Allen Lowe’s American Pop from Minstrel to Mojo: On Record 1893 to 1957

Brendan Foreman penned this review.

UnknownReading Allen Lowe’s book American Pop from Minstrel to Mojo: On Record 1893 to 1957, I found myself agreeing with the late Tupac Shakur’s vision of the afterlife. Heaven would simply be a large night club filled with all of the late, great musicians of yesteryear. For eternity, all you need to do is stroll through and listen to the fine music… Ironically, if someone told me some years back that this vision consisted entirely of American pop music, my younger self would have concluded that they were describing Hell, but this book — among other influences — has convinced me of my folly. Early American pop music in any of its known forms — jazz, blues, ragtime, vaudeville, country or rock — is truly one of the highest achievements of the American culture.

In this remarkable book, Allen Lowe takes us through a tour of recorded American pop music, starting with an astonishingly early 1893 and ending appropriately at 1956, when rock ‘n roll was just about to take over the world. For each selected year, the author has selected a number of representative songs and discusses various aspects of the performers and the music. We start in 1893 with a recording by a group of Black musicians who called themselves the Unique Quartette. Loew notes “One of the earliest known Black recordings is of a song called Mama’s Black Baby Boy by group called the Unique Quartette. Recorded in the Fall of 1893, it’s from a cylinder, an early, wax-based method of recording. It’s in the classic a cappella style, in the format of the vocal quartet, a major Black community influence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With its gentle harmony and rolling melodicism, it gives us a particular good example of the sound of the early African-American song.”

The last selection is a 1956 recording of Changing All These Changes by Buddy Holly. Lowe comments that “Though he looked to rockabilly as his model, and was galvanized by the success of Elvis Presley …, Buddy Holly’s music, particularly after1956, challenged the orthodoxies of rockabilly singing and song form. From the basic chord formulas of I, IV, and V, he wrote music of varying structure, sometimes avoiding common bar structures, and utilizing methods of repetiointion that took him far fro the blues. … Though recorded before this talent had reached full flower, Changing All These Changes, recorded between January and April 1956, shows us a bit of Holly’s talent for lyric colloquialisms, his play wth common phrasese, and the way in which he shaped the sound of his small group. By now he’d added a drummer, a new concept for this music, though the drums are felt more than heard in the tap-tap-tap of the rhthym section.”

In this manner, Lowe tracks the development of most of the early 20th century American pop genres that we are familiar with. Ragtime shows up in 1900 with a recording by a banjoist named Vess Ossman. We get early jazz in 1918 with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and in 1922 with Kid Ory and His Sunshine Band. Lowe is quick to point out some of the controversy regarding early jazz: “It has become musically corrent to label the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (hencetofore to be known has the ODJB) as silly White hacks, given the privelege of being the first jazz group to record only by virtue of their whiteness … There’s a reason for such an attitude. It was, in the larger picture, racism that gave the ODJB the earliest access of any jazz group to a recording horn, and racism that have such dominance to the group’s place in introducing jazz to a new world. … The ODJB was, nevertheless, more than just a freak of history or a passing racist fad, but an important early group.”

We also get in 1922 our first taste of country with Eck Robertson performing a song called Ragtime Annie. Further down into 1940, we get bluegrass as initiated by Bill Monroe playing Muleskinner Blues. Everyone else from Duke Ellington and Count Basie to personal favorites of mine like Hoagy Carmichael and Lee Wiley are covered by this slim yet extensive book.

Lowe’s original intent was to understand the origins of jazz. He found many of the current theories to be facile and often stubbornly wrong-headed leaning too often towards a dogmatic Afrocentrism. In terms of sources and influences, he found it impossible to separate jazz music from any of the other myriad genres of pop music that had shown up with the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Minstrel music was influencing ragtime which was influencing early jazz etc., not to mention the fact that there was much criss-crossing between the Black and White musical worlds of American society. In fact, there were quite a few surprising influences, including evidence that there was a substantial African-American influence on country and bluegrass music. Lowe notes that “Country string bands crossed racial lines and were another outgrowth of [the] cross-fertilization [between Scottish and British immigrant music with African-American music]. White singers borrowed rhthyms and vocal inflections from Black musicians, and Black musicians borrowed back songs and verses and common modalities. Clearly, African-American influence energized and gave direction to early American music.”

But this seemingly simple relationship between Black and White musical styles is far from the whole picture: “The line of influence that this draws is from White to Black; it depcts the final transition of American folk materials in the hands (or mouths) of an enslaved people ripe with West African retentions of speech, style and custom. The standard line of reasoning this reflects is a belief that the process of musical transformation of our variously labeled folk musics (be they Scottish, Irish, British, Scotch-Irish or whatever) was essentially completed by African-Americans at different stages of American musical history. … But this line of reasoning … misses a step in American musical development, a step that really explains why our song has developed into its partiuclar form of twentieth century hybrid. What ultimately changed the sound of American song from “Africanized” versions of New World songs was its re-transmission, at various times, from Black to White. ”

This is to say that White musicians were copying styles of music from Black musicians who were, in fact, imitating White musicians from earlier generations and so on.

This duality between the Black and White musical worlds is a constanttheme throughout the book. Here, Lowe is describing a ragtime piece by a string band from the mid 1920’s: “In American vernacular music, one of the most common of groups is the string band … Though the major popular association with such groups is in the area of White hillbilly and country and western music, there has been some, though sparse, recorded documentation of the African-American side of the tradition. This tradition … has known antecedents as far back as the eighteenth century. One such, more recent, document is The Dallas Rag by The Dallas String Band, led by Coley Jones, and recorded on December 6, 1927. It is a multi-strain piece with the leader’s excellent mandolin up front … Though Jones had experience in Black minstrel and medicine shows … he and the group played for White audiences as well. This constant exposure of Black groups to White audiences, particularly in the South and Southwest, helps explain why African-American musical styles continually expanded into the mainstream instead of remaining on the cultural fringes, to which ;many of its creators were exiled by reason of race and class. It also explains whyy Southern song (with its contant Black/White dialectic) is at the root of so much American popular music.”

Sometimes, Lowe’s opinions on this matter are as entertaining to read on their own as any history lesson. Here is a blurb about Jelly Roll Morton or, rather, about the current theories of Jelly Roll Morton: “There is an extremely idiotic Broadway show, written and directed by Geoffrey Wolfe, which tells us how Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941) betrayed his race by denying his African-ness. According tho this play, among his sins were: liking opera (horrors!); racism (he was a light-skinned Creole and had some of the class snobbery endemic to that groups); and claiming to be the inventor of jazz. How and where to start? 1) Jelly Roll worked continually with Black musicians, and I mean Black (check out pictures of clarinestist Johnny Dodds, his frequent collaborator); 2) opera and light opera were an integral part of New Orleans musical life …; 3) and, let’s face it, Morton’s claim to have invented jazz is not that far fetched.”

As is evident from these examples, Lowe is far from a stuffed shirt in terms of his prose style. For the most part, he is an easy read. It’s just the shear density of this book that can be intimidating: there is just so much musical knowledge that he packs in a deceptively thin 278 pages. Also, at times, Lowe assumes a bit more knowledge on the part of the reader than he or she might really know. However, this is the perfect book for any anyone who wants to explore the depths of the American popular music heritage and is not put off with a little educational reading. It can be used an introduction to artists and genres that the reader unfamiliar with, or it can be used just as easily as a broad history and commentary of American music during the first half of this century. In either case, it’s a great read.

(Northpoint, 1997)


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