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December 06, 2006

When Did U.S. Music Peak?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I confess to being a failed clarinet player and barely having the capability of working the on/off switch of a CD player.

Hardly stratospheric cred for writing about music, but we Blowhards are eternal amateurs (it says so in the left-hand panel), so I take that as license for the following blast of hot air.

Just when did U.S. music peak? (Does anyone out there think it's still improving in quality? -- please comment.)

I say the 1930s, defined in practice as the period roughly from the mid-20s to early in World War 2.

Classical music? There was Aaron Copland, and nowadays George Gershwin CDs are found in the Classical sections of music stores.

Popular music? I haven't done a statistical study, but I'd be willing to bet the Blowhards slush fund's entire 37 cents that most listings of "standards" would be disproportionately represented by songs that originated 1925-42, often from Broadway shows. See Mark Steyn's book about Broadway shows here for plenty of examples.

And Jazz-related music? From the mid-30s into the war it was the era of big-band Swing. Think Benny Goodman, the Dorsey Brothers, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and Gene Krupa, not to mention Ziggy Ellman doin' the Schoener Maedel riff on trumpet.

Since then, a good deal of fine American music has been created, but my take is that standards, pure jazz and classical music have been weakening, leaving an unbalanced current musical scene.

Better-informed people are more than welcome to set me straight in Comments.



posted by Donald at December 6, 2006


It's a pity that Mark Steyn didn't stick to writing about theater :(

Posted by: Peter on December 6, 2006 12:12 PM

One way to think of this is that the US public is undoubtedly less musically able than in the past, when many amateurs could sing or play instruments quite ably. On average, people who can perform music themselves are more knowledgeable and sophisticated than those who don't. I don't for a minute think that Americans are on the whole more ignorant than in the past generally speaking, but in certain specific areas they are and music is one of them.

And it's Copland, not Copeland.

Posted by: jult52 on December 6, 2006 12:41 PM

jult52 -- Thanks for the tip: error fixed. I considered Googling to get a spell-check but it was getting late in the evening when I drafted the post, so I got lazy and muffed it. Need to try harder next time.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 6, 2006 1:58 PM

Well, what exactly is a "standard"?

That seems like a very muddy category to me.

When the Stones played the Super Bowl last year, people expected "Satisfaction" because it is certainly one of their "standards." I mean, does it have to be recorded by Johnny Mathis to be a "standard"? Because Broadway musicals in general have declined in number substantially over the last 40 years, so obviously the number of "standards" provided by Tin Pan Alley has declined. However, the number of "standards" provided by the now-venerable rock n rollers has obviously increased. Is "Maggie Mae" now a "standard"? How about "Johnny B. Good"? How about "Unchained Melody"? How about "Let It Be" or "Piano Man"?

I dunno, I think---for my taste---the late sixties Top Ten Albums---was about as rich as any. The Beatles, Stones, Temptations, Creedence, The Who and Blood Sweat 'n Tears all had Top Ten albums.

Posted by: annette on December 6, 2006 2:01 PM

Annette -- As I noted in the post, music ain't me. But since this is a kamikaze effort on my part, I'll offer my take on "standard."

It's a song that retains its popularity (essentially) regardness of who performs it. Rock music strikes me as being tightly linked to the "artists" who first make the song popular. There's no reason why the Dixie Chicks couldn't perform/record "Satisfaction" (and for all I know, they have), but I question how well received it might be. Contrast "Satisfaction" with "White Christmas," popularized by Bing Crosby. Even though it was a big hit for Bing, many others have sung/recorded it over the last 60 years, often with success.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 6, 2006 2:22 PM

P.S.--you said "better informed" people than you were welcome to set you straight. Now we have to be better informed??? Sheesh. You're no fun. I thought we just got to blab.

Posted by: annette on December 6, 2006 2:23 PM

Annette -- By "better informed" I meant stuff like knowing more facts and such. You make a good point: Perhaps I should have written "more opinionated."

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 6, 2006 2:27 PM

By selectively defining the terms "standards" "jazz" and "classical" I guess you can make the case for U.S. music peaking between WW I and WW II but it seems misguided.

As Annette points out, there are plenty of new "standards" including material by Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Brian Wilson and so on. And, whatever one thinks about originals versus covers, I don't think there is any more (or less) bias against a GOOD cover version in rock or pop as distinct from the Tin Pan Alley standards you seem to be touting. There is also the fact that many earlier songs were not written by their original performers but by songwriters who were not performers themselves (e.g. Irving Berlin wrote "White Christmas", Bing Crosby just performed it first.)

In jazz you can talk about The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett, Geri Allen, Carla Bley, Amos Lee, Joe Lavano, Ornette Coleman ... a long and ever growing list.

As for classical music one can move from Copland to Leonard Bernstein and on to Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, Eugene Schwartz, Meredith Monk, John Adams, Terry Riley, John Cage, David Del Tredici, Anthony Braxton ... a long and ever growing list.

Where I can agree is that, with recorded music now so ubiquitous and public education music programs being slashed to save budgets, Americans may be less likely to know as much about music beyond their own taste and perhaps less likely to play an instrument than in previous generations. Or not, I don't know what statistical studies have been done. That said, I see American music as being exciting, expansive and in excellent health.

Posted by: Chris White on December 6, 2006 3:45 PM

American music was so rich in the 20th Century that you could make a case for any decade up through the 1970s (especially if you broadened the definition to "Anglo-American").

Posted by: Steve Sailer on December 6, 2006 4:14 PM

It peaked in the late 70s, right around the time that "Rumours" from Fleetwood Mac started its descent from the charts, had some interesting plateaus in the 80s, had one last aftershock when "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana ruled the waves, and hit the pavement when "....One more time" by Ms. Spears began to climb the charts.

Posted by: yahmdallah on December 6, 2006 4:32 PM

It's all been downhill since the 3 B's. No, not the BeeGees, the 3 B's: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. 8^(

Posted by: ricpic on December 6, 2006 6:44 PM

By saying that music peaked in the late 30's/early 40's I don't think Donald is saying that music ended and that good or even great music hasn't been made since. I take it to mean that the highwater mark of American music was during that time period.

Posted by: grandcosmo on December 6, 2006 7:16 PM

Swing - I prefer the small outfits, often drawn from the large bands. I'd date the start of the great years to whichever year (22, 23?) the New Orleans Rhythm Kings recorded Tin Roof Blues. That, or soon after, was the era of Joe Oliver, Louis, Bix, Jelly, Miff, Johnny Doddsa..on and on they came, black, white and creole. The Chicago boys, T, Fats.... And elsewhere Kern, Berlin, Porter, the great Gershwin and lots of others. Ending - when, with West Side Story?

Posted by: dearieme on December 6, 2006 7:52 PM

Steve Sailer is right. 20th century American music (under which I would include English stuff during the 60s and 70s, since it was a direct offshoot of U.S. music) was one of history's great musical flowerings. Depending on your tastes, you could take probably any decade from the 20s through the 70s and make a good case for it. Since then, we've seen some continued development of good music here and there but I think the general trend of decline has been pretty clear.

Posted by: MQ on December 6, 2006 9:07 PM

IMO the first great American composer (albeit a miniaturist) was Scott Joplin 1868-1917 - whose best work was from the early years of the twentieth century.

Posted by: Bruce G Charlton on December 7, 2006 2:10 AM

Personally I think it has been all downhill for music since Miles put out "Bitches Brew".

Posted by: grandcosmo on December 7, 2006 9:12 PM

Bruce is right about Joplin. Forgot about him. He really showed the first indications that something special and profound was going to happen in American music.

Posted by: MQ on December 7, 2006 11:29 PM

You seem to be leaving out Charles Ives. And there's plenty of life left in modern American classical music. John Zorn, Philip Glass, John Adams, Carlisle Floyd, George Crumb are all living American composers of significant stature. Not everything they write will stand the test of time, but on the other hand, Beethoven and Brahms wrote a lot of crap, too.

I'd also like to point out that the golden age of the American musical ran right up into the early 1970s...

Posted by: Frankenstein on December 8, 2006 6:08 PM

Although the mid-20's through early WWII is close to being my favorite period for a number of different types of music, I also agree that it's important to aware of what might be called generational-centrism (i.e., assuming that the favorites of one's own generation are the best of all time).

However, I think the main point that Donald made in his post hasn't really been addressed, as far as I can recall: that this period seems to have been a peak period across a broad spectrum of diverse musical genres (e.g., tin pan alley, Broadway, classical, jazz).

Assuming for the moment this is true, here is my tentative hypothesis as to why this might have been the case. (And I'm not a musical expert, so I may be way off base.)

It seems to me that during these years all kinds of musicians were very much interested in broadening the appeal of their music -- having it gain a wider public acceptance. Jazz musicians and classical musicians alike, so it seems to me, were eager for a broad spectrum of the public to appreciate their music. Also there seemed to be a big interest among musicians in learning from other types of music and melding the various genres: (tin pan alley, jazz, folk/country, Broadway and classical). After WWII, however, various musical genres seemed to become at various times more segmented and niche oriented (even in pop and rock), niche-oriented, "elitist" (e.g., atonal classical music) or, "tribal" (e.g., be-bop). So even if the music is "good" music of its type, it does not actually seem to be DESIGNED to have broad, lasting appeal -- to be classic, universal or standard.

Some other thoughts:

I thinik the discovery of both a broadcasting/dissemiination media (radio and film) and recording media (records and film) might also have something to do with this phenomenon, if true in the first place.

I think the peak periods for some of the individual genres may have extended way beyond the early 1940s. The great years of the popular music of Broadway, for instance, extened into the very early 1960s, in my opinion (e.g., Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, Music Man, West Side Story, etc.). (And original cast albums, like that of "Camelot," were still the top selling albums in the early 1960s.)

I also think rock, which of course comes after this period, has had a number of different peaks: rock, doo-wop, Motown, British invasion, etc. (I think the late 1960s / early 1970s was an amazing golden age of pop/rock.)

There was also that great explosion of folk music in the late 1950s? early 1960s.

In some ways "rock" as a whole is/was more universal than earlier forms of popular music (e.g., Cole Porter) in part because music in general is cheaper and easier to get, more people world wide know English (and the songs depend less on sophisticated knowledge of English) and because of the spread of Americanism in general (American movies, McDonald's, etc.)

I really loved the now departing CD-age as it really gave me a tremendous opportunity to explore the music of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. I was able to explore some great old Broadway shows that I had never heard of ("Oh, Captain" starring Tony Randall; "Fine and Dandy" with music by George Gershin's girlfriend, Kay Swift; etc.) or only vaguely heard of (e.g., Cole Porter's great score for "Out of this World"), the more complete ouevre of favorite song writers (Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser), the work of performers that I only had skimpy knowledge of (Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, the Dorsey Brothers, Hildegarde, Helen Kane, etc.) and so on. Now that Tower Records is closing, hopefully I will be able to continue these musical explorations at J&R Music World or on-line retailers.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on December 8, 2006 11:59 PM

Jazz is America's greatest contribution to music. FOr my money, the jazz created in the 50's and 60's is unmatched. By this metric, I'd say the 50's and 60's were the pinnacle, which is furthered by the emergence of rock during this time period.

As for Donald's definition of a "standard," namely the versatility of a song to be covered by different artists and still remain a good song, well, "Yesterday" by The Beatles is the most covered song in Western music.

Music since the mid-70s has been on an interesting trajectory. A lot of really fantastic music has been produced (the 80s are my personal favorite decade for music, but that could be some nostalgia for my teens and early 20s), but nothing quite as iconographic as Elvis or The Beatles or The Ramones or Irving Berlin or Ellington or Miles or Bird or Coltrane, etc. I defy you to find a more perfectly crafted and beautiful pop song as "Bizarre Love Triangle" by New Order. And yet, while highly significant for a large portion of people my age, that song does not have the universal cultural impact and recognition as something by Irving Berlin. And, I believe, this is because of the increasingly fractured cultural landscape of America. This is not necessarily a bad thing. A shared pop culture was really only a brief phemomenon, based upon the rise of communincation technologly such as radio and television. Ironically, it is the continuing evolution of this technology that is contributing to the re-fracturization of pop culture, with niche markets being made possible by user-generated site like YouTube.

For what it's worth, the

Posted by: the patriarch on December 12, 2006 3:48 PM

Patriarch wrote:

As for Donald's definition of a "standard," namely the versatility of a song to be covered by different artists and still remain a good song, well, "Yesterday" [a rock song] by The Beatles is the most covered song in Western music.

Benjamin writes:

Actually, if anything, "Yesterday" seems prove Donald's point as it is not really a "rock" song, but a Tin Pan Alley / Broadway song that happened to be written and performed by a white "rock" group that revolutionized "rock" by bringing to it elements of the British music hall / vaudeville.

An interesting side note: Included on the Beatles first (?) USA album was their pretty straight forward rendition of the ballad, "Till Their Was You," from the Broadway show, "The Music Man," a show set in turn of the century Iowa that was written by Meredith Wilson who had been a flutist, I believe, with the John Philip Sousa band.

Another interesting side note: One of the big rock hits of the early 1960s (?) was a doo-wop version of "Blue Moon," a song written by (Richard) Rodgers and Hart.

# # #

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on December 29, 2006 9:53 AM

So the occasional hit by a Tin Pan Alley-like song proves the point that that era was the best, while the massive acceptance of and innovation in rock and jazz does not prove its equal excellence?

I named Yesterday only because it is THE most covered song in history. I could name plenty other rock songs that have been covered with the equally numerous varying results of the Tin Pan Alley classics.

Posted by: the patriarch on December 29, 2006 4:48 PM

Patriach wrote:

So the occasional hit by a Tin Pan Alley-like song proves the point that that era was the best, while the massive acceptance of and innovation in rock and jazz does not prove its equal excellence?

Benjamin writes:

That is not at all what I was saying!

It seems to me that "Yesterday" was being offered up as proof that the rock era of popular music, contrary to what Donald had claimed in his posts, was just as good at producing "standards" (with an important hallmark of a "standard" being its ameniability to being successfully covered by other top artists) as the pre-rock era of popular music -- since, "after all," the most covered song of all is (supposedly) a "rock 'n roll" song.

My point is that, although "Yesterday" may be the most covered song of all, this is precisely because "Yesterday" is NOT a "true" rock 'n roll song. Therefore, citing "Yesterday" does not prove (or even illustrate) the assertion that rock songs are just as "coverable" as pre-rock ones.

"Yesterday" is really a pre-rock song in its attributes, even if it was written and performed by the Beatles -- and it seems to me that it is BECAUSE "Yesterday" is essentially a pre-rock song in its attributes that it is so amenable to being successfully "covered."

- - - - - -

Patriarch wrote:

I named Yesterday only because it is THE most covered song in history. I could name plenty other rock songs that have been covered with the equally numerous varying results of the Tin Pan Alley classics.

Benjamin writes:

It seems to me that this assertion is pretty much what Donald was disputing in one of the comments at his comments at the top of the thread:

"Rock music strikes me as being tightly linked to the "artists" who first make the song popular. There's no reason why the Dixie Chicks couldn't perform/record "Satisfaction" (and for all I know, they have), but I question how well received it might be. Contrast "Satisfaction" with "White Christmas," popularized by Bing Crosby. Even though it was a big hit for Bing, many others have sung/recorded it over the last 60 years, often with success."

What I was trying to add to the conversation was the idea that it would be interesting to look at the "coverable" songs from the rock era to see whether they are true "rock" songs in their attributes, or whether they are really Tin Pan Alley / Broadway-type songs that just happen to be written and sung by artists from the rock era.

I think it's interesting to see that a surprising number of widely known songs from the Beatles, for instance, are really not "rock": "Eleanor Rigby," "Lovely Rita," "Will You Love Me When I'm 65?" (Please forgive the rough approximation of the names.)

I suspect the same might be said about a lot of other well known "rock" songs (e.g., songs by Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, etc.).

# # #

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on December 29, 2006 7:13 PM

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