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A Terrible Place

Forty years ago, in the winter of 1975, I was a freshman in high school. My first girlfriend and I were falling for each other, and on Valentine’s Day, we would pledge our devotion. I had discovered FM radio the previous fall, and so I frequently listened to my new favorite stations on Mom and Dad’s gigantic console stereo. I know I must have had day-to-day concerns, but they’re forgotten now. All that remains is another treasured season of my childhood, safe and protected in a world that seemed manageable, and that held out to me the promise that I could do and be whatever I chose. There were a lot of seasons like that in the middle of the 1970s. Collectively, they were the Best Time of My Life.

Rick Perlstein’s book The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan is the second of a trilogy that will ultimately tell the story of the unraveling of the post-World War II liberal consensus and the more fractious, more conservative state that arose in its wake. (Perlstein’s first book, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, covers the years 1965 through 1972; a future volume will tell about the Carter years and Ronald Reagan’s eventual election to the presidency.) The Invisible Bridge is a political history of the period between Watergate and the election of Jimmy Carter, but it also paints a vivid picture of American culture in the middle of the 1970s.

And in the middle of the 1970s, Americans weren’t just in a terrible place—America was a terrible place. Culture wars threatened to crack society wide open, over textbooks in West Virginia and school busing in Boston, to name but two places where liberal notions about progress were coming into direct conflict with people who had no desire for that kind of progress. Crime rates rose. The economy shuddered and shook—food and energy prices skyrocketed, growth stopped, unemployment rose, and President Ford (pictured) told New York to drop dead. The superpower that had once stood astride the world was forced out of Vietnam with its tail between its legs. Between 1973 and 1976, Americans came face-to-face with the likelihood that its best days were behind it.

The Invisible Bridge traces Ronald Reagan’s life story from his Illinois boyhood to Hollywood to the California governor’s mansion and afterward, when he used a nationally syndicated radio program and newspaper column to argue that no, America’s best days were not behind it, and ultimately, that his leadership could restore America’s greatness. The climax of the book involves Reagan’s unsuccessful campaign for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination. After Ford was defeated by Carter, most commentators believed Reagan’s political career was over. But as we know, it was not. Reagan would harness the resentments unleashed in the middle of the 1970s—and, to be fair, the hopes of Americans battered by the cultural and economic storms—and ride into the White House four years later.

I have said, and may even have written here, that I always felt as though nothing bad would happen while Jerry Ford was in office; in Perlstein’s telling, Ford was a well-meaning man for whom the presidency was probably too much. In other words, a lot of bad stuff really did happen, and we were lucky there wasn’t more. Even though I heard the news on the radio every day, watched it on TV every night, and read the paper most days, the creeping awfulness of that time somehow escaped me then. What The Invisible Bridge made clear to me that the Best Time of My Life was not nearly so safe and secure as I felt it to be.

Forty years ago this week, a record called “Please Mr. President,” written (apparently) by a news reporter at CKLW in Detroit and recorded by a 10-year-old girl named Paula Webb, debuted on the Hot 100. It would reach #60 in a four-week run. Little Paula explains how times are hard for her family, and she asks Ford to do something to help her unemployed father get his job back. It’s probably a more truthful snapshot of American reality in February 1975 than anything you’re going to read from me.

I’d Love You to Want Me

Going through my journal, I found this from 2001. It was music blogging before I ever had—or likely read—a music blog. I’ve added some links to it and edited it a little bit.

Today was as gray and gloomy as yesterday was clear and bright. I drove through the rain to Oregon Middle School to observe a teacher at work in a classroom this morning.

The kids were seventh graders, but they looked so impossibly young. Most voices were still high and soft, most features still childlike. They are the same age I was in the fall of 1972. That fall I was in seventh grade. I was going to manage the basketball team, mostly because I liked the coach, who was also my English teacher. I had probably begun writing a sports column for the school newspaper. But what frames the period most is what always frames the period—music.

That fall, I bought Lobo’s “I’d Love You To Want Me” and Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead” on 45s—my taste was just as eclectic then as it is now. If I’d scan the charts from that season, I’d stop on “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” by Danny O’Keefe, a song I recall having liked, but a song I couldn’t possibly have understood until much later (“You know my heart keeps telling me / You’re not a kid at 33”). The Main Ingredient’s “Everybody Plays the Fool,” which is on my Desert Island tape today, was hitting recurrents. Michael Jackson’s “Ben” would enter my personal mythology the next spring—it was on for my first slow dance with a girl. Climbing the charts were the Stylistics’ exquisite “I’m Stone in Love With You,” and the infinitely singable “Operator” by Jim Croce and “Something’s Wrong With Me” by Austin Roberts. Songs I have since come to admire were on the radio late that fall as well—Seals and Crofts’ “Summer Breeze,” which didn’t have much of an impact on me then, sounds pretty good now. “Dialogue” by Chicago is one of my all-time favorites today, one of the most monumental records of the 1970s. And while I wouldn’t have heard Clean Living’s “In Heaven There is No Beer” back then, it would become a Friday-morning fixture years later on my radio shows in Macomb. . . .

If the paranormal researcher and author T.C. Lethbridge is correct, inanimate objects can record powerful emotions felt in their presence. Rocks on a battlefield, for example, can be found using his methods to have recorded pain and fear. And if Lethbridge is correct, the walls of my junior high school—indeed, of every junior high or middle school—would have to be literally alive with pain and fear, and lust and confusion and heartbreak and bravado and mirth and every other emotion adolescents can experience. . . .

So anyway—I felt empathy for those kids this morning, awkward and geeky and unsure of themselves. Although they face very different challenges in a world so different from mine as to be unrecognizable, I’m wagering some very universal, very human stuff is happening to them now, just as it happened to me. And some of it will linger in their hearts and minds years from now, when they’re not young anymore.

Coincidentally, about the time I found this old journal entry, I listened to an American Top 40 show from mid-November 1972, which contained most of these songs. Read about that in a future installment.

Essential Songs and Official Positions

(Pictured: John Leventhal and Rosanne Cash in 2013.)

We are in pre-holiday mode at the blog this week. Longtime readers may remember that our pre-holiday mode is not much different than our regular mode, except we worry less about the things we should otherwise be doing that we are not.

Over the weekend, The Mrs. and I returned to our much-missed former home of Iowa City, where we saw Rosanne Cash and her husband/guitarist/collaborator John Leventhal perform live. The last time we saw Rosanne she had a full band; this time it was just her and Mr. L doing what she calls “the old soft shoe.” They performed several songs from her latest album The River and the Thread, and she interspersed them with stories about what inspired their creation. She noted that the grave of blues pioneer Robert Johnson, the store where Emmett Till ran into trouble with the people who murdered him (and helped spark the Civil Rights Movement), and the Tallahatchie Bridge, made famous in Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” are located only a few miles apart—a testimonial to the mysterious and outsized influence of Southern culture on American history.

“Ode to Billie Joe” must certainly be on the fabled list of essential songs Rosanne’s father gave her when she was a teenager, and which inspired her 2009 album The List. It was one of her best individual performances Saturday night. (Hear a 2013 performance of it here.) So was “Blue Moon With Heartache,” one of her first hit singles over 30 years ago. “When I wrote this, I was younger than my oldest daughter,” she said. (2011 performance here.)

(Digression: although it will probably be shunted off to the Americana category at the Grammys in favor of a bunch of albums with nine producers and eight songwriters on each track, The River and the Thread should be nominated for Album of the Year, and it damn well ought to win.)

I think we’re gonna make a roundup of links that have appeared on my Twitter feed, which we’ve done here several times recently, into a regular thing. Whatever it takes to feed the content monster, and two dozen of you who are still reading this blog. Let’s get it on:

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Music From No-Man’s Land

(Pictured: sheet music for one of the popular songs of World War I.)

The rise of jazz, which began in earnest shortly after World War I, is responsible for our modern conception of rhythm and how pop music should sound. Critic Gary Giddins is blunt: he credits Louis Armstrong, who first rose to fame in the 1920s, with inventing “modern time.” After Armstrong arrives, popular music of every style, not just jazz, relaxes and feels more “natural”—at least to our ears, which can’t remember a time when music didn’t have that feeling. But practically everything that precedes Armstrong’s innovations sounds bizarre to us: stiff and mannered performances, painfully sentimental lyrics and arrangements, and in the case of the “coon songs,” idiotically racist content. Add to that the primitive tech of the times, acoustic recordings reproduced on Edison cylinders, and the music of what is known as the Pioneer Era of Recording (pre-1920) sounds like it came from another planet.

That said, however, people of a century ago were about as interested in pop music as we are now, even without radio and other modern mass media to proliferate it. Popular songs would be born in the publishing houses of Tin Pan Alley and make their way to vaudeville stages in New York, and from there to vaudeville stages in smaller cities. By the time a hit song reached a purchaser, it was often in the form of sheet music, which was cheaper than cylinders. And 100 years ago, the song was more important than the performance anyhow. You’d play it yourself, on your zither or your spinet or your parlor organ or whatever you had.

I’m reading a book right now called The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War. Beginning in 2003, author Richard Rubin set out to interview as many surviving World War I veterans as he could find, and he found dozens, ranging in age from 101 to 113. His book tells their stories and recreates their world. One early chapter talks about the music of World War I, and how quickly Tin Pan Alley responded once the war in Europe began. Tin Pan Alley was good at that, according to Rubin. Popular songs 100 years ago were a form of news media. If something significant happened, from a political assassination to a natural disaster, songs about it would hit the stores almost immediately.

So songs about the war were plentiful. In 1914 and 1915, there was a certain ambivalence about it, expressed in songs like “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier,” but after 1916, and especially after the United States formally entered the war in 1917, popular songs about the war were universally supportive of it. There were songs that promised to smash the Germans, like “When the Yankees Yank the Kaiser Off His Throne” and “It’s a Long Way to Berlin But We’ll Get There.” There were songs that promised support for France, like “France, We’ll Rebuild Your Towns for You.” There were love songs made topical by referring to the war, such as “While You’re Over There in No Man’s Land, I’m Over Here in Lonesome Land.” And there were maudlin numbers like “When a Boy Says Goodbye to His Mother (And She Gives Him to Uncle Sam)” and “He Sleeps Beneath the Soil of France.” Not to mention George M. Cohan’s famous “Over There,” and the English songs “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” (a marching song actually written in 1912, before the war began) and “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile.” And dozens of others, many with the bizarrely long titles so fashionable back then.

Just as the First World War is overshadowed in 20th century history by World War II, the cultural history of First World War pop has been overshadowed by other, later events. Archeophone Records, which has as its mission excavating and retelling the history of the Pioneer Era, is just out with a series called The Great War: An American Musical Fantasy, collecting popular songs from the World War I era. The companion website is a fabulous work of scholarship, describing the propaganda value of the songs, revealing how the American public thought—and how they were being encouraged to think—of the war in Europe, the enemy, and their fellow citizens on the homefront. It describes an era that is both quite different from and significantly similar to our own.

Reboot

(Pictured: England’s North Yorkshire Moors National Park at sunrise. The picture is probably going to be the best part of this post, which is another collection of fragments from my draft pile.)

A bit of trivia from American Top 40:

Casey answered a listener question about the group with the largest number of members to hit the Top 40 in the rock era. His answer was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, with 375 members, whose “Battle Hymn of the Republic” hit #13 in 1959. He didn’t go beyond the rock era, but I will. In 1925, Columbia released a recording of “Adeste Fideles” backed with a traditional British song called “John Peel” under the name Associated Glee Clubs of America. According to Joel Whitburn, it was also the first electric recording to become a significant hit. Electric recording, in which microphones and amplifiers replaced the old process of cutting soundwaves directly into some physical medium via a recording horn, greatly improved fidelity and brought an end to the Pioneer Era of Recording. Greatly improved fidelity was required for the recording; the Associated Glee Clubs of America had 850 members, and the 4,000 members of the audience at the performance where the recording was made joined in the singing for a total of over 4,800 voices.

Not every post idea about a 70s icon turns into anything:

How come, in a media landscape that continually plunders its past for material even when it’s a terrible idea to do so, nobody has tried to reboot Match Game? By “nobody,” I mean “nobody in the United States,” because there is/was apparently a Match Game reboot on Canadian TV. You’d think that Game Show Network, at the very least, would have revisited the concept. Yet apart from the ill-fated Match Game/Hollywood Squares show in the late 90s, it’s never been tried. Perhaps it’s because Match Game outside the 1970s would not, could not, be Match Game at all. From the garish orange shag-carpeted set to the synth-and-wah-wah-heavy theme music to its particular sort of TV celebrity on the panel, Match Game was as much a product of its era as any show ever made.

After a Sunday morning on the couch with an old movie:

Despite its reputation as one of the premiere chick flicks of all time, the 1939 Laurence Olivier/Merle Oberon Wuthering Heights is one I like a lot, the story of Catherine and Heathcliff and their doomed love, set among the Yorkshire moors, a love that survives beyond the grave. And although I joke about the syrupy music and how old movie heroines always get more beautiful while dying, the ending remains profoundly moving every time I see it. But it’s an earlier scene that sticks with me.

Catherine: Heathcliff, make the world stop right here. Make everything stop and stand still and never move again. Make the moors never change, and you and I never change.

Heathcliff: The moors and I will never change. Don’t you, Cathy.

Catherine: I can’t. I can’t. No matter what I ever do or say, Heathcliff, this is me, now, standing on this hill with you. This is me forever.

“No matter what I ever do or say, this is me, now . . . This is me forever.” From the planet Tralfamadore, the ghost of Kurt Vonnegut nods in agreement.

And finally, a single sentence that pleases me, from a post I wrote but you’re not going to see:

One of those cherished old songs instantly gutted me like some sorry fish, and I couldn’t get the radio off fast enough.

The Depths of Obsession

(Pictured: Skip James, who recorded a handful of blues records in the early 30s and then slipped back into obscurity until he was rediscovered by young blues fans in the 1960s.)

Right now, you can go over to iTunes and pay 99 cents for an mp3 of “Devil Got My Woman” by Skip James, one of the most famous performances in acoustic Delta blues. But what if you want a physical object? You could buy any one of the compilations on which “Devil Got My Woman” has appeared. (I saw it alongside “Monster Mash” on a cheap disc of “Halloween hits” at the drug store not long ago.) Or you could get it on the album of the same name that James recorded in 1967, when he was 64 years old. But what if you want an original 78 RPM copy of the 1931 version of “Devil Got My Woman,” recorded in the unlikely location of Grafton, Wisconsin, for the Paramount label? There are only four of those in the world, all in the hands of collectors. (That mp3 you can buy is likely to have been sourced from one of them.)

The pursuit of the physical object is the subject of Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records, a new book by music journalist Amanda Petrusich. She introduces readers to some of the big names in the world of 78 collecting, past and present, and tries to plumb the depths of their obsession.

Petrusich observes that 78 collectors do not preserve and chronicle a single true “history” as much as they create a particular narrative. The records they value the most are the rarest and hardest to find in the wild—which sparks interest in obscure artists who made only a handful of recordings before vanishing into the void from whence they came. Fascination with James, Robert Johnson, Geeshie Wiley, Blind Blake, and other Delta figures makes it seem like the only music from the 30s that matters is their brand of acoustic blues. A collector will dismiss a trove of non-rare recordings as unimportant—but the very fact of the recordings’ not-rare-ness is due to so many copies having survived for so long, which indicates that more of them were made in the first place, which indicates in turn that they were fairly popular in their time. Certainly more so than a recording for which only four copies have survived. (Petrusich mentions one veteran collector who has a weirdly vehement dislike for country singer Vernon Dalhart, a star of the 1920s who is credited with the first million-seller, “The Prisoner’s Song.” It’s not clear what the man has against Dalhart, although being tired of tripping over “The Prisoner’s Song” on buying excursions might have something to do with it.)

That’s not to say that the rare recordings the collectors want most aren’t good strictly as music; they are, and the fact that the collectors have saved them from oblivion is commendable. But in his excellent book Escaping the Delta, Elijah Ward observes that even in the 30s, what got recorded by Paramount and others was what would they knew they could sell—and there was a market for original Delta blues numbers. When he played juke joints, Robert Johnson probably sang hymns and pop tunes his audience would have known from the radio, but nobody wanted to record those. So the world of popular music evoked by the prewar blues collectors is only tangent to the reality of that world.

(I have a particular fascination with Paramount’s story, the odd circumstance by which a furniture company based in Wisconsin brought black blues players from the Deep South to a makeshift studio on the banks of the Milwaukee River, to record 78s to sell along with its line of record players. To me, the best part of the book involves three chapters in which Petrusich chases down the history of Paramount. The story is told that when demand for particular Paramount recordings slackened, company employees frisbeed the surplus copies into the river, and that later, even metal masters were dumped there. So Petrusich went scuba-diving in the river, but to find out what she came up with, you’ll have to read the book.)

Some of the collectors in Do Not Sell at Any Price would not make good dinner companions, but if you wanted to know everything knowable about prewar blues, you couldn’t do better. And if you’re a crate-digger yourself, you might even recognize yourself in their personalities, and their stories.

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