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Saturday morning quotes 8.48: Same old story

August 20, 2022

We have discussed in a number of posts how the early music movement readily morphed from a quest for cultural preservation initiated in 19th-century in the face of a rapidly industrializing world, to a mid-20th century rebellious rejection of received cultural norms, to a 21st-century era of complete standardization and aggressive commercialization of everything that moves.  Early music was subjected to the same exploitation and valorization as any appealing product that was developed and marketed in the late 20th century.  There are many comparative examples including, for instance, health care items that started life as the product of a cottage industry, met with modest commercial success, and were eventually sold to a major corporation where cost-cutting manufacturing processes were introduced and deceptive marketing strategies were implemented to capitalize on the folksy source of their now mass-produced items.

While many still labor under the myth that early music today represents cultural preservation, examining the now declining early music revival more closely reveals a great deal more about late 20th-century consumer habits. Wrested from the hands of misfit-scholar-activists by marketing professionals, the modern early music revival has less to do with representing a genuine effort of historical preservation of a treasured art form, and has everything to do with the terrible taint of the marketing industry. Let’s examine another 20th-century revival for comparison.

“By our interpretive acts, we constructed the very thing we thought we had found. This is not to say there was nothing “out there” called blues…Rather, I am saying that the various activities of the blues revivalists constituted a commodity called “blues” that came to be consumed as a popular music and a symbol of stylized revolt against conservative politics and middle-class propriety.”

– Jeff Todd Titon, “Reconstructing the blues : reflections on the 1960s blues revival” in Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Revivals Examined, Neil V. Rosenberg, ed., University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1993, p. 222.

Big Bill Broonzy (1903 – 1958), pictured above, represents an interesting example of a musician operating within a living tradition, but willing to adapt in order to appease modern academic revivalists; listening to old recordings and learning the ideal prescribed repertory so that he might fit into their contrived fantasy world.

“Big Bill Broonzy, a black singer, guitar player and songwriter, had come to [Chicago] from Arkansas in 1920, and in the 1930s began making records and singing in South Side nightspots for black audiences. Yet when Broonzy worked outside that milieu, he sometimes found himself treated more as a symbol of racial politics than the musician and entertainer he had come to be. In a New York concert in 1939, for example, he heard himself introduced as “an ex-sharecropper”—an unaccustomed label for one who had not farmed since 1916. As an entertainment professional, Broonzy, rather than trying to reconcile the expectations of his different audiences, he sang work songs and back-country blues he learned from records and books on country music.”

– Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life, W. W. Norton, New York, 2001, p. 747.

The point is that 20th-century academic revivalists created a fantasy world they called “The Blues” and went to pains to describe and classify the music and those who authentically played it. Dedicated musicians just said, “OK, whatever,” and fed the myth by adapting and cooperating with the contrived parameters set by those who could never understand the realities of making a living as a professional musician. The phenomenon of an entirely modern creation of a performance genre and style has a direct correspondence with the early music revival.

“As we know, the end result of Seconda Pratica was not the music of antiquity (as originally intended) but a nuove musiche that had never existed before…Could it be that unconsciously we have been using [Historically-Informed Performance] merely as a stratagem—or a mindset—to allow the creation of this new style we’re now using? In our optimism and innocence, we call it “Period style.” The inspiration comes from somewhere else…but in reality we know it works because we make it work.”

– Bruce Haynes, The End of Early Music: A Period Performer’s History of Music for the Twenty-First Century, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2007, p. 227.

While appreciation for cultural treasures like historical music will continue among insightful and dedicated connoisseurs, the Early Music revival is for all intents and purposes over. It was a modern creation from the beginning, and it died when marketing professionals examined their balance sheets, frowned, and moved on to the next bright shiny object.

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