New musical styles do not happen by accident.
Musical styles evolve. Beethoven could not have stumbled upon rock’n’roll any more than Hank Williams could have created urban rap. It would be a myth to believe that a musician, in a moment of enlightenment, could create a new style from the raw grit of their innate creativity. If one ever did, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate it. The new ‘sound’ would be entirely without precedent – utterly a-priori. Without understanding where the new musical arrangements came from, we would have no frame of reference. It would simply be strange and different. Imagine Picasso painting a cubist masterpiece in Rembrandt’s studio. Do you envision that it would be well received and fully appreciated?
New musical styles, paintings, poetry, sculpture, literature, film and all other forms of expression are about connections. We love to see things that we think we understood in new ways. Like humor, there is delight in an unexpected twist of a familiar truth. The premise, however, is always close by. New connections can only occur between the unexpected and the very well known. In order to take a step forward, you have to leave where you currently stand.
Changes come in small increments and with clear precedents. Each step forward has a family tree, a traceable genealogy. In a sense, every new work of art has a reason for being. It is the family tree that makes it understandable. Each step forward is a new articulation of some aspect of our current state of being. The clearer the statement, the better the work of art. If the art says something to us that feels utterly appropriate, identifiable and real, the better it stands as a work of our time.
There is, of course, a tribal aspect to art. Since most all forms of artistic expression say something about the current situation within our culture, it is easier to understand if you share the same cultural background. The subtleties of the metaphors in the American Indian’s Sun Dance are lost upon an old-money blue-blood raised on the upper East side of New York City. The blue-blood is simply from a different tribe. On the other hand: making an effort to learn something about other societies, we learn about ourselves. These are the same attributes that archeologists and anthropologists research to shed light on the cultures of lost civilizations. There is something common to the human experience that transcends time and cultural differences. Through Art we express ourselves and through Art, we learn about ourselves. Through Art, we also date ourselves.
If you ask an artist, poet or musician how they know something is truly a work of Art, the answer is usually something like: “You just know it”. When you can understand where it came from and how it got to where it is; when the message is current, real and appropriate: it is Art. You don’t have to be an intellectual; you only need to be a human being.
Musical styles are no different than any other form of human expression. They also have a family tree. Sometimes it helps to review the precedents to better understand what they are. Sometimes reviewing precedents helps us to better appreciate what we have now. One small example of this: In the current time of political and economic upheaval, where are the demonstrations? Where is the outrage? Where is the public display of political involvement that was so evident in the 1960s? Where are the protest songs? The songs of the 1960s were the voice of a decade – Why is it so silent now?
There was a lot of precedent to the songs of the 1960s. The music and lyrics evolved as a natural voice of dissent and concern. The ground was fertile for that particular artistic expression. The following condensed histories are intended to address some of those connections. Please also consider the entries in the ‘Time-Line of American Musical Styles & Guitar History’ under ‘Research and History’ in this website. They help broaden the historical context of the various musical styles by placing them in relation to other significant historical events. After all, if you were alive (for example) at the time of the Great Depression, it would certainly affect your understanding of all other aspects of life during that period. The song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” has a special meaning.
There are many, many other connections. Feel free to send us your thoughts.
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ⓒ 2008 Leonard Wyeth