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Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

STOMP AND SWERVE: AMERICAN MUSIC GETS HOT, 1843-1924

I read David Wondrich’s book STOMP AND SWERVE in a blaze last week, never wanting to put it down, charmed by the insouciant erudition and inventiveness and humor, absorbed by the history, and constantly saying yes yes yes as my own preoccupations were gratified and prejudices confirmed. Wondrich posits that North American hot music stems from the collision of the swervy rhythms of displaced/dispersed Africans and the stomping rhythms of dispersed Celts that happened here north of the border while it didn’t down south. The “1843” of the subtitle alludes to the founding of the first famous blackface minstrel *band*, the Virginia Minstrels, led by northern whiteman Daniel Emmett, composer of “Old Dan Tucker” and “Dixie,” which started its life as the cake-walking finale of a minstrel show.

Where to begin?

Reading this book, I can't help but feel a kinship. Wondrich graduated from high school in 1979, two years before me, and played in punk bands for 10 years (longer than I did), after having been blown away by the energy of the Sex Pistols and then shocked to find out accidentally as a high schooler that ‘30s blues great Robert Johnson is every bit as intense as Johnny Rotten. (For me it was early ‘60s Mingus who jazzed me to the overwhelming rocking-ness of non-rock genres.) And: he gets the term “swerve” from the Roman poet Lucretius, whom he quotes liberally in his own translations. Any rock critic -- and this is a rock book as much as it’s a jazz book or a country book -- who makes the old poets rockin’ and relevant gets my crow of approval.

Wondrich persuasively argues that the racist, swervy, energetic Euro-American misunderstanding/appropriation/collision/homage of/with/to African American music that begat the minstrel tradition of Daniel Emmett informs all subsequent North American vernacular music. Ragtime, jazz, swing, rock-and-roll, country, bluegrass, soul, funk, hip hop, techno.

Complex story.

Ragtime wasn’t just Scott Joplin and the other dignified pianists. A whole world of songs, bawdy and stupid and smart and everything, descended from minstrelsy, with the Ragtime syncopation that got everybody’s body moving. And from Ragtime, or Ragtime + Blues, jazz and its descendants.

And. Banjo, originally an African instrument, got adopted by whites via minstrelsy, which lasted much longer than I could have imagined -- until the middle of the 20th century. (Tidbit: A teen-age Ornette Coleman played in minstrel shows in the late ‘40s!!!) Banjo got adopted by southern whites as an instrument good-old old-timey old-time good-time music, into the early country music record industry of the 1920s and into its sophisticated jazzy bluegrass descendants. Early country singers of the ‘20s recorded minstrel songs as straight-up country-folk songs, because, 60 years after they were originally written up north by professional white minstrels, the country folk tradition had absorbed them.

Also: the corny jokes of bluegrass and country acts like the TV show “Hee-Haw”: straight out of minstrelsy.

Other tidbits seemingly designed to win my enthusiasm: Wondrich devotes positive space to the hot band of John Philip Sousa, who (news to me) recorded ragtime tunes as well as his own compositions.

And: Wondrich digs Paul Whiteman, the (white) much-dissed so-called King of Jazz of the 1920s, who happened not only to hire great musicians like George Gershwin and Bix Beiderbecke, but also just made slick, peppy, imaginatively arranged records even without the participation of brilliant instrumentalists like Bix and George. I'm with Wondrich all the way on this one.

And: his story of the breakthrough of Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds, who made the first big hit blues record to sell hundreds of thousands to African Americans in 1920, Crazy Blues.

Wondrich winds up the story in 1924 -- actually 1925 -- because in a brilliant critical insight, he knows that's when the story moves into the common property of conventional wisdom, and he shows how that was when the future course of jazz as a virtuoso soloist's art was irretrievably set. Late in December 1924, the Red Onion Jazz Babies cut a terrific record called "Cake Walking Babies From Home," on which the brilliant soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet actually upstaged the young Louis Armstrong. Two weeks later in early 1925, the group cut the same song again, and Louis recorded the first of his many mind-bogglingly inspired trumpet solos to come, all tonal bravado and rhythmic surprise. I've heard both of these versions, and Wondrich is right. The present age starts here.

Best book on music I've read in a long time. Chockful, and a hot read. I thank and congratulate the author.

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