The sound is the freedom. The chord don’t mean nothing.
– Ornette Coleman, interviewed in Andrew Zuckerman’s book Music
(Image from Powerchords: Music, Magick & Urban Fantasy; art by Bryan Syme)
If blues is the Devil’s music, then its offspring – jazz, country, soul and rock – are its four horsemen. Thundering across electric highways, these fertile musicologies plunder everything they find.
Jazz shares the outlaw origins of blues, but focuses more on instrumental prowess than personal catharsis. Supposedly named for sexual intercourse, jazz takes the most sensual elements of European, African and American music, and then heats them to incandescent brilliance. Where blues is intimate, jazz becomes spectacular. Big bands, fast beats, loud instruments and dazzling skill catch the roar of the early 20th century. By the “jazz age” of the 1920s, this style transcends ethnic boundaries, attracting black, white, Latino, Asian and even Gypsy artists and audiences. Virtuosity is jazz’s calling card; a jazz player either gets great or gets gone. The best musicians in the world aspire to play jazz; in the wake of World War II, artists like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and Charlie “Bird” Parker craft jazz into a stunning new musical language, one often far beyond the grasp of the average listener or artist.
More accessible forms of jazz evolve into the popular music of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack (Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, and Sammy Davis, Jr.) set new standards for cool while breaking every law and commandment in sight; Davis even briefly joins Anton LaVay’s Church of Satan in the 1960s. Film scores swing to the tunes of Henry Mancini, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and the Monty Norman/ John Barry combo that provides an immortal theme for “Bond – James Bond.” Calloway’s work has an especially uncanny flavor, with Cab and his band making appearances in eerily surreal animated films from the Fleischer Brothers studios. Althoug it remains disreputable – even occasionally banned – until the 1970s (when it grows too mild and esoteric to feel threatening), jazz becomes the milestone of musical accomplishment. “Anything Goes” in jazz; until rock’s peak in the late 1960s, no other musical form reflects America’s eclectic nature more than jazz.
Ghost Riders (In the Sky)
Country music taps the “white man’s blues,” bridging Celtic songcraft, English ballads, black blues, and the lonesome sound of the open west. Though rural in personality, country and its variants reflect the white American mythos as a whole. Hard-working, hard-living stuff, country music is plaintively personal. Presided over by a stern God and a loving (if often distant) Jesus, the heroes and heroines of country songs break their hearts and backs against a landscape of vast mortal indifference. Shacks and prisons, wide plains and lonely rodeos, shattered homes and broken dreams form the backdrop of most country songs. While less demon-haunted than the blues, this style treads the ghostly border between past and present – a place where forgiveness is sought but often denied.
Like jazz and the blues, country music has no “father” as such. But although he comes along decades into the form, the bleak voice of Johnny Cash sums up the essence of country music. Cash’s “man in black” mystique captures all the holy terrors inherent in country songs like Vaughn Monroe’s “Ghost Riders” or his own “The Man Comes Around.” Although other country artists waver between heaven and the pit (most notably Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynne, Steve Earle, Neko Case, and Johnny’s daughter Rosanne), Cash embodies the agonized prophecies of American night. “How well I have learned,” he writes in his first autobiography, “that there is no fence to sit on between heaven and hell. There is a deep wide gulf, a chasm, and in that chasm is no place for any man.”
Music of Changes
Deep on the fringes of popular music, scattered malcontents tear music apart at the seams. Rejecting formal musicology, even the raw structures of blues and country, handfuls of avant-garde musicians like John Cage, Charles Ives and Halim El-Dabh explore the sonic limits. Anything, in their hands, can be “music”: smashed plates, car engines, shrieking voices, even silence. And while their experiments remain too odd for mass appeal, they’ll eventually influence the sonic rebellions of industrial, punk, techno, hip-hip, reggae, New Age, ambient, prog, avant-garde Classical, bebop jazz, and all manner of whatever-core music. Decades later, artists like Kate Bush, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Brian Eno, Yoko Ono, Throbbing Gristle, Kraftwerk, Philip Glass and Skinny Puppy will turn strange noise into gold.
By the 1950s, a collection of radio stations and record labels feed growing music audiences. Though concentrated in North America and industrialized Europe and Asia, this global audience has voracious tastes. Conservative corporate and community standards marginalize “race music” and the rawer forms of blue, jazz and country, often taming them into smooth shadows of the genuine article. Across North America, though, black “chitlin circuits” and underground cafes keep the real deal humming. Sheet music, radio, movies and portable phonographs (equipped with small vinyl 45 RPM “singles”) spread music across the industrial world. Music stores flourish in nations rich enough to support them, while globe-trotting military men bring records with them wherever they go. As World War II freezes into the Cold War, jazz, blues and country have established styles, thriving audiences, and several generations of artistry and growth.
But the real and symbolic devils at America’s crossroads cannot be denied.
In the wake of humanity’s most devastating war, old social orders are forever shattered. Despite desperate attempts to go “back to business” in the late 1940s, centuries of racial, sexual and social oppression demand release. The men and women who return from fighting World War II have stared into the ultimate human abyss. The questions posed by ethnic genocide and technological annihilation refuse to go away, and the women, kids and minorities who worked in factories during the War won’t go quietly back to their second-class status. By the 1950s, the revolt begins. Beneath the Father Knows Best media mirage, musicians catch the restless tenor of the times.
The result – also named for sex – is rock-n-roll.
And that changes everything.
(To be Continued…)
[This article is the fourth part of a series of excerpts from my book-in-progress POWERCHORDS: MYSTIC RHYTHMS. All rights retained by the author. (c) 2014 Satyros Phil Brucato. Linking with attribution explicitly permitted. Reproduction or republishing without attribution by any party other than the Author, without written permission, is explicitly prohibited. Thanks!]
The rest of this series can be found below: