By HUMPHREY LYTTELTON
WITHIN the past decade, Tin Pan Alley has taken over from Hollywood as the capital city of entertainment. 'Pop' singers have replaced film stars under the magnifying lens of publicity, and a place in the Top Ten has become a more sought-after prize than a Film Academy. Award.
Basically, the shift of emphasis from one branch of entertainment to another has brought little change. The vernacular of ballyhoo has be- come more terse—lab' has superseded 'colossal,' but is just as meaningless as it clatters glibly off the publicist's typewriter. The Beatles were not the first entertainers to be mobbed by screaming females at London Airport—exactly the same thing, inspired by just the same astute publicity, happened to Robert Taylor before most of today's pop fans were born.
The odd thing is that this should have hap- pened to music. After all, the cinema was a new entertainment form with no established tradition and ripe for every kind of promotional excess. The 'film star' was a new invention, a sort of Frankenstein monster with no visible link with its theatrical antecedents. But music is the oldest of the arts, and singers of popular songs have been with us ever since man discovered how to forge a melody out of primeval grunts. We know where popular music came from; we can be less certain about the origins of 'pop.'
`Pop' is, etymologically, just an abbreviation of 'popular'—and since 'popular,' in this sense, means 'of the people,' then 'popular music' should be just another way of saying 'folk-music.' But it isn't. In current terminology, there is a clear distinction between folk-song, popular song and 'pop' song. It might explain at least some of the mysteries of today's pop world if we trace a brief history of popular music in America and see just how 'folk' became 'people'—and, eventually, `pop-pickers.'
First of all America's relatively short and un- cluttered musical traditions make the lines of development easier to discern and trace. Secondly, the pattern of popular music as we have known it for the past forty years was estab- lished in America. And, thirdly, despite ecstasies of patriotism evoked by recent British domina- tion of our own Hit Parade, America remains the mother country in the 'pop' empire. If it is true that we are breaking free from the American influence with our Liverpool sound and its various regional rivals, then we are still at the stage of the toddler taking its first wobbly steps away from mother's arms. Comedy songs apart, it is still courting derision to use the English `dance' or 'carnT in a pop song of British origin, and a high proportion of contemporary British hits still unashamedly mimic the dialect of the Southern Negro.
The early folk-song chapter of our brief history presents the least difficulty. That king of blues singers, Big Bill Broonzy, scoffed at the term 'folk music.' I guess all songs is folk- songs. I ain't never heard a hoss sing them.' But we know roughly what a folk-song is. Unsophis- ticated, arising from the experience of ordinary people, it is often of unknown origin and author- ship, having been handed down orally from one generation to another. To be specific, it is quite clear in most people's mind that 'The Ballad of Barb'ra Allen' and 'Foggy, Foggy Dew' are folk- songs and that 'Night and Day' or 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' are not. The distinction is further underlined by the fact that those who sing Cole
Porter and Irving Berlin are known variously as jazz singers, vocalists or pop-singers, while the shaggy, hirsute types who perpetuate 'Foggy, Foggy Dew' and other non-contemporary songs refer to themselves as folk-singers and rarely stoop to pick up material from Tin Pan Alley. If, as some people argue, today's pop songs are simply modern folk-songs, there would be no need for such distinction. A folk-singer and a pop-singer would be synonymous. The reasons why they are not must obviously be more funda- mental than a simple matter of whether or not a song is copyrighted by a known author and pub- lished. There is a difference in genre—and the change came when folk-music turned into `popular music.'
It is impossible, of course, to put a date to this metamorphosis which took place gradually over an extended period. The now-familiar symp- toms of pop-fever made tentative appearances in America as early as the eighteenth century. There was a man called William Billings who
published A New England Psalm-Singer or American Chorister in 1770, and who can be clearly recognised as a forerunner of the modern `song-plugger.' A tanner by trade, Billings in- sisted that everyone should sing. This was his promotion blurb.
More than twenty times as powerful as the old slow tunes, each part striving for mastery and victory. The audience entertained and de- lighted, their minds surprisingly agitated and extremely fluctuated, sometimes declaring for one part, sometimes for another. Now the solemn bass demands attention, next the manly tenor, now the lofty counter, now the volatile treble. Now here, now there, now here again! O ecstatic! Rush on, you sons of harmony!
Or, as we say today, `Go, man, go!'
An English-born composer called Henry Russell, who wrote music in America between 1833 and 1841, used to promote interest in his famous song 'Woodman, Spare that Tree' by de- scribing its alleged effect on his audience. He would tell how on one occasion when he had finished the last verse:
the audience sat spellbound for a moment and then poured out a volume of applause that shook the building to its foundations. In the midst of this tremendous evidence of their gratification, a snowy-haired gentleman, with great anxiety depicted in his venerable features, arose and demanded silence. He asked, with tremulous voice, `Mr. Russell, in the name of Heaven tell me, was the tree spared?' It was, sir,' replied the vocalist. 'Thank God. Thank God, I 'breathe again!' and he sat down, per- fectly overcome by his emotions. The songs which invoked these embryonic manifestations of pop-mania were published and sold in hundreds rather than in thousands. They had more in common with folk-songs than with modern popular songs in that their popularity was spread through travelling performers rather than through the massive sales of sheet-music. It is possible that the first popular hit in the modern sense appeared in America in 1852. Here's what the paper The Musical World had to say about it: 'The Old Folks at Home,' published by Firth, Pond and Company, is one of the. most suc- cessful songs that has ever appeared in our country. The publishers keep two presses run- ning on it, and sometimes three, yet they cannot supply the demand. The sale has already reached over forty thousand copies, and at the present rate will soon come up to a hundred thousand. When the reader takes into considera- tion that fully half of all the sheet-music pub- lished proves to be a total failure—that 3,000 copies of an instrumental piece and 5,000 copies of a song is considered a great sale—he can form some idea of the surpassing popularity of 'The Old Folks at Home.'
Popularised in 'live' performance and widely disseminated in sheet-music form, it established the pattern which was to turn one small and folksy corner of entertainment into a vast in- dustry which in turnover and influence now vir- tually dominates our entertainment world. The pattern persisted virtually unchanged for just about a century. The mass-dissemination of songs was vastly increased by the invention of the radio and gramophone, but until the 1950s it was still the sales of sheet-music which established the suc- cess or failure of a song.
This is a good point at which to break off and examine the effect which popularisation on a massive scale had on the character of the music itself. Folk-songs were not, after all, just frothy adjuncts to life, frivolities to divert the mind or se•t the feet tapping. To largely illiterate people, they served in place of books and newspapers to record history, tell stories, spread news and make comments—ribald, satirical or protesting—on events. To people who lived closed to death and hardship, they offered some kind of release.
Love, oh love, oh careless love You see what love has done to me When I wore my apron low You'd follow me through rain and snow Now my apron strings won't pin You pass my door and won't come in.
Life hasn't changed—but the habit of singing about it in down-to-earth terms has been lost. This is how one song described the kind of murder we still hear about in the news today.'
The Brown Girl she had a long pen-knife 'twas wonderful long and sharp Between the short ribs and the long She pierced Fair Eleanor's Heart . . .
Oh, don't you see, oh, can't you see the knife that was pierced in me?
• Oh, don't you see my own heart's blood a-tricklin' to my knee?
Lord Thomas had a long broad sword it was wonderful long and sharp He cut the head of the Brown Girl off and kicked it against the wall.
He pointed the handle towards the sun, The point towards his breast.
'Here is the going of three true loves, God send our souls to rest.'
To bring home the point, let's look back a hundred years, to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The event produced a flood of songs, the titles of which read like newspaper headlines —`The Nation in Tears,' Old Abe, the Battle Eagle,', 'Our Noble Chief has Passed Away,' `Toll The Bell Mournful, We Mourn Our Fallen Chieftain.' No doubt most of these songs would strike our modern ears as hideously sentimental and maudlin. But when another American Presi- dent was assassinated last November, did we do any better? On the contrary, Tin Pan Alley babbled gaily on just as though nothing had happened. In a year not without sensational events (think what the folk-singers of old would have done with Profumo!), the impregnably smooth surface of 'pop' music took no notice.
In the event, we didn't really expect it to. For ever since the presses of Messrs. Firth, Pond and Company made the first creaking and shudder- ing move towards mass-production, means have been discovered whereby popular music can be disseminated throughout the populace more and more widely and more and more quickly. And the greater the area covered, the more shallow and superficial became the sentiments and emotions expressed. See what had happened to `Careless Love' by the early Twenties. The 'folk' version was quite unambiguous. `Now my apron strings won't pin, You pass my door and won't come in.' The new version went like this:
Love, oh love, oh careless love, You fly to the head like wine.
You wrecked the life of many a poor gal, And you nearly spoiled this life of mine.
`Nearly' is rich! The song is no longer about anything in particular. Indeed, it bears the hall- mark of a popular song, that it should not specify any particular subject.
* Among the topics which dropped out of popu- lar song with the growth of mass-production were Politics, crime, work, war and death. Religion persisted only in the Christmas-card form known cynically in the trade as the `religiose.' Sex vanished in a HollyWood-type cloud of idyllic love—or in a murky, muddy stream of ambiguity and double entendre. Tin Pan Alley treats all tricky matters concerning sex in popular song by assuming a massive naïveté which would be endearing if it were credible—and which is,' in the event, also both convenient and profitable. A song by the blues singer Bessie Smith was once banned by the BBC censorship department on the grounds that the singer tells in one breath of finding a note from her departed lover on her pillow, and admits in the next breath that she 'ain't gonna marry, ain't gonna settle down' —thus making it quite clear that she was sharing a pillow with a man who was not her lawful Wedded husband. The implication that all those delightfully erotic high-jinks which are suggested in literally thousands of popular songs are sup- Posed to take place only between married couples is so childish that I hesitate to put it down on paper. But it is this very implication which gives the 'all clear' to any amount of innuendo and suggestiveness in popular lyrics.
Tin Pan Alley's assumed naïveté in matters of sex reached a high point of hilarity with the advent of 'rock 'n' roll.' The term 'rock 'n' roll' itself derives from American Negro slang, and its meaning has been obvious for years to those acquainted with the Negro blues at the 'folk' end of the scale. The 'rock 'n' roll' craze was. of course, launched by the song, 'Rock Around the Clock,' a nursery jingle directly descended from two blues songs, 'My Daddy Rocks Me' and 'Blues Around the Clock.' These were frankly Rabellaisian variations on a common folk theme, an exaggerated fantasy of sexual prowess. Trans- lated from Negro slang into the jargon of the police-court reporter, 'Rock Around the Clock' literally means 'have sexual intercourse every hour, on the hour.' So a song that would make the average disc-jockey's hair curl had to be turned into a childish jingle. At the root of this phenomenon lies the transformation from popular music into `pop.'
On the face of it, 'pop' is a simple abbrevia- tion, like `telly,' bike' or 'bus.' But I have already said that there is a distinction, subtle but positive, between a popular song and a `pop' song. It would be nice, but naughty, to say that 'pop' is to popular what `choo choo' is to train or 'gee gee' to horse. There's an element of truth here. It's no secret that the audience for popular music is now very much younger than it was in pre-war or immediately post-war days. We are all acquainted with the obvious sociological reasons—teenagers with more money to spend and so oh. Change in social habits has played its part, too. Both here and in America, broadcasts by the big orchestras, usually from the plushy and sophisticated surroundings of a smart hotel ballroom, set the fashion in dance music and stimulated the sales of sheet-music. And sheet-music was bought to be interpreted by a million amateurs around the old back- room piano. Seventy-eight rpm gramophone records, large, clumsy, fragile and short-lived, were an adjunct to this scene—important, to be sure, but none the less only an adjunct.
The emergence of the teenage market changed all this. The invention of compact, unbreakable and easily portable• microgroove records, with streamlined record-players to go with them, made record-buying an altogether more up-to- date and modern affair. And it was not long after the war before the gramophone record began to take over from the dance orchestras, the live broadcasts and the sixpenny songsheet as the dominant factor in popular music. In 1956 the Melody Maker, followed the American lead and announced that they would assess their Top Twenty, not on the sale of sheet music, but of gramophone records.
The ascendance of the gramophone record marks the beginning of the 'pop' era. Its effect was devastating. It brought the era of the dance bands hurriedly to a close. Whereas once upon a time people would hear a band play a tune and then go out to buy a record of it, today they hear a record and, if they ever go to hear a band at all, expect the band to imitate it. The vacancy left in the field of trend-setting by the departure of the dance bands has been filled
by an entirely new breed, the disc-jockeys. Pop idols may come and go, and usually do. But the names of Peter Murray, David Jacobs, Alan Freeman survive all changes in fashion, matching as arbiters of popular taste such pre-war names as Ambrose and Jack Hylton.
The point has been made that the mass- dissemination of popular music had the effect of drawing it away from any really close contact with everyday life. In 'pop' the process is accelerated. One hears it said nowadays that con- temporary 'beat' music, emerging as it does directly from teenage activity, has brought popu- lar music closer to real life than it has been for half a century. To test this thesis, we have only to cast an ear over the so-called `Liverpool sound' and ask ourselves how much, in fact, it tells us about Liverpool in 1964. Listen to the Beatles—'She was just seventeen, you know what I mean, and the way she looked was way beyond compare. How could I dance with another, when 1- saw her standing there?' Is this really the way Liverpool youth talks today? Way beyond compare,' dance with another'? They sound more in keeping with throaty tenors in a late- Victorian drawing-room.
With the transition from popular music to `pop,' escapism acquired an additional dimen- sion. In this electronic age, it is not only the songs themselves which are withdrawn from actuality, but their very sound as well. After decades of withdrawal from life, popular music in its 'pop' variant has become quite detached from its roots. Furthermore the public demand for constant change means that the music can no longer draw any fresh impetus from real life. It must either feed off itself—in the form of fre- quent and repetitive revivals of earlier popular songs--or batten off music which still has its roots in life. During the past decade, our British Hit Parade has seen examples of Italian song, Ger- man song, French song, Swedish song. Russian song. West Indian song, South African song, Australian song, Japanese song, American coun- try and western song, American Negro song, New Orleans jazz, modern jazz, borrowings from the light classics and throwbacks to old English music hall. And with the involvement of electronics, the contemporary human element is perhaps about to be eliminated altogether.
Yet the emergence of the teenage market and modern 'pop' has brought about one significant change. In matters of music, teenagers are more possessive and less gullible than their elders. It is a fact that most of the crazes which have erupted in 'pop' music during the past decade have come out of largely independent activities of the young, and have in most instances caught the established institutions of Tin Pan Alley bending. Skiffle was initially a product of the jazz clubs and only came into national prominence when a track made by Lonnie Donegan on a Chris Barber concert LP—it was called 'Rock Island Line'— became a surprise hit. Traditional jazz had been thriving in the jazz cellars for over ten years before Tin. Pan Alley discovered it and turned it into Trad. And it is common knowledge that the Beatles were celebrated in Liverpool for at least two years before the rest of the nation had even heard of them.
When 'pop' pundits claim that British 'pop' music has achieved independence from America, they are right to this extent—that although the music is still largely derived from American sources, the enthusiasms have been generated by the activities of young people here in Britain. They have never had a skifile craze in America,
their `trad boom' preceded ours by some forty years, and our current Beat bonanza exceeds in sensationalism anything America has known, not excluding Elvis Presley. We have now reached the contemporary stage in our popular music saga. What we are now witnessing is a tug-of-war between spontaneous teenage enthusiasms and the established institu- tions of Tin Pan Alley. With all the vast resources at its disposal, it's little wonder that Tin Pan Alley does not lose the initiative for long. Liverpool may have produced the Beatles, but Denmark Street is responsible for Beatle- mania. On the other hand, it has become true to say that, if you want to predict the next major trend in 'pop' music, you will do better to go down into the caves and cellars where young people gather than to ask a song-plugger or a music-publisher. There at last we might well be watching 'pop' music setting off tentatively again in search of its roots.