Why has popular music, maybe all
popular culture in general, degenerated into the state of noise
it's been in for the past 30 years? This book attempts to
explain it in ways you'll find provoking and unsettling, at
times pedantic, but mostly exhilarating. We get a tour de force
ride through American music, from traditional jazz to punk rock
and rap, and see how one style led to the next.
It's hard to remember reading
another book that combined so much of scholarship and
excitement. Sometimes I wish Bayles had given us a smaller but
more accessible book. At times this one can be daunting, and
can't convince anyone who won't get very far into its pages. But
it's worth the effort to persevere, especially for those of us
who came of age in the '60s, and for anyone who enjoys coming
upon a perfect pearl of a phrase or a new way of seeing the
As one who struggles to express my own thoughts,
I stand in awe at how well Bayles does it.
first read this book about 50 years ago, when it came out, which
gives an idea of how dated it is. I might be dated,
too, as I still have a copy of the first edition.
If it's the golden age of rock you
want to know about, this is the bible.
In the Country of Country:
A Journey to the Roots of American Music
An enjoyable book, if not an
indispensable one, where we learn about some of the roots of our
country music tree.
The author has a clear respect for this music, and to understand
it better he spent much time with some of its legends, traveling
to their childhood homes to talk with friends and neighbors.
Young fans of modern country might not even know some of these
legends: Harlan Howard (the great songwriter); Bill Monroe;
Ralph Stanley; Earl Scruggs; Buck Owens; Emmylou Harris; Doc
Watson; Iris Dement; and others.
Not a scholarly reference, it's only until you get to the Notes
at the end of the book to realize how deeply the author seeped
himself in his subject. His sources list many books, articles
and videos, as well as many interviews.
Remarkably, this young man, in only his early 30s, a Harvard
grad and raised in Connecticut (yeah, maybe southern
Connecticut) was made welcome by so many whose backgrounds were
so different. Maybe even more remarkable is that not until
almost the book's end does he offhandedly say, in describing how
one musician led him to another, "I met Emmylou Harris at
Harlan's birthday party. Emmylou then took me along to Bill
Monroe's birthday party. And so it went."
To have Emmylou Harris take you to a party and not tell anybody
about it until page 315 ... now, that's class. As well as to
have interviewed Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, and we learn it deep
in the Notes, not on the cover.
My only complaint is in the artists the author chose to include
and those he chose not to. I've never been a fan of George Jones
the singer, and after reading about George Jones the person,
think even less of him. I wish many more pages had been given to
Emmylou Harris, and that Ricky Skaggs and Willie Nelson had been
profiled, not just interviewed. In truth, country music has so
many legends, it's hard to know where to begin in listing
omissions. There's another book here waiting to be written.
I started the book knowing what it was about but not knowing
which artists would be profiled. After starting it, I couldn't
wait for my before-sleep reading, not knowing who would be up
next ("Will he do Emmylou? YES!), but knowing this book would be
waiting by the reading lamp for a brief time into a better place.
Do the old great violins like the
Stradivarius really sound better?
results of a blind test, as reported in the Economist
magazine, 12 January 2012.
Music Works, by David Byrne
(2012). While Byrne includes his own
musical history, it's only to illustrate the history, the technology,
and the business of making
Each chapter is an overview of
subjects on which entire books have been written. Until we read
those books, this one is a fine introduction. The chapters on
getting paid for your music would be especially interesting to
My only complaint is Byrnes
granting too much respect to hip hop, a grating fraud on the
public, instead of roundly condemning
it for the deplorable trash it is.
The pages and cover, in the hardback
version at least, deserve mention. The book is as much a pleasure to hold as it
is a pleasure to read.
Songs of the Summer of 1963 . . . and 2013,
by Juan Williams, WSJ, 27 August 2013
is the link to the essay, and includes over 200 comments, many
In case the essay is behind a paywall, here it is again with
what I hope is the permission and forbearance of the Wall Street
Journal, to whom I owe gratitude for bringing the essay to us.
Fifty years after the March on Washington,
mystical memories of that seminal moment in the civil-rights era
are less likely to focus on movement politics than on the great
poetry and great music.
The emotional uplift of the monumental march is a
universe of time away from today's degrading rap music—filled
with the n-word, bitches and "hoes"—that confuses and depresses
race relations in America now.
The poetry of Aug. 28, 1963, is best on view when
Martin Luther King Jr. went off his speech script and started
using a musical, chanting reprise—"I have a dream." The
transforming insight born of the power of the interracial
gathering at that time of turmoil, combined with the power of
the spoken word, created an emotional message that still grips
the American mind.
"I have a dream that one day on the red hills of
Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave
owners will be able to sit down together at the table of
brotherhood," King said, in verse that somehow spanned a history
of slavery and the Founding Fathers' uniquely American promise
"I have a dream that one day even the state of
Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice,
sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into
an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four
little children will one day live in a nation where they will
not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of
their character. I have a dream today!"
That poetry rose above the reality that as King
spoke the civil-rights movement was stalled. Few schools had
integrated after the Supreme Court's Brown
v. Board of Education decision nine years earlier. One
hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil
Rights Act was stuck in Congress. NAACP leader Medgar Evers had
been killed in June. After a violent April in Alabama, in which
protest marchers were beaten and set upon by police dogs, an
estimated 15,000 more civil-rights activists had been arrested
at protests across the country that summer.
King sailed past all those sad realities to
invoke his soaring vision of the nation at racial peace. When he
finished speaking, the crowd spontaneously broke into singing
"We Shall Overcome," holding hands and swaying as if in communal
That sense of unity, promise and purpose was also
evident in the music of the march. It's music that still stirs
emotions to this day.
Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," written in
1962, hit No. 2 on the Billboard charts just before the crowd
gathered in Washington. When the folk-music trio Peter, Paul and
Mary sang the song for the 250,000 people in front of the
Lincoln Memorial that day, it became an interracial anthem for
change. The song itself drew inspiration from two others: The
lyrics brought to mind Woody Guthrie's "Bound for Glory," which
included an allegory about newspapers blowing down city streets,
and its melody came from a slave protest song called "No More
And so they sang in Washington: "Yes, how many
years can some people exist before they're allowed to be free?
Yes, how many times can a man turn his head, pretending that he
just doesn't see? The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind,
the answer is blowin' in the wind."
Sam Cooke, the black gospel and rhythm-and-blues
singer began performing the Dylan song immediately after the
march. He had been working on a song about the hurt he felt as a
black man living with racism yet also with hope for better
times. In December 1963, Cooke recorded "A Change Is Gonna
Come." The song became a hit on black radio, another anthem of
yearning for a nation without racial rancor.
"I go to the movie and I go downtown, somebody
keep telling me don't hang around," Cooke wrote. "It's been a
long time coming but I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it
The next year, in 1964, Curtis Mayfield—also
openly inspired by the music of the march—wrote an even more
hopeful song: "People Get Ready." It, too, picked up on a
frequent image of American folklore, the train of salvation.
Just as Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash had sung
"This Train's Bound for Glory," Mayfield, a black Chicago singer
steeped in church gospel music and the blues, sang about faith
in the American struggle for racial justice.
"People get ready, there's a train a comin'; you
don't need no baggage you just get on board . . . there ain't no
room for the hopeless sinner who would hurt all mankind just to
save his own. Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner. For
there's no hiding place against the Kingdom's throne."
The uplifting lyrics made "People Get Ready" one
of the earliest hits on both black and white radio. Bob Marley
later used some of the words in his poignant song "One Love."
Bruce Springsteen used the song as a healing anthem at concerts
after the 9/11 terror attacks.
The songs by Dylan, Cooke and Mayfield have been
ranked 14th, 12th and 24th on Rolling Stone magazine's list of
greatest songs of all time. All three have roots in the March on
Now, half a century after the lyrical promise of
that inspiring music and poetry, there is the inescapable and
heartbreaking contrast with the malignant, self-aggrandizing rap
songs that define today's most popular music.
In Jay-Z's current hit, "Holy Grail," he sings
about "psycho bitches" and uses the n-word seven times while
bragging that he is "Living the life . . . Illest [n-word]
alive." Another top rapper, Lil Wayne, released a song in the
spring with an obscenity in
the title, using the n-word repeatedly and depicting
himself as abusing "hoes" and "bitches."
Similar examples abound in the rap-music world
and have persisted for years with scarcely any complaint from
today's civil-rights leaders. Their failure to denounce these
lyrics for the damage they do to poor and minority
families—words celebrating tattooed thugs and sexually
indiscriminate women as icons of "keeping it real"—is a sad
reminder of how long it has been since the world heard the sweet
music of the March on Washington.
Mr. Williams is a political analyst for Fox News
and a columnist for the Hill. He is the author of "Eyes on the
Prize: America's Civil Rights Years 1954-1965" (Viking, 1987).
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