Lest you think that the previous couple of posts indicate that I’m just a cranky curmudgeon who doesn’t like anything he reads, let me put in a plug for Elijah Wald’s How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll. I read about half of this piecemeal over a couple of months, then finished it on the plane to the March Meeting. Subtitled “An Alternative History of American Popular Music,” it meticulously documents the fads and changes of American music over the first two-thirds or so of the 20th Century, and in the process tells a very different story than what you may think you know.
The origin of the book comes from interviews Wald did for a previous book about Robert Johnson, in which he declared, as music writers do, that people simply had to know the work of some unjustly obscure artists in order to understand the times in which the music was made. As he puts it in the Introduction:
It took a while, but eventually the thought began to nag me, because I was guilty of exactly rhe sort of mistake I was criticizing: I had been writing about the music of the 1920s for years but had never listened to a Paul Whiteman record. Admittedly, I had quite a bit of company. Virtually all the books I had read about the music of the ’20s ignored Whiteman or mentioned him only in the negative– jazz historians remain angry that he was dubbed the “King of Jazz” and tend to mention him only in passing, as a barrier that the true jazz artists had to surmount. Nobody writing about blues or country music seems to feel any need to listen to him, nor do most jazz historians feel obliged to analyze his influence on the music they care about.
But, like the Beatles, Whiteman’s ochestra was not only rhe most popular band of the 1920s, but was also enormously influetial in every field of music. When the period is referred to as the “Jazz Age,” conjuring up pictures of flappers, bearskin coats, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, the band that made the jazz was Whiteman’s. In purely musical terms, his innovations were huge: He defined the arranging style that would be used by virtually every later bandleader. His band was the first to add a vocal group, the Rhythm Boys (which included Bing Crosby, the most popular singer in America for the next twenty years), and to hire a female vocalist, Mildred Bailey. If he didn’t swing, he appreciated musicians who could and hired many of the most important white jazz artists of that era. And he was the first person to force a broad public to treat jazz as serious, important music rather than just a noisy fad. As the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper was for rock, Whiteman’s Rhapsody in Blue was the breakthrough work in the struggle to have jazz recognized as art music, bringing it out of the saloons and dance halls and forcing “serious” music fans to take notice of it as the sound of their time. Duke Ellington always stressed his respect for Whiteman’s innovations, and it would be hard to argue that the Beatles’ music crossed racial lines as much as Whiteman’s did.
As a result of this realization, Wald went back to the beginning of the 20th century, and re-analyzed the history of popular music not just in terms of what appeals to critics and historians, but in terms of what was actually popular at any given time. Some of the results are surprising.
This is also a story about technology’s impact on society. The history of pop music in the 20th century is inextricably bound up with the history of technologies for recording and disseminating music. At the beginning of the century, the vast majority of music sales were in the form of sheet music, and nobody particularly worried about who played the music people listened to. By the end of the century you have, well, what we have now, where the vast majority of music sales are in the form of recordings of specific performances of songs by particular artists. It’s a tremendously different world, and each step along the way transformed the music world, both in how people listened to the music, and in what they listened to.
Wald’s writing style is right up my alley– fairly academic, reflecting a deep knowledge of the subject, but also vivid and witty. He moves fast, covering almost seventy years in just over 250 pages, but treats each new musical style or technological innovation in enough depth for the reader to get a feel for the impact it had. He also takes the time to point out some of the odder moments in popular music– various “ethnic” numbers, and some of the bizarre instrumental collaborations that turned up in an effort to provide novelty, or get around labor troubles.
The one thing the book lacks is a soundtrack album. It really ought to come with a CD (or a pre-loaded USB drive) containing examples of the important styles and recordings he talks about. He does have a collection of samples on his web page (scroll down). (There’s also a link to a Financial Times piece that isn’t exactly a book excerpt, but has the right basic feel.) I’m not terribly familiar with early 20th century pop, and hearing some of it would’ve made the book that much better.
Which is not to say that it’s impossible to read the book without knowing the songs. This is an excellent read, whether you recognize all the examples, or just a handful of them. And yes, he does eventually make an argument that the Beatles destroyed rock ‘n’ roll as a musical form (Mike Kozlowski will be thrilled), but I’m not going to tell you what that is– you’ll have to read it for yourself.