Monday, March 6, 2017

Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, 1843–1924

“The early decades of American popular music are, for most listeners, the dark ages. It wasn't until the mid-1920s that the full spectrum of this music -- black and white, urban and rural, sophisticated and crude -- made it onto records for all to hear. This book brings a forgotten music, hot music, to life by describing how it became the dominant American music -- how it outlasted sentimental waltzes and parlor ballads, symphonic marches and Tin Pan Alley novelty numbers -- and how it became rock 'n' roll. It reveals that the young men and women of that bygone era had the same musical instincts as their descendants Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and even Ozzy Osbourne. In minstrelsy, ragtime, brass bands, early jazz and blues, fiddle music, and many other forms, there was as much stomping and swerving as can be found in the most exciting performances of hot jazz, funk, and rock. Along the way, it explains how the strange combination of African with Scotch and Irish influences made music in the United States vastly different from other African and Caribbean music; shares terrific stories about minstrel shows, 'coon' a motley collection of performers heretofore unknown to all but the most avid musicologists and collectors.” Author David Wondrich…

Recently, I entertained the idea of ordering a DNA kit from National Geographic. A musician friend received the results, and the details were fascinating. Although his roots are in Ireland – there are bits and pieces of him all over Europe. I know my dad’s side of the family is from the Appalachian region of the upper south and my mother’s, Italy. This leads me to believe, musicians, have a deep connection with their earliest ancestral cousins. It’s why we choose the music we play and why some sounds connect with us over others.

Someone posted a request on Facebook recently looking for a good music biography read. Former Globe & Mail jazz columnist Mark Miller posted a few, and others he thought were impeccable reads. Stomp and Swerve by David Wondrich caught my attention. I’m forever caught up in tracing the origins of popular music. Much of what we know and understand is tied to the advent of recording technology of the late 1800’s. Long before, popular music was taking shape in the form of Irish jigs, Mexican and Cuban habaneras, Celtic sounds, and African influence.

The late 1600s saw the beginnings of “chattel slavery” – African blacks designated by race as property – some 12,000,000 shipped through the Americas and Caribbean (the New World). We also witnessed hundreds of thousands of Irish, Scots, English, and German prisoners, - itinerants, orphans, and undesirables, transported for the purpose of; “indentured servitude.” Many arrived in the Carolinas, Virginia, New England, Brazil and the West Indies. The West Indies - the Irish in Antiqua and Montserrat.
Along with the forced re-settlement came new sounds, new music, new language, and customs. You can hear that throughout the south – from Appalachian old-time country music, mountain swing, bluegrass, gospel, African-American blues, and ballad singing – the English ballads, Irish and Scot traditional music and hymns. It was within this melting pot, music would undergo revolutionary change. We began to move away from the waltz kings, the corny warblers, the march kings, and embrace America under the influence of immigrants. A new rhythm based music that borrowed from the brash howls of marching bands, the syncopations of Brazilian and Caribbean music, the poetic writings of authors with a sense of the true human condition, took hold - the poverty, the suffering, the repression, a critical sense of one’s surroundings.

Artists before audio documentation were searching and reveling in cross-rhythms and exotic melodies. The number of ragtime pianists with ample European style flashy chops and original works
extends way beyond the Scott Joplin’s of the era. Many survive on piano roll – the best-recorded technique of the era.

It’s that marriage of all that occurred between 1843 and 1924 I find absolutely fascinating. There is nearly eighty years of incredible musicians, music, and collaborations that got us to the Drakes, Metallica’s, Chick Corea’s and Willie Nelson’s. Wondrich connects the early decades and current times beautifully. Stomp and Swerve is written in such a way that it’s literate, insightful and extremely entertaining. You can find on Amazon or Google.

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