The racial disparities in the Chicago blues scene

An article in a series about the blues in Chicago explores how the white, downtown clubs are thriving while the older, black clubs on the south and west sides are struggling:

Two clubs, two worlds, one music: the blues. That’s how it goes in Chicago, a blues nexus crisply divided into separate, unequal halves. A sharp racial divide cuts through the blues landscape in Chicago, just as it does through so many other facets of life here, diminishing the music on either side of it.

The official Chicago blues scene — a magnet for tourists from around the globe — prospers downtown and on the North Side, catering to a predominantly white audience in a homogenized, unabashedly commercial setting. The unofficial scene — drawing mostly locals and a few foreign cognoscenti — barely flickers on the South and West sides, attracting a mostly black, older crowd to more homespun, decidedly less profitable locales.

Not all the grass-roots places are dying as quickly as the music room at the Water Hole. Some, such as Lee’s Unleaded Blues, on the South Side, attract a small but steady crowd on the three nights it’s open each week.

But how long can this go on? How long can a music that long flourished on the South and West sides — where the blues originators lived their lives and performed their songs — stay viable when most of the neighborhood clubs have expired? How long can a black musical art form remain dynamic when presented to a largely white audience in settings designed to replicate and merchandise the real thing?

Lots of interesting history. Additionally, the conversations about authenticity and tourism are intriguing: why doesn’t Chicago promote its music and culture more and would a major push in this direction water down the product?

It would probably be very interesting to talk to Chicago and suburban residents about blues music. How many of them know its an available option and if they do know this, how many would choose it over other entertainment activities? How many students in the region know that the blues has such a rich history in Chicago? How many colleges teach about American music (blues and jazz and their contributions to the development of rock ‘n’ roll) as opposed to classical music? How much does like for the blues cut across racial lines? Is the blues most acceptable to educated whites (in more sociological terms, cultural omnivores)?

Rioting over cultural works and ideas: Blackboard Jungle and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

Even though I have heard multiple times about the groundbreaking 1955 movie Blackboard Jungle, I finally watched it recently. (Side note: watching the film without commercials on AMC was excellent. Watching movies on TV is often so frustrating as they drag it out.) After watching the movie (and noting how “inspiring teacher” movies of recent years seem to build upon this film), I read on Wikipedia about riots that took place when the movie was first shown in theaters:

The film markedthe rock and roll revolution by featuring Bill Haley & His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock”, initially a B-side, over the film’s opening credits, as well as in the first scene, in an instrumental version in the middle of the film, and at the close of the movie, establishing that song as an instant classic. The record had been released the prior year, garnering tepid sales. But, popularized by its use in the film, “Rock Around the Clock” reached number one on the Billboard charts, and remained there for eight weeks. The music also led to a huge teenage audience for the film, and their exuberant response to it sometimes overflowed into violence and vandalism at screenings. In this sense, the film has been seen as marking the start of a period of visible teenage rebellion in the latter half of the 20th century.

The film markeda watershed in the United Kingdom. When shown at a South London Cinema in Elephant and Castle in 1956 the teenage teddy boy audience began to riot, tearing up seats and dancing in the aisles.[2] After that, riots took place around the country wherever the film was shown. In 2007, the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture published an article that analyzed the film’s connection to crime theories and juvenile delinquency.

This reminds me of the riots that accompanied the premieres of classical music, such as at the opening of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” (and detailed in The Rest Is Noise – though this description comes from Wikipedia):

The première involved one of the most famous classical music riots in history. The intensely rhythmic score and primitive scenario and choreography shocked the audience that was accustomed to the elegant conventions of classical ballet.

The evening’s program began with another Stravinsky piece entitled “Les Sylphides.” This was followed by, “The Rite of Spring”. The complex music and violent dance steps depicting fertility rites first drew catcalls and whistles from the crowd. At the start, some members of the audience began to boo loudly. There were loud arguments in the audience between supporters and opponents of the work. These were soon followed by shouts and fistfights in the aisles. The unrest in the audience eventually degenerated into a riot. The Paris police arrived by intermission, but they restored only limited order. Chaos reigned for the remainder of the performance.[6] Stravinksy had called for a bassoon to play higher in its range than anyone else had ever done. Fellow composer Camille Saint-Saëns famously stormed out of the première allegedly infuriated over the misuse of the bassoon in the ballet’s opening bars (though Stravinsky later said “I do not know who invented the story that he was present at, but soon walked out of, the première.”). Stravinsky ran backstage, where Diaghilev was turning the lights on and off in an attempt to try to calm the audience.

After the première, Diaghilev is reported to have commented to Nijinsky and Stravinsky at dinner that the scandal was “exactly what I wanted.”

Some scholars have questioned the traditional account, particularly concerning the extent to which the riot was caused by the music, rather than by the choreography and/or the social and political circumstances. The Stravinsky scholar Richard Taruskin has written an article about the première, entitled “A Myth of the Twentieth Century,” in which he attempts to demonstrate that the traditional story of the music provoking unrest was largely concocted by Stravinsky himself in the 1920s after he had published the score. At that later date, Stravinsky was constructing an image of himself as an innovative composer to promote his music, and he revised his accounts of the composition and performances of The Rite of Spring to place a greater emphasis on a break with musical traditions and to encourage a focus on the music itself in concert performances.

While we could do without the violence at these events, it suggests an era when ideas and cultural works prompted vigorous reactions. Today, do we have an equivalent? People going home and writing on their blogs (guilty as charged)? Critics spreading popular or contrarian interpretations? The occasional talkback session after a theater production?

I suspect that if people today read about these reports, they would do something like this: shake their head and ask why these moviegoers or concertgoers got so animated. But perhaps we could ask the opposite question: why don’t new ideas, particularly ones that push us to think beyond our accepted categories, animate us? Are we just so numbed by novelty and a plurality of ideas that nothing really shocks us anymore? Do we have space in our society to truly think through and debate the ideas presented in “entertainment”?

Of course, not all cultural productions are intended to push us in new directions. Some are there just for entertainment. But others push beyond typical boundaries. Take a recent movie like The Tree of Life: I saw it on the recommendations of a few friends and I’m still not sure what to think about it. But it certainly was thought provoking and wasn’t a “typical” movie. Is this simply an “art film” in its own category or is it more like what all cultural productions should be doing?

Can you replace a $4.1 million dollar Malibu home with a McMansion?

The typical image of a teardown McMansion is something like this: in an older neighborhood, a 1950s ranch home is purchased, torn down, and replaced with a 3,500 square foot new home that dwarfs its neighbors. While this is a concern for many communities across the United States, can you possibly have a teardown McMansion in Malibu that would replace a $4.1 million dollar home?

Shangri-La was recently listed on the Malibu real estate market for $4.1 million — the first time it’s been for sale in over 30 years. Known best as Bob Dylan’s recording studio, Shangri-La was also a studio and hangout for other rockers like Clapton, Robbie Robertson, Joe Cocker and Pete Townsend. More recently, the house hosted Adele and Kings of Leon while they each spent time in the recording studio…

Listing agent Shen Schulz of Sotheby’s International explained that the current owners are looking for a buyer who will carry on the property’s legacy.

“This is a very special property,” Schulz said. “They don’t want it to be torn down and turned into a McMansion. We want a musician that will carry on the energy and pass the baton.”

Although perched on the bluffs above picturesque Zuma Beach, this home doesn’t look like a typical million-dollar beach retreat in ritzy southern California where median Malibu home values are over $1.5 million. While the home doesn’t have a pool, it does have two recording studios — an extensive one in the lower level of the home as well as a smaller one in the vintage Airstream trailer parked on the lawn.

The price of the home would suggest that it is not just any old ranch home. It is difficult to find specifics about the home itself rather than its recording legacy – even the listing or the house’s own website doesn’t say much about the actual home. The real estate listing does say that the home was built in 1958, it has 4 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms, and has a total of 4,449 square feet. This is a rather large ranch home.

But all of this makes clear that this particular home should not be bought because of a remodeled kitchen or even the views of the ocean. A buyer of this late 1950s ranch will be buying into rock history. The idea that the home would be replaced by a McMansion seems to suggest that the term McMansion here refers to a home without true character. Shangri-La certainly has character and a new home simply can’t compete with a background as a bordello and analog recording studio. While a typical argument against teardown McMansions is that they change the character of a neighborhood, the argument here is that a teardown would deprive musicians (and others?) of hallowed ground. You could build a beautiful and bigger new home with even more recording space (and egads, digital equipment?) and it just wouldn’t be the same.

By the way, this is one of the most expensive positive teardown properties I’ve ever seen. Is the price high because of the ocean views, the house’s history, or is it an effort to discourage someone from tearing down the home?

Sociologist looks at 80 years of love songs

Musical styles might change a bit as time passes but an ever-present feature of rock or pop music is the love song. One sociology professor has a new book looking at such songs and they messages they send:

UC Santa Barbara professor of sociology Thomas Scheff’s new book, What’s Love Got to Do With It? Emotions and Relationships in Pop Songs, reveals why love songs may actually be negative representations of love and relationships for romantics both hopeless and otherwise.

“Music informs our ideas about emotions, and love in particular, but most love songs are terrible models. Lyrics maintain the mystery of love, but they reveal next to nothing about the look and feel of actual love,” asserts Scheff in his book.

Scheff, who studied 80 year’s worth of American song lyrics, reprimands the machine of pop love songs for setting unrealistic expectations about love for listeners. He questions the disconnect between real world expectations and actual outcomes in relationships that listeners formulate from growing up with their favorite love songs, from George and Ira Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” to N’Sync and Backstreet Boy ballads. Scheff also discusses the pitfalls of pop culture influences.

On the one hand, I can imagine people suggesting that Scheff is simply writing about common sense: of course we know that love songs don’t actually reflect reality. On the other hand, I also imagine there could be some rich ground to cover here, particularly in thinking about how people readily consume such things and then go out and live more complicated relationships. How might Scheff’s thoughts about love songs fit with Ann Swidler’s look at the two dominant motifs regarding love in the United States in Talk of Love? (And in the middle, perhaps there are disc jockeys/radio hosts who will comment that this book is validation for playing love songs. This one’s for you Delilah.)

I will be interested to see if Scheff’s book looks at how love songs have changed over this 80 year period. Are the Gershwins and Adele covering the same ground?

What the Beatles on iTunes might mean for their popularity

Apple and iTunes have apparently reached an agreement with the Beatles to sell their songs in digital form. This puts an end to a long-running stand-off between the Beatles and Apple.

But what does this mean for the Beatles popularity? A few thoughts:

1. Does this mean the Beatles become more known for their singles or single songs rather than albums? Since buyers on iTunes can pick and choose, might they not just pick the Beatles songs they know versus some of the hidden gems (or the worse songs)?

2. This may mean that a whole new generation of young music fans will now have the opportunity to browse the Beatles catalog and find that they enjoy it. But in the long run, will these digital sales help boost the popularity of the Beatles or will their popularity just slowly die out as their generation of music fans slowly disappears?

3. How many fans will be angry that the Beatles have “sold out” to video games and digital music? Are more commercials next?

(UPDATE 10:04 PM 11/16/10: has a list of other big acts that have not released their music to iTunes. This list  includes AC/DC, Garth Brooks, the Smiths, and Kid Rock.)

The kind of music debates I like: the Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones in the psychedelic era

This past Sunday’s Chicago Tribune featured a book excerpt where two music critics debated the merits of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the psychedelic, late 1960s, Sgt. Pepper vs. Their Satanic Majesties Request era. An interesting read if only for the suggestions that the Rolling Stones laughed their way through the psychedelic era while the Beatles, Paul McCartney in particular, couldn’t stop themselves from wanting to be accepted by the British establishment.

Considering the legacy of FarmAid

Certain moments in the history of rock music stand out as instances where multiple musicians came together to fight for a common cause. The Concert for Bangladesh. Live Aid. Farm Aid. Live 8.

A short piece in Time considers the legacy of Farm Aid, first held on September 22, 1985. While farmers still have needs, these concerts have helped raise awareness for a nearly forgotten piece of American life. This is also a good example of how celebrities, musicians in this case, have tried to make aid for farmers a social problem that is worthy of more attention.

I wonder how effective concerts like these are. I remember watching Live 8 mainly for some of the musicians I enjoy listening to and not so much for the issues about which the musical acts were trying to raise awareness.

Quick Review: That Thing You Do

I’ve always liked this 1996 film that follows a one-hit band from Erie, Pennsylvania to the top of the record charts and then back down again as they fall apart. A few thoughts on re-watching the extended cut of the movie:

1. The movie has an innocence about it: small-town kids make it big. The characters have a wide-eyed wonder for much of the movie until they become disillusioned. Perhaps this is still the American dream for many bands: hope to get discovered by a local agent and then hit the big-time with all its benefits (fame, money, women, TV).

2. Though he is the last member to join, the drummer, Guy Patterson, is the main character who speeds up the tempo of the band’s hit song when it is still in its embryonic stages and tries to hold the band together as the pieces fall apart. Guy is likable. The extended cut includes move of Guy’s initial back story before he joined the band.

2a. The lead singer, Jimmy, on the other hand, is the brooding genius who can’t handle the demands of the road and just wants to record his next hit record.

2b. Faye, Jimmy’s girlfriend, is played by Liv Tyler and is a lovely girl caught in the band’s crossfire. (This is the only movie where I liked Liv Tyler’s acting.)

3. I like the music. Though it was written in the 1990s, it does sound like music from the 1960s. The title track, “That Thing You Do!”, is catchy and usually stays in my head for a few days after hearing it. Some of the other songs on the soundtrack are also good.

(According to Wikipedia, the title track was good enough in 1996 to merit airplay: “Written and composed for the film by Adam Schlesinger, bassist for Fountains of Wayne and Ivy, and released on the film’s soundtrack, the song became a genuine hit for The Wonders in 1996 (the song peaked at #41 on the Billboard Hot 100, #22 on the Adult Contemporary charts, #18 on the Adult Top 40, and #24 on the Top 40 Mainstream charts).”)

4. I don’t think the extended cut scenes add much. While it adds more nuance to some characters, particularly Guy, the in-theater version was snappier.

5. There are a lot of allusions/homages to the mid 1960s music scene. The Beatles are referred to often and a scene where the Wonders bike/run/skip on a map of the United States is very similar scene from A Hard Day’s Night.

6. I’ve been trying to think about the main point of the film. It could be viewed as sort of a slice-of-life retrospective about the heady days of rock in the mid 1960s but there are a couple of themes that run throughout the story that suggest there is something deeper:

a. The power of relationships over music and fame. While the band hits it big, it’s not the band that endures – it is the relationship between Guy and Faye.

b. The permanence/creativity of jazz compared to rock music. Guy is more interested in jazz when he initially joins the group to help them survive the injury of their original drummer. By the end of the film, he is still more interested in jazz. Compared to the fickle nature of rock (from nobodies to stars to nobodies all within a year), jazz is portrayed as having staying power.

c. The cycle of one-hit wonders that makes the music world go around. Toward the end of the film, their manager (played by Tom Hanks), suggests that this tale is a common one. The music machine takes innocent kids with hit songs, uses them for what they are worth, and then doesn’t care too much if they disappear. As long as there is another chart-topper in the works, that is all that matters.

After another re-watching, my liking of the film is confirmed: the catchy music plus the joy of seeing a small-town band hit it big plus the reality of what often happens when fame comes between people makes for an enjoyable two hour concoction.