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There were guys in there fiddlin' and scrapin', couldn't play enough music to keep the flies off a dog - Howard Armstrong on being kept out of white fiddling contests

Author Topic: Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music  (Read 3176 times)

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Offline Stuart

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Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music by Peter van der Merwe (Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1989)

This book was mentioned in the PWBG today and a couple of members gave it very high marks. Although it's been out for a while, I haven't seen it. Here are a couple of links:

http://www.us.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/Music/PopularMusic/?view=usa&ci=9780198163053

http://www.amazon.com/Origins-Popular-Style-Antecedents-Twentieth-Century/dp/0193161214

Offline Bunker Hill

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I'm ashamed to say that I was sent this as a gift and have never read nor referred to it in the 20 years it's been on the shelves.   :'(

From memory Blues & Rhythm  or Juke Blues gave it a long, analytical and thought provoking review. I?ll hunt  it out.

Offline Bunker Hill

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The only blues magazine that seems to have reviewed it was Juke Blues (issue 20, summer 1990).
===========================
ORIGINS OF THE POPULAR STYLE
The Antecedents of Twentieth Century Popular Music
by Peter van der Merwe
Oxford University Press, 1989 xiii + 352 pp,
?30.00 ISBN 0 19 316121 4

Peter van der Merwe's book takes as its subject the puzzling fact that 20th Century popular music, while using the musical language of the 19th Century, remains unmistakably 'modem'; 'no one could mistake a Noel Coward waltz for a Strauss one', as he sums it up. His aim is to discover what it is that distinguishes the languages of popular and classical music from one another, and to do so he surveys the history of music from the remote past to about 1900. Inevitably, there is a lot about blues included about one third of the book is a section called The Blues', and part one. 'The Historical Background' is also highly relevant, being about African and European musics, and the paths they took in North America. The other parts are a brief but necessary outline of the author's theoretical framework, and a section on 'Parlour Music and Ragtime'. I may as well say here that this book contains some of the most stimulating and thought provoking and some of the wittiest and most succinct writing about blues and its antecedents that I have read for a long time; it will provoke debate, and provide valuable perspectives for research.

I ought also to make it clear that van der Merwe's perspective is musicological; he is not concerned with economics, sociology, biography or non-musical history, except on the broadest scale and as a context for the consideration of musical developments. Accordingly, his work is couched in the language of musical analysis, and notated examples are central to the presentation of his ideas. You will need to be able to understand both the former and the latter to get full value from the book, and I for one found it essential to sit at the piano and stumble through many of the examples.

Part one begins with the invention of music, no less, and its spread from the Middle East to Africa and Europe. The affinity of Celtic and Afro Islamic musics, which were to come together in the New World to create the blues, is accounted for by their common oriental ancestry; this is highly plausible when one compares the lined out hymns and the call and response worksongs of the Hebrides and black America. Van der Merwe is commendably reluctant to generalise about African music and the elements that survived into the blues; his perspective is broadly that of Paul Oliver in Savannah Syocopotors, though it should be pointed out that nasal singing is rare in blues, contrary to what seems to be implied, and I would not agree that it is an African survival. While agreeing that Scots Irish, Irish and English folk musics were the major white influences on popular music in the US, I think that the author underestimates the influence of Central Europe; the polka is not mentioned, and the popularity of the waltz in folk communities is ignored.

Most of us would define the blues as consisting with exceptions of a 12 bar AAB verse, with harmonic changes: 4 bars tonic, 2 subdominant, 2 tonic, 2 dominant (or 1 dominant, 1 subdominant), and 2 tonic. Neither of these features, says van der Merwe, is of the essence. Much blues is non-harmonic and the three part structure is more important than the 12 bars and the AAB formula. Syncopation is one essential feature of the blues; the other is what he terms the 'blues mode'.

We are so conditioned to hear music in terms of harmony that it's often difficult to hear it otherwise; as van der Merwe says, the A in the second last bar of 'Pop Goes The Weasel' implies the subdominant chord! Nevertheless, it's clear, that much early blues melody, and quite a lot of accompanied blues (e.g. John Lee Hooker), has no harmonic implications; this view is supported, it seems to me, by the nature of early jazz improvisation, based as it is on heterophonic embellishment of the melody rather than on the creation of new melodies above existing chord changes. The blues mode, then, is a melodic framework, rather than a harmonic one, and consists of a series of melodic triads, starting with the well known 'blue notes' dropping to, or climbing up to, the tonic, and with further thirds added above or below a 'ladder of thirds'. This way of analysing the notes of the blues, by reference to their position in the melodic ladder of thirds, is radically different from the conventional explanation in terms of harmony, but is often persuasive. So too, is van der Merwe's derivation of the 'blues mode' from an encounter between African melody and the blue notes found in British folk music. His derivation of 'One Kind Favor' from 'Barbara Allen' by stripping down the tune from a heptatonic scale to a bare triad, is fascinating and convincing and, given that a very bluesy 'Barbro Allen' was notated from white sources in 1893, suggests that white input to the blues was more important than we may wish to think.

Blues harmony, then, came along later; van der Merwe sees it originating from a formula nicknamed 'Gregory Walker' that was popular in 17th Century classical language, but dropped out of fashion; it probably remained in use among those who could think harmonically but not read music, until the 19th Century, when it underwent a great revival, and was used in 'Darling Nelly Gray', 'The Wreck Of The Old 97', 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' and many other tunes. It runs I IV I V I IV 1 V 1. The similarity of this to the blues progression (I IV I V (IV) I) will be obvious, and I think the propo?sition is inarguable. Van der Merwe's view on the triumph of the 12 bar pattern is also a very persuasive explanation of the formula's appeal, which derives from the way modality, harmony, phrasing and rhythm are all bound together to make the structure satisfying; take one of them away, and the whole falls to pieces. Add them all together, and there is a ternary structure that feels complete and yet doesn't have the return to first subject that textbooks on form deem basic. Cross rhythms, tension between harmony that swings back and forth and the ternary structure that contains it, the way that the I-IV change is out of sync with the AAB phrasing these are major factors in the satisfying nature of the blues; it contains and resolves conflicting musical schemes.

There is not space to consider the author's discussion of parlour music and ragtime, but it will be no surprise that it is fascinating and insightful. In considering the book's discussion of blues, I have left out much, and simplified more. There are some points on which I disagree, and some straightforward errors  the history of 'Tight Like That' is quite unlike what van der Merwe believes, for instance. On the other hand, has it ever occurred to you (be honest) that 'Tight Like That' is the musical ancestor of 'Good Golly Miss Molly' and 'Long Tall Sally'? The book's wealth of insight and imaginative analysis far outweighs the occasional mistake. Peter van der Merwe's view of the origins and development of the blues should be read and pondered by all who are interested in the nebulous early history of the form; he manages both to make it a good deal less nebulous, and to be very thought provoking in the process. Chris Smith

Offline dj

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Thanks for posting that, Bunker.  Another book added to the ever-growing list of things to buy and read.

Offline Stuart

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Thanks for going to the trouble to post the review, Alan. I placed a hold on it at the local library--now the next step is to find the time to actually read it. Thanks again.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Thanks for going to the trouble to post the review, Alan. I placed a hold on it at the local library--now the next step is to find the time to actually read it. Thanks again.
Not a problem. I'm now wondering why the review didn't prompt me to make the effort of reading it.

Offline Alexei McDonald

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This thread has been tempting enough to make me pay a trip to the music library in Edinburgh this morning to borrow their copy of the book.   It all looks very interesting, so thanks everyone, for bringing it to my attention.

Offline dj

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Quote
I'm now wondering why the review didn't prompt me to make the effort of reading it.

I know how it is.  So many books, so little time.   :)

Offline Stumblin

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The University library has a copy, I'll check that out asap.
Thanks for the recommendation & the interesting discussion.

Offline islander

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Make that one more for the library. On hold in transit.
Thanks for the heads up!

Offline efiefoula

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Hi everybody
From what I read, I believe this book to be very interesting. However, I am not sure whether I would be able to understand it, since I have minimal knowledge on music playing (I am undertaking piano lessons, I am in my second year), therefore, I would like to ask those who read the book if it is suitable to my level of music knowledge. I really want to buy it, but I am not sure whether it would be comprehensible or not. In particular, I don't know whether the musical examples set on the book are too complex to understand. Any feedback would be much appreciated!
« Last Edit: November 19, 2012, 12:16:33 AM by efiefoula »

Offline Westside

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Thanks!  This is the first time I've come across this title.  Just ordered myself a copy from Amazon.  I figure that I really couldn't go wrong at $1.35 + shipping!

Offline oddenda

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This book was highly recommended to me by Kenny Goldstein when I was at "Folklore School" at The University of Pennsylvania. I bought acopy then, but didn't get around to reading it, and now it sits with all my crap in NJ.

pbl

Offline Rivers

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(I am undertaking piano lessons, I am in my second year), therefore, I would like to ask those who read the book if it is suitable to my level of music knowledge. I really want to buy it, but I am not sure whether it would be comprehensible or not. In particular, I don't know whether the musical examples set on the book are too complex to understand.

I would recommend you pick it up, efiefoula, as I intend to do. I don't know how old you are but if you're young, and think you might be playing music for a lifetime, what doesn't compute right now will surely make perfect sense later. I have a lot of books like that, the pieces are still falling into place after 45 years of self-imposed informal home schooling punctuated by lessons. I notice there are no bad reviews so far, and you will surely get some of it, and certainly not all of it, from what I can discern.

Half of the game is knowing the terms so you can ask the right questions!

Offline efiefoula

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Rivers thank you for your reply. I am not that young, actually I am 31 but I have a long history with music interfused with a lot of breaks on the way :) I read most of the reviews and as you say they are not bad. I read somewhere that there are 158 musical examples in this book which is quite a lot. They will make sense at some point I believe, but I am hasty, and I want to know as much as possible "now". Thank you for your valuable help.

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