Thick Context

Jonathan Bellman

Hooray for Dial M’s 200,000th hit! On my own side, I just FINISHED revising my book, Chopin’s Polish Ballade, for Oxford University Press. I still have to muck around a bit with the musical examples, printing it out etc. and send it to them, and the copyediting and proof phases lie ahead, but as far as the writing: DONE. Among the things I’ve had on hold because of various other tasks is this blog, now almost two months late.

This year, for my birthday, Brother Joel sent me this retrospective of Elektra Records, a 2006 compilation set from Rhino UK. I know, I know. I’m sorry. I’m sure your siblings are also very nice. Another professional note about Brother Joel: when I was doing research for my Raga Rock article in the late 1990s, he was basically my Research Archive: books about the Yardbirds and Kinks and so on, obscure recordings and outtakes, the works. He played different versions of “Running Bear (Loves Little White Dove)” over the phone at one point, so I could compare approaches to rock and roll Indianism, and I remember thinking, en passant, “Perhaps not everyone has these resources…” I gave the paper at a Popular Music meeting, and at the end all the guys in the audience (mostly English, Sociology, Cultural Studies etc. profs from east coast universities) got up and stormed the front. “Where’d you get that stuff? That was wild!” Well, the JB sound archive in Los Angeles. Actually, I’m the only one entitled to use it… Oh, your premium institutions don’t have access to these materials? Really? Their shoulders slumped in dismay. Wa-al, ah jes’ live’n Greeley but, y’know, we do our best…

To the point. In addition to some fairly geeky inclusions (photos, postcards, pins etc.) this package contains not only five CDs—four of chronological anthology and a fifth of eccentricities—but also a book about the various artists signed and nurtured during founder Jac Holzman’s tenure there (1950–73). Of course, there are plenty of familiar names: Eric Clapton, the Doors, Judy Collins, Jackson Browne, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Bread, Carly Simon, even Queen, etc. But there are plenty of fascinating artists, lovingly chronicled in the accompanying book, of whom you may not have heard: Ars Nova (long among my faves, with my youthful Art Rock fixation, but why “Fields of People” rather than “I Wrapped Her In Ribbons”?), Clear Light, the Rainbow Band, Aztec Two-Step, even the stoner humor of Jack S. Margolis (A Child’s Garden of Grass). I am at minimum a few years younger than the original target demographic for this music, but am culturally close enough that I understand whereof they were singing: love, protest, drugs, weirdness. Take Dave Peel and the Lower East Side: my brother had the original Have a MarijuanaLP (1968), and it consisted of 1) what sounds like a live recording in the village, 2) the F-word, 3) tee-hee drug humor (this is category in which the included track, the Alphabet Song, falls: “ABCDEFG, LSD and DMT…”) etc. Not included on this anthology is their “Happy Mother’s Day,” which is darker (“Happy Mother’s Day, Happy Mother’s Day, I am your son, I am a runaway/Living on the East Side, always getting stoned, always getting high: I’m glad I’m not home!”—latter-day reviews of the album, many them justified, may be found here). My enjoyment of this anthology is both that of encountering unfamiliar music and revisiting zeitgeists familiar from childhood, and that of study: this is a profoundly musicological package, with its representative inclusions and documentary materials, and it betrays the deep scholarly passions that have always informed a sector of rock fandom. Spending time with this material is, for me, bliss: Old Bore At Play.

But the context! Of course, I’ve always loved Roger McGuinn and the Byrds, and remember reading about Byrdmania. As it happened, though, I never heard any songs by the Beefeaters, McGuinn’s pre-Byrds band. To hear “Don’t Be Long” is to remember the Beatlemania industry and all the copycats trying to latch onto a good idea. (May I say that McGuinn’s subsequent Byrds and solo and folk work was a much, much better idea, but we all come from somewhere, nicht wahr?) Song after song on this wonderful anthology produces similar thoughts: oh, wow, right, School of Joan Baez! School of Peter and Gordon! An interesting folk./art/psychedelic/blues blend… Fascinating, wonderful stuff (with a couple of real turkeys, of course), and illustrative of the almost ridiculous level of imagination and creativity that was bubbling out of the clubs in those years. Recordings like this put the stuff we all do know from those years in a new kind of relief; emphatically, it is not that the artists who eventually achieved commercial success were better; there’s far too much caprice in the music business and audience taste and warring benevolent and malign influences of the stars and planets for there to be any coherent explanation. It is just that to hear an anthology such as this one is a powerful reminder of how deep the musical culture was.

Imagine if more survived from other blisteringly creative eras: Florence in the early years of the seventeenth century, Vienna in the final third of the eighteenth, the improvisations of the Parisian pianists of the 1830s…

I know; there are only so many hours in the day. For those who enjoy aural time-travel, though, this anthology has my strongest recommendation. Thanks, Brother Joel!

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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2 Responses to Thick Context

  1. Wrongshore says:

    Is this the same Joel who serves the county supervisor as communications director?

  2. squashed says:

    nudie picture will always jack up traffic. haa haa…
    (congrat btw.)

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