Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

Feel free to contact me at mason2042 at gmail dot com

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

“Forever Doo-Wop: Race, Nostalgia, and Vocal Harmony” by John Michael Runowicz (University of Massachusetts Press)

The amount of verbiage which has built up around the 1950’s/early-‘60’s style of rhythm-and-blues vocal-group singing known as “doo-wop” has been quite extensive, not only in book form, but also in specialist magazines and on the Internet as well. Most of the writing on this musical genre has been factual/biographical/historical/discographical, concerned primarily with who did what when, who sang on which record by which group, how/when/where individual groups formed and who their influences were, whatever happened to the singers in these groups, and so on. This material is generally carefully researched, and has great value for fans and future researchers alike, to be sure.

But as the subtitle of John Michael Runowicz’ book and the fact that it published by a University Press both indicate, “Forever Doo-Wop” is hardly your typical work on the subject. It is indeed, one of the few academically-oriented books in the field, and the first to my knowledge that approaches the subject through the lens of ethnomusicology. Rest assured, though, that despite the copious footnotes and the seriousness with which Mr. Runowicz approaches his subject, the book is written in a reader-friendly style, without the over-reliance on academic jargon which mars so many otherwise insightful academic books on popular culture.

John Michael Runowicz is perhaps uniquely qualified to write an ethnomusicological examination which retains an authentic feel for and love of the music. On one hand, he is an “independent scholar” with a PhD in ethnomusicology; on the other, he has worked extensively as guitarist and Musical Director for both the classic 50’s vocal group Earl Carroll and the Cadillacs (known for “Speedoo” and the version of the song “Gloria” which served as a template for dozens of cover versions) and Shirley Alston Reeves (former lead singer of the Shirelles, and a busy solo artist in her own right).

Don’t let that seven-syllable word, “ethnomusicology”, scare you away. It simply refers to the serious study of music within a culture or community. ”Community” in this sense does not necessarily refer to a geographical location, but may be extended to a group of people with a shared interest. Bluegrass fans, to cite but one well-known example, tend to comprise a tight-knit “community”. And, as Runowicz is careful to point out, the entire field of doo-wop - including singers, backup musicians, what he calls “mediators” (record producers, promoters), and fans - can be considered to constitute one large and, to a considerable extent, tightly-knit community as well, albeit one in which the various subgroups often have varying interests. One common misconception is that ethnomusicology always studies what the music industry refers to as “world music”, which some people translate as “foreign music” (as if the United States were not a part of the world). But in recent years, ethnomusicologists have studied a variety of musical genres which are far from being specific to a single country or ethnic grouping (such as the “riot grrrl” phenomenon).

When I first became interested in ethnomusicology in the 1960’s, the major emphasis tended to be on technical musical analysis, breaking the music of a particular group of people into its component pieces, seeing how these pieces fit together, thus seeing not only how these types of music “work”, but also to uncover what makes these musical expressions differ from other musical expressions. Yes, Runowicz does offer some musical analysis in terms of what sorts of chord progressions are common to much doo-wop, how the vocal harmonies are arranged, what time signatures are often heard, and so on. But these analyses are kept to a bare minimum of technicality. Even when he describes how singers and backup bands learn their parts, his descriptions are easy to follow and highly instructive. There is enough meat here to please the scholars (though I suspect that the definitive technical analysis of doo-wop has yet to be written), but it is approached in ways that should be accessible to the average reader.

The emphasis, then, is on the people of doo-wop and the way the music impacts their lives. Most notably, he offers an extended look into the career of Earl Carroll and the Cadillacs, the vocal group with which the author has spent the bulk of his performing career, a group which has been around for over a half-century, more than long enough to witness and to form opinions about the many changes and trends in doo-wop through the years. Runowicz is quick to point out that, while the audience may listen to this music in order to satisfy a craving for a nostalgic experience, the performers themselves are not trapped inside a museum, but are living, breathing professional entertainers who are serious about their art and its craft, who work hard even into old age to maintain a high level of quality in their music and stage show.

The author also includes a short overview of doo-wop history, pointing out its roots in the German/Austrian style of close harmony, but in an Americanized style which began to develop in the 19th-century in black barbershops. (There has been quite a bit of scholarly detective work in recent years which has demonstrated beyond a doubt that barbershop-quartet singing as we know it began as an African-American phenomenon). He looks at harmony singing in an African-American religious context, at its entrance into mainstream musical circles thanks to such groups as the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots, and at the immediate precursors of doo-wop, such as the Delta Rhythm Boys and Ravens.

He extends his historical view into the later period of doo-wop, when Italian- and Jewish-American harmony vocal groups became prominent. He looks at the dark days of the British Invasion, when doo-wop seemed to disappear off the face of the earth, when groups had to adjust or die, and most of them died. He also studies the revival of doo-wop in the 1970’s, a somewhat limited revival which found aging groups singing to mostly aging audiences, consisting primarily of the same people who listened to their records in the “old days”, who wanted to hear groups sing their hits, and only their hits, and rejected anything new. And while it was a welcome revival of interest, it was limited in that it did not cause the music to come rushing back to the mainstream popularity it had from the mid-1950’s to the early 1960’s. And he does this all very effectively, in a very short space - the book consists of less than 150 pages of text, a page count which does not include the detailed notes and a thoughtfully-complete index.

One aspect of the book which might cause some controversy within the doo-wop community, but which Runowicz approaches delicately yet openly (meaning, he names names) is the subject of racism. As a white man who performs with black singers and musicians in a genre originated by African-Americans, but which in many ways became co-opted by white audiences, white managers, white-owned record companies, and white concert promoters, Runowicz reveals the often seedy manipulations to which this particular group of African-Americans and their music have been subjected, with largely negative impact to their financial and social well-being. Sadly, the stories he relates are common to many African-American musical genres, yet it’s an area too many authors writing for the mass market do not feel comfortable discussing. Once again, this is a University Press book, which one hopes allows for a greater degree of openness when discussing sensitive matters.

In all, I find this to be the most fascinating and unique book on the subject of doo-wop I’ve ever come across, and I recommend it highly to anyone interested in American popular music history, whether a doo-wop fan or not. I’m sure Mr. Runowicz has more to tell us on the subject, and I hope there will be more books to come.

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

“1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This To Sing About” by Joshua Clover (University of California Press)

I need to mention this right off the bat - “1989” is NOT a book about Bob Dylan, despite the subtitle of the work. In fact, he is a very minor player here, used more as a symbol of an earlier generation than anything else. The subtitle “Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This To Sing About” is a line from the song “Right Here Right Now” by Jesus Jones, which IS a major player in the book.

It is Joshua Clover’s contention that the world-shaking events of 1989, most notably the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the overthrow of Communism throughout Europe, and the bloody protests in Tiananmen Square, are in some way connected to the changes in popular music which took place in and around 1989. He makes sure one understands that “1989” in the musico-historical sense refers not only to the literal year 1989, but also to musical events in the immediate period leading up to the year 1989, plus subsequent developments in the very early ‘90’s, which grew out of the musical revolutions of ‘89. Thus, the Jesus Jones song - the lyrics and video of which make reference to the politics of 1989 - is taken as a symbol of the year’s events, even though it was released in 1990 and hit the charts in 1991.

I have to confess that in 1989 and the years surrounding, I was in my early 40’s and had wearied of pop music. I was instead spending most of my time listening to folk-based and world-music styles. Thus, I had never really considered 1989 to be a particularly epochal year musically. Clover’s book has convinced me otherwise. It has even convinced me to go back and listen to much of this music again. Since I am by vocation a popular music historian (specializing in pre-1970 genres, to be sure), I am always pleased to come across intelligent analytical/critical thinking which allows me to re-examine music history from new vantage points.

I have far less to say about the political historical aspects of the book, largely because I am not familiar with the specialized, post-modernist, historiographical literature which Clover makes considerable reference to. He is very much concerned with the concept espoused around the time that the events of 1989 represented “the end of history”.Clover very carefully debunks this argument in rigorous academic terms. His writing in these sections is very dense and exacting, though a slow, committed reading generally makes his points clear.

The musical analysis is much easier to digest. In what I find to be the book’s most compelling and convincing chapter, Clover details how 1989 signalled the switchover from politically-based “Black Power” rap (typified by Public Enemy) to gangsta rap (typified at this time by N.W.A.), from New York to LA, from the influence of the Nation of Islam to a “Boyz N the Hood” mentality, in which black anger was turned into black-on-black violence. These changes were reflected in the music itself, as the rhythmic complexities of 80’s rap turned into a cooler, sample-based backdrop which led to massive legal problems for artists and record producers. Clover’s ability to dig below the surface and connect dots in a manner I personally had never contemplated is most impressive here.

1989 also was the year when grunge began to supplant punk by combining musical elements from both punk and metal, then turning the whole thing inward. Clover’s descriptions of this occurrence may hold fewer surprises than the hip-hop chapter, but they do make for interesting reading and re-listening. Most convincing are his arguments for why grunge was doomed to be a short-lived phenomenon in its pure state.

A less obvious change in the period called “1989”, at least as far as American readers will be concerned, is the story of how the “rave” became such a momentous event in England, where acid-house not only developed into a chart-topping musical genre, but raves became a way of life for a while, as no-holds-barred dance parties began attracting hundreds of thousands of people to large, open spaces all at one time. Musically, this craze had roots in Detroit and Chicago, yet the rave on a Grand Scale never caught on in the US to anywhere near the extent that it did in the UK and throughout much of Europe.

Perhaps least convincing to me is Clover’s chapter on how 1989 was a golden age for the single, just as the 45 was giving way to the CD single. I really wish he would have explained why he thinks 1962 was also such a golden era for the single, when most critics (not necessarily including myself) decry the music of the early 60’s as a particularly fallow period. Then again, Joshua Clover is not “most critics”, but a man who thinks for himself, thank goodness. I simply feel this segment of the book needed more conviction, more detail, more explanation.

As I’ve hinted, this slim volume (145 pages, not counting the Acknowledgments to Greil Marcus and others, 18 pages of notes, and a useful index) may be slow-going for many people. But the ideas are well worth mulling over. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it is a worthwhile addition to the academically-minded pop music fan's library.

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