Woody vs Irving, folk vs pop, etc.
Subject: Woody vs Irving, folk vs pop, etc.|
Date: 13 Jul 09 - 01:06 AM
This is an article from the year 2000, NY Times; some of you probably read it then, but I just came across it. Kind of an interesting take on American popular music: Two American Anthems, in Two American Voices.
For over a quarter of a century, Berlin had been the country's leading songwriter, a pop poet laureate with an unwavering feel for the vagaries of mass taste. He had spent the better part of the 1930's at work in the Hollywood fairy-tale factory, feeding public desire for buoyant escapism with little masterpieces of tuneful, elegant insouciance: "Isn't This a Lovely Day?," "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails," "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm." But by the autumn of 1938, history had caught up with pop culture's bon vivants in evening clothes. Millions of Americans were still unemployed and destitute; Hitler was menacing Europe -- the Munich pact had just been signed -- Spain was rent by civil war, and suddenly, the spectacle of Fred Astaire twirling through a penthouse with a cocktail shaker felt decadent and unseemly.
Berlin set out to write a song that was the antithesis of 30's cosmopolitan cool -- an earnest, spirit-boosting anthem for troubled times. He made several unsuccessful passes at the project before he remembered a number he had abandoned two decades earlier: a bit of purplish patriotic verse, set to a rousing tune, originally written in 1918 for his World War I-themed revue, "Yip Yip Yaphank." Berlin dragged out the old song, tinkered with a few lines, adjusted a musical phrase and gave it to Kate Smith, the radio star whose wholesome image and fervent vocal style were a perfect match for the song's rostrum-pounding sentimentality.
Smith introduced "God Bless America" on her radio show on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1938. It was an instant sensation. Within weeks, the song was ubiquitous: crackling across radio airwaves, sung in churches, schools and ballparks, widely championed as a replacement for Francis Scott Key's ungainly "The Star-Spangled Banner." In a war-era pop culture filled with mawkish and bellicose patriotism, "God Bless America" stood out: more of a benediction than a rally-round-the-flag fight song, it both registered Americans' anxiety and provided a sense of reassurance and communal uplift. It was, in a hit-making career that spanned six decades, perhaps the greatest single example of Berlin's populist largesse. "A good song embodies the feelings of the mob," he once said. "And a songwriter is not much more than a mirror which reflects those feelings."
B UT not every American took solace in the skyward-striving strains of "God Bless America." In the winter of 1940, Woody Guthrie was bedeviled by the song: everywhere he went, Kate Smith's belting seemed to follow him; the more he heard the song, the angrier he got.
Guthrie may have been the only other major American songwriter as prolific as Berlin; in almost every other way, he was Berlin's opposite. While Berlin spent the Great Depression writing tunes for Broadway shows and Hollywood musicals, living in a plush Manhattan apartment and camping out in Beverly Hills hotel suites, Guthrie lived as a hobo, crisscrossing the West in railroad cars, working odd jobs, churning out wry, politically pointed folk songs on an acoustic guitar that bore the legend "This Machine Kills Fascists."
By 1940, Guthrie had landed in New York, where on Feb. 23, in a fleabag Midtown Manhattan hotel, he pulled out his guitar and, using a tune lifted from the Baptist hymn "Oh My Lovin' Brother," composed a six-verse song. Guthrie's Great Depresssion miseries had radicalized his politics, and in "God Bless America" he heard just the kind of uncritical jingoism he despised. This new song was Guthrie's answer: a patriotic epic, which, like Berlin's, used pastoral imagery to evoke an America of mystical grandeur.
"From the mountains/ To the prairies/To the oceans, white with foam," Berlin wrote. "God bless America, my home sweet home."
"When the sun come shining, then I was strolling/ In the wheat fields waving, and the dust clouds rolling/ The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting:/ God blessed America for me," went Guthrie's rejoinder.
Today, Guthrie's hand-written lyric sheet still bears its original title: "God Blessed America." But the world knows the song by the title Guthrie used when he recorded a revised version in 1945: "This Land Is Your Land."
This call and response between revered troubadours is one of the most piquant episodes in American pop music -- a tale whose mix of mid-century politics and national myth-making and whose turbulent backdrop of Depression and world war could fuel a semester's worth of American studies seminars.
But the story of "God Bless America" and "This Land Is Your Land" resonates most forcefully today not as a class battle between the Broadway millionaire and the Popular Front minstrel, not even as a clash of conflicting ideas about patriotism, but as a parable about musical populism. Pitting Tin Pan Alley's greatest dream-weaver against the archetypal renegade balladeer, pitting urban pop sophistication and music industry muscle against homespun folk, the Berlin-Guthrie skirmish is emblematic of a question that continues to roil a music culture obsessed with authenticity: who speaks in the true musical voice of the American people?
In the rock era, that question has been answered with an emphatic endorsement of Guthrie and the gritty tradition he represents. Berlin's Tin Pan Alley ethos -- that ardent dedication to "the mob" -- is regarded in the rock world as a false populism: lowest-common-denominator music that plies the people with the spun sugar they want. The theory of populism that prevails in American music culture today, dominating its iconography and mythologies, coloring its criticism and historiography, exalts Guthrie and his rock heirs for giving the people something more profound: a liberating blast of the truth that they need.
Though Guthrie's catalog remains a source of inspiration for innumerable songwriters, it is his image as a rogue cultural critic, armed with a guitar and his hard-won folk wisdom, which has most deeply marked rock culture. In Guthrie, rock recognizes a spiritual ancestor to its contrarians, misfits and provocateurs: a prototype not just for folkie protest singers, but for all musical rebels who refuse to compromise, from hip-swiveling Elvis Presley running roughshod over sexual proprieties to punk rock agitators to hard-boiled gangsta rappers.
Rock culture has also absorbed Guthrie's anti-pop animus. A self-declared singer of "peoples ballads," Guthrie loathed Tin Pan Alley music -- its grandiose production values, cloying sentiments and "sissy-voiced" crooners. His aversion to "God Bless America" was as much aesthetic as political: to Guthrie, Berlin's song was a supreme example of Tin Pan Alley's empty artifice and bloated emotionalism. In place of schmaltz, Guthrie offered grit and unflinching realism; at the bottom of the sheet on which he had scrawled the lyrics to "This Land Is Your Land," Guthrie noted: "All you can write is what you see."
That commitment to realism is alive in a rock culture that makes strenuous efforts to distinguish itself from the corrupting commercialism of pop; in the perennial hip-hop vow to "keep it real"; in the spectacle of rock bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam bewailing their chart-topping success; in the purist politics that dominate music scenes like indie rock and techno, in which bands jockey for underground credibility amid recriminations about "selling out." Rock critics, in particular, have imbibed the anti-capitalist/social realist thrust of the Guthrie-led folk movement, often favoring even banal iconoclasm to well-made commercial pop, ignoring the fact the rebels they lionize are themselves professional musicians -- as Guthrie was before them.
This rock populism has, in many ways, served the music well. For almost 50 years, rock, in all its incarnations, has remained remarkably trenchant and politically potent music, reinvigorating itself, time and again, with fresh sounds and new voices from the cultural fringe.
But rock populism is problematic when projected back into musical history. The official history describes the genre's rise as a victory of rugged, rustic folk culture over Tin Pan Alley's high-toned treacle. It was, the story goes, a triumph of the heroic proletarians who are enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: folk singers (Guthrie and Leadbelly), cowboy balladeers (Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams), blues legends (Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey). Though rock 'n' roll has traveled far from that musical promised land of dust bowls, deltas, Appalachian valleys and hilltop churches, it has preserved its indomitable spirit and broadcast its down-home verities to the world.
This is a lovely story, and there is truth in it; but like most polemical narratives, rock's myth of origins ignores inconvenient historical facts: the music's debts to Tin Pan Alley pop. Those debts exist, and not just in obvious places like the highly crafted music of the Brill Building and the Motown song-mills. Rock's power, which -- from Elvis to Bob Dylan to Lauryn Hill -- is so reliant on the magnetism of superstar performers, could not have existed were it not for the vaudevillians and crooners who pioneered that role: Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra. And were it not for George M. Cohan, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin and, of course, Berlin, rock 'n' roll would simply not have had a pop-culture flag to capture in the first place. As the critic Gary Giddins has written: "To the extent that our lives are measured in song, we live in the Irving Berlin Era."
By rock's own criteria, Berlin's populist credentials would seem to be impeccable. A self-taught musician who never learned musical notation and could play piano only in the key of F sharp, Berlin registers with the rock mythology that glorifies ragged garage bands over slick professionals. There can hardly be a more genuine working-class hero than the dirt-poor Lower East Side street urchin who left home and school at 13 and plunged into the Bowery demimonde, sleeping in flophouses and tenement vestibules, scraping a living as a song plugger, sometime street busker and, eventually, singing waiter in a Chinatown brothel and opium den.
But if Berlin's low-born pedigree is unassailable, and his journey a picaresque that makes Guthrie's hard-knock rambling look genteel, his crowd-pleasing songs and unembarrassed aspirations unmask him as the bourgeois that rock culture abhors. Lushly melodic, unapologetically romantic, mixing slangy colloquialism and bursts of wit aimed at higher brows, classic Tin Pan Alley pop was music made for a broad middle-class mainstream of white adults -- an audience that turned to music not for unvarnished truth, but an enchanting reflection of its fondest desires and most cherished illusions.
If the song standards of that pre-civil rights, pre-feminist epoch strike us today as blithely ethnocentric, it should be remembered that they were the result of a social struggle in many ways as significant as those that have inflected rock's history. Tin Pan Alley was dominated in both its creative and business spheres by Jews, and the music it gave to the world was the music of assimilation, a distinctly New World concoction: the result of a people's terrific striving for social acceptance and a piece of the American pie. "God Bless America" -- that hymn of gratitude composed by the man born Israel Baline, who arrived at Ellis Island in 1893 as a 5-year-old refugee from the pogrom-scourged shtetl of Tyumen in Siberia -- is a milestone of Jewish-American acculturation matched perhaps only by another Berlin magnum opus, "White Christmas": a symbol of the way in which the Jews who wrote songs and founded movie studios reinvented American popular culture in their own image.
Rock culture wants no part of this story of middle-class arrivistes: it looks past Tin Pan Alley to other ancestors with more hard-bitten images and more colorful struggles. These days, those forebears aren't just haunting the pages of rock histories: they're hip. Spurred by the 1997 rerelease of the seminal "Anthology of American Folk Music" -- a collection of recordings from the 20's and 30's, compiled in 1958 by the musicologist Harry Smith -- "primitive" roots music is hotter than it has been in decades. This time it isn't just folk aficionados worshipping Smith's mountain string bands, Piedmont bluesmen and Bible chanters. The techno star Moby's hit album "Play" is filled with samples from old spirituals, blues and field hollers. At Other Music, the NoHo temple of record collector chic, shoppers who jostle to buy the latest drum 'n' bass imports and the new Belle and Sebastian album can take home "Prayers From Hell: White Gospel and Sinners Blues, 1927 to 1940" and "American Yodeling: 1911 To 1946," and have made the just-released fourth volume of Harry Smith's anthology one of the store's top sellers. The music's street credibility is mirrored by the mystique conferred upon it by rocks mandarins: the critic Greil Marcus has romanticized the anthology as "an occult document," the mysterious sound of "the old, weird America."
Berlin's output from the period is representative of that music's eclecticism: a madcap mix of ethnic parody songs, dance numbers, syrupy "high-class" ballads, ersatz rags, rakish novelty tunes. The titles alone evoke the freewheeling optimism of an America being transformed by its big cities, loosening morals, new immigrants and new machines: "Keep Away From the Fellow Who Owns an Automobile," "Jake! Jake! The Yiddisher Ball-Player," "I Was Aviating Around," "My Wife's Gone to the Country (Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!)," "The Elevator Man Going Up, Going Up, Going Up, Going Up!"
In these oddball songs, we hear not only pop music being invented as a mass medium, but a new nation being born: it is melting-pot music, the sound of a polyglot America emerging from its Victorian past and striding jauntily into the century it would claim as its own. This clarion call of modernity was perceived, quite rightly, as a threat to the cultural dominion of the Anglo-American middle-class.
Tin Pan Alley pop packed as much anti-establishment menace as the most outré rebel rock: with unabashed anti-immigrant bias, newspaper pundits thundered about the threat to public morality posed by the "suggestive" lyrics and manic ragtime-influenced rhythms emerging from New York's Jewish-run song factories. Some of the first folk music revivals date from this period, sponsored not by righteous lefties but by wealthy nativists seeking to bolster the indigenous culture imperiled by the toxic spread of "Hebrew Broadway jazz."
You won't find recordings of those vaudeville tunes at Other Music. No D.J.s have layered breakbeats over samples from Jolson 78's; no independent record label has released a smartly packaged compilation of "Primitive Pop." While a new generation of hipsters learn to treat the songs of Blind Willie Johnson and the Carter Family as holy writ, vaudeville-era pop, expunged from American music's official history, languishes in music libraries and on the shelves of obscure collectors, condemned to the most inglorious of pop culture oblivions: it is nostalgia music, the secret joy of a few crackpot old-timers.
The blame for this historiographical mess cannot be ascribed solely to rock culture: there has been plenty of provincialism to go around. In the 1950's, when rock 'n' roll dislodged Tin Pan Alley pop from cultural center stage, the shrillest rhetoric came from the older generation. In 1958, Frank Sinatra called rock 'n' roll "the most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear." Berlin, in a fit of petulance, tried to stop radio stations from playing Elvis Presley's recording of "White Christmas." There is more than a hint of tin-eared snobbery in today's champions of pop song standards: lurking behind their paeans to the "golden age of popular song" is the assumption that melodic sophistication and lyrical wit disappeared from pop music the day rock 'n' roll blazed in, riding a wave of African-American rhythm.
It is pleasant to think that, in the year 2000, we might get past all this -- that we'll leave the old resentments and misapprehensions behind with the old century, and hear that century's music afresh. It's time to pitch a musical big tent: time to scold the lover of a Gershwin tune who can't hear the beauty in James Brown, in the Notorious B.I.G., in Lucinda Williams; time to celebrate the common tradition that links "The Yankee Doodle Boy" and "Hellhound on My Trail" and "Stardust" and "Respect" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Nuthin' but a G Thang" and "God Bless America" and "This Land Is Your Land."
As we approach the first Independence Day of the new millennium, those two great national anthems of the American century are a reminder that, despite decades-long attempts to reduce it to genre myths and freight it with false politics, American pop music won't be tamed. It is, like our fondest hopes for the country that produced it, an improbably eclectic, wildly democratic thing: one grand, raffish, indivisible musical tradition, made for you and me.
Jody Rosen, a freelance writer in New York, is working on a book about Irving Berlin's ``White Christmas.''
Subject: RE: Woody vs Irving, folk vs pop, etc.|
Date: 13 Jul 09 - 12:28 PM
The point that Irving Berlin and Woody Guthrie were surprisingly alike is a valid and important one. The both wrote simple, direct lyrics, that scanned perfectly, and could be understood, and sung, by anyone--and the point about the myth of rock roots, and it's real and tangible connection to earlier popular music is good as well--but I think the central premise, that "Anthology of American Folk Music" is taking America by a storm, while old Tin Pan alley music is either forgotten or disdained is just about the opposite of what is actually true.
There are, it is certainly true, lots of topical and ephemeral tunes the era that he mentions that are no longer remembered, but most of the songs of every era are lost and forgotten, but here are the top pop hits from "before, during, and just after the first world war"
tell me if they are "vaudeville-era pop, expunged from American music's official history" or not:
1915--It's a Long Way to Tipperary, Carry Me Back to Old Virginny
1916--Keep the Homefires Burning, There's a Long, Long Trail a Winding, I Love a Piano,
1917--Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag, For Me and My Gal, Til the Clouds Roll By, Over There
1918--Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here, Darktown Strutter's Ball, Smiles, Tiger Rag, Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning--
1919-It's Nobodies Business but My Own, I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles, A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody
It would be hard to find a piano bench the didn't have the music to at least one of those songs in it, even today. But how many people have "The Anthology of American Folk Music"?
Subject: RE: Woody vs Irving, folk vs pop, etc.|
Date: 13 Jul 09 - 02:35 PM
Berlin was far more prolific than Woody but Woody could be just as trenchant.
Berlin wrote a lot of different songs one that comes to mind is the poignant "Supper Time"
describing a black woman setting the table for her children after hearing that her husband had been lynched.
As to the "rock animus", I don't think that Woody would have liked very much of the lyric content of pop rock. Much of it is just as synthetic as some of the earlier pop music lyrics of the 40's.
I don't hold with the idea that there was a snobbery on the part of these sophisticated
songwriters. I think it had more to do with a dumbing down of musical taste which permeated the pop music field of the 60's and 70's despite the great achievements of Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and the musical content of a Bachrach. This is to be expected when musical education in the US has been given low priority in the public school system due to
cutbacks by Republicans. It took a long time for "This Land Is Your Land" to catch on because the quality of the song was not recognized for the above reasons. Now every school child in the world knows it even in the US.
I don't agree that the life's struggles were that much different between the two. Berlin came up the hard way as a singing waiter in a waterfront dive in lower N.Y. He was an immigrant from Siberia. The first part of Woody's life were in a fairly economically comfortable environment before the bottom fell out and he took to the road. Both of them paid some dues and I agree that they have a lot in common. "God Bless America" was appropriated by politicians and jingoists that would have made Berlin uncomfortable.
He was grateful to be the beneficiary of the US since he has been exposed to the deprivation of Russia in his time. Woody battled the terrible disease which influenced
much of his life's choices although he had a great social conscience that comes out in his writing.
One of my favorite Berlin songs that match Tom Lehrer's satires is "Pack Up Your Sins And Go To The Devil in Hades".