28 February 2008

Pop Goes The Music

In yesterday's long, rambling post about playing 1890s songs on the piano, I neglected to mention one other reason why late 19th century songs have a special place in my heart: they represent, for better or worse, the dawn of popular music as we understand it today.

Oh, sure, there was always "popular" music of a sort. It's very likely that catchy tunes were being spread from town to town by wandering troubadours at least as far back as the Middle Ages, and probably well before that. It's also a near certainty that some of the most memorable motifs (riffs, if you will) in classical music were lifted ("borrowed," if you prefer) from popular peasant songs.

But because there was no systematized means of preserving such songs - at least if anyone was keeping a 14th century version of the pop charts, it's never been found - and also because historically there was a fairly strict separation between "high" and "low" culture, little notice was taken of what the common people were humming along to.

Until, that is, the industrial revolution turned peasants into an urban working class and gave them sufficient purchasing power to - at least en masse - rival the royalty and aristocracy who had been the traditional patrons of the arts. That, coupled with the process of mass production and standardization meant that instead of it taking months or years for some version or other of a folk tune to migrate from town to town, identical versions of a new song could be in thousands, even tens of thousands of households across the country in a matter of days.

As a boy I asked my dad, who was old enough to remember when phonographs were rare and radio nonexistent, how songs could become "popular" without most people being able to hear them played. He looked at me with surprise, as if wondering not for the first time how any offspring of his could be so clueless. "Why, through sheet music, of course."

He went on to explain how in the late 19th and early 20th nearly every reasonably well-off home had a piano and someone - most often one of the daughters of the family - who knew how to play it. Each week when a new batch of sheet music would come into the local shop, people would rush down and grab copies of the ones that looked interesting or that they'd heard about from others. Then they'd go home and start practicing, and with any luck by Saturday night they'd be leading friends and neighbors in a singalong of the latest "hits."

As much as I was wedded to my rock and roll radio during the 1950s and 60s, the idea of that whole piano singalong thing always appealed to me, and when I first started hanging out in the UK during the 1970s, I was lucky enough to occasionally run into some old-timers who still did things that way. One of my most favorite times was in a tiny town near the top of Scotland on or near Midsummer Night. At midnight it was still light enough for under-14s to be playing football on the village green. Nearly everyone else was squeezed into the one local pub, with no notice being taken of closing times or legal drinking ages. An old lady, who I understand to be either 90 or 96 - between the rowdy din and the Scottish accents, I reckoned myself fortunate to understand anything at all - took a seat at the piano and ran though nearly every song of note from the First and Second World Wars and much of what had come between.

I only knew about half the songs - if that - but I joined in singing with everyone else, wondering at the same time what would happen when the old dear at the piano had taken her final encore. Was there anyone in the town with her encylopedic knowledge of the old songs, or would she be replaced by a jukebox and/or a television?

I suppose it's always been a quiet ambition of mine to be able to play the piano well enough that people could sing along with me, and that in the process I'd be able to pass on some of the great old songs to a new generation or three. But I never practiced enough, was never quite outgoing or demonstrative enough, and maybe just wasn't talented enough to realize that particular dream.

But maybe there's still time. My mother and I are talking about going out to Ontario this summer for her cousin's 100th birthday celebration, and if I keep at the practicing, I'm hoping at the very least I might be able to play a few of the hits from 1908 or thereabouts to mark the centenary. Given that the average age of my audience will skew toward the high 80s, it's possible that they'll let me slide with a less than perfect performance. On the other hand, these are people who really know these songs, so my usual slapdash technique won't suffice.

Not even sure we're going yet, though, as my mother's kicking up a fuss about the new Homeland Security regulations for travel to Canada. Seems she let her passport lapses a number of years ago, thinking that her international traveling days were done, and she is very cross with George Bush for - well, a number of things, but particularly for requiring a passport for a journey which, back in her Detroit days, she made hundreds if not thousands of times with no more than a jaunty wave to the border crossing guards at the Ambassador Bridge (she and her parents were themselves "nickel immigrants," so named because of the bridge toll at the time).

A new passport will cost her about 100 bucks, and while she can easily afford it, she's insisting she's not going to give the Bush the satisfaction of taking her money, even if it means missing out on the party. "But Mom," I tell her, "you're the only one who's going to suffer. I really doubt President Bush is going to be sitting there in the White House cursing his luck at not getting that extra $100 out of you."

"I know," she says, "but it's the principle." And every time we have one of these discussions I learn a little more about how I got the way I am.

In other road trip news, I'm seriously considering going out to follow the Weakerthans around the middle of the country for a few days in early April. I used to do this fairly often, but in recent years have only been seeing them when they came to whatever town I was living in at the time. Maybe I'm just getting restless as winter enters the home stretch, but I think several consecutive nights of Weakerthans plus some long meandering two-lane drives in between might be just the ticket.

And lastly, I got a pleasant surprise in the mail today: the new CD from The Max Levine Ensemble, OK Smartypants AND I Love You, This Is A Robbery, the solo album from MLE guitarist/lead singer David "Spoonboy" Combs. Both are excellent, in very different ways, and inspired me to drag my old electric guitar out of hiding. Tomorrow, after the neighbors go to work, I might even try to plug it in.

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