Zippety Doo-Dah vs. The Blues
I truly appreciate all of the great responses I’ve gotten to my first blog entry “The Destruction of American Music & How It Can Be Saved.” It can be seen at the following link:
Because I’ve gotten such good feedback, I’ve decided to write a series of shorter essays in which I’ll flesh out some of the content that I briefly touched on in my first essay. I hope you enjoy and I look forward to hearing from you all.
Zippety Doo-Dah vs. The Blues
Like so many of its best and performers, Rock and Roll was born of adversity and poverty, then found itself – maybe too quickly – in a world of unparalleled success and luxury. This success caused many performers, as well as the genre to, in so many cases, dull the edge that originally made them great.
The famous Townes Van Zandt quote, “There’s only two kinds of music: the Blues and Zippety Doo-Dah,” is so much more than the catchy, clever, pithy line that it appears to be on first hearing. This quotation sums up so much about American music in a few words. And the Blues is, in this instance, not only what’s usually referred to as the Blues: the music created by black Americans based on beats and rhythms their ancestors brought from Africa. I’m talking about Blues in the wider sense: the music of hard times – the peoples’ music. It can come from Africans, Mexicans, the Irish, or any group of people who find themselves on the outside or prosperity looking in. All real traditional folk music is the Blues music of a race of people and, to a perhaps lesser extent, so is the music that is based on it.
The Blues is the flower from the dirt, the consolation of the beaten man. The Blues is hope and desperation and the longing for a better day. This is music born out of the adversity of everyday life. The transubstantiation of suffering into art is what makes a hard life worth living. At the end of the day it’s the wine, women and song – and maybe to a lesser extent religion – that keep most people going, that make grinding out the bills worth the effort. The Blues is the record of that struggle. It’s the peoples’ music, the peoples’ art.
Zippety Doo-Dah is the music of the entertainment industry: corporate music. These are generally happy, silly songs bereft of meaning…and there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not the Blues. Each has its place in the world. The Blues and Zippety doo-dah once lived in harmony by occupying very different spheres. But the advantage that Zippety Doo-Dah has over the Blues is that it has corporate backing. The Blues is poor peoples’ music, it arrives spontaneously. Zippety doo-dah is planned and researched and marketed down to the last detail. The problem is that the Blues, the peoples’ music , has been overtaken by the corporate and is fighting to survive at all. Listen to any mainstream modern Country music for proof of this. For all of history, music has been the spontaneous generation of a culture. But the encroachment of corporations into the music industry in America has made corporate music ubiquitous. Corporate record companies have homogenized American music, and made the real peoples’ music more or less defunct. The question is whether or not it should matter.
The Blues came to America from all over the world. Folk music is often associated with the Folk Revival of the 1960s, but this isn’t Folk music. The Folk Revival was a self-conscious re-creation of the portion of real Folk music that we are fortunate enough to have recordings of. The Folk Revival singers were not necessarily a part of the culture whose music they were playing. They were mostly educated, intellectual, leftist urbanites – the exact opposite of most traditional Folk singers. Real Folk music is literally the music of the folk. It is not a self-conscious creation, it is the spontaneous expression of a culture. There is black Folk music, Irish Folk music, Mexican Folk music, etc… Any traditional culture that has a music tradition that is its own has Folk music… and it’s all the Blues.
My father immigrated to America in the early 1960s. He didn’t speak English until he was 18. My father grew up in the most rural and traditional region of Ireland, in one of the few places that still preserved the language of his people. The near defunct Gaelic language is all that they speak in Kylesalia, Connemara, Co. Galway, Ireland. When he came to America, like most immigrants, he held tight to his native traditions, including traditional Irish music. But he also gravitated toward American Country music, particularly Johnny Cash and George Jones, because he said that it was just Irish music with an American accent. The problems of the poor are the same everywhere, and they express their troubles through their music wherever they happen to be. My father recognized the proletarian sentiment that joins the Irish ballads to American Country music. But he also recognized the turns of phrase and the melodies. He’s was right, the roots of Country music come from Ireland and the British Isles. Country music grew out of the immigrant folk traditions of western Europeans who traveled to the American south and molded their heritage into ours over the course of decades and centuries. I have no doubt that other immigrant groups from all over the world also hear their native traditions reflected in American music, and that this is part of the reason for its international success. This is what makes our musical heritage unique and exceptional in the history of the world.
America is a weird place. Authorities, of course, always strive for conformity, and attempt to keep weirdness hidden – this is, after all, a nation founded on commerce, and quirkiness generally doesn’t sell in a land where conformity is considered more and more of a virtue – but that weirdness is always there, just below the surface of things. America is weird precisely because of what gives this country its greatness and uniqueness: we are the product of a couple centuries of relentless immigration from every country on earth.
What became the essential elements of American music developed over countless centuries in their native lands with all of the local color, language, and eccentricities of a given race and culture; the flavor of a time and a place. And then something unique happened, something unprecedented in all of human history: people from all over the world immigrated to America. They came here and brought their musical traditions with them. There’s no place like America for this very reason. No doubt the fact that the most motivated and industrious are the people who are willing to immigrate, and the fact that we have the world’s deepest and most varied gene pool, are among the primary reasons for America’s success on the world stage. These are also the reasons why our musical heritage is so rich. But these immigrants, in addition to bringing the orthodox beliefs of their race: peasant work ethics, their politics, their Catholicism and Judaism, they also bring their strange folk and heretical beliefs that were suppressed for so long back home. And so we have a whole undercurrent of folk and fairy tales, ghost stories, superstitions, fortune telling, magic, Kabbalah, the occult, voodoo. This creates a strange carnival like mishmash of belief and fantasy that pervades all aspects of our culture and beliefs and bleeds into our society, our art and our music.
This is a great part of what Bob Dylan meant when he said, “Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death. There’s nobody that’s going to kill traditional music. All these songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans and turn into angels – they’re not going to die…I mean, you’d think that the traditional music people could gather from their songs that mystery – just plain simple mystery – is a fact, a traditional fact.” These strange old songs formed the foundation of all American music. These were the varied old strings of verse and melody that were pulled in every direction across the ocean so they could tangle together and eventually culminate into Rock and Roll. Dylan goes on to say “But anyway, traditional music is too unreal to die. It doesn’t need to be protected.” He’s wrong about this. When this quote was made I’m sure that there was not yet any indication of how large and overwhelming the international corporations who run the record companies would become.
You hear stories about scientists trying to genetically modify fruit so that it grows square to make it easier and more efficient to package and ship. Traditional music is like a mostly round, bumpy old tomato that you grow in your garden: natural and beautiful and good and grown right from your own native soil, and full of the strange, dark mysteries of life. The music made by the corporations is the genetically modified tomato: strange and unnatural, sterilized and tasteless, but efficient and cost effective. Corporate music is sterilized American music. The traditional music came together to form Rock and Roll – raw and natural and as American as baseball. Since the first day that Rock and Roll was born, the music industry has been distilling the music’s raw elements into something sterile and efficient and ready to distribute to a mass audience without any of the defects, strangeness and absurdities, without the uniqueness that make this music great. So, American music – the peoples’ music, the music that is the spontaneous generation of our culture – is being destroyed and it will go away, regardless of what Bob Dylan thought and said so many years ago.
Earlier I asked if it should matter if corporate record companies homogenize, and so destroy, the American music tradition. I suppose that the answer is that it’s important if you believe that music is important. From the perspective of a record company it’s important to make money off of music. Little else matters. I understand this attitude because they are footing the bills for recording, distribution and advertising. So they distill the elements of music that sell best and attempt to infuse these elements into everything that they create.
I find this approach to be short-sighted and ultimately self-defeating. Scientists have discovered that taking vitamin supplements and eating modified foods do not give us the nutritional benefits that eating the natural foods that are the original source of these vitamins provide. They’re not sure why this is the case because, based on science’s understanding of nutritional theory, the vitamins are what our bodies need. But there’s something in the organic whole foods that our bodies need to provide us with nutrition.
The same is true for music. Distilling popular song structures, chord changes, clever turns of phrase, or instrumentation do not make great, timeless music. I have no proof of this, but I believe that most of the great, timeless songs were not planned out in the manner that mainstream music is today, they came from moments of inspiration and their greatness is weird and illogical and beyond rational explanation, arising from the dark corners of the human psyche.
Many great songs have structures that shouldn’t, according to music industry conceptions of song writing, create a great song. But look at how many classic Bob Dylan songs have no chorus or bridge, TangledUp In Blue, for instance. Look at the odd chord changes in so many Beatles songs. Many great songs have odd turns of phrase that you would never hear in a mainstream song today (or spoken in real life), but that work so well – not because they make logical sense when divorced from the song – but because they suit the song they are a part of. To use The Beatles as an example again, the line “the movement you need is on your shoulder” makes no real sense outside of Hey Jude, but works so well within it that many people probably never notice how odd it is.
So, to the many people in the world who are happy with mainstream, corporate music, I say enjoy it. But, to the record companies, I say that you’re losing out on a great deal of business because your business is failing on an enormous scale because you no longer produce great mainstream music, only the watered down, distilled residue of our great American musical tradition. The more you homogenize music by turning the Blues into Zippety Doo-Dah the more competition you’ll have, spread all around in small, specialty labels. This is business that could be yours if you’d do things in the way they used to be done.
Many music fans say to hell with the big labels. Many like to seek out great but obscure bands. I see their point. But I also believe that many of the best song-writers and musicians can’t make ends meet, and as a result, can’t focus on producing their best work while having to bang out a living in other ways. There’s a popular mythology celebrating the starving artist. This sentiment is generally not shared by the starving themselves. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf didn’t leave the Delta for Chicago so they could continue to be poor and unknown. Musicians have always wanted to make money, and if they’re good they should be rewarded. If the great ones can’t make ends meet they have to make a living doing something other than music. Consequently, more of our music becomes the homogenized dreck we now hear on the radio and the true American music will gradually die off entirely.
But, if we want to continue to have a vibrant musical culture, we need to have an active, vibrant, peoples’ music that’s got one foot in the modern world, and one foot in those strange old ways. We need music that isn’t just a patchwork of clichés thrown together in a corporate board room. We need more than Zippety Doo-Dah …we need the Blues.