Group Harmony: The Black Urban Roots Of Rhythm & Blues
Whither rockademia? In the decade or so since rock ‘n’ roll became an approved area for academic study, there’s been precious little published on it that’s of much use or interest to the engaged fan or non-academic scholar. Simon Frith’s ground-breaking Sound Affects and some of Greil Marcus’ weightier stuff remain exceptional in that you can actually read their texts and understand them, but then, both authors started out as fans and writers for the rock press.
Much of the academic stuff I’ve tried to wade through has seemed to be the product of a cloistered individual or individuals in need of a publication and not wanting to seem stuffy. So we wind up with articles titled “Systems Of Representation In Suburban ‘Goth’ Subcultures” and the like.
Group Harmony is a little better than that, but only a little. The author is “a writer and musician,” according to the brief biographical note, who’s apparently no longer the “full-time academic” he was after getting his doctorate in 1992. As we wade through the prose here (I hope he’s a better musician than he is a writer), we get glimpses of the possibility that he’s also a fan of this underdocumented genre of black music.
That said, the subtitle of the book should be Aspects Of Black Group Singing In Baltimore And Washington, D.C., 1945-1955. Goosman’s research involved face-to-face interviews with twenty members of groups ranging from famous (the Orioles, the Cardinals) to utterly obscure and unrecorded (the Plants, the Cap-Tans). One way this is valuable is that although the postwar vocal group scene was a national phenomenon, the first nationally-selling groups were from New York and Baltimore.
But Goosman lacks the context to make these interviews as valuable as they could be, and given the age of most of the subjects, it could be their memories are gone forever. He never attempts to plug Baltimore-Washington into the national picture, nor does he engage his subjects in talk about differences in singing styles that the ones who toured must have encountered.
No, he’s more interested in the sociology, although here, too, he doesn’t always get the job done. There was, apparently, a tight relationship between gangs and groups, although, as he notes, sometimes a “gang” was a group of black males being interrogated by a cop. But he never gets Herman Denby (the Swallows) to expand on his statement that “There were gangs, and then there was tradition.”
What information there is here is chaotically organized. I never did understand the rivalry between East and West Baltimore, and you’ll go through the whole book before you’ll finally come upon the Orioles, the group that put Baltimore on the map. There is much rumbling about racism, which is clearly the source of the segregation that produced these groups but not necessarily an integral component of the record business that produced their records.
And then there’s the tedium of academic prose: “Kevin Lynch uses the term ‘imageability’ to refer to the ‘physical environment’ and ‘structures’ of cities. He defines imageability as ‘that quality in a physical object [in a city] which gives it a high probability of evoking a strong image in any given observer.'” Gee, thanks for that!
My takeaway from Group Harmony is the beginning of an understanding of how the less professional and more local singers worked in midsize cities, and of the fluidity of the kinds of entertainment available in their black communities. My hope is that when the real history of black vocal group music is written, its writer will take the time to go mining what there is of value here, and use it.