Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Ethel Waters and Manufacturing Meaning in Popular Music: Some Thoughts

“Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone” is a pop song written by Sam Stept and Sidney Clare, describing the singer's breakup with their lover and request for the lover not to talk negatively about the singer or their relationship. It was a hit in 1931 for Bert Lown and His Orchestra as well as the pioneering crooner Gene Austin. I've always enjoyed Ethel Waters' version of the song. Waters, an African-American vaudeville and pop recording star, is backed on the recording by an all-star assemblage of (white) jazz musicians: Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Manny Klein, Rube Bloom. And her treatment of the song is quite unusual. After starting with the rarely-heard intro, she sings the chorus twice: first straight, as written (presumably) and as sung by pop singers like Austin, but then jazzing it up in the repeat. (This is similar to Jelly Roll Morton's “transformations” of pop, ragtime, and even classical numbers into jazz material, which he demonstrates at length in the Library of Congress sessions.) This jazzing is accomplished through altering the written melody, through playing with her phrasing (often singing words off the beat), and even half-speaking many of the lyrics. All of these jazz-inflected changes effectively highlight her now altered tone – the polite request of the first chorus has turned into a harsh warning, with Waters now changing many of the lyrics. These changes are foreshadowed in the middle of the instrumental break, between the two choruses, when Goodman breaks into a quick hot clarinet lead and the rhythm section starts swinging harder; before she begins the second chorus, Waters announces her intentions:

And I wish to state clearly again

and proceeds with this changed attitude throughout the chorus, complete with exaggerated emphasis of several words:

And get this straight:
If there's anything 'bout me you can't say real nice
Then, sugar, absolute silence – at any price

Especially noticeable is the slight directed at her now ex-lover:

In fact, I'm too modest to admit
That I've known or had better men than you put on the spot

The result is a bittersweet song transformed into a fun romp. More than that, in Waters's voice the song becomes liberating, something of a feminist statement.

Or, that's always how I've heard the song. Recently when I was listening to this song with a friend, she expressed annoyance with the second chorus, suggesting that Waters is doing the very thing that she is warning against – talking smack about her ex-lover. Between my original reading and this alternate one, we of course have a case of two listeners interpreting a song in different ways. But I think the role of the listener is highlighted even more if we make an additional observation: in a sense, both views can be correct without being contradictory. At the core of this observation is a simple question:

Who is the audience of the song?

To put it another way, who is being addressed in this song? In my interpretation, it is the singer's ex-lover: this is the narrative level of the song. But in my friend's interpretation, it is the listening public at large. This is the real-world level of the song, where it is a recording on a physical disk.

In terms of literary theory, the different potential audiences would be the narratee and the actual audience. The narratee is the character, either explicit or implied, whom the narrator addresses. Just as the narrator is a character who is largely distinct from the real-life author of a work, so the narratee is similarly a literary construct largely distinct from the reader – or, in the case of music, the listener.
The narratee is to the narrator as the reader is to the author. At first glance, this may make interpretation seem easy. Ethel Waters' character, in the world of the song, is simply addressing her lover; Ethel Waters the singer, meanwhile, is addressing her listening public. But the line is not as distinct as we might think. True, we as listeners likely imagine that there is some distinction between the character or narrator that Ethel Waters the singer plays and between the authors Stept and Clare (the songwriters) and Waters (the “transformer”). But what about other cases, especially the work of singer-songwriters, where songs are seen as a much more personal thing? As an example, consider “Ballad in Plain D” by Bob Dylan. The song describes Dylan's actual breakup with his real-life girlfriend Suze Rotolo, and includes a particularly nasty portrait of Rotolo's real-life sister. In fact, due to this nastiness, Dylan later came to regret writing this song:

Oh! Yeah. That one . . . That one I look back at and I say, “I must have been a real shmuck to write that.” I look back at that particular one and say, of all the songs I've written, maybe I could have left that alone.
Written in My Soul: Conversations with Rock's Great Songwriters, Bill Flanagan (1986)
In a case like this – and in fact in so much popular music from the last 50 years – our expectations as an audience are for the singer to be singing something real, something sincere, something authentic. Did listeners in earlier decades have different expectations of singers and songs? Is it legitimate for us to retroject those expectations when we listen to earlier recordings – like those of Ethel Waters?

There is always a special ambiguity in songs addressed to the second person (you vs he/she): who is the “you” being addressed? Songs addressed to the second person are rarely addressed to the audience, although there are exceptions – compare the first verse of “One Chord Wonders” by the Adverts or “Faults” by the Prefects, songs directly about the performer-audience relationship. In recorded song, the ambiguity is only deepened. Prior to the invention of recording technology, performances were always a one-time event, limited to the amount of time it took to finish a song, and heard only by people within the performing venue. The invention of recording technology complicates the ambiguity in audience with a new tension, a paradox: on the one hand, the actual audience for a recorded performance is much larger (or at least potentially so); on the other, the technology allows for a much more intimate experience. With recorded sound, the audience is expanded potentially infinitely – through both the ability to replay a performance again and again, and the mass-production of the record allowing for it to be distributed much more widely. At the same time, anyone can listen to a recording in a small group or even alone, allowing for a direct connection between the singer – any singer, even a star performer – and the individual listener. This intimacy was only enhanced further with the change from acoustical to electric recording technology in the mid-1920s. Instead of a singer having to shout into an recording horn, and having a muffled sound on record, singers could now sing with softer and more nuanced voices into a microphone, and have a record with higher fidelity. The result, not surprisingly, of the almost immediate adoption of this technological improvement was an almost immediate rise of the “crooner,” with softer vocalists like Gene Austin replacing the suddenly outdated styles of performers like Al Jolson.

This paradox, the combination of a vastly expanded audience with a newly intimate listening experience, results in a massive tension, leading us again to ask:

Who is the audience (or audiences) of recorded song?

Monday, June 16, 2014

Monumental Stupidity and Control of the Past

What imperial purpose was served by deciphering the ancient Egyptian language, for example, and then restoring to the Egyptians knowledge of and pride in their forgotten, ancient past?
– Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West (1993)
 Mesha Stele CC BY 2.0 
Henri Sivonen from Helsinki, Finland 
Uploaded by Pieter Kuiper 
(via Wikipedia) 

If you’re looking for strange and romantic stories of discovery in the 19th century Middle East, it’s hard to top the saga of the Mesha Stele (or Moabite Stone), one of the longest and most significant inscriptions from the Iron Age southern Levant. The first Westerner to discover the stele was the missionary F.A. Klein, who observed it in 1868 at the site of Dhībān (biblical Dibon) in what is now Jordan. Klein alerted a Prussian scholar in Jerusalem, Julius Heinrich Petermann, who made arrangements for the Berlin Museum to negotiate the stone’s purchase. Before negotiations were finished, however, word of the discovery leaked to other scholars in Palestine, including the Frenchman Charles Clermont-Ganneau. Clermont-Ganneau sent two men to investigate the stele: the first to confirm its existence, the second, named Ya‘qub Karavaca, to make a squeeze. As the story goes, while paper was drying on the stele to make the squeeze, a fight broke out among the Bedouin who owned the stele at the time. Karavaca was injured, and he and the two horsemen accompanying him were barely able to ride off to safety. Before they hurried away, one of the horsemen retrieved the paper from the stone, torn in pieces but able to be reconstructed. But in 1869, the stone was broken into pieces by the Bedouin, who distributed the fragments among different clans. Clermont-Ganneau managed to locate and purchase most of the pieces, and bring them to the Louvre where the reconstructed stele remains today.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band and the Period Ear

 New York Sun, November 4 1917 (section 5, p. 2)

“Livery Stable Blues” by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, released in 1917, was the first jazz record. As such firsts go, there is a fair amount of consensus for this one. Usually, a “first” (like the “first rock and roll record” – no, Mom, not everyone thinks it is “Earth Angel”) is difficult to pin down, as styles evolved gradually over time rather than being suddenly invented by one person; and of course there is the matter of how one defines the type (rock, jazz, etc.). In this case, “Livery Stable Blues,” with its B-side “Dixie Jass Band One-Step,” was certainly the first record by a band calling itself a “jazz” band. Or “jass” band – the name was so new to most of the public at this point that no one could agree how to spell it; other spellings included jas, jaz, jasz, or even jad. It was also the first record released by a band from New Orleans, usually (but not always) thought to be the birthplace of jazz.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Whose Voices Are Missing from the Public Square?

If you have the time, I highly recommend taking a look at classicist Mary Beard's lecture on “The Public Voice of Women.” It is long, but you will be rewarded for your effort. Beard looks at the role of women in the public sphere from a diachronic perspective, looking not simply at the history of women speaking in public but the history of women being silenced, and the history of the language and tropes used by men to effect this silence. If women have wanted to avoid being silenced, they have a limited range of options; the most common is affecting traits of men, including deeper voices – essentially, adopting the role of the androgyne. But, at least in recent times, women have been allowed by men to speak publicly about at least one narrow set of issues, namely, women's issues.

Friday, March 21, 2014

A Southern Song (without A Mammy, A Mule, Or A Moon)

“No experienced writer would ever think of using Massachusetts in a song title, and yet this state is just as picturesque and romantic as New Hampshire.”
-- E.M. Wickes, Writing the Popular Song (1916)

As a follow-up to my previous essay, I've started reading Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues by Elijah Wald – another of the recent group of revisionist blues histories. Wald does a much better job, as far as I can see, of providing a proper historical and musical context for the “invention” of the blues. Along the way, Wald makes a fairly brief aside that struck me as interesting: he contrasts (pp. 31-32) the marketing of music in the 1920s to the African-American and country markets. He notes that African-American records were marketed as “race records”, and were sold as up-to-date music, while country records were marketed as “Old-Time Music.” Wald then proceeds to draw a line of nostalgia from 1920s “old time” music through country-and-western history up to “new country” stars today. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

I Thought I Heard James McKune Say: A Review of In Search of the Blues by Marybeth Hamilton

In the Beatles mockumentary “All You Need Is Cash” – tracing the story of the “prefab Four,” the Rutles – the narrator (played by Eric Idle) looks to discover the “black origins of Rutle music.”  To do so, he travels to the Mississippi River in Louisiana, “the cradle of the blues,” or, as he explains,  “black music sung mainly by whites”.  What he finds are the musicians Blind Lemon Pye, who it turns out only became a musician because of the Rutles; and Ruttling Orange Peel, who claims the Rutles visited him and stole his music – as did Frank Sinatra, the Everly Brothers, and Lawrence Welk.  The narrator can only conclude that “we seem to be rather wasting our time here . . . still, pretty, isn’t it?”

Marybeth Hamilton, in In Search of the Blues (2008), acknowledges this absurdity in the search for the origins of music like the blues.

In purporting to reveal a music’s beginnings – the moment of emergence, when we can see it in its pure, unadulterated, natural state – stories of musical origins are always social and political fables. (p. 188)

Certainly, with musical forms (like blues, or jazz, or rock ‘n’ roll) reflecting a gradual development rather than a sudden invention, fashioning an origin story out of a complex set of cultural systems is naturally selective, and purpose-driven.  In addition, with blues and jazz, the development lies largely or completely outside the popular recording industry, meaning documentation is limited.  

So it should not surprise us that recent scholarship on the blues has been characterized by revisionism, by the puncturing of myth (see a summary of these in Christian O’Connell, “The Color of the Blues: Considering Revisionist Blues Scholarship,” Spring 2013).  Deconstruction is by now a longstanding genre in scholarly writing, and the myths of the blues are ripe for deconstruction.  Along with Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta, Hamilton’s book is the most prominent of these works.  For Hamilton, the origins of the blues in the Mississippi Delta are a myth; instead, the origins – or, at least the origins of the myth, or the origins of our conception of the blues – are to be found in the song collectors, record collectors, critics, and enthusiasts of the blues and African-American music generally over the first two-thirds of the 20th century.  But is Hamilton’s narrative correct?  How does she deal with the fact that, in her own words, “stories of musical origins are always social and political fables”?

Monday, February 10, 2014

Return of Old Fogey, or a Letter to Jon Keller

It seems Old Fogeyism and the generational issues associated with it are around us everywhere these days.  The 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ coming to America, the start of the so-called British Invasion, and in particular their appearance on the Ed Sullivan show has kept them in the spotlight.  One particularly egregious example that was brought to my attention comes from Jon Keller, a popular political commentator on the Boston-area news station WBZ-AM and the CBS Boston website.  Keller’s latest editorial, titled “Beatles Show Public Craving For Songs That Aren’t Moronic,” was a brief piece that barely scratched the surface of these issues.  Its main point was a comparison of the timeless Beatles (epitomized by “She Loves You”) as “real songwriters” to “trashmen” and “trashwomen” like Miley Cyrus.  Here is my response:

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Not Talkin' 'Bout My Generation

Burn down the disco, hang the blessed DJ
Because the music that they constantly play
It says nothing to me about my life
-- The Smiths, "Panic" (1986)

Watching the performances at the Grammys this year was a bit puzzling.  Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Chicago, Carole King, Stevie Wonder, Nile Rodgers, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, in addition to the sight of duos like Smokey Robinson and Steven Tyler presenting awards . . . it was as if popular music had stood still for some 40 years.  (Thank goodness Metallica was there to keep things current.)  More than an odd sight, their presence raised the question: What was the purpose of trotting out so many old-timers of popular music?  Was it to confer legitimacy on contemporary music?  Or was it something else?  Who was the intended audience?  For instance, you would have to be in your late twenties (at least) to remember Paul McCartney’s last US Top 40 single (“My Brave Face”, 1989), and in your mid-thirties to remember his last number one (“Say Say Say”, with Michael Jackson, 1983); and even older to remember any hit by Ringo Starr.  Of course, the Beatles have managed to remain well-known during the intervening time, as shown by the impressive sales of the Anthology series, Live at the BBC, 1, Love, in addition to their back catalog.  But they have not maintained a presence on Top 40 radio in some time: justifying BBC Radio 1’s refusal to play “Real Love” in 1996, a spokesman said, “It's not what our listeners want to hear . . . We are a contemporary music station.”

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Archaeology and the Arab Spring

An article in the Guardian featuring before and after pictures of Syrian monuments damaged by years of conflict has been making the rounds: on Sunday on Facebook, yesterday on the Agade mailing list (for scholars of the ancient Near Eastern and classical worlds).  It is simply the latest of a series of such articles published over the last couple of years; in fact, some of the pictures are recycled from a similar, much-circulated article from November 2013 (in PolicyMic, by Rachel Davidson).  These articles bring up a couple of significant issues.  One is the danger of sensationalism, present especially in the Davidson article.  From the title itself we are presented with exaggeration: “5 Historical Monuments Have Been Destroyed Forever During Syria’s Civil War”.  Upon reading the article, we discover that none of the monuments has been “destroyed”: while all have been damaged, some severely, they are all still standing (or, at least were at the time of writing) and could in theory be restored.  In fact, Davidson herself presents the problem in more sober terms within the text of the article (for instance, “five of the most significant sites and buildings that have been damaged or destroyed”).  We are also presented with slanted editorializing: “given Bashar al-Assad's willingness to ruthlessly slaughter tens of thousands of his own citizens, it's unlikely that he will show more respect for his country's historical monuments.”  In fact, given that the opposition forces have shown themselves to be just as willing to ruthlessly slaughter people, there is no need to lay the blame on one side only.  This is not meant as a defense of Assad, but simply as a statement of fact.  Even Davidson states elsewhere in the article that the two sides have been battling each other around some of these monuments.

But the circulation of a series of such articles by archaeologists and other academics leads to a more fundamental question: In all of these discussions of monuments and heritage, where are the people?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Climax and Resolution in Hitchcock’s Films

In a suspense story such as a murder mystery, the storyteller has choices – a limited set of choices, to be sure, but we must always be conscious that there are choices – of how to tell the tale.  She can reveal the murderer and the circumstances of the killing in advance (as for example in the Columbo mysteries); she can reveal these facts as they are discovered by the detective.  Put another way, the narrator – that is to say, the camera (for if the author of the film is the director, the narrator is essentially the camera) – can be essentially omniscient, or present the story from the viewpoint of the characters, usually the protagonist.

Typically, a Hitchcock film uses the latter approach.  Thus we the audience unravel the mystery along with the hero.  A central feature of Hitchcock’s films is usually the discovery of a vital piece of information – the solution of the mystery, or some significant plot twist.  At the same time as the protagonist is working to discover this information, he is also looking to rescue himself from a dire situation.  The climax of the film, then, is in fact made up of two separate but related climaxes: a climax of knowledge, and a climax of drama.  Alternatively, we can label these – if we are not put off by the religious overtones – revelation and salvation.  Again speaking on a general level, a Hitchcock film tends to revolve around the working out of these two interlocking elements.  It is therefore surprising, then – given that Hitchcock is rightly regarded as a master of suspense, and a supremely talented director – that the climax of the film and its resolution are so often a structural flaw in his films: the climax (or climaxes) comes too early, there is a disjunction between the salvation and revelation, the resolution is not weighty enough to be an effective release of the tension built for most of the film.  The audience is (or, at least I am) so often left unsatisfied by the final result.  Why should this be the case?

Friday, January 10, 2014

Writing Old School, part 2

Nothing New Under the Big Black Sun
or, Attack of the Midget Submarines

"There are people who still believe in the spirit of punk and live that lifestyle, but it's only a re-creation. There was a different social and political climate then, and if you're playing punk music now, you're playing something that somebody else invented. I don't know if that constitutes the same kind of spirit. I'm not being cynical, but I can't think of anything really new in music. I'd hate to be 15 right now."
-- Exene Cervenka in Spin '25 Years of Punk'

 'Boys, my father will forestall me in everything. There will be nothing great or spectacular for you and me to show the world.'
-- attributed to the young Alexander the Great by Plutarch, Life of Alexander

Writing, Old-School

Back in 2003 I wrote a couple of music essays and submitted them to two music webzines: In Love With These Times, In Spite of These Times; and Tangents.  The musical tastes of the sites’ authors, Kieran and Alistair, resonated with me, and I admired their writing styles; I read their work regularly, and was inspired in part by them to attempt to put some of my own thoughts on music into writing.  In fact, my first piece (“66 in 86”) was a direct reaction to Kieran’s views on music before punk, in particular the Beatles; and, despite the fact that he violently disagreed with my premise, he had some wonderful things to say about the essay on his site.

Meanwhile, In Love With These Times, In Spite of These Times lives on in blog form (; Tangents is now defunct, but its archived contents can be found at

Here is the first of those two essays (second to follow):

'66 in '86 - an appreciation of the Pop legacy  

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Can’t Get “Georgia on My Mind” out of My Head

Over the past several weeks I have kept coming back to an episode of The Voice (which I was not watching by choice) in which one of the contestants performed the standard “Georgia on My Mind.”  The arrangement of course slavishly copied the arrangement of Ray Charles’s classic 1960 recording, minus the strings and choir.  What struck me, though, was when I heard Adam Levine – I think – refer to Ray Charles’s recording as the “original” version.  First on my mind was the matter of the appalling ignorance of music history on display here: Ray Charles did not write the song, nor was it written for him.  Instead, by the time he recorded the song it was already 30 years old and had been recorded a large number of times.  The song had in fact been written by Hoagy Carmichael, prominent songwriter and pianist (along with Stuart Gorrell, his non-songwriter friend who collaborated on this one effort). As far as I know, the earliest version of the song was recorded by Hoagy himself.   Certainly, Ray Charles’s recording has become the definitive version – as witnessed by the up-and-comer’s slavish copying.  But original is something else.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Another Year, Another Blog

 (i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one.
-- George Orwell, “Why I Write” (1946)

I may be quite late to the game, but I decided for the New Year that now would be as good a time as any to start a blog.  Mostly I wanted to find a way to get myself in the habit of writing regularly, and to provide a venue for that writing.  So, I will be using this space to post essays on cultural issues – “cultural” in so many different senses – both ancient and modern: material culture, anthropological culture, pop culture, “high” culture, and more.  I hope to combine detailed studies of specific artifacts, or works of music, or film, with consideration of their wider historical and cultural perspectives – to write on “texts” and “contexts”.  In the process, I hope to use this blog to talk a little about myself, since all acts of writing do indeed have some sort of selfish motives lying partly behind them.  (You can read more about me and my writing here.)

I do hope there will be some interest in what I have to say, some niche that these writings can fill, and I would love to be able to start some productive conversations with readers on these issues.  To adapt a quote of the brilliant writer-director of film Preston Sturges: There are so many good essays waiting to be written, and God willing, I will be able to write a few of them.