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Robert Cantwell article

Robert Cantwell article - Bob Dylan and Joan Baez at...

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Unformatted text preview: Bob Dylan and Joan Baez at Newport, 1963 {ten Qabfl¥ Cflfilut“! Vhtx lhlt Vim Gosh lady and the Tramp For those who first heard it on the radio in 1958, ”Tom Dooley” had its meaning not against the backdrop of folksong scholarship or left-wing politics but as an unexpected departure from, and at the same time an ingenious continuation of, what was then one of the most remarkable entrepreneurial successes in the youth market: rock—and-roll, remarkable because of its apparently obscure sociocultural origins and its violent over- throw of the class standards of popular music. Rock-and-roll grew out of the practice by white performers, begun sometime in the forties, of covering (emulating) black rhythm-and-blues recordings distributed primarily within the urban black commu- nity, often circulating to southern cities from Chicago and New York. Much of this music evolved directly from the traditional blues being played in the 19305 by small ensembles, such as those led by Washboard Sam, Big Bill Broonzy, and Muddy Waters, recently come from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago.1 When young white working-class southerners began in 1954 to cover black ”jump” blues, rock-and-roll found a popular audi~ ence. This music, disseminated by the ever more portable radio and on 45—rpm discs, was unquestionablyEt kind of folk music?) l4 lady and the Tramp with roots extending deeply into the black and White folk culture of the south. The inexpensive and virtually indestructible 45-rpm rockabilly disc was in the weeks of its currency a kind of crypto- gram that, much to the dismay of parents, could be deciphered only by constant repetition. If its message seemed anLiirgenlsone, established only by increments in the understanding of adoles- cent children, it was because at the moment of their sexual awak- ening an exotic sexual culture, the culture of the levee and the boondocks, where abandoned lovers take up lodgings at the end of Lonely Street, stand at their windows and moan, or sneak into one another’s houses like dogs, was for the space of a few seconds borne in upon them on the rhythms of the juke joint and barrel- house in trappings that disarrned their class— and race-derived re- sistance to it: the straining vocality, sinewy with sexual tension, of young white men. The arm languidly pointing, the sneer, the sideburns, the sidelong grin, the sexual footwork: Elvis Presley’s image was the pattern for thousands of pubescent boys lip- synching before the bedroom mirror with their first cheap guitar. What did the fourteen-year—old know of the idiom and manners of the frankly erotic, unsentimental, and passionate black under- world of New Orleans, Little Rock, or Memphis? Nothing: but rockabilly music, like the thief that doffs his clothes to baffle the guard dog, made it a part of his life. I have emphasized that one of the great contributory streams of American music and culture, what Alan Lornax calls the ”Old Tar River,” has for nearly two hundred years flowed from Afri— can-American life and culture into European and Anglo-Ameri- can culture at every social level. Black performances, by singers such as Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Fats Domino, and by the great rhythm-and—blues groups such as the Platters and the Orioles, continued to provide the touchstone of rock-and—roll throughout the period. From the viewpoint of the folk revival, however, our interest lies with the rockabilly singer, who could convincingly reproduce, in the African-American performance style, a jump blues or a rhythm~and-blues songwfor this was a lady and the Tramp young man who through the music seemed to have thrown off, like blackface minstrels and white jazzmen before him, the weight of polite society and its constraints. Even at the Newport Folk Festival, where southern bluesmen such as Sleepy John Estes and Mississippi John Hurt, or mountain balladeers such as Sara Gunning or Almeda Riddle, were regarded with admira- tion, reverence, and even awe, it was still the young white revivalist, Baez or Dylan, who attracted the enormous crowds and inspired the most calculated musical and personal imitation. The rockabilly sound swiftly declined in the face of massive commercialization, marketing and sex scandals, and, most of all, the strange disappearance of the founding performers: Elvis was drafted into the army, Carl Perkins seriously injured in an auto accident, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis disgraced by liaisons with underage girls, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, and Gene Vincent killed—#50 sweeping was the catastrophe that one could almost imagine some quasi-official conspiracy behind it, espe- cially considering the hostility rock—and-roll had aroused in certain quarters. Equally significant in its demise, however, were the social and cultural affinities of rockabilly. Though its popularity was hardly confined to the working class, rockabilly was a southern work- ing—class music already identified, with a Vigorous second from a terrorized Tin Pan Alley, with what was then officiously called ”juvenile delinquency.” Racists of course saw something still more sinister in it, and political paranoiacs regarded it as only another manifestation of the worldwide communist conspiracy. The commercialization of this music alienated its young mid- dle-class listeners, now entering college, from those who per- mitted themselves to be led by each new commercial imitation of it: Fabian and Frankie Avalon, men of European ethnic back- grounds, had been promoted with Frank Sinatra in mind. A vacuum in popular music had opened, and a broad sector of the middle—class young turned, with the blessing of a relieved com- mercial establishment, to a music that ingeniously subdued 3l5 ) lady and the Tramp awakened musical proclivities on behalf of a new and more fastidious social self-awareness: and which, incidentally, protu- ised to restore vitality to music publishing, since young listeners wanted not only to hear but to sing folksongs. The genie, it seemed, had been put back in the bottle. A few songs from the nascent folk revival had migrated to the pop charts before ”Tom Dooley.” Among them was Johnny Horton’s version of Jimmy Driftwood's "Battle of New Orleans,” Ernie Ford’s version of Merle Travis Sixteen Tons,” and Jimmy Rodgers’ version of the Weavers’ ”Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.” The aforementioned “Rock Island Line,” the Leadbelly song popularized by Irish skiffle bandleader Lonnie Donegan in 1956, for a time rivaled Presley’s hits; two recordings of “Freight Train,” by Doug and Rusty Kershaw and by Rusty Draperwbut composed by the Seeger family’s housekeeper Libba Cotten in 1919, when she was twelvev—reached the Top 40 in 1957. But, like the rockabilly combos, the Kingston Trio and its many imitators—the Cumberland Three, the Chad Mitchell Trio, the Highwaymen—were small stringbands of three or four young white men singing in natural voices, accompanying themselves with open chords on at least one acoustic guitar. In fact, as Dave Guard recalls, the untrained vocal sound was the conscious product of professional coaching in phrasing, vowel sounds, and speech accent.2 Thus, though it did not have the homegrown character of rockabilly, the Kingston Trio’s music seemed essentially aural, amateur, and traditional—what would loosely be called ”folk” music—and hence independently repro— ducible, theoretically, by any untrained person. The professional arrangements that marked its delivery, moreover, were ingen- iously calculated to highlight the timbre of individual voices, the sounds of acoustic guitars and banjos, and the evocativeness of III open harmonies. This is the most important respect, perhaps, in which the new folk groups resembled the rockabilly barnds. But the Kingston Trio's "Tom Dooley" had more strictlyflnusical affinities with lady and the Tramp rockabilly as well. Like many other young men, Dave Guard had been a dedicated listener to urban black music: in his case, to the rhythm—and—blues radio stations broadcasting from San Fran- cisco and Oakland. The Trio’s ”Tom Dooley" had a rhythmic shuffle and a vocal countermelody strongly reminiscent of rhythm-and-blues and a pronounced syncopation in the lyric; on this level the song might have been half-consciously received as a white imitation of the rhythm~and-blues style. Indeed this ”Tom Dooley” could plausibly have been covered by the Coast- ers, with an irony even folk revivalists could appreciate. Most important, though, ”Tom Dooley" told a story, not frankly sexual but darkly so, of murder and execution, furnished like a folktale with vivid concretions—the knife, the white oak tree, a man called Grayson——putatively sung in a cloaked, mel- ancholy voice by a hapless mountaineer with an Irish name, accompanied by a banjo that spoke obscurely of the frontier. It carried the listener’s imagination away from highschool corri- dors and sock hops, where commercial songwriters had largely confined their material, into Etnother world? a world that a century of popular literature and imagery, inc uding that of the schoolroorn, had stereotyped and legitimated. At the same time, the Kingston Trio’s music was delivered with an articulation and phrasing perceptibly polite and book— ish, in musical settings wholesomely pianistic; with their color— ful short—sleeved ivy—league shirts, close—cropped hair, their easy drollery and unambiguous enthusiasm, the group was colle- giate, happily parodying the on-stage pedantry of the previous generation of balladeers and folksong collector-performers. One of Dave Guard's principal influences, Lou Gottlieb, leader of the Gateway Singers and later of the Limeliters, was himself a Ph.D. musicologist who played a comic ”professor” part in his shows. Unlike their mentors, the Kingston Trio seemed to be on spring break somewhere, on the beach at Waikiki, perhaps, where one of their jacket photos pictured them. Yet, under the gleam of sporty arrangements and expensive harmonies, there was some— 317 / 318. lady and the tram thing solemnly beckoning, a horizon of possibilities; though unapologetically commercial and almost ethningly collegiate, they performedfihe principal office of music) what some of the great rock—andwoll tunes from Memphis such as ”Heartbreak Hotel” or ”Blue Suede Shoes” had done, which is to carry the imagination into regions where the human story tells itself unabridged and unencumbered. As we have seen, there are elements in the folk revival with histories of their own: folklore and ballad scholarship, min— strelsy, left-wing politics, education, recreation, and leisure, popular music and culture; but their particular conjunction in the folk revival has its meaning inhhe psychosocial and economic setting of postwar America As Elaine Tyler May points out in her perceptive study of the cold-war American family, Homeward Bound, the new social, domestic, and familial arrangements of the postwar period were anything but traditional. The economic pressures of the depression had both strengthened kinship ties and brought something close to gender equality; with the male role as breadwinner thus threatened, nostalgia developed for a strong paternal figure and a dependent housewife. But the new postwar suburbs were simply extensions of a corporate world that, having mostly swallowed the self-employed man and small entrepreneur, both eroded male autonomy and dispelled the "communities of obligation,” ethnic and agrarian, in which tradi— tional knowledge and value had been seated. The “psychological fastness” of the nuclear family, then, took on an immense burden of social, personal, and sexual fulfillment that it would ultimately prove unable to bearwespe— cially since its great expectations fell primarily on its children. Reared, many of them, in houses and tracts designed for young families, they would as adolescents chafe under constricted spaces, a lack of privacy, unrelieved programming and supervi- sion, and especially the want of activity and variety once sup— plied by extended family and community in a town or city environment.3 Lady and the Tramp If you were born between roughly 1941 and 1948 or lQSO—born, that is, into the new postwar middle class but on the upward slope, not the crest, of the baby boom—~you grew up in a reality perplexingly divided by the intermingling of an emerging mass society and a decaying industrial culture: a soci— ety in which the automobile, the television, the research labo- ratory, the transcontinental market, and the retail franchise, all of them in some sense precipitates of the war, would begin to displace the railroad, the radio, the factory, the regional market, and the local business, changes that in less than a generation would reshape patterns of settlement, the structure of the fam- ily, networks of communication, and the material environment itself. Obscurely taking shape around you, of a definite order and texture, was an environment of new neighborhoods, new schools, new businesses, new forms of recreation and entertain— ment, and technologies that would nearly abolish the world in which your parents had grown up. At the same time, you had been born soon enough to take the lingering traces of an earlier way of life into your own imagina- tion. You may have been reared, for example, in a slightly more rigorous style than that shortly to be advocated by Dr. Benjamin Spock. And you absorbed, as you grew to awareness, your parents’ almost unlimited hopes for you—for to them, who had grown up in depression and war, the relatively prosperous and tranquil life of postwar America was the end of the rainbow, a new dispensation in which the inevitability of success seemed assured; probably you saw yourself growing up to be a doctor or lawyer, scientist or engineer, teacher, nurse, or mother—sexual discrimination was still marked—images held up to you at school and home as pictures of your special destiny. You prob- ably attended, too, an overcrowded public school, typically a building built shortly before World War I to which a new wing had been added to accommodate the burgeoning school—age population, shared a desk with another student, and in addition to the normal fire and tornado drills had sometimes to Climb 3i 0 Lady and the Tramp under your desk in order to be sheltered from the explosion of an atomic bomb: "First there’s a flash of light . . That such a thing might come, and soon, was one of the axioms of daily life; you had seen the atomic explosion on the television, which had come into your livingroom around 1952 or 1953, and all around you, but particularly on television, in the Saturday movie matinees, and in the immediate memory of parents and teachers was evidence of a global catastrophe that had recently spent itself. There was, moreover, a dark colossus, the Soviet Union, and an insidious influence, the Communist Party, in some obscure way connected to one another, foreign in a colorless, unsavory way, and dedicated, you were taught, to conquering us from above, with a rain of bombs, or from within, through a picturesque technique called brainwashing. It is not inconceivable, in fact, that your neighbor was digging a fallout shelter in his backyard. Your house in the suburbs, with its new television set, the two—car garage, the gleaming, garish cars parked inside, the new electric appliances, the college degree your parents persistently evoked as the key to happiness: these were trophies of the enthusiastic consumerism of the postwar period, the uninhibi— ted reaching after a dream long deferred by wartime depriva— tions. Consequently in this vision of consumer Valhalla there was a lingering note of caution, even of dread. Being widely shared and widely promulgated, the vision brought with it a certain uniformity and consistency on the social landscape; and to grasp it probably required the principal wage-earner in your family, most likely your father, to give himself over to the tightly regimented, highly competitive bureaucracy of the postwar American business establishment that so resembled the army. Bureaucratization, conformity, and consumerism did not per- haps touch you as immediately as they touched your parents; but they did touch you. You tended to identify yourself with children your own age, socially, economically, and culturally more or less like yourself, and to think of the homogeneous lady and the Tramp world of children in which your parents had moved to place you, as the aim of their escape from the small town or the urban ghetto, as a norm—you were not, in other words, much ac— quainted in your immediate experience with other classes or cultures and may have been inclined, or even taught, by means of ethnic or racial epithets, dimly allegorical science-fiction films, lingering wartime artifacts, attitudes, and expressions, to look on difference with suspicion or a kind of righteous hostility. The nuclear family to which you belonged, bivouacked in the suburbs with other families more or less like itself, had effec- tively reduced the generational spectrum to the bipolarity of parent and child, while the consolidated public school you at- tended was strictly stratified by grade and, in some schools even more scrupulously, by less visible standards like ”aptitude.” As you advanced in school, you were subject to ever more elabo— rate forms of quantitative evaluation to distinguish you from your fellows, so difficult to distinguish in other ways, a process of IQ tests, achievement tests, aptitude tests, and the like, whose crowning glory was the new Scholastic Aptitude Test with its inexorable power to define, delimit, and foreclose. At the same time, though, intimations of a variegated and enigmatic world beyond the suburban street occasionally dis— turbed the tranquil surface of social reality. There were the desks in the old school building, for example, with their inkwells, and the elderly schoolmarms and schoolmasters, with their old—fash- ioned discipline. There were the old houses on Main Street, too, as well as Main Street itself, whose deterioration would not be complete until all the business had moved out to the shopping mall—a process requiring little more than a decade. Perhaps you had European—born grandparents, still in their stuffy East Side flat or out on the farm; or knew a ”colored man,” born in Mississippi, who came to mow the lawn and played the harmon— ica; or an Amish farmer who delivered eggs; or had a schoolmate with a southern accent, whose father had come from Kentucky to work at the foundry or the auto plant—and who, to your 32l w 322 m lady and the tram amazement, brought a giant flat-top guitar to the fifth-grade talent show, playing and singing in a piping voice “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” Similarly disquieting, and certainly fascinating, was the gang of young toughs from the other side of town, slightly older perhaps—”hoods” or “greasers” you called them—who wore, with their long hair and sideburns, the uniform of the motorcy- clist: black leather jackets with many zippers and pockets, a garrison belt, faded blue jeans, and black engineer boots with silver buckles. One of them, who sat behind you in mechanical drawing, may have failed out of school and been arrested for petty theft. Indeed, the fifth—grade country singer and the high- school dropout may have been, after the passage of a few years, the same person, an unwitting victim of cultural dislocation and the vicissitudes of postwar industrial restructuring. If these figures in the remoter parts of the social landscape attracted your attention, it was perhaps because their certain strange resonance with realms of your cultural life more strictly imaginary made your own world seem insipid by comparison. Wild Bill Hickok, the Lone Ranger, the Cisco Kid, Wyatt Earp, and a hundred other western heroes galloped across television and movie screens on Saturday mornings and afternoons; fron— tiersmen Mik...
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