A COLLOQUY ON MUSIC WITH D. FELTZ, PHYFE DOUG, AND THICK TEE BONE PART IV (FEATURING DOUGIE FRESH A
DF: Okay. Okay. These headlines are getting out of hand! TTB: That's what lots of hip hop songs look like on the charts. Plenty of secondary artists. No real names! DF: Whatever. Why do we have two new people in this discussion? TTB: Well, Dougie Fresh is bringing his encyclopedic knowledge of the popular song to the discussion and Chunky Style (not his real name) is updating us on the latest in rap stylings. DF: Well, let's go! Mr. Fresh...? Take it away. FRESH: I like that...Mr. Fresh. Reminds me of the New York Times manual of style. In their reviews of pop musicians they always have to maintain a certain formality, so they review the likes of Iggy
Pop and Meatloaf as Mr. Pop and Mr. Loaf! Mr. Fresh...makes me sound important! Well, let me say first
that popular song is as old as the republic itself. There have always been church hymns and pub or tavern songs and work songs. Granted, it took until the middle of the 19th century to form distinctly American music, but from that point it took off. Most of the music prior to the 1850s was part of a tradition derived from the country that the original immigrants were from. "Yankee Doodle", for example, is a tune, sung with different lyrics, in the British, Dutch, and French traditions long before settlers from those countries arrived in the colonies. In 1971, Rod Stewart had a big hit with his song "Maggie May". He changed the lyrics some, but there were versions of this song (e.g. "Nellie May", "Nellie Gray") back in the early 1800s. One of my favorites is a tragic tune from the 18th century--"Barbara Allen." It's a beautiful Scottish ballad based on a poem. They sing it at Christmas time when Mr. Scrooge visits his nephew in the classic 1951 Alistair Sim Christmas Carol movie. I cry every time I hear it! Here's a clip:
CS: So, when did American song become, well, American? Fresh: You really have to go back to the minstrel shows in the 1840s and after. You had white men in blackface singing songs that were putatively based on Negro traditions, though African Americans had nothing to do with their composition and the songs mocked and stereotyped blacks in ways that have, insidiously, carried over to the present. The Jim Crow traditions in this country got their origins around this time. CS: Wow. Anything else? Fresh: Of course you saw church hymns that developed from a European tradition in the North find parallels in what we now call gospel songs in the South. And work songs. TTB: What are they? Fresh: Pretty much what they sound like. You remember some famous work songs in American culture...like "I've Been Working on the Railroad". Mostly they were used to keep time or a distinct work rhythm, as when a gang was laying track or busting up rocks on a prison chain gang or even marching as a military unit. Usually these songs have a "call and response" structure in which one person sings out a line and the entire unit provides the follow up lines. Sea shanties were popular work songs as the sailors performed their daily rituals on board clipper ships. DF: Kate and Anna McGarrigle wrote a work song back in the 1970s in the classic tradition. Fresh: That's right. I remember that Maria Muldaur covered it on her big hit album. Let's post that to give our readers the sound and spirit of a work song. And also here's a link to Maria's glorious cover: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fqULUS3bRxM
Fresh: If there is anything that stands out here it's that they're singing about absolutely unremitting backbreaking labor. These kinds of songs developed out of the slave traditions, even if the slavery was renamed sharecropping after the Civil War. Music helped the workers get through the grueling experience. If you were out in the fields in the blazing sun for fourteen hours a day, you sang to keep your mind off your miserable existence. Field holler songs grew out of this pain. These were "call and response" songs to revive the desolate. About eighty years ago the famous blues musician Leadbelly wrote or revised an old work song into a tune called "Black Betty". No one is quite sure what Black Betty means, but people have speculated that it could be liquor or a woman or the whip used on the backs of the workers. It has been recorded a few times since, even by the likes of Tom Jones. But there is a rock and roll cover by a group called Ram Jam that climbed pretty high on the charts in 1977. You can hear the metaphorical hammer come down on the rocks or the tracks or whatever whenever you hear the "Bam-ba-lam" refrain. The original recording is here for you too. Next time we'll look at Stephen Foster and the birth of gospel music and what it has to do with the poet Emily Dickinson!