What the Music Said
eBook - ePub

What the Music Said

Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture

Mark Anthony Neal

  1. 198 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

What the Music Said

Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture

Mark Anthony Neal

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About This Book

First Published in 1999. In What the Music Said, Mark Anthony Neal provides a timely study of from be-bop to Hip Hop. This book looks at the last fifty years of black popular music and provides an intriguing portrait of the existential and social forces that drove black communities to make music in protest, reaction and to fulfil their material and spiritual needs.

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Information

Publisher
Routledge
Year
2013
ISBN
9781135204624
Edition
1
Topic
Art
Chapter One
Legislating Freedom, Commodifying Struggle: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Struggle for Black Musical Hegemony
The spirituals sounded a call to action—uniting African-American history with a contemporary freedom struggle. The freedom songs galvanized parts of the Black community when other forms of communication failed. Adaptations of earlier spirituals inspired all people, Black and white, female and male, together to fight injustice. Spirituals embodied persuasive ideological elements toward holistic human actualization.
—Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan*
The time was perhaps right. After five decades of elite leadership—Washington, Du Bois, and Walter White’s NAACP—the black working class would emerge from out of the shadows of bourgeois values to directly address its own economic concerns. The process was begun as A. Philip Randolph prepared to march on Washington in 1941, followed by the revolt of black youth in Detroit and New York during the summer of ‘43, and the second wave of southern migrants, who rejected a history of slavery and sharecropping in the South to pursue economic interest in the industrialized North and West. As the liberal bourgeois leadership of the black community purged itself to protect itself from the wrath of McCarthyism and prepared landmark legal action against legal segregation, the black working class began to rearticulate its relationship to both labor and commodity culture in this country.
Bebop was the first radical sign: the creation of an art form, clearly informed by the sensibilities of a marginalized, male-dominated, urban constituency that needed to reclaim the critical edge of black communal expression from the arms of mass consumer culture and American modernity. Ten years after jazz, in the form of swing, becomes the language of mass consumer culture and an integral part of the cultural buffer that diverts working-class resistance from the realities of Depression-era America, bebop emerges to articulate a distinctly mid-twentieth-century urban blackness. Hard-bop and soul would emerge in the 1950s to emphatically construct an urban working-class blackness that was distinct from the black community’s more visible southern-based liberal bourgeois leadership, but a blackness in which the successes of the Civil Rights movement are ultimately premised.
Challenged by a second wave of northern migration, the infrastructure of black urban spaces were under significant stress, though many of these spaces become the aesthetic sanctums for cultural exchanges that under-girded the most profound resistance activities of the period. Ironically, the result of many of these cultural exchanges was the classic and historic conflation of often divergent aesthetic sensibilities, highlighting the profound strengths of communal struggle. In the process, Martin Luther King and the Motown recording label became the dominant icons of black middle-class aspiration. Both would evolve during the 1960s, representing significant structural and economic changes within the African-American diaspora. The failure of the traditional middle-class-driven Civil Rights movement to adequately respond to the realities of black working-class life allowed for the emergence of political alternatives like Malcolm X and the young nationalists within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The Watts revolts of 1965 bespoke the rage that could no longer remain contained within the black urban neighborhoods. Toward the end of the 1960s, the black popular music tradition would also come to reflect the inner rage of some segments of the African-American diaspora.
The Chitlin’ Circuit: Memory, Community, and Migration
In the 1940s radio stations began to use recorded music instead of live music in their programming. As Reebee Garofalo states, “Records emerged as a relatively inexpensive medium
. Records soon became the staple of the music industry, surpassing sheet music as the major source of revenue in 1952. About the same time, radio overtook jukeboxes as the number one hit-maker.”1 As recorded music became the dominant format for American music, the appearance of the transistor radio—a technological advance that allowed for the transformation of radio entertainment from a family-centered activity to a more personal and dispersed listening experience—along with the expansion of the recording industry during the favorable economic period of postwar America, provided the stimuli for the mass commodification of black popular forms. As Gerald Early writes:
The effect of the invention of the transistor was similar to the later invention of the microchip: it made electronic appliances smaller and cheaper, particularly radios. And the growth of portable radios had an enormous impact on where music was heard, and on the courting habits of people who used radio for those purposes. In fact, it spurred the growth of portable radios, which had an enormous impact on where music was listened to and on the mating habits of people who used music on the radio for sensual purposes.2
Within the context of black popular forms the transistor allowed for a distribution of these texts with a velocity and efficiency that had been previously unrealized within mass consumer culture. Furthermore, the development of transistor radios allowed young whites to access black forms like rhythm and blues by circumventing the parental surveillance that accompanied radio listening in the past. Previously, particularly before the introduction of television into mainstream culture, the old bulky radio console served as centerpiece of intrafamilial relations.
Rhythm and blues became the first form of black popular music to be exposed to the rampant mass consumerism that has defined the post–World War II period. The emergence of rhythm and blues is owed in part to the decentering of big band/swing music and the rise of vocalists in the recording industry. The demise of big band and swing music have both commercial and aesthetic impetuses. In the immediate postwar economy it was impractical and imprudent to support the elaborate needs of a big band; this gave rise to smaller combos. We also witness the rise of bebop and the electrified bass and guitar, significantly enhancing the role of rhythm in the music, hence the term rhythm and blues.3 The dominant artist from this period, Louis Jordan, is recognized as a genius in rhythm and blues because he anticipated the demise of the big band sound and produced black instrumental music that responded to the need for black dance music that would be commercially viable to the recording industry. Many critics consider him the first true black “crossover” artist.4
A shortage of shellac limited the number of 78-rpm recordings that were produced immediately after the war, and the major record companies focused on the more popular vocal music as opposed to bebop or instrumental rhythm and blues. This led to the appearance of what Arnold Shaw has called “sepia Sinatras”—named in tribute to the most popular vocalist of the era and the one who arguably benefited most from the new technology—or blues balladeers in the likes of people like Percy Mayfield, Charles Brown, and Dinah Washington. Describing the phenomenon, Shaw writes:
A fusion it was, mixing elements of country blues, boogie woogie and jazz in a cauldron fired by the seductive sales of pop balladry. If the Inkspots were the progenitors, Leroy Carr the father, and Nat Cole an influence, the exponents of the murmuring gentle vibrato ballad style were bluesmen like Charles Brown, Lowell Fulson, Percy Mayfield and Ivory Joe Hunter. They were the black ghetto equivalents of the baritone crooners in pop—in short, they were “sepia Sinatras.”5
In fact, this phenomenon, as Shaw suggests, explains why Nat King Cole disbanded his highly successful King Cole Trio in favor of a career as pop vocalist.6 Sinatra of course personifies the technological changes in popular music in that the electric microphone allowed singers who did not possess the chops of blues and gospel singers to be heard above the raucous sounds of swing or rhythm and blues bands.
The music of a group like the Coasters (“Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown”), which placed African-American artists in the long-accepted position of jesters, appropriated many of the aesthetics of minstrelsy. Though generally viewed as the domain of white males, James Weldon Johnson writes, “Minstrelsy was, on the whole, a caricature of Negro life, and it fixed a stage tradition which has not yet been entirely broken. It fixed the tradition of the Negro as only an irresponsible, happy-go-lucky, wide-grinning, loud-laughing, shuffling, banjo-playing, singing, dancing sort of being.”7 As Shaw, Garofalo, and George all submit, the music was primarily accepted for its value as dance music. Though many of the lyrics reflected innocuous romantic notions or a popular dance of the time, many of the messages alluded to the very subversive themes advanced during slavery, namely those of community as well as spiritual and physical transcendence. In an examination of the work of Louis Jordan, who on occasion has been charged with advancing clownish black stereotypes, George asserts:
The titles “Beans and Cornbread,” “Saturday Night Fishfry,” and “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” suggest country life, yet the subject of each is really a city scene. In “Chickens,” for instance, the central image is of chickens in a coop having a party that’s keeping the farmer from sleeping. But clearly the bird bash is just a metaphor for a black house party that the farmer—perhaps the landlord, maybe the police—wants to quiet.8
The text of this music is of course shaped by what is still a very precarious existence in America for many blacks. The lyrics of rhythm and blues, particularly as a commodified product, could simply not directly address the issues concerning the majority of blacks. As the political terrain for blacks began to change after the Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas trial in 1954, so did the style and content of the dominant forms of black popular music.
By the end of the 1950s, modern jazz was transformed from an urban dance music and salve of working-class misery into a concert music, appropriated by the mainstream cultural elite and later the Academy. Jazz would, for all intents and purposes, end its organic relationship with black working-class communities and black vernacular culture. I maintain that there has been a continued project among some segments of the black jazz community to reintroduce and reintegrate jazz music into the Black Public Sphere and the black public(s) contained within it. Some black musicians have attempted to conflate modern jazz’s aesthetic sensibilities with the rhythms that dominate the Black Public Sphere and in the process create subgenres of jazz that were still honest to the traditions of modern jazz, but accessible and palatable to a larger and often younger black audience. Informed by the black church and the rudimentary elements of a new style of music that was largely derived from the music of the black church, hard-bop emerged in the mid-1950s as a form of modern jazz with roots in black working-class culture.
In some regards the emergence of hard-bop, like that of soul music later, was simply a response by black artists and the black community to the intense commodification and mass consumption of an organic black music form. Paul Gilroy’s argument in regards to this best illustrates a structural component of African-American diasporic cultural production since the rise of mass consumerism; namely that the volatility of post–World War II black popular culture is a response to the intense commodification and appropriation of organic cultural forms in the black community. As Gilroy suggests:
The anticapitalist politics that animate the social movement against racial subordination is not confined to the lyrical content of these musical cultures. The poetics involved recurrently deals with these themes, but the critique of capitalism is simultaneously revealed in the forms this expressive culture takes and in the performance aesthetic that governs them. There is here an immanent challenge to the commodity form to which black expressive culture is reduced in order to be sold. It is a challenge that is practiced rather than simply talked or sung about.9
Within the context of Gilroy’s thesis, black popular music’s ability to create an aesthetic buffer from the travails of mass commodification is contingent on the support of socially taut communities—communities that legal segregation unwittingly helped to maintain.
Hard-bop emerges with and is perhaps also influenced by rhythm and blues music. With the heavy sounding, honking tenor saxophone as its centerpiece and the prominence of an electrified bass, rhythm and blues represented the hard-driving and passionate though predictable life of post–World War II black public(s) in urban spaces. Gone were the aesthetic excesses that defined the bebop moment of the early to mid-1940s; gone were the expectations captured in the concept of “Double V, Double-Time.” Rhythm and blues and hard-bop instead inspired forms of spiritual catharsis as opposed to physical transcendence rooted in political or social resistance. Nevertheless, it was an aesthetic mood that resonated among a black urban public resolved to the realities of “the promised land.”
The tenor saxophone was only one of the instruments on which the hard-bop tradition stood. Black jazz musicians would literally pull the dominant musical instrument of the black sacred world out of the church and into the secular world: in 1955, jazz musician Jimmy Smith traded in the sounds of eighty-eight keys for the sound of the Hammond B-3 organ. Though there were examples of the organ’s use throughout black popular music, the performances of Wild Bill Davis on the instrument were what persuaded Smith to take up the instrument. The organ perhaps had been introduced into jazz by Fats Waller, an early giant of jazz and son of an assistant minister at Harlem’s famed Abyssinian Baptist Church, who began recording on the pipe organ shortly before his death in 1943.
The instrument’s use in a jazz context could not have endeared jazz musicians and audiences to the black church, because the organ was in many ways the emblem of gospel music itself. As Rosenthal indicates, the Hammond B-3 found its public voice not in the church, but in the community bar in the form of the very popular organ/tenor combos and organ/guitar trios.10 These tensions again highlight the continued presence of a hyper-democracy within black life that valued the various counternarratives to the liberal bourgeois sensibilities of the black church and mainstream political establishment. New York’s famed Apollo Theater is perhaps the most visible icon of democracy within black public life, given its seminal role in creating a public space for communal critique of black cultural production. Artists like Brother Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, Big John Patton, Baby Face Wilhitte, and Larry Young made their livings traveling the highly democratic Chitlin’ Circuit with these combos and trios. In fact, jazz great John Coltrane, often associated with the highbrow trend that has dominated jazz since the late 1950s, honed his formidable skills as a honker in many of the black bars in Philadelphia in the early 1950s. According to Rosenthal the Hammond B-3 “offered jazz/R&B performers a number of advantages,” including a big sound, variety of tones, and a bass line that could replace the need for piano and string bass, which in part reflected the economic and spatial sensibilities of the Chitlin’ Circuit.11
Removed from the travails of the marketplace and its legions of uninformed consumers, hard-bop retreated to and thus strengthened the quality of Black Public Sphere activities in the form of the so-called Chitlin’ Circuit. This loose network of black nightclubs, juke joints, and after-hours clubs was invaluable for the creation of common aesthetic and cultural sensibilities among the African-American diaspora—a noble and significant feat, given the changing demographics of black public life in the midst of post–World War II migration patterns. In large response to economic transformations in the American South, namely the mechanization of the farming process, more than four million blacks migrated to the urban North and urban South during the postwar period. At its core, the Chitlin’ Circuit invoked the reconstruction of community and the recovery of cultural memory for many of these second-wave migrants. Crown jewels of the Chitlin’ Circuit, like Chicago’s Regal Theater, New York’s Apollo Theater, and activities like “Amateur Night at the Apollo,” are stark reminders of the African-American diaspora’s strident devotion to the democratic tenets of American society. Black popular music in the 1950s and the significance of the Chitlin’ Circuit represent a singular moment in the role of the black public(s) in the creation, maintenance, and distribution of black musical expression in the post–World War II era, in that it is a period also marked by the intense commodification of black popular music forms.
Hard-bop’s popularity was largely based on its ability to remain malleable to the full range of musical influences and tastes contained within a still largely segregated black public. Thus hard-bop stalwarts like Art Blakey, Horace Silver, and Lee Morgan, as well as fringe jazz artists like hornmen Willis “Gator” Jackson, Jimmy Forrest, and Gene Ammons, had to be well versed in the blues, bebop, and gospel idioms and willing to accept the contemporary influences of rhythm and blues and, later, soul and funk. It is thus no surprise that soul, the next aesthetic movement in black popular music after rhythm and blues and hard-bop, resonates among the total diversity of an increasingly stratified black community. Soul’s singular role during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements as a conduit for political expression—a role scarcely repeated among black music forms since—would have been virtually impossible without the solidification of the Chitlin’ Circuit in the 1950s. These trends would continue well into the decade of the 1960s, though the black jazz clubs of urban spaces would increasingly represent alternatives to varying class and ideological constructs within the black community, as the Chitlin Circuit represented a distinct link to a worldview predicated on the suppression, exploitation, and disenfranchisement of the black community.
Increasingly a younger generation of black intellectuals, personified by Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Larry Neal, and the Black Arts movement, began to posit the aesthetic innovations of jazz artists like John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, and Albert Ayler, as emblematic of the postcolonial and black nationalist politics needed to empower the black community. Underlying these notions were powerful desires to sever black expressive culture from the ...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright Page
  5. Dedication
  6. Table of Contents
  7. Preface
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. Introduction: Toward A Black Public: Movements, Markets, and Moderns
  10. Chapter One. Legislating Freedom, Commodifying Struggle: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Struggle for Black Musical Hegemony
  11. Chapter Two. From Protest to Climax: Black Power, State Repression, and Black Communities of Resistance
  12. Chapter Three. Soul for Sale: The Marketing of Black Musical Expression
  13. Chapter Four. Soul for Real: Authentic Black Voices in an Age of Deterioration
  14. Chapter Five. Postindustrial Soul: Black Popular Music at the Crossroads
  15. Chapter Six. Postindustrial Postscript: The Digitized Aural Urban Landscape
  16. Endnotes
  17. References
  18. Index