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The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music
By Peter van der Merwe
Oxford University Press

Since its 290-page text pages make room for 158 "musical examples," as writers designate those inaudible staves-covered-with-squiggles, maybe you shouldn't read Origins of the Popular Style unless you also read music. But anyone with an interest in the history of popular music, especially its blues-based variants, should take the plunge anyway. I don't read music myself, and can't claim to follow everything van der Merwe says, especially the details of "parlour harmony" toward the end. But it's no special trick to intuit this South African scholar's points: many of his ideas make sense, which aids comprehension, and a number of them are unorthodox, which adds entertainment value. Especially if you have a weakness for musicology jokes.

Though van der Merwe hides his delight behind an academic irony that's almost tweedy, he recognizes that his ideas are funny ha-ha as well as funny peculiar. "The triumph of the blues is one of musical history's best jokes," he declares, and while other classically trained heretics have spoken kindly of this unlikely turn of events, few of his precursors have found so much humor in the way "American gutter music" became "the most potent musical force of the twentieth century." [p 213] Circumspectly, Van der Merwe refuses to equate triumph with "progress": "I have a great deal of sympathy with whoever it was who described the history of music from the eighteenth century to the present as `downhill all the way.'" [p 2] But anybody who can devote more than two decades to such a vast and idiosyncratic project is obviously motivated by unstated personal interests. Since he manages to cite "Long Tall Sally" five times in a book that supposedly ends in 1900, I'm betting he's a closet r&b fan.

In the tradition of such like-minded musicologists as New Zealand-born Christopher Small in Music Society Education or South African exile John Blacking in How Musical Is Man?, van der Merwe decries the European bias of musical canons that make harmony the measure of all things. But by getting down to cases, he goes a step further. And since musicological myopia isn't confined to the Bach-Boulez crowd--Alec Wilder rambling on about quiddities of key and progression xxstructure in musical comedy xxsongs or Wilfred Mellers separating the dorian from the aeolian in Beatles tunes are almost as culture-bound--the sharpest pleasure of Origins of the Popular Style is its undeclared war on harmonic pieties.

Van der Merwe takes the structural lessons of all repetition-prone music so seriously that he discovers in notes that change their pitch a "melodic dissonance" that is "rather analogous to harmonic dissonance," [p 120] and finds "resolution" in coinciding cross-rhythms. [p 38] He considers supposedly "flatted" blue notes more ambiguous than most commentators would have you believe. He debunks the commonplace of assigning Greek mode names to folk tunes when modes so often "shade into one another," or "resist classification because they lack certain notes," or simply have no tonic (which renders harmonic analysis ridiculous rather than merely dubious). [p 21] He prefers to speak of "levels" rather than "chords," "shifts" rather than "changes." [p 209] And he concludes a dazzling cross-cultural tour of such "tune families" [p 93] as "Frankie and Johnny" and "John Henry" with a generalization that, whether he knows it or not, stands Adorno's critique of standardization on its head: "Why were [these] patterns so fruitful and important? Part of the answer lies in their great strength and flexibility. They not only permit extensive variation, they positively demand it. With most classical tunes, if you get a note wrong you spoil the whole. This is not true of these great folk tune patterns. With them it is always possible to substitute something new with perfectly good effect." [p 197]

Van der Merwe respectfully abjures "the socio-economic-political approach to the arts" [p 3] as impossibly unscientific and overapplied to popular culture, but this liberal white South African does have his little subtext: he wants to prove that miscegenation is the way of musical growth. I agree, but I'd accept his case more confidently if he was out front about his motives, and am sorry to note that he tends to romanticize American racial relations. Given the thinness of his few strictly historical observations, however, his stubborn formalism is just as well, yielding goodies way beyond its uncanonical improprieties. He adapts Alan Lomax's concept of the "Old High Culture" to posit a "Near Eastern style" [p 9] that survived in European and African folk music and helps explain the peculiar Afro-British congruences that came together in America. He summarizes African music (especially African rhythm) with surpassing clarity and is superb on the evolution of the blues. He's tart about the harmonic banality of Wilder's "American popular song" and the "deadly predictability" [p 271] of its 32-bar format.

And for his final number, van der Merwe demonstrates that the vulgarians who went wild over the blues wanted much the same thing as the genteel escapists who swooned for the Victorian ballad--not more rhythm, not at the outset, but more melody. Van der Merwe isn't the first to say something like this, as he isn't the first to make many of his points. But like the inventors of the blues, he's assembled the pieces with an instinct for the hook.

Village Voice, 1990