAS it was originally written for a musical (‘The Sky's the Limit’, 1943). Here is Astaire singing it, but without the deep existential melancholy of the Mercer and Sinatra versions.

>> one could see that they shared certain attributes

The uniting factor was Tin Pan Alley, a sort of factory for writing hit numbers, so perhaps the shared attributes are essential rather than accidental.

>> Bobby Zimmerman

Well I deliberately said ‘Some singers are good songwriters’, with that one in mind, although some may say he was better at the songwriting bit. I prefer his versions. E.g. this is much better than this sickly anodyne version, which doesn’t even get the chords right.

>>so much of the pablum of GAS

I don’t agree. Perhaps some of it, yes, but I only have to point to the Mercer-Arlen number I linked to above. The difference is that GAS is mostly about the individual human condition, perhaps the guy sitting at the bar at 3 o’clock in the morning. Unlike the 60s, there is no political position that I can think of. Then you get Dylan and all the rest, and you end up with an idiot like Bono mouthing off about unemployment or whatever, although he has special tax arrangments outisde the EU. Entertainers should leave stuff like interest rates and quantitative easing to those who know better, no?

A further example of this division of labour. Arlen wrote the song, Ira Gershwin the lyrics, Garland the incomparable singer. Let’s also not forget the skills of the arranger (don’t know who did this one) and the individual players who bring it all together.

One example of non-pablum does not prove that most of GAS is not pablum/pabulum. How much is that doggie in the window? Am I being fair?

Isn't 'individual human condition' a *contradictio in adjecto*?

But you are surely right that the music of that era was apolitical. To put it somewhat pejoratively, it was a music of escape, rather than a music of engagement. (In those days there was a popular music of social commentary, Woody Guthrie, et al. but none of that is included in GAS, as you will undoubtedly agree.)

It would be interesting to try to define 'GAS' rigorously, both intensionally and also extensionally, i.e., give a list of all and only GAS numbers.

As for escapism, the WWII people needed escape from war and econ. depression, whereas our candy-assed Boomer generation didn't, and could afford to comment on racism and sing about civil rights, and working on the railroad when few of us did any really ass-busting work.

My grunt jobs were only for a time and I had the reasonable assurance that I would be able to live by my wits, which is what I have done, despite working class background.

There are a lot of interesting questions here.

I don't know about Bono in particular but your general point is well-taken.

Bill,

I can not find your answer to this type of objection to dualism:

"[B]rain damage inhibits the exercise of the intellectual power. In other words, as long as soul and body are united, you need a good functioning brain to engage in intellectual activities; therefore it seems the intellect is dependent on the brain…

[So] it does seem to be a contradiction to say that the intellect can function independently of the brain after abstraction occurs. How can [one] say that the intellect can function independently of the brain but yet is inhibited in its power when the brain is damaged? It would seem that the power of intellection cannot be achieved independent of the brain, which of course would ruin [the] argument… for its survival after bodily death."

What would your answer be?

All the best,

Julian

>>Isn't 'individual human condition' a *contradictio in adjecto*?
Interesting point. I don’t think so. Off the top of my head, there is the human condition as it applies to the individual, the personal etc. The sitting in a bar at 3 in the morning, reflecting on lost love. Many of us have been there.

But then there is the condition of the mass, the community, the nation. The individual cannot be at war (except figuratively). Only the nation, the community, the mass, can be at war. So to be warlike, or prone to war, is a condition of humanity considered as a mass, contrasting with pugnacity, which is a condition of the individual. Although I am sure there is a connection. Likewise, loneliness is part of the human condition, qua individual. Insularity is a condition of the mass, or of a nation.

Bono is the front man of pop group U2. He is fond of lecturing us about giving money to developing countries through the tax system, on the other hand he is wont to avoid tax himself.


>>One example of non-pablum does not prove that most of GAS is not pablum/pabulum. How much is that doggie in the window? Am I being fair?

Likewise, one example of pablum does not prove that most of GAS is pablum/pabulum. Patti Page also gave us Old Cape Cod

That's an example of non-pablum?

I know who Bono is; just didn't know about his lecturing.

I suppose my thesis is that most of the GAS tunes are escapist, sentimental, formulaic, cliche-ridden and without depth. I grant, though, that sometimes that is exactly what one wants.

Take Deep Purple: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VwtFcr7E0O8

I like it in the April and Nino Tempo version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCv3Uw2dvNg

But now compare the great Phil Ochs song in the Baez version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4BYOJ1tc-k

This is why the music of our generation beats the crap out of the stuff our parents listened to.

Or am I just a generational chauvinist? I know I am being tendentious. But I am having fun.

Julian,

Who are you quoting? And what is meant by abstraction?

Irving Berlin often wrote music and lyrics, as did Cole Porter. The latter is better known as a lyricist, and I think that the wordplay in his lyrics and the catchy and enjoyable nature of his melodies have led people to write him off as a top-notch writer of hits for Tin Pan Alley and nothing more. But the harmonic progressions and modulations in his compositions are often deceptively complex. To be able to supply a composition with that kind of musical depth without losing its surface appeal is a really special talent. Duke Ellington had it in abundance; not many do.

Fats Waller often performed--providing both piano and vocals--songs on which he was the composer, although he didn't write any lyrics that I know of; he usually worked with Andy Razaf. Several Waller compositions are in the GAS by any fair reckoning.

Of course, music from the rock era had plenty of composer-lyricist duos as well. But usually one of those people also sang the songs, and usually it was the lyricist. Two exceptions are Elton John (lyrics by Bernie Taupin) and Jerry Garcia (lyrics by Robert Hunter). I don't know of any others right off. Country has maintained the division of labor to a much greater extent than rock.


What makes Dylan's style a new departure compared to the GAS era, in my opinion, isn't just politics. It's that Dylan wrote about sources of emotion, conflict, elation, and despair other than romantic love. Politics was one of those, but it was really a small part of it. He had plenty of songs about romance and heartbreak, too, and they are among his best, but even those songs managed to reach out to something greater, to find something in (usually the failure of) a romantic relationship that speaks to a more fundamental knot in the human condtion. It Ain't Me, Babe; Don't Think Twice, It's Alright; well, I need to stop myself or I'll get carried away naming songs. My point is, the GAS mostly stuck to courtship. What exactly is the connection between this greater depth and breadth of material and the emergence of the singer-songwriter? I don't have an answer to that, but it seems like an important question if one is to understand the change in popular music after the second world war.

Good comments, John.

>>My point is, the GAS mostly stuck to courtship.<< My point as well.

And when Dylan treated love relations in his best songs he achieved a poetic depth that I will challenge Malcolm to find an any GAS number. For example, "Just Like a Woman": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljbxm_sKC90

True, Dylan wrote conventional cliched love songs. But those songs were not what made Dylan Dylan.

Again, I challenge Malcolm to find a GAS song that achieves the beauty, depth, poetic richness and magic of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6RrdtrT6ukM

Do I sound like a fan?

>>What exactly is the connection between this greater depth and breadth of material and the emergence of the singer-songwriter? I don't have an answer to that, but it seems like an important question if one is to understand the change in popular music after the second world war.<<

Good question. Perhaps it is because the whole culture became less social and more individualistic. Dylan was both effect and cause of this: he didn't care much about catering to his audience or to anybody's expectations. For example, he dropped the folk music-protest stuff when he moved into his surrealist-existentialist phase in the mid-60s with his best three albums, Bringing it all back home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. He didn't much care that people called his a sell-out. He was pursuing a personal vision.

>>I challenge Malcolm to find a GAS song that achieves the beauty, depth, poetic richness and magic of ‘It's All Over Now, Baby Blue

Well I don’t particularly like that song. ‘The vagabond who's rapping at your door. Is standing in the clothes that you once wore’. It aims at the high poetic highway but fails madly, and the result is kitsch.

The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense / Take what you have gathered from coincidence

I am sure I could write a Dylan song generator like those post modern generators.

By contrast, the GAS rarely makes such risible attempts at high culture.

As a riposte, I give you When the World was Young, Julie London singing.

Bill, I believe you declined my witty comment about Dylan and cliches. Humph.


John B >>Country has maintained the division of labor to a much greater extent than rock.

Yup.

And with a nod to John B, Diana Krall singing Night and Day. Singer songwriter style, but music and lyrics by Cole Porter.

Hex,

Even though you are a cantankerous defender of the indefensible [grin], I hereby invite you to write a shorter guest post in which you select the top five or so GAS songs in your opinion. You should also say something about your criteria of selection.

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