Happy Monday, and Happy Finals Week (depending on where you are) everyone. I’ve been fortunate to bring some fun subjects into what’s normally a stressful time for students and faculty alike.
My Globalization class (GEO 121) submitted their 4th paper, which required that they pick a song and pick apart its geographical references. My North American regional class (GEO 350) had a group zine semester project, which they are just submitting today. One group, who focused mainly on the American Southeast, did a zine devoted to music and region. Despite their thwarted attempts to burn a mix CD, they were still able to share their playlist with the class, which I’m passing along here.
GEO 121 Musical Geography Paper Class Playlist
King 180 – ‘I Ain’t Goin’ Back Again’
Sufjan Stevens – ‘Oh Detroit, Life Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)
Jason Aldean – ‘Crazy Town’
Gordon Lightfoot – ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’
Rise Against – ‘Help is On the Way’
Kid Rock – ‘All Summer Long’
Toto – ‘Africa’
John Denver – ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’
The Kinks – ‘Waterloo Sunset’
Israel Kamakawiwo’ole – ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’
Nelly – ‘King’s Highway’
The Manao Company – ‘Drop Baby Drop’
Men at Work – ‘Down Under’
Eminem, Royce da 5’9″, Big Sean, Danny Brown, Dej Loaf, Trick Trick – ‘Detroit vs. Everybody’
U2 – ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’
Logic – ‘Everybody’
Lynyrd Skynyrd – ‘Sweet Home Alabama’
Ray Charles – ‘Georgia on my Mind’
We are the World 25 for Haiti
The Hold Steady – ‘Confusion in the Marketplace’
Arkells – ‘Michigan Left’
Alan Jackson & Jimmy Buffett – ‘It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere’
Highly Suspect – ‘Serotonia’
The Specials – ‘Ghost Town’
Jason Aldean – “Fly Over States’
Shakira – ‘Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)’
The HU – ‘Wolf Totem’
OutKast – ‘ATLiens’
Red Hot Chili Peppers – ‘Especially in Michigan’
Panic! at the Disco – ‘Vegas Lights’
Kid Rock – ‘Detroit, Michigan’
Drake – ‘Know Yourself’
John Denver – ‘Rocky Mountain High’
Jim Jones ft. Fat Joe – ‘NYC’
‘Tear Me Down’ from “Hedwig & the Angry Inch”
Tony Bennett – ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’
Jack White – ‘Just One Drink’
Jay-Z feat. Alicia Keys – ‘Empire State of Mind’
GEO 350 Group Project Playlist
OutKast – “Ms. Jackson” (oooooh)
Lil’ Jon – “Snap Yo Fingers”
Wes Montgomery – “West Coast Blues”
Blind Blake – “West Coast Blues”
Blind Willie McTell – “Statesboro Blues”
Mississippi Fred McDowell – “You Gotta Move”
Garth Brooks – “Friends in Low Places’
Johnny Cash – “Ring of Fire”
Randy Travis – “Forever and Ever, Amen”
Louis Armstrong – “What a Wonderful World”
Nina Simone – “Backlash Blues” (Live at Montreaux 1976)
Nina Simone – “Backlash Blues”
Joe Hertler (CMU alum) & the Rainbow Seekers – “Evening Coffee’
The Velvet Monkeys – “The Creeper”
Scream – “Caffeine Dream”
Fugazi – “Waiting Room”
Charlie Daniels Band – “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”
The UTK Gamelan Ensemble (with electric guitar), in performance in Fall 2017, the semester prior to me joining.
Last Spring, I had the pleasure of joining the UTK Gamelan Ensemble, led by my friend, colleague, and erstwhile committee member Leslie C. Gay. The band (so to speak) was composed of an eclectic mix of students and community members ranging from the musically gifted (e.g. David Webb, Kali Altintasioti) to the less so (Tyler Sonnichsen). I was excited to continue with the ensemble this Fall semester when I received a disappointing email from Les saying that there would be no Gamelan until the Spring. This was nobody’s fault; our Gamelan had been borrowed from some institution in California, and the music school’s term of lease had expired. The good news was that an all-new Gamelan contracted for UTK was in the works somewhere in Bali. The bad news was that it wouldn’t be ready on time to ship and arrive in Knoxville anytime this Fall. As the saying goes: cheap, fast, or good… pick two (and even two is often pushing it).
I should have anticipated how much I would miss the Gamelan, considering how busy last semester was. Last Spring, it became a perfect break from my routine: two hours every week where I crossed campus, unplugged from the matrix, and played music that I never had to feel guilty for not practicing because I couldn’t practice it (unlike those childhood piano lessons for which my mom essentially set her money on fire…sorry, Mom). This semester, being back on the full teaching schedule, highlighted the Gamelan-shaped abyss in my life.
First, What is Gamelan?
I’m going to pretend we’re having a conversation, and you just asked me this question and that you’re not reading this on the internet with the ability to open up a new window, scroll through dozens of articles explaining it, hundreds of photos, and thousands of hours of streaming video of people performing it better than I ever could. But, since that’s the first question I get whenever I tell anyone in person that I was in a Gamelan ensemble, I’ll answer the question here as I would in person.
The Gamelan is a coordinated set of percussive instruments intended to be played (often, but not always) in syncopation. It’s associated with Southeast Asia, predominantly Indonesia, though different islands have differing styles and approaches to performance. I’d be loathe to call it a “performance,” too since the islanders willed it into existence as something more spiritual and communal.
Spiritual AND Communal? Tell Me More!
This is my favorite thing about Gamelan. Everybody in front of a set of chimes or the gong (the one Indonesian word that sneaked its way into English) is equal. Almost any of the instruments can be foregrounded in performance. Anyone can sit down and play. Of course they would improve the more time they spend playing just as with anything, but it’s a percussion ensemble that encourages everyone to play, not just the handful of people who can shred. That being said, the Gamelan can integrate an electric guitar and nobody would complain. This Spring, Jorge Variego sat in on bass clarinet to debut what could only be described as an avant garde art piece (free-Gamelan, in other words, like free jazz), and the audience ate it up.
An epiphany I had at our first practice was that this was an approach that much Western popular music had forgotten. I know that trained musicians (or musicians in general) in countries like the States have been gradually disappearing in an age where STEM has conned its way into near-hegemony in our schools and funding for music programs is being slashed. Still, music cannot fully shed its promordial function as a group activity, not something reserved for a privileged few. Prior to the modern phenomenon of music publishing and copyrighting (less than 200 years old in the United States), music had enjoyed a long history of user-friendliness and root populism. Broadside ballads like “Barbara Allen” were meant to be sung by inclusive groups of revelers in parlors, as seen here in one of my favorite movie scenes of all time.
Arguments do exist that music predates language; humans are born with a variety of potential instruments on their person. Tuvan throat singing styles clearly mimic sounds of nature. Hamboning, an autopercussive song-and-dance style, worked its way into the Southern legend via slave traditions. Even some 80’s dream-pop songs with non-linguistic, non-lyrical vocals could be argued to be instrumentals.
So, Why Is It Important?
Obviously, in the handful of communities (mostly Universities) lucky to have one available, the novelty of Gamelan is one reason for its surging popularity in the United States as much as its accessibility. You know it’s novel enough for Fred Armisen and IFC to cart one in for a joke in the Documentary Now! series. But, novelty breeds fads, which gamelan clearly isn’t. The syncopation, timbre, and democracy all form a trusty foundation through which to expand the music’s appeal worldwide. In so much Western music, percussion is relegated to the background of the band, and percussionists (well, rock drummers) become the butt of jokes. Even in bands where the drummer is the best actual musician (e.g. Fugazi, Manic Street Preachers), fans tend to take them for granted. It’s always gratifying when percussionists get the respect they deserve, and even better when Gamelan foregrounds all the different ways, usually several within the course of one performance, someone can simply be a percussionist. To put it most bluntly, it sounds gorgeous, and most importantly, it’s just really, really cool.
For me, at least, being in a gamelan ensemble provided the grounding experience for which so many people turn to yoga, meditation, prayer, or some combination of the three. It was great to have in my life for a semester, and then it was difficult getting used to not having it. Today, however, I got a message from my old friend Konstantine, who will be stepping in for Les and leading the UTK Gamelan Ensemble this semester. Our first meeting/practice/jam session is next week, and I can’t wait. I’ll announce it again as it gets closer, but make your calendars for April 17th.
Ceng Ceng (pronounced ching-ching): the single hardest instrument (for me) to play (well) in the Gamelan.
Some of you may say, “Tyler, isn’t it a bit late to be running an overview on a conference that ran a few weekends ago?” To which I would reply, “…shut up!” Trinidad was fantastic, I need to ‘immortalize’ it (somewhat) here, and I’ve had some marginally important things going on lately (becoming a PhD Candidate, for one) that have distracted me. That isn’t to say I would not have found something else to distract me, but I feel justified in this case, and you get to look at pretty pictures of beaches and cars driving on the left side of the road, so who loses here? Nobody. Unless you’re from a British-commonwealth country or Japan, in which case… understand the novelty of left-driving autos and Cricket will likely not fade for me anytime soon.
Maracas Bay (not bad on the eyes), on the way to the beach on Day 2.
I landed in Port-of-Spain’s Piarco International (it’d be kind of pointless to have a domestic airport on a tiny island) Airport late on Thursday night, March 3rd. Our conference hotel, the Royal Hotel T&T in San Fernando, sent two of their drivers down to pick up my colleague Sarah and I. Sarah’s flight landed slightly later than mine, and her airline (which shall go unnamed; they’ve already been put on blast elsewhere) saw fit to leave her luggage in Miami, so the first night there was a bit complicated. Regardless, we were grateful to be there, and a PhD student from Florida State lent Sarah a dress for her paper presentation, so all major disasters were averted.
Royal Street, San Fernando. You can’t see Shiva’s Pharmacy in any great detail, but my friend wound up not only finding a suitable replacement for her medication, but spent a sliver of what she would have spent on it in the United States. In retrospect, we shouldn’t have been shocked considering Trinidad’s role within the wider frame of the “global South,” but capitalism is just wacky sometimes.
We headed to the conference center at the Southern Academy of the Performing Arts (SAPA) to catch as much as we could of Day 1 Morning before preparing for our own presentations in the afternoon session. I got to catch a portion of a UNC-Chapel Hill panel on music archiving and preservation (which if you read this blog, you know I’m all about), including Charles B. Anderson’s Master Fake Book of jazz recordings.
Because the conference organizers somehow overlooked a ridiculously nice mall food court down the street from SAPA, they arranged to have some Trini food catered during our lunch break. The highlight of that meal was probably the pepper sauce for our rice, which set our mouths on fire proper. By that, I mean, slamming my hand on the table, eyes-watering mouth-fire. I also became acquainted with Fruta, a soft drink of sorts that has large chunks of fruit floating around in the can. A quick google search informed me that S.M. Jaleel and Company, Fruta’s manufacturer, was actually founded in San Fernando in 1924. I assumed it was some South American product considering the Spanish name and the island’s tight proximity to Venezuela, but it turns out the SMJ targets their products at the English-speaking Caribbean.
I understand this is quite a bit of space on a Geography site to devote to a soft drink, but I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t find Geography in literally everything I encountered. Despite a heavy presence of Spanish on road signs and product names, I don’t recall hearing Spanish spoken once over the weekend. All I heard was heavily-accented English and a couple aural cameos from Trini Patois. My experience in the Caribbean is fairly limited, so I spent the two days there trying to be the best sponge I could for the cultural and gastronomical traditions. Over the past five decades (and much farther back, during the eras of British, French, and Spanish oversight), the country’s predominantly South-Asian and Black populace has been carving a unique identity. With the arguable exception of Long Beach, CA, I had never spent time in a place so diverse. After three years in the relatively monochromatic and culinary-unadventurous Eastern Tennessee, Trinidad was a welcome change of pace, even for just the weekend.
Oh, yeah, the conference.
Dr. Les Gay looks on as Sarah, Ben, and Konstantine do a tech-run of their PowerPoints before presentation time.
My presentation ran concurrently with those of my colleagues and friends Sarah, Ben, and Konstantine, so I wasn’t able to watch theirs. By all accounts, though, UT-Knoxville was represented incredibly well between the four of us and Dr. Leslie Gay’s paper on Sonny Rollins’ Caribbean heritage. Sarah presented on woman singers (e.g. Kesha and Nicki Minaj) reclaiming the sound of the female orgasm in popular music, Ben presented on Graham Lambkin and Jason LeScalleets’ soundscape recordings, and Konstantine focused on the East Tennessee soundscapes in the indie film Ain’t It Nowhere. If you’re interested in any of these topics, let me know and I’m glad to connect you to any one of them.
My talk was incredibly well-attended by an enthusiastic audience of multiple age groups and backgrounds. One FSU professor even complimented my choice of playing a Minor Threat clip during my tech-run before the panel began. Ironically, the mp3 of “Straight Edge” did not work during my actual talk, but it was not wholly necessary since about half the room had heard a Minor Threat song before (and reminding me why I love presenting to Musicologists). At any rate, it seemed like my dissertation discussion on the effects of DC Hardcore on the French imaginary of Washington connected well with the attendees. I was grateful to lead off a session that included a student from the University of Maryland who discussed how DC was a veritable melting pot of Latin American musicians. It was a fascinating paper, it made me nostalgic for my days occasionally hitting these Latin-music bars in Adams-Morgan, and most importantly it pointed out “another DC” that was (and still is) every bit as valid.
The Southern Academy of Performing Arts Steelpan band opens their set with a Caribbean rendition of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” It was glorious.
That night, we got a wonderful keynote speech from Dr. Hollis Liverpool, known to Calypso fans worldwide as Chalkdust. It was the first keynote I had ever seen that began with a song. As much as I was enjoying it at the time, I had no idea what a big deal Liverpool was. I also had no idea how vilified Calypsonians were for most of the early era of that style. For all intents and purposes, Calypso has a long tradition as black power music, not unlike hip-hop in the U.S. (and increasingly in the rest of the world). [Tangent: The same thing happened around “gangsta” rap in the US in the early 1990s, never mind how overwhelmingly well-read Tupac Shakur was in continuing his mother’s Black Panther tradition. Only a handful of students attend music school in the United States now as rappers or DJs, however, though those numbers are increasing.] To return to my original point, it shouldn’t be surprising how the white governing classes went out of their way to characterize Calypsonians as degenerates and thugs. This led Lord Kitchener and other West Indian Calypso musicians to wear their finest threads when they went to England after The War. Liverpool had one funny anecdote about the time he snapped a photo of Kitch rehearsing in a white t-shirt and got threatened if he published the picture. My favorite moment of the keynote, though (and perhaps the whole conference) was when he played his second song, and invited those who knew it to sing along. All of the Trinidadians, spread throughout the lecture hall, joined in and sang the backing/call-and-response vocals as if they had known this song their whole life. Most of them probably had.
For the reception that night, we got two sets from the pan steel students at the Academy and one from a local Indian music ensemble. I had also discovered earlier that night that the steel pan drum originated in Trinidad, which shouldn’t have surprised me considering how much cross-cultural innovation has happened across those two islands.
Tassa drumming sessions with Lenny Kumar (in red shirt). Noted Trinidadian steel drummer Mia Gormandy (navy blue sweater) basically schooled us all.
My only regret about the SEMSEC 2016 conference was that it couldn’t have stretched any longer. We didn’t get to spend any real time in Port-of-Spain, though the city looked pretty cool from what we saw passing through it) nor over in Tobago, doing some of what I’ve heard is the world’s best snorkeling. But it gave me the motivation to return to the Island(s) in the future to explore these places, drink even more Puncheon Rum and eat my weight in Doubles. I’ll wrap this up with a few more photos from the weekend. Congrats to SEMSEC on following through with what seemed like a pipe dream when they mentioned this plan at the 2014 meeting in Gainesville. Even that long ago, I knew that if I didn’t go, I would regret it, and I’m so thankful I chose to head down.
SAPA standing tall.
A neat graveyard I found around the corner from SAPA.
Sarah, Konstantin, and I (behind camera) eat our first Doubles by a gas station on Royal Street while Ben contemplates reality.
The owner of the shop next to this billboard paints an ad while his friends down below make fun of him.
Now, it’s time for me to turn back around and head to San Francisco for AAG 2016. I’ll be back on here soon with a preview if possible. I will post my schedule at the conference at the very least.
An update to let you all know where and when you can find me and my research this Spring Semester.
GEOSYM 2016 The University of Tennessee Knoxville, TN February 5 – 6, 2016
This is not only a chance to see me present some of my research on France, but also visit my first conference as an event coordinator. My good friend and colleague Savannah Collins and I are currently in the home stretch of pulling the final schedule together for the papers, panels, and workshops. It’s been a challenging and already rewarding process, and we’re excited to welcome over 50 scholars, including our keynote Dr. Dydia DeLyser, to the symposium. I had wanted Dr. DeLyser to feature at this event ever since I became the chair of the 2016 event over two years ago now. Her talks on the geographic history of neon light restoration at AAG 2013 and 2014 were as entertaining as they were fascinating. For this conference, she will be presenting on the Geographies of Materiality, focusing on the restoration of three Indian Motocycles [sic]. Our schedule and other details are posted at our Facebook event here, and will shortly be added to the official page on our department’s site here.
SEMSEC Society for Ethnomusicology, Southeast and Caribbean Annual Meeting Southern Academy of the Performing Arts San Fernando, Trinidad March 4-6, 2016
This sounds horrible, I know. Not that I post a whole lot anyway, but I’ll try to minimize the amount of beach photos on social media so you don’t all get jealous and start plotting my demise. No matter where the conference is held, I’m glad to be able to make my return to SEMSEC with my French DC/punk research in between eating my weight in doubles and sneaking in some scuba diving. Also, if anyone knows where to find the good dusty Calypso records, I’m all about that, too.
AAG Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting San Francisco, CA March 27 – April 2, 2016
I’m excited to see a lot of the usual suspects this time around, even some of the less-than-usual suspects, making the trek across the globe to one of the our coolest and most expensive cities. I’ll be presenting my paper at 6pm on Wednesday, April 30th. I’ll also be performing in the Second Annual GeoSlam! Event. More info on all this as it draws closer.
A few years ago, I had the distinct yet hardly unique pleasure of introducing my girlfriend at the time to the Fox animated series The Critic. For those unfamiliar, it was a side project of Al Jean and Mike Reiss, two of the guys who made The Simpsons into the best sitcom in history for those six blazing seasons in the mid-1990s. The Critic featured the voice of Jon Lovitz as Jay Sherman, a relentless, basic-cable film critic caught in a world of a megalomaniacal Ted Turner-like station owner (Duke Phillipps, perhaps the second-most consistently funny character on the show) and a revolving door of celebrities, both real-world and apocryphal. He is about as stereotypically Jewish as Fox would allow a character to be without banning it outright, as they did with one episode of ‘Family Guy’ (which, upon viewing, I didn’t see anything wrong with, convincing me the “banning” was a typical Seth MacFarlane publicity stunt). However, Sherman had been adopted as a baby by an extremely wealthy WASP family, including a father named Franklin who was once Governor of New York and is completely insane (not to mention the most consistently hilarious character on the show). He has a teenage half-sister who he loves dearly and provides a platform for perhaps my favorite cut-away joke in sitcom history (which MacFarlane has been trying, and failing, to match for years). The show was a brief, blazing cocktail of New York and Hollywood in-jokes that fell prey to an unfortunate fate split between ABC and Fox and ultimately the corporate cutting-room floor. My girlfriend, after about an episode and a half, turned to me and asked “so, why the hell did this get cancelled so quickly?” I hadn’t really read into it at that point, so I guessed, “I don’t know, maybe it was just too niche Jewish New York?”
In retrospect, I was only marginally right, but that phrase carries so much weight. I also couldn’t help but think about it when reading Steven Lee Beeber’s fun chapter in Sounds and the City (2014). It is entitled ‘Juidos n’ Decaf Italians: Irony, Blasphemy, and Jewish Schtick,’ and is a brief history of a band often credited with cranking the gears of punk rock in motion, The Dictators.
The flip side of the dust sleeve is the other members saying “YEAH!” while Handsome Dick Manitoba raises his arms victoriously in the background. The photo is nearly identical and you can’t make this stuff up.
Who were the Dictators? Funny you should ask, me typing rhetorically! They were an incredibly Jewish predecessor to the Ramones whose brilliant debut album ‘Go Girl Crazy!’ hit shelves forty years ago this past spring. Beeber’s chapter inspired me to throw their record on as I was getting ready to leave the house one morning last week, and it reminded me how not only may “Go Girl Crazy!” be one of the funniest records ever recorded, but it truly did anticipate an entire generation of self-effacing, perpetually two-steps-ahead of the haters punk music (only, with one foot solidly in classic rock). I’ll embed it here so you can listen while reading. It provides a stunningly (not stunningly) good accompaniment.
So, what is it about The Dictators that puts them into a class firmly their own, and kept them from achieving the household name status that fellow Long Island Jews Jeffrey Hyman and Tommy Erdelyi achieved? The credo that genius is rarely understood in its time applies, yes, but it’s pretty easy to look back four decades and realize that most of their jokes flew over the heads of the general populace. As Beeber (p. 83) writes:
Song titles like “Back to Africa,” “Teengenerate,” and “Master Race Rock” speak not only to a comic-ironic take on American culture that is inherently Jewish, but also to darker – equally Jewish – experiences like racism, anti-Semitism, and Nazis. As we supposed to laugh or be offended? Amused or disturbed? Is all this funny ha ha or funny strange?
This is fair enough. Put yourself in the shoes of a fan of Epic Records’ output at the time, but in a middle-American city with an underwhelming Jewish population. Let’s say… Knoxville, TN. You managed to call up the local record shop (Cat’s Records, at the time, I believe) and get this oddball release with that wacky cover. A bombastic, husky quote about his “vast financial holdings” confuses you before you hear a note of music. If the first track didn’t confuse you a bit, then their cover of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” at track two will certainly get you scratching your head and asking “what the hell…?” As funny as their version may seem now, it came off as weird and simply un-rock n’ roll in the mid-1970s. It’s times thinking about albums like these (critically revered years after their release) where I wish there had been a blogosphere, Facebook, or some kind of indexed record to see just who was actually on board with this band forty years ago. No matter how poorly the Dictators’ relationship with Epic went, not to mention how their relationship with their erstwhile singer went, it’s still remarkable (from a satirical standpoint) how they found comedic pay-dirt in Cher two decades before The Critic did.
When the Dictators formed, several decades had passed since Moses Horwitz, Louis Feinberg, and Jerome Horwitz needed to call themselves Howard, Fine, and Howard and tone down Yiddish references to succeed in Hollywood (albeit with rare, sly exceptions). In the 1970s, Woody Allen had brought Jewish New York to the big screen in a self-effacing, modern way, but Jewish culture was still not fool-proof. Despite how New York, at the time, had the largest Jewish population of any city in the world (Beeber 2014, 77), Jews still composed a severe minority on the scale of the United States. The subtleties of their humor hit too many cultural roadblocks on the roads leading out of places like Brooklyn, NY and Highland Park, IL.
The history still requires a much more complex look, particularly because it wasn’t really until the 1920s that Jewish people had gained an authoritative voice in the United States. As Jews began to carve a niche in American society, Vaudeville maintained a reliable set of tropes through which to lampoon them. The most straightforward frames through which to ridicule Jewish people came in the form of the places most adherent to tradition and ritual: weddings and funerals. Many Hebrew dialect recordings revolve around Wedding gatherings (“At the Yiddish Wedding Jubilee,” in which our friend ‘Cohen’ makes a drunken cameo at the open bar) or a cultural preoccupation with marriage (“Marry a Yiddisher Boy”). Funerals did not provide as much fodder as weddings, despite how many Vaudeville comics joked that the two events were one in the same. Regardless, a funeral setting allowed “Cohen Owes Me $97” to turn in one of his finest performances as a stereotypical tightwad.
While none of these depictions of an (at the time) marginalized ethnicity are completely easy to stomach today, they are comprehensible within their historical context. One maxim that has remained true throughout the history of recording has been Taylor’s (2001) idea of how “the various media and technologies we use to disseminate and store information change our perceptions” (p. 29). Youtube has made a wide array of virulently racist old material readily available, so for an education institution dedicated to preservation and historical archivism to play down these antiquated discourses would be irresponsible and, as the UCSB site says “would deprive scholars and the public the opportunity to learn about the past and would present a distorted picture of popular culture and music making during this time period.” While racist imagery of black performers and non-black performers donning blackface, though firmly taboo, still persists, the image of the Jewish immigrant as buffoon has become folded into history. McLean (1965) expanded upon how “the minstrel show had emphatically relegated the figure of the Negro – a black intruder in a white world – to a role of comic inferiority,… an impotent and exotic creature in a land settled and governed by white stock” (p. 26).
Jewish people, being a vast majority Caucasian, did not face the same levels of ridicule. Many Jewish performers could pass themselves off as secular just as many secular performers could pass themselves off as Jewish for Dialect comedy purposes. Because of this, to determine who among dialect comics was Jewish and who was not presents a challenge. Maurice Burkhart is one example of a performer who could easily have been Jewish and lampooning his own culture to climb a ladder of success. Others, like Julian Rose, were less ambiguously documented as goys, and were coincidentally less fortunate. As Merwin (2006) wrote, “over time, many of these extreme forms of ethnic parody began to seem less funny, as immigrant groups became more accepted in American society… the Immigration Acts of the 1920s prevented new immigrants from arriving – providing fewer examples of unassimilated Jews for American culture to parody” (p. 22). This coincided with the slowing down of immigration after World War I. Shellac records and radios began to appear en masse during this era as well. Julian Rose, like many other Hebrew Dialect comedians, did not survive this windfall, at least not in the United States, where Travis Stewart (2013) says “the act wore out its welcome” (Travalanche) by the end of the 1920s. As radio exploded and changed the nature of telephony within music and theater, the second generation of American Jews emerged and changed the world. While several of them grew to fame using goyish stage names, a slew of Jewish entertainers (George Burns, Jack Benny, George Jessel being three on top of a very long list) were integral in radio’s arrival as what Timothy Taylor (2005) called “blurring [of] the distinction between public and private in America in the twentieth century” (p. 259).
This is not to say that Jews had not already experienced a steady, increasing flow of acceptance within the entertainment field prior. Jewish musical traditions were among the first elements of Eastern European culture that infiltrated the American mainstream. The ending of “Under the Matzos Tree” skillfully incorporated a couple bars of the traditional Jewish wedding song “Mazel Tov,” and “Marry a Yiddisher Boy” fit perfectly within the established framework of the Barbershop quartet. This was unsurprising, as many Hebrew performers, whether they were Jewish or not, adopted pieces that descended primarily from the New York City / Tin Pan Alley tradition.
Citing author Michael G. Corenthal, Merwin (2006) credits the millions of records sold by Jewish comedians (and comedians doing Jewish routines) during the early days of the record industry forged an integration with Christian America, bringing Jewish life into non-Jewish homes the continent over (p. 10). Even as a ridiculed, persecuted minority, the American Jew had, as McLean (1965) put it, “paradoxically, come to speak, through its rich tradition of humor, for the plight of mass man” (p. 114).
Generations later, certain programming that could be referred to as “quintessentially Jewish” such as ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ succeeded, but largely through modulating more British arcs of awkward interactions and hellishly antisocial scenarios into American settings. Imagine Ricky Gervais in “The Office,” and ultimately Steve Carell reinventing that character archetype on our side of the pond. I would argue this, rather than “Jewish” humor was what made Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David into household names. If you want to split hairs, Seinfeld was probably the least entertaining character on his show.
Regardless, is this a matter of sociology, geography, or just some sick academic specialty in “comedy?” Beeber (p. 83) continues…
Hard to say. But, in combining their talents with [Andy] Shernoff’s and using Handsome Dick as their mouthpiece, [Rock critics and early promoters of The Dictators] Sandy Pearlman and [Richard] Meltzer just may have creating the missing link between pre-punk and punk – the Italian-acting, Nazi-referencing, Jewish tough guy, a wiseass and holy fool who’s 100 per cent New York.
One of Beeber’s major points here was the cultural hybridity of the Jews and the Italians, using the term “Juido” (admitting that there are plenty of people who may have issues with the portmanteau). This was a reality I grew up with; my grandfather’s best friend in the world was a first-generation Italian-American named Biagio (“Billy” to his friends). The Hartford where they grew up was obviously no New York or Philadelphia, but the natural inclination the Jews and Italians had to run together was just as strong. One group had flocked to Ellis Island from Eastern Europe and the other from Southern Europe, one group read the Torah and the other read whatever the Pope had to say. However, both Jews and Italians came into their own as Americans around the same time and grew up with guilt-tripping mothers. Even when I was in college, the Jews and Italian-Americans in my communications classes found themselves sharing countless “Oh man, me too!” moments. They have long provided valuable foils for one another both on-screen and off, for reasons that those belonging to neither group can understand but never truly get.
I grew up relatively close to New York, but didn’t spend as much time there as I would have liked at the time. By the time I was old enough to hang out there on my own, much of the city was getting freakishly safe and expensive. The last time I was there, in 2012, I met up with my friend Tor, who was in the states from Oslo. He brought me to Manitoba’s, the erstwhile frontman’s dive bar in Alphabet City. We stepped inside, and in some strange way, it felt slightly like the New York of the 1970s had been stuffed into this (admittedly sanitized) time capsule. I’ll never forget seeing Blum himself sitting on a bench, holding court with a group of like-minded individuals in a corner. His wife was tending the bar and their young son rode around on a razor scooter. Most memorably, Blum just looked happy. He looked at home. No matter how much his city had changed, his humor and attitude never could.
It is still curious yet not completely unsurprisingly how readily the Dictators are minimized in discussions about the first wave of punk in light of New York counterparts like The New York Dolls, The Ramones, and Blondie. In October 2007, a friend and I went to see Beeber doing a JCC-sponsored appearance at the Black Cat Backstage to promote his book The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGBs. I remember most of the conversation revolving around the Ramones (for obvious reasons) as well as later-wave Jewish-led/influenced New York bands like Reagan Youth. I’m sure the Dictators came up once or twice, but I don’t remember them dominating the conversation like they could have. They were not the most famous “Jewish” punk band to rise from that era, but they were undeniably the most Jewish. Take that for what it’s worth. Handsome Dick Manitoba, Ross “The Boss” Funicello, Scott Kempner, Stu Boy King, and Andy Shernoff were, cumulatively, a wonderful, bombastic proto-punk Jay Sherman. Beloved in retrospect, given the shaft by corporate interests and history. Too bad the Dictators were never able to work out a brilliant crossover episode on ‘The Simpsons.’ I would love it if the “Flaming Moes” episode featured them rather than Aerosmith.
This entry features pieces of a paper I previously wrote for a course on Music and Technoculture, which would have done well to include The Dictators within the pantheon of New York/Jewish humor. Here are the works I cited above:
Benjamin, W. (1968). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. In Illuminations (pp. 219-253). New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc.
Beeber, S. L. (2014). Juidos ‘n’ Decaf Italians: Irony, Blasphemy, and Jewish Shtick. In (Lashua, B., Spracklen, K., & Wagg, S., eds.) Sounds and the City: Popular Music, Place and Globalization. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 76-91.
Burns, G. (1989). All my best friends. New York: GP Putnam’s Sons.
Gay Jr., L. C. (2003). Before the deluge: The technoculture of song sheet publishing viewed from late 19th-century Galveston. In R. T. A. Lysloff & L. C. Gay Jr. (Eds.), Music and technoculture (pp. 204-232). Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.
Gilbert, D. (1940). American Vaudeville: Its Life and Times. New York: Whittlesey House.
Katz, M. (2010). Capturing sound: How technology has changed music (Rev. ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lysloff, R. T. A., & Gay Jr., L. C. (2003). Introduction: Ethnomusicology in the twenty-first century. In R. T. A. Lysloff & L. C. Gay Jr. (Eds.), Music and technoculture (pp. 1-22). Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
McLean, A. (1965). American Vaudeville as Ritual. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.
Merwin, T. (2006). In their own image: New York Jews in jazz age popular culture. New Brunswick: Rutgers University press.
Stewart, T. D. (2005). No Applause – Just Throw Money, or The Book that Made Vaudeville Famous. New York: Faber and Faber, Inc.
Stewart, T. D. (2013). Stars of Vaudeville #572: Julian Rose. Travalanche Weblog. 17 Jan 2013. Accessed 4 Apr 2015 here.
Taylor, T. D. (2001). Strange sounds: Music, technology & culture. New York: Routledge.
Taylor, T. D. (2005). Music and the rise of radio in twenties America: Technological imperialism, socialization, and the transformation of intimacy. In P. D. Greene & T. Porcello (Eds.), Wired for sound: Engineering and technologies in sonic cultures (pp. 245-268). Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.
Cultural forms, particularly popular music, offer a utopian possibility of unity through a shared cultural expression. The examples of [Johnny] Hallyday and the Fête [de la musique, every June 21st] mirror the dichotomy between the two. One could observe that the French rocker creates a unified audience for his music through a homogenization of sounds and styles and that the Fête stresses the diversity of musical cultures while combining cultures… The paradox between these positions is that music (and other forms of culture) can serve to promote singularity and plurality.
The above quote comes from page 7 of Jonathyne Briggs’ Sounds French: Globalization, Cultural Communities, and Pop Music, 1958 – 1980. This book is one of the best synopses of any nation-state’s popular culture I’ve read, and is absolutely essential for anyone interested in learning about the development of pop music in France. It’s already been incredibly helpful in my understanding of the framing of punk music against France’s popular and sociopolitical culture as I work on going through my recordings and notes from this summer.
Of course, there are so many avenues through which to explore this. The companion site to Briggs’ book provide links to various songs he alludes to, such as “Rock and Roll Mops” by Henri Cording (Salvador) and his Original Rock n’ Roll Boys (1956), largely credited as the first proper French “rock n’ roll” single. As Briggs writes, Henri Salvador did not take rock n’ roll seriously, and made a novelty song aimed at capitalizing on what he thought was a trend (not completely unlike Bill Haley did with “Rock Around the Clock”), but the song did begin a (protracted) slippery slope of rock n’ roll legitimacy in the French language. The first thing I thought of while reading this was how Plastic Bertrand provided the same type of parodic cornerstone for French-language punk music with “Ça plane pour moi” (1977). Granted, Bertrand’s song was more tongue-in-cheek, but it remains one of the most recognizable French-language songs in the Anglo-Saxon world. Tell me I’m wrong.
While I have yet to publish anything on it (academically or on here), I will encourage a greater focus on non-Anglo-Saxon punk culture, because it would afford us a more nuanced understanding on the conditions that spread it, as well as (very importantly) challenge a long-held single-story that particular socio-political environments were necessary for it to grow. More to come.
One of the final R.A.S. shows ends in violence as Neo-Nazis infiltrate the crowd. Paris, 1984. (Photo courtesy of Philippe Roizes, all rights reserved)
I have so much to update on about my time across the pond (too much, actually), but I need to take care of all kinds of housekeeping before I do. So for now, here’s this.
This came across my feed yesterday, and a friend sent it along today, so I figured I would pass it forward. Some would be shocked that a member of GWAR is an established academic with a PhD in Music, but I would actually be more shocked if nobody in GWAR had a PhD. They’ve always seemed weirdly high-concept to me, and this talk from their longtime bassist and vocalist (out of costume) confirms how they’re as important to their hometown of Richmond, VA as they are to heavy metal, theatrics, and the fake blood industry.
For those of you who don’t know me (which is probably many of you), my name is Tyler Sonnichsen, and I’m spending this month in Paris, looking for anybody here or elsewhere in France who enjoys the underground music of Washington, DC (e.g. Minor Threat, Fugazi, Bad Brains, Scream, Rites of Spring, and many more).
I am working on a project about French perceptions of Washington, DC outside the topic of government, US history, and those things which formulate mainstream tourism. Specifically, I am interested in (as a friend/colleague referred to it) your impression of Washington, DC, both before and after anytime you have visited. I would like to speak with you about how your love of DC’s legendary punk scene has altered your imagination of the city.
Why are you in Paris?
When I first visited in 2010, I was living and working in DC. I attended a Kimmo performance at Le Pix during my incredibly brief stay in the city, and I was surprised by the clear influence that “the DC sound” had on their music. Additionally, I saw all sorts of signatures of DC hardcore around the room, including at least two Bad Brains t-shirts and a Thrashington, DC pin. I later found out they were from Brest, which made me interested in how profoundly French punk was influenced by those bands.
What do you mean “impression?”
I’m interested in not only the changing dynamics of place, but peoples’ perception of place. This is very important to several industries today, especially tourism, which I have also been studying. When I ask you about your thoughts on Washington, DC, there are no wrong answers. The images of the city and its music have made a major worldwide impact, and I’m interested in what they mean to you. It does not matter if you have ever been to DC. Actually, that may possibly be better.
Who are you looking for?
If you live in France and love DC punk and hardcore, I want to talk to you. I am seeking a wide variety of voices: all races, all ages, all genders, all stories. Unfortunately, my French is not nearly as good as I would like it to be, so I would prefer if we could talk in English. However, if you are more comfortable speaking in French, then you are definitely welcome to.
So, if you or anybody you know would like to participate in the project, do not hesitate to call me (in France) at 06 18 33 88 60 or to email me at sonicgeography [at] gmail.com.
Thanks to/Merci a Phil Roizes.
Maintenant, en français (via google translate en raison de contraintes de temps…désolé si il y a des incohérences).
Pour ceux d’entre vous qui ne me connaissent pas (ce qui est probablement beaucoup d’entre vous), mon nom est Tyler Sonnichsen, et je vais passer ce mois-ci à Paris, à la recherche de quelqu’un ici ou ailleurs en France qui jouit de la musique underground de Washington , DC (par exemple de Minor Threat, Fugazi, Bad Brains, Scream, Rites of Spring, et beaucoup plus).
Je travaille sur un projet sur les perceptions françaises de Washington, DC en dehors du sujet du gouvernement, de l’histoire américaine, et les choses qui formulent intégrer le tourisme. Plus précisément, je suis intéressé par (comme un ami / collègue a fait référence à elle) votre impression de Washington, DC, à la fois avant et après chaque fois que vous avez visité. Je voudrais vous parler de la façon dont votre amour de la légendaire scène punk de DC a modifié votre imagination de la ville.
Pourquoi êtes-vous à Paris?
Quand je suis allé la première fois en 2010, je vivais et travaillais à Washington DC. Je assisté à une représentation au Kimmo Le Pix pendant mon incroyablement bref séjour dans la ville, et je suis surpris par l’influence clair que “le son DC” a eu sur leur musique. En outre, je voyais toutes sortes de signatures de DC inconditionnel autour de la salle, y compris au moins deux cerveaux t-shirts Bad et une badge Thrashington, DC. Je découvris plus tard, ils étaient de Brest, qui m’a fait intéressé à sav oir comment profondément le punk français a été influencé par ces bandes.
Que voulez-vous dire “impression?”
Je suis intéressé non seulement la dynamique changeante de place, mais la perception de la place de peuples. Ceci est très important pour plusieurs industries d’aujourd’hui, en particulier le tourisme, dont je suis également étudié. Quand je vous demande de vos pensées sur Washington, DC, il n’y a pas de mauvaises réponses. Les images de la ville et sa musique ont eu un impact majeur dans le monde entier, et je suis intéressé par ce qu’ils signifient pour vous. Il n’a pas d’importance si vous avez déjà été à DC. En fait, cela peut éventuellement être mieux.
Si vous vivez en France et aimez le punk et le hardcore DC, je veux vous parler. Je cherche une grande variété de voix: toutes les races, tout les âges, tous les sexes, toutes les histoires. Malheureusement, mon français est loin d’être aussi bon que je voudrais que ce soit, donc je préférerais si nous pouvions parler en anglais. Toutefois, si vous êtes plus à l’aise en français, alors vous êtes certainement le bienvenu à.
Donc, si vous ou quelqu’un que vous connaissez aimerait participer au projet, ne pas hésiter à me contacter (en France) au 06 18 33 88 60 ou contactez-moi au sonicgeography [at] gmail.com.
For those of you who were not connected to me during my time at CSU-Long Beach, my friends Bret Hartt, Abel Santana, and I co-founded a podcast and weekly radio show called “The Casual Geographer.” We produced over thirty episodes, most of which were posted at our original blogspot site here (the audio links no longer work, but the descriptions and graphics are still there, and if I may say so, delightful). Each episode tackled a different subject and explained how geography enveloped said subject. It lasted most of the two years I spent in Long Beach, and we had a lot of fun.
This week, in a seminar on tourism geography, my colleagues and I discussed a wonderful article by Duncan Light on the commodification and consumption of place names. I found it interesting, as a musically-inclined geographer, how he used examples such as AC/DC (seriously, why is there no lightning bolt key?) Street in Melbourne as ways in which cities and regions place and focus what John Urry legendarily called “the tourist gaze.” In particular, Light (2014, 145*) wrote:
…It is the marker – the signage – that is important in affirming and validating the visit. As such the place-name signage (the most commonplace and banal of objects) becomes the principal focus of tourist interest and the setting for a range of activities and performances.
Unsurprisingly, my mind immediately leaped to the corner of Fountain and Fairfax, where I drove by upon moving to the Los Angeles area, motivated by The Afghan Whigs’ dramatic 1993 song of that title**. My mind then immediately jumped to Episode 3 of The Casual Geographer, where we discussed whatever background information we could find on a handful of songs named after street intersections. These included “53rd and 3rd” (NYC) by the Ramones, “Fountain and Fairfax” (Los Angeles) by the Afghan Whigs, “Queen and John” (Toronto) by Good Riddance, “9th and Hennepin” (Minneapolis) by Tom Waits, and “13th and Euclid” (DC) by the Dismemberment Plan. Thanks to Russ Rankin for his gracious email reply telling us the story of “Queen and John” (which I read during the episode), as well as Travis Morrison for his brief explanation of what happened at a gas station near 13th and Euclid (as well as giving me the go-ahead to use “The Face of the Earth” as a theme song for the show).
I’ll gradually work on wrenching more of these recordings from my archives. For now, have a listen to this episode and I hope you enjoy it. This was an early episode, and the production quality improved from here, I promise.
* Light, D. (2014). Tourism and toponymy: commodifying and consuming place names. Tourism Geographies, 16(1), 141-156.
** If you’re at all familiar with the Afghan Whigs or the greater spate of work by Greg Dulli, using the word “dramatic” to describe any of their songs could seem pretty redundant, I realize.
Hey, everybody. I’m taking a few minutes away from the proceedings at SEDAAG (that’s the SouthEastern Division of the Association of American Geographers for anyone keeping track) to give a quick update. If you’re at the conference or happen to be in the neighborhood of the UGA campus, I’ll be presenting my preliminary research at a session I’ll also be chairing at 8:20 am. It will be held in the Georgia Conference Center room TU. My presentation will be entitled “Frank Hatch and Memorialization of Pre-war Boston through Song.” It’s pretty straightforward, explaining how music is used to drive romantic narratives of a city’s “olden days” landscape.
The conference has been great so far; it has been my first SEDAAG conference, so it’s neat to see how the regional conferences operate in light of AAG. Prior to this, I had presented at both CGS (California) and APCG (Pacific Coast), but I had no real frame of reference back then. I’ve had the chance to watch great research presentations about everything from GISc students pushing for the creation of bike lanes in central Georgia to “The Walking Dead” to the governmental intervention of domestic work of African-American women in the South in the 1920s and on and on.
The only disappointing part of the trip so far (other than the most brutal near-freezing rain we drove through all of yesterday to get here) has been that I’ve been hanging out at Wuxtry Records for over an hour and Peter Buck hasn’t asked me to start a band! You lied to me, Athens mythology!
On a serious note, if you ARE in Athens, do stop by the Special Collections Library on campus in case you’ve ever wanted to see the closest thing to an R.E.M./Pylon/B-52’s/Oh-OK museum you’ll find. They have Bill Berry’s “Chronic Town”-era drum kit, and a really fancy clear bass that Mike Mills used to play, not to mention all sorts of ephemera from the time before they were one of the biggest bands in the world.
That’s all for now. I hope everyone is having an excellent November. The end of the semester (and arrival of more frequent/substantive updates) is nigh.