Popular Music as a Relay Race

Much of our modern pop music seems to have been an exchange, a dialogue, between different groups, different styles. As such, it seems that music , more than any other art, forms a chain leading back to the past, because unlike the other arts, there has never been a break in its traditions – well, maybe during the miserabilist period of the Presbyterians in the English Civil War, but there were probably still people singing in the fields beyond the reach of the authorities.

Simon and Garfunkel famously were inspired by English folk music, especially as introduced to them by the Godfather of English folk, Martin Carthy. Meanwhile, young English musicians were devouring music by black Americans. Britain did not share the United States’ experience of racial conflict, so there was no bias against the music of wise old black performers.

So the English had a blues explosion in the form of The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Led Zepellin, The Animals (whose ’We Gotta Get Out of Her’ is claimed by Mr Springsteen as the source of his entire career)  and probably more than the others, Eric Clapton. The English had largely lost their folk tradition, or had it cleaned up like the fairy tales to the point of being too bland to be credible. In Britain, it was believed that the blues might provide young white men with something that old black men were thought to possess – the secret of presenting oneself truly, directly, intensely. For, with almost the sole exception of Jimi Hendrix, this was a white mode. It provided an antidote to the clean cut boys in suits singing love songs.

Many American musicians cite the Beatles as a seminal influence on them, not least because they were the first self contained band, ie they wrote their own songs, so could be copied by kids in garages anywhere in the country, or the world.

But a lesser known aspect is this transformation and reinterpretation of Black American music, especially The Blues, which is still an incredibly popular genre in the UK, especially with the more discerning and political fans, because the blues are the songs of the workers.

A few years ago I saw the brilliant ‘Carolina Chocolate Drops’ in concert. They explained how in the states, music for ordinary working people was pretty much the same, though black people danced at frolics, the whites at square dances,  until the 1930s when white groups such as the Carter Family got recording contracts, so establishing country music as a primarily white mode.

The concert was brilliant, of course, but what I found strange was that the audience was almost entirely grey haired with not a single black face. This traditional American music, which is wonderful in its own right, is an important part of black culture, is of no interest to the British outside the traditional white folk audience. Black people of this country often complain about their lack of black roots, but those routes do not go via the states. Which is a pity, as the songs speak of human behaviour and emotions that seem to be universal, and of course, wonderfully performed by this wonderfully diverse band.

7 thoughts on “Popular Music as a Relay Race

    • People draw parallels between rap and shakespeare, inasmuch as they are based on orality and improvisation. Not sure how widespread the influence of Gullah is/was. Does it still exist? i heard it had died out

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  1. Have you seen The Song Catcher? It is a wonderful film about a woman trying to record and connect Appalachian music to old English/Irish/Welch songs. Iris Demint sings I wish I was a Turtle Dove, it is one of my favorites.

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    • Sorry the line, “well I wished I was a turtle dove, had wings and could fly..”
      is my favorite line from the song which is actually titled Pretty Saro. My brain is addled from just finishing a test.

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    • Missed that one, will have to hunt it out. Genuine early songs are pretty rare in england. There is the cropper family i think who have a tradition of family singing back to the late 18th century but their grandmother cleaned them all up so i find them a bit bland.

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