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Subversive Aspects
of Popular Songs

Many people — philosophers, philosophers of history, sociologists, anthropologists — believe that our civilization is undergoing a great turn like the change that took place in human life with the invention of agriculture or the development of city living or the use of metals. At such times the meanings of life change and human relationships undergo far-reaching reorganization. Almost all students of the sciences of man agree that we are passing from an industrial, mechanical age to a technological one in which many of the values, the guiding principles, of our society are being totally changed from plus to minus and vice versa. Wholesale overturns like this show themselves in the arts and in religion, immediately after the changes in technology, usually well before changes in political structure, and in the social codes to which men cling long after they have become irrelevant. This is obvious in the plastic arts. All you have to do is look to see that contemporary artists in every medium are after something quite different, not just from Raphael and Rembrandt, but from Picasso, or the Surrealists. This is not so apparent in literature. The printed page and the Academy shelter centuries-old vested interests. Things go on as usual with the inertia of the ages. Most people do not even notice what is happening in the art of poetry for the simple reason that it never occurs to them that what is happening is poetry.

City living, written literature, abstinence, saving, hard work all grew up together. Today, the most significant poetry, though not perhaps the best by older standards, is no longer created for the printed page. As in the days before the city and the alphabet, poetry has become once again an art of direct communication, one person speaking or singing directly to others. Along with this change has come, in the words of the poems themselves, a constant, relentless, thoroughgoing criticism of all the values of industrial, commercial civilization. Poetry today is people poetry as it was in tribal society and it performs the same function in a worldwide counterculture. It is the most important single factor in the unity of that counterculture and takes the place of ideologies and constitutions, even of religious principles. As such those whose lives are identified past recall with the older dominant culture certainly are justified in seeing it as profoundly subversive. Where is this poetry? It is in the lyrics of rock singers, protest singers, folk singers, and the singers of gathering places like the French cafés chantants now spread all over the world.

The interesting thing about this kind of poetry is that although it is the voice of a new culture that promises soon to overtake and surpass the old, it is itself not new. Its roots go back in our civilization to the Middle Ages. The difference today is that it is no longer the voice of an outcast minority but of “everybody under thirty” from Tokyo to Rome, from Baghdad to Trinidad to Nome.

Carl Orff’s what shall we call it — parade-oratorio — Carmina Burana has made the largest collection of medieval student songs, songs of protest, erotic love songs, and hymns of bohemian life known to an immense number of people throughout the world. As a musical composition it may be glossy, what an older generation called a semi-classical number, but the music does swing and the lyrics in translation usually come with the record. They are poems of youth, of people who had opted out of the rigid, authoritarian medieval society, and they were sung in wine cellars and beer stubes by wandering students while they gambled at backgammon and gamboled with their doxies. In recent years the musical shorthand called neumes, written between the lines in the ancient manuscripts, has been deciphered and the reconstructed music can be heard on records. One thing about the music for sure, it rocks with the rhythms of dance. The lyrics say the same thing that poet singers in the student hangouts in the Paris Latin Quarter say today.

The tradition is uninterrupted, still there in the same place since the day there first were students in Paris. Later in the Middle Ages, in French, Villon is the very archetype, the poet laureate of 500 years of the counterculture. So clearly does he speak for a way of life that his name has become a common noun and adjective in European languages.

At the very beginning of the Middle Ages in Provence there grew up a vast literature of both written and sung poetry that reflected the life of a society more permissive than any to be seen in Europe until modern times. The songs of the troubadours have connections with the poetry of sexual mysticism which spread from India to Persia and across Islam to Muslim Spain. Their influence spread then to Germany, England, even to Constantinople. Whether it was part of the Albigensian heresy or not, the entire culture of Provence, the most civilized part of Europe, was obliterated in the Albigensian Crusade, the bloodiest war of extermination in the West until the invention of gunpowder. Today the influence of the troubadours on a few modern poet singers is apparent, but in the intervening centuries the connection was snapped. The same sexual mysticism can be found in the songs of Leonard Cohen or Anne Sylvestre, both of them strongly influenced by troubadour songs.

It is not surprising that the high bohemianism of the courts of France, Burgundy, and Italy should have developed forms of expression that owed so much to the poor bohemianism of the wandering students. The court of France’s most Renaissance king, François the First, was not unlike our modern jet set or the titled hippies of Way Out London. Bohemianism has been defined as the behavior of those who imitate the luxuries of the rich while lacking the necessities of the poor. If so, the high bohemianism of the rich simply imitates the counterculture of the dropped-out poor.

A hundred years before Villon, songs of this type had already begun to penetrate to courtly circles as is shown by the first recorded comic operetta — Le Jeu de Robin et Marion by Adam de la Halle.

Love songs of the Renaissance are still sung in the cafés chantants today, and I remember when I was a little boy Yvette Guilbert, the great diseuse so often portrayed by Toulouse-Lautrec, singing Ronsard’s “When you are old and seated by the fire” while the café full of diners and drinkers wept. Of course all lyric poetry voices such sentiments — “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die”; “hurry up and jump into bed, we’re not going to last forever”; “getting and spending we lay waste our powers.” The great secret, the difference between the straight world and the counterculture, is that the latter takes seriously the ethics of lyric poetry, in fact can be said to make a worldview of it. Whether that lyric poetry is sung by Japanese geishas, Chinese sing-song girls, black hustlers in New Orleans in 1910, or the displaced youth of 1941-1950 Paris who, if they had money, hung out in the cellars of the Latin Quarter and the Faubourg Saint-Germain and if they didn’t, slept under bridges, hustled up a bottle of cheap wine, huddled around a salamander (an oil-can stove), and sang till they were tired enough to make love and fall asleep under newspapers. It was from those who were literally outcasts from society, displaced persons, whether homeless European youth or hustlers in the black ghettoes of the United States, that the significant poem-songs, the whole idiom of direct communication, people poetry, has grown. Both black America and the French cities have always possessed a thoroughly bohemianized working class, something no other cultures have had to the same degree. By the thirties of the last century, when the French Restoration had dispossessed huge numbers of the old clerkly castes and thrown them into the arms of the poor, a style of life and its expression in song were well developed. The same thing happened in New Orleans when the educated Creoles of color were dispossessed and thrown into the black ghettoes. “My folks was all Frenchmens,” said Jelly Roll Morton playing piano in a brothel.

Charles Cros, the inventor of the phonograph, was the most popular poet-singer of this kind in mid-nineteenth-century Paris, and his poems spoke for a way of life completely unassimilable by the money-crazy, hypocritical, debauched, and puritanical society of Louis Napoleon’s gimcrack Second Empire.

It is out of people like Charles Cros, simple, sensuous, lyrical, and sarcastic, that poets like Verlaine come, and all of those that he, Verlaine, first called “poètes maudits,” the cursed, the outcast poets, Germain Nouveau, Arthur Rimbaud, Alfred Jarry, Tristan Corbière, Jean Richepin. All of these poets are still sung. All you have to do is to look at their verse on the page to see that structurally it owes everything to the café song. Meanwhile there were other poets who wrote directly for such outlets, like the bitter poet of the outcast poor, the clochards and beggars who sun themselves along the Seine on the Quai de Montebello in the summer and sleep over air vents, covered with newspapers to shed the snow in winter — Jehan Rictus. Even more popular and still popular today was Aristide Bruant, the man in the black cape and slouch hat with the long red scarf down his back in the famous poster by Toulouse-Lautrec. The poster was an advertisement for Bruant’s own café on Montmartre, the Mirliton, a major center of bohemian Paris in the Eighties and Nineties. Perhaps still the greatest record of the brief period after the war when Saint-Germain was in flower is Germaine Montero chante les chansons d’Aristide Bruant and on it is his greatest poem, Rodeuse de Berges, the perfect distillation of the heartbreak and loneliness of a little French tart without a man. It is very significant that this poem in everything but the three-line form is precisely a city blues of the type that was moving from New Orleans up the Mississippi city by city to Chicago in the same years. The liner notes on this record are by Pierre MacOrlan of the Académie Goncourt. Well they might be, for MacOrlan’s poetry is of the same scene a generation later. Most of MacOrlan’s poems are semi-narrative; e.e. cummings’s sonnets about prostitutes imitate them directly. It too along with that of Francis Carco and others who spoke for the poor, the bohemians, and the underworld of Paris is still popular, still sung, where most of the literary poets, their contemporaries in the first third of the twentieth century, are already forgotten.

After the war Raymond Queneau and Jacques Prévert, who greatly resemble our own Lawrence Ferlinghetti, became immensely popular. Their books outsold most novels. In 1948 everybody under thirty-five seemed to have read Prévert’s Paroles and you could see almost as many people with it on the subway as with the newspaper. It was impossible to spend an evening in any club on Rue Saint-Germain without hearing two or three of his pieces sung.

It should be borne in mind that all of this work, from Charles Cros on, was done by professionals. Alongside it, underneath it, floating as on a sea, were city folk songs produced by the actual poor, the outcasts, and the underworld themselves. The repertory of a girl who hung around the all-night and early-morning spots by Les Halles — the ones where the tourists did not go to eat snails and drink onion soup — was fabulous, comparable to that of any New Orleans or Chicago blues singer. Not only would she know hundreds of hustlers’ songs, many by herself, many comic, most obscene, and all of them sad, but she also would know the most popular numbers by Prévert or Bruant — or Verlaine.

It is out of Occupied and Post-War Paris, the world of hunger, concentration camps, and displaced persons, most of the latter young and utterly penniless, that the golden age of Saint-Germain-des-Prés began. Once it got under way it came like an explosion. The great poets of Post-War II France are without exception the singers. Poets like Leo Ferré, George Brassens, Jacques Brel, Anne Sylvestre are incomparably better than the leading literary poet of the establishment, the flaccid Yves Bonnefoy who, after a thousand five-hundred years of French culture, manages to write as though he had just been graduated from a course in creative writing in an American university. Brassens is probably the first person who established the popular singer as a pivotal point of the counterculture. When Bob Dylan was still a very little boy all the hip youth of France imitated the narrow beard Brassens then worn along his jaw line and they sang his songs while dashing about, a bird on her perch, on their one-cylinder bikes. The great secret of Brassens is that he speaks for the hardcore unassimilables with complete self-awareness. He knew that he and behind him his ever-growing following could not and never would be assimilated, and he knew why, and he said so in every song, whatever that song was about. With him the counterculture comes of age and makes a bid, not for power, but for position. “We already understand history, the problem is to change it, not by politics but by a revolution of the human sensibility.”

Any radical political leadership becomes part of the establishment — as was all too obvious in the May Days in Paris, both in 1958 and 1968. The real leadership passes not to “leaders” but to spokesmen. It is significant that the Marxist parties of France are absolutely opposed to conscientious objection, yet one of the most popular Philips records is Le Déserteur, sung by Boris Vian and thirteen Autres Chansons Pacifistes. Most of the people on the record are members of the older generation, the people over thirty-five who are never to be believed. These are the heroic age of Saint-Germain-des-Prés — Mouloudji, Les Frères Jacques, Juliette Gréco, Jacques Brel, and Léo Ferré amongst others. Not only are these people responsible for the greatest renaissance of song in modern times, but they are responsible for the great cultural change of the counterculture, the replacing of the acquisitive appetite with the lyric sensibility. Today their descendants in France are legion.

Even singers of popular love songs like Eva and Françoise Hardy sing about a kind of love, a kind of interpersonal relationship which implies a total restructuring of society. These girls are directly related to American singers like Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell, both of them disciples of Leonard Cohen, but before we can talk about them we have to go way back and trace the evolution of their kind of thing to its American roots.

Where do the lyrics of rock, folk rock, protest, and contemporary folk song come from? They come, as is obvious from their name, from black rock and roll, once called “rhythm and blues” and before that called “race records” — not the jazz singers of white night clubs, but of black pool halls, bars, athletic club dances, cheap dancehalls, crossroad sand shuffles. The white folk music style goes back to Scotch and English folk song, the so-called Child Ballads (first exhaustively collected by Francis James Child in five large volumes at the end of the last century) and the first musical field research, the music mostly from Cecil Sharp’s two collections (English Folk Songs, mostly the ballads in Child, and English Folk Song in the Southern Appalachians). These are the versions still used by the most popular folk singers today along with others collected by John Jacob Niles and by the Library of Congress program under the direction of Alan Lomax. Today the literature of American folk songs, both native and of British origin, is illimitable, beyond measure. Alongside this traditionally accepted type of folk song there is the urban folk song which divides into several groups, mostly occupational — college boys, newspapermen, Greenwich Village bohemians, structural-steel workers. Many of these are very bawdy indeed, and for a long time were available only in emasculated versions in Carl Sandburg’s Song Bag or in Frank Shay’s My Pious Friends and Drunken Companions. Then there are work songs almost entirely confined to the more footloose occupations — sailors, cowboys, miners, lumberjacks, canal bargemen, hammermen, railroaders. These shade into the first songs of protest, largely the work of IWW singers like Joe Hill, who were poets and organizers at once. Most Socialist, or later Communist, songs were political in emphasis, and most of them were imported from abroad. The songs of the Wobblies are still sung because they were not. The IWW was an anarchist-syndicalist industrial union largely confined to those who were outside the dominant society altogether — migratory workers in the Plains States and Far West struggling against the barbarous conditions of mining, lumbering, and agriculture on what was still a frontier, and foreign-born textile and steel workers in the East, few of whom voted. Perhaps it is of the essence of a commercial and industrial society that it is not folkloristic and that folk songs come only from classes of the population which are alienated by nature, outside the society by choice and antagonistic to it, or who are involuntary outcasts, and so forced into more “natural” relationships just to survive.

There are all sorts of legends of how things get started in show business. For instance, all the big bands from Tin Pan Alley were supposed to have tooled up for a craze for Japanese music early in the Thirties (like the Hawaiian one of years before) but then the Japanese army fired on the US destroyer Panay and a wave of anti-Japanese hysteria swept the country. Everybody’s book had to be junked and there was nothing to take its place except last year’s numbers. The jazz bands were the only ones that were rehearsed and ready to go — hence the Swing Era which came at a time when everyone assumed that big band jazz was dead forever. I don’t know if this is true but it is certainly true that the popularity of American folk music with the general public begins with the singing of The Prisoner’s Song in concert and on the vaudeville stage. The Victor record of Vernon Dalhart singing The Prisoner’s Song with The Wreck of the Ninety-Seven on the flip was a runaway bestseller in the very early Twenties. Just at the moment that Tin Pan Alley commercialism was stifling the Heroic Age of the American Ballad, this moment coincided with the swift spread of radio sets into even the poorest homes. Soon there was hillbilly music everywhere. In the beginning a good deal of this was traditional folk song, but since part of the traditional repertory of the Southern mountain folk singers was the topical song for which obviously the words would have to be written by somebody, songs like Floyd Collins, The Wreck of the Shenandoah, Lucky Lindy, O’er the Sea O’er the Sea Like an Eagle, and ballads of contemporary desperadoes, murders, and hangings (one on Bonnie and Clyde was a masterpiece and it’s a pity it didn’t get into the movie), immediately became popular on the local stations in the Southern hill country and soon pushed the ancient songs and ballads that had come from England and Ireland into the background. Also certain very popular singers had the unscrupulous habit of copyrighting both music and text of songs which had come down from as early as the fifteenth century. (On the other hand, during the long Musicians Union strike in the Thirties it was necessary for radio to use material in the public domain.) The locally produced topical ballad and love song was soon taken up by Tin Pan Alley and produced by indigent intellectuals from Greenwich Village who had never seen and never would see a squirrel rifle, a corncob pipe, or a dogrun shanty. Much of this stuff was absolute trash, but some of it was not. Good or bad, it was popular and from the point of view of folklorists of the strict interpretation it irremediably corrupted the authentic voice of the folk.

What happened as a matter of fact was that the commercial exploitation of hillbilly songs coincided with the collapse of the marginal small farm in the South, the great droughts of the Dust Bowl, the World Economic Crisis, and the migration of the people of the Southern Hills to California and the big cities of the North. Out of this change of background developed the city-billy song. Folk singers of the Southern hills had the deepest roots in their environment of any people in America. Not only their songs, but their ways of life, went back to the Middle Ages in Great Britain. In the sharpest possible contrast the characteristic of the city-billy is that he is uprooted, in an environment that shatters all of his old interpersonal relationships. It is certainly impossible for a descendant of the people in Sir Walter Scott’s novels to sink roots in the sidewalks of Chicago’s West Madison Street. The city-billy was a displaced person, just like the youth of Paris in 1946. A new kind of sorrow comes into the music. The lyrics tell of broken marriages, poverty, homesickness, dislocation, and a refusal to accept the so-called middle-class values of the Northern cities, and the sexual ethics of respectable people. It is out of this background, not from the old world of the isolated valleys of subsistence farmers, with singers entertaining the folks in a country store, that Elvis Presley comes. It is Elvis Presley who established folk rock in its worldwide popularity. Presley’s lyrics may be commercialized and sentimentalized in large part but they too are alienated. Even at his most hackneyed he speaks from outside the dominant culture. Like James Dean he was the physical type of the displaced youth created by our new technological society. All that was necessary during the next ten years was to improve technically his medium, get rid of the bad taste and commercialism, develop the music, and make every effort to keep the lyrics honest and at the same time use the words and music to push against the old patterns of thought towards a new sensibility that would be, by its very nature, unassimilable by the dominant culture and able to stand on its own. This is what happened. Elvis Presley was only one of several. They were all “show business” and capable of immensely profitable exploitation, but if it had not been for the craze they created it would have been far more difficult for their successors to overtake and surpass them. Business enterprise had opened a Pandora’s Box.

There was plenty in the box. All sorts of things had come together in the middle Fifties to form the chemical compound of a new, genuinely popular music. Radio and television with their all-consuming demand had destroyed the commercial pop tune. There would never be another Trail of the Lonesome Pine or Three O’Clock in the Morning. In fact, the most popular song programs with more sophisticated young people were precisely the revivals — “Hit Parades of 1900-1935.” Jazz had given up melody, lyrics, and dance rhythm. It would be possible to dance to the hard bop bands that played the Five Spot or even to Charles Mingus but only if you were Martha Graham or Pearl Primus. Melodies were chosen solely because of the harmonic structure of the melodic lines, if it lent itself to “changes” — development in chords and arpeggios. The modern jazz musicians of the Fifties were interested primarily in using these materials as exhibitions of virtuosity in solos. Each man took a chorus and the ensemble receded into the background. Most of the tunes were show tunes of the most vulgar, commercial sort, chosen simply because they were harmonically the slickest. The lyrics were embarrassingly commercialized sentimentality. Only a Frank Sinatra or an Ella Fitzgerald could make them believable and these two singers, because they swing, are also the only two that all modern jazz musicians liked. Most singers were simply resented as an unpleasantness forced on the band by the club owner and the nightclub audience. Had the leading jazz musicians of the Fifties worked with the folk and protest singers who were coming up in those days, they would not have lost, almost totally, their youthful white audience. Had they not been so violently opposed to the insistent beat of the rhythm and blues, soon to be called “rock and roll,” dance bands, and if they had not rejected the gutsy lyrics of the rhythm and blues singers, they would not have lost their black audience. Dinah Washington was put down as corny by the same musicians who tirelessly played Stan Getz’s embroidery of Autumn Leaves. This was the McCarthy epoch — the other McCarthy — and the voice of youth was largely confined to science fiction and the folk and protest singers. People who had come up first in the Depression like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie were more popular with militantly antipolitical students than they had been in the heyday of Café Society Downtown and Café Society Uptown, the expensive boîtes of the upwardly mobile (headed for the executive suites on Madison Avenue) Left intelligentsia of the old days. If young people wanted to dance they tuned in the black rock-and-roll stations with their commercials every sixty seconds. “A dollar down and a dollar a day,” as the song says. One of the most important things about this music is that the lyrics reflected an entirely different kind of life from that depicted by the country blues or city blues of the previous generation, a life that was uprooted and fierce, in which love relationships were entirely different than those of the prostitutes’ songs like St. Louis Blues or Easy Rider, deeper, richer, and yet even more fragile. It was out of this kind of love song or the city-billy laments over lost lovers and broken marriages and the brief times of happiness that the new white love lyric of the present was to grow. Johnny Ace’s My Song with its strange broken back rhythm and Japanese tonality anticipated both Donovan and Joni Mitchell or Judy Collins or Françoise Hardy. Johnny Ace, alas, was confined to the black nightclub and lodge dances of the Southwest and killed himself playing Russian Roulette on a stage in Dallas before the horrified eyes of the sweetheart he was trying to impress. Fats Domino or Ray Charles hung on to win finally a vast and integrated acceptance. Most of the girl singers wore out early. The modern hard blues of the hard core of the big cities was a kind of protest song of its own, but most of these singers are men still unknown to white musicians, and their only discernible influence on the youngest musicians I know is on the Southern California group now disbanded, “The United States of America.” It is significant that “U.S.A.” are all sophisticated intellectuals. Country Joe and the Fish derive from older styles of raw blues, mostly of the Southwest style, and from the IWW Little Red Song Book.

Suddenly Tin Pan Alley woke up and began to cover black rock with a thick coat of whitewash. No sooner would a Fats Domino or Little Richard record hit the top ten on the juke boxes in the ghetto bars and barbecue joints than a manufactured imitation rolled off the presses for the bobby sox drive-in trade. The only trouble was that the best rock singers pushed their way up past their white imitators and began to create their own white audience. Essential to their appeal was not only the roll and bump music which was perfect for the open and highly figured dancing then popular — “jitterbugging” the squares still called it — but the lyrics which spoke for a world opted out by very definition. Young men and women sitting late at night in a ghetto barbecue eating ribs, red beans, and chitlins and listening to Floyd Price’s Lawdy, Lawdy, Miss Claudie or Blue Suede Shoes did not need to sport beads, bedspread ponchos, whiskers, or bare feet, like signs around their necks saying “I am alienated.” That was apparent at a glance. Elvis’s Blue Suede Shoes was a runaway hit, but those were shoes on white feet. Elvis’s Hound Dog and Heartbreak Hotel derived directly from rhythm-and-blues songs and differed primarily in their city-billy sentimentality, an ingredient which was sprinkled liberally over almost all city-billy music at the insistence of the music business. The black audiences for the originals rejected sentimentality. They couldn’t afford it. The sentimental black man has a hard time surviving.

Nevertheless Elvis was the first singer of the type to gain large audiences from all classes and ages. His popularity was more widely spread than even Frank Sinatra. It coincided with the last days of bop, and the growing popularity of Thelonious Monk, Pacific Jazz, and New York hard bop. At this point there occurred a schism between jazz musicians and rhythm and blues, later rock and roll, and the folk singers, real and pseudo, that has never been healed. The most advanced jazz musicians not only detested Elvis, but Woody Guthrie and Fats Domino as well. Most jazz was based on show tunes, the same things popularized by the cocktail pianists and Lawrence Welk or Mantovani. The reason for this was musical; the chord progressions lent themselves to the rather simpleminded dissonances of the long-drawn-out theme and variations of bop solos. Having made this choice, jazz unwittingly cut itself loose from a youthful audience, and as the years have gone by, has steadily declined in popularity while, at the same time, pricing itself out of the market. Today the record sales of any one top rock group are greater than those of all jazz musicians put together and there is only a handful of clubs left in the United States where serious jazz musicians can play the kind of music they want — to an audience whose gray hairs increase noticeably at each tour.

We are at the breakthrough point. Folk music is about to sweep everything before it. What makes it folk? Not its appearance in collections of Scotch border and Southern hill ballads gathered by academic folklorists, certainly. I suppose folk song is distinguished by its natural expression of an organic community. Commercial pop music is a manufactured commodity produced by people for whom what it purports to express has little or no personal meaning — “June, moon, spoon.” Who believes it? Yet the music business was instinctively searching for a connection with a new audience. The calypso fad was an abortive attempt to capture the new taste. There were several things wrong with that. In the first place calypso was simply exotic. The problems and values of a West Indian Negro are almost as remote as those of a Hawaiian sugar-cane worker. Just like the long ago Hawaiian craze, calypso soon became synthetic and pitched at a white café audience. What carried the popularity of calypso was its use as dance music along with Latin bands like Perez Prado’s and the skill and infectious audience personality of a few great singers like Harry Belafonte. For my taste, Belafonte is better as a moderately concertized folk singer with a diversified repertory than in calypso. Belafonte was the last expression of the old Café Society Downtown — Uptown folklorism for the Left liberal audiences of New York — Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Billie Holiday. Belafonte has always had the good taste to avoid the commodities manufactured for this audience, the most famous of which undoubtedly was Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, moving doubtless to its white Northern audience but so synthetic that it would have been met with baffled incomprehension if sung in a bar on Chicago’s South Side or in the Dallas ghetto, or Pete Seeger’s equally synthetic I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night. It was this type of cooked “voice of the common people” that effectively limited Pete Seeger’s appeal and to a lesser degree Guthrie’s. Today they are still influential to the degree that they drop overt political pamphlets from their repertory. Guthrie of course is dead, and his son Arlo is far less political.

A big factor in laying the foundations of the folklore edifice was actual public presentation of folkloristic work. Songs appeared on radio that had been collected in the field all over the world. The folklore collections of the Library of Congress are immense. Folkways Records has reproduced the songs of almost every known source, from primitive tribes to the occupational songs of fraternity boys, railroaders, and stevedores. This stuff didn’t get a mass audience but it certainly got a large one, especially amongst students, and it was broadcast by stations like WGNY and WBAI in New York and KPFA and KPFK on the West Coast, and sung in innumerable student parties.

Stamped with the lion and the unicorn and marked “purveyors by Special Appointment to the Royal Family,” the Beatles and the Rolling Stones suddenly made roll and bump respectable. Before they hoved on the scene no white musician and no self-respecting black musician, instrumentalists and singers alike, would have been caught dead listening to the stuff spun by the disk jockeys on the dollar-down dollar-a-day black stations. It was quite impossible to get any jazz musician to enter a roll-and-bump club to listen. If he was short of bread and had to take such a gig to stay alive, he bitched about it ad nauseam. What they objected to was the sock, the overpowering simple beat, and the primitive chord structures. The extraordinary instrumental and vocal gymnastics left them unimpressed. To make a guitar wail like a soprano saxophone blown by somebody with gigantic lungs or to make the human voice like an autobus boring through the desert night was detested as the worst kind of corn. It is interesting that these effects all had the wail that was soon to be taken up and excelled by electronic devices. It’s hard to say why the lyrics of the rock and roll or the contemporary Chicago city blues were so disliked. Probably they were just too down-home and the jazz musicians of the Fifties came from middle-class black families with no connection with the deepest recesses of the ghetto, much less the country. It was ten years before the disciples of Webern and Stockhausen on the stand in the Five Spot would discover that “black is beautiful”; LeRoi Jones in those days was a Zen Buddhist and loved all sentient creatures. Always bear in mind that anybody almost anywhere in America at any hour of the day or night by the flip of a dial can turn on the voice of Blackness, the actual interpersonal communication of the walled ghetto. Older people were listening to Turk Murphy or Charles Mingus or Jimmy Guifre and to Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, when people in high school began to disturb their parents with “rock and roll.” It is interesting that the heyday of rhythm and blues, rock and roll, was from the end of the war to about 1952. White kids started to listen to it only after it had entered its decline and become commercialized. Commercialized or not, it was quite impossible to hold its own audience unless the lyrics spoke in their terms and for their values. These lay totally outside the dominant culture and were antagonistic to it all along the line. The effect on white youth, alienated by the constant threat of death in a succession of wars to which they could see no end except universal extinction, was as galvanic as an electric shock.

All this accumulated musical expression, antagonistic to the music business, constituted a tremendous head of steam piled up and ready to blow. Along came the Beatles, overtaking in popularity at the very outset their then slightly better rivals, the Rolling Stones. They were white. They were English and might someday get knighthoods or at least CBE’s. They were cute, they were cuddly, and their Liverpuddlean accents were hilarious. Their lyrics were studded with remarks in code which, if understood, would have horrified Papa and Mama. Not least, John Lennon and Paul McCartney had considerable talent as poets. Even their literary amateurishness added to their charm. They took the sentiments. they took the rhythms, of black rhythm and blues, accentuated the role and bump, applied a thin coat of whitewash. Their distortion of the specific swing of rhythm and blues had a faintly comic exotic charm rather like koto and samisen renditions of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavichord with Oriental phrasing and ornamentation. Everybody went wild. The breakthrough had occurred. Within a couple of years John Lennon was perfectly right when he said, “We have more influence than Jesus Christ.” Although editorial writers all over the world blew up at this remark, it really reflected the Beatles’ awareness of their frightening responsibilities and they began to “mature.” Each year of course they grew older, and at the time of life, the end of adolescence, when every six months counts. They not only came to take their enormous influence seriously. It dogged them and worried them constantly. They were always under a pressure of conscience to live up to it. They were the first to face the problem that confronts all their English and American successors, and that had been with the French singers like Brassens, Ferré, Piaf, Gréco for twenty years. If you can make a million defying the Establishment, how do you escape corruption? It’s not just that you’re going to be bought out. You are going to find yourself living a kind of life that is incompatible with any profound defiance. You always are tempted to become a kept rebel and an allowed clown. Whether Allen Ginsberg, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, the Jefferson Airplane, the Mothers of Invention — this is the problem which all the spokesmen of the counterculture must face every minute — cooptation.

Perhaps the most significant thing about the Beatles was that they were more assimilable internationally than the singers from whom they have come. A blues singer on the Southwest circuit or an American Left protest singer in Café Society Downtown was remote from the interests of all but small groups in Italy, Sweden, Japan, or India. The Beatles reduced their sources to a common denominator that could be negotiated anywhere that modern Western civilization could spread and many places that it had not. For instance, at first the Beatles were unfamiliar with the High Life music and song of English-speaking black Africa, but there is a remarkable similarity in even their earliest pieces.

The folklore movement, partly scholarly, partly social in inspiration, but certainly as square as could well be, burst its confines at about the same time and suddenly became an international expression of the counterculture. Joan Baez was soon able to command audiences almost as big as those of the Beatles, although her repertory was largely traditional English and American folk song. It is interesting that her sister and brother-in-law Mimi and Richard Fariña were amongst the very first of the new generation with its own new folklore. Their repertory gave expression to a new set of values, a new way of life which, so short a time ago, commanded very large audiences. Fariña died, but today he is unknown to the very young who listen to the Doors or the Serpent Power, and is remembered by connoisseurs in their twenties whom the mass audience considers already middle-aged. (Recently the Fariñas have been rediscovered.)

Before we conclude this survey it is essential to understand that although one kind of explanation can show the evolution from within of public poetry as the return to the relationships of pre-literate literature, the determining factors were external. These are the years of the final breakdown of a civilization. It broke down in August 1914, never to be repaired, but it still functioned in a dangerous patched-up fashion. In the years since the Second War, Western civilization has ceased to exist. We live in a corpse which jerks like a dead frog on a hot wire. All the many symptoms of total breakdown have entered into and determined the content and course of poetry and song. It is a mistake to talk about protest songs, protest poetry. Protest assumes a possibility for correction. It occurs from within a culture. As the long tale of horror has gone by, protest has changed to alienation, alienation to total secession. The war is permanent. Only battlefields and casualties change. The racial conflicts raging, not just in America, but in dozens of countries around the world, are irreducible within any existing social system. The sexual morality of puritanical Moscow and Peking, of debauched Cairo, of the cocktail lounges of Manhattan, of sex-carnival Copenhagen, is absurd, intolerable, soul-destroying, and however it may differ in its symptoms, it is everywhere the same world ill. The acquisitive society, the business ethic, is as unacceptable in Tokyo or Moscow as it is in Chicago. The galvanic twitchings of a dead civilization are not minor tremors but terrible spasms that kill everything in the neighborhood. Each stage in the escalation of death, the Vietnam War, race riots, the poison gassing of whole universities, affects directly and immediately the poetic expression of the counterculture, and on the other hand, the dead men are always there with their check books — “accentuate the upbeat,” ready for cooptation. Most of the rock groups and folk singers have now gone wholesome, and others, faced with commercialization by agents and record companies, have dissolved.

It is the coherence of the counterculture, its spiritual independence of the dominant society, given its final shape by the worldwide revulsion against the Vietnam War, which accounts for the sudden proliferation of the same kind of cultural expression, the raising of the same voices everywhere. It’s not that Joan Baez or the Beatles or Bob Dylan have thousands of imitators. Wolf Biermann in East Berlin, Barbara in Paris, Fred Akerström and Cornelis Vreeswijk in Sweden, Ryoko Moriyama in Japan — it’s all the same universe of discourse, because it’s all the same audience listening to the same spokesmen speaking against the same evil and for the same good. To put it fatuously, “it’s a whole new self-contained system of values.”

This is why it is so difficult to talk about the present situation. There’s just too much, so it’s a matter of largely stylistic taste. Some prefer hard blues, some prefer James Brown, some prefer Simon and Garfunkel, some prefer the direct protest of Country Joe and the Fish. On the whole my own taste runs to poet singers who get to the root of the matter, who speak for fundamental changes in the sensibility in human relationships and therefore in language. Dylan at his best, Donovan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins when she sings her own things — there are countless people like this all over the world, more perhaps in France than elsewhere. Much of the entertainment that went on night and day in the Theatre Odéon during the 1968 May revolt had nothing overtly to do with the, after all passing, revolt in the streets, the evils of the regime, or the betrayals of the political Left. People sang songs that attacked the evil at its source by presenting an alternative kind of human being.

America which leads the world musically because of the Blacks, lags far behind in the relationship of “real poets,” poets of print to poets of song, in spite of the tremendous popularity of poetry readings. There is a record of Joan Baez singing a wide variety of people from Henry Treece to my own translations of the Japanese, but that’s almost all. Nobody sings Ginsberg, Patchen, or Ferlinghetti, all eminently singable. Nobody even sings Lenore Kandel, which is hard to believe. Partly this is due to the inexpertise of composers. Only the straight musicians seem to know how to put free verse to music. Over the years I have accumulated dozens of tapes and scores of my own poems sent me by composers, but their public performance has been extremely limited. I suppose this is true of other poets as well. The poets themselves almost never know anything about music, even jazz or rock, they just “dig” it. David Meltzer, one of the San Francisco group, is the only person I know who is both a literary poet and a writer and singer, with his wife Tina, of his own poems. For this reason his two records, Serpent Power and Poet Sing, are most significant. This way lies the future, assuming that other people who are at once good poets, performers, and composers turn up.

In the days when I used to do poetry-and-jazz I was astonished to discover that hardly any American poetry could be projected to an audience in a jazz club. This was true even of Vachel Lindsay, who thought that was precisely what he was doing. The best were very early Carl Sandburg, Kenneth Patchen, some love poems of Muriel Rukeyser, and Langston Hughes. Mostly when I got tired of my own stuff I translated from the French — Carco, Queneau, Seghers, Bruant, Apollinaire. This discovery did more than anything else to wake me up to a fundamental flaw in the American relationship of poet and audience and therefore in the poetry itself. You can project the French god of America’s literary poets, Paul Valéry, whether in French or English, but you can’t project them themselves.

The largest body of poetic input of high quality in contemporary people poetry is Negro song, blues and spiritual. The poetic value, the aesthetic power, of even commercialized rhythm and blues is extraordinarily high, and the lyrics of standard classic blues or spirituals are very great poetry indeed. This cannot be assimilated directly. For one thing the emotional manipulation of repetition is special to Negro song, American, Caribbean, or African, so much so that it is almost an instinctive skill. With it goes the shifting of accents and quantity, the seemingly irrational emphasis or lengthening of syllables, which few white people can imitate and which most of them don’t even know is happening. So the immensely popular British “blues revival” doesn’t quite come off. The things sound monotonous or hysterical. When the repetitions are cut out, as on the record of the group The United States of America, the lyrics tend to seem flat and empty — although not always. This is why the most fruitful source so far has been what the singers call country and western, actually city-billy, derived from the traditional melodies of the ancient English and Scottish ballads and Irish folk song. This is as true of Leonard Cohen as it is of Johnny Cash. It’s not a question of copying. The rhythms of a people’s folk song are so permanent you might almost believe they came with the DNA.


Originally published in The Alternative Society: Essays from the Other World (Herder & Herder, 1970) under the title “Back to the Sources of Literature.” Copyright 1970. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

[The Making of the Counterculture]

[Georges Brassens and the French “Renaissance of Song”]

[Other Rexroth Essays]




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