Category Archives: Popular music

The Goree All-Girl String Band

The members of the Goree All-Girl String Band, all inmates in the Texas state prison system, used country music’s gender iconography in their struggle for greater autonomy and ultimately freedom in the 1930s and 1940s.

Their incarceration and past violations of the norms of feminine passivity and virtuousness placed them beyond the pale of country music’s prevailing image of valued femininity: the sentimental mother, who embodied home, domesticity, and a lost rural past. But through the alternative roles of dutiful daughter and cowboy’s sweetheart they performed their way to rehabilitation, both symbolically (as women who had returned to their proper place) and literally (as convicts who had served their time or gained clemency).

Though largely forgotten today, the Goree Girls’ popularity during their broadcasting years demonstrates that while country audiences may have venerated the sentimental mother, they also identified with and embraced women whose relationship to dominant gender ideals was fraught with complications.

This according to “As if they were going places: Class and gender portrayals through country music in the Texas State Prison, 1938–1944” by Caroline Gnagy, an essay included in Country boys and redneck women: New essays in gender and country music (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016, pp. 126–45).

Below, a selection from a musical based on the Goree Girls’ story; information on the 2017 production is here (scroll down). A film produced by Jennifer Aniston is reportedly in the planning stages; information on that topic is here.

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Filed under Curiosities, Popular music, Women's studies

Extreme metal in Iraq and Syria

Heavy metal music can be a means of artistic expression; it can also be an accessory of war. Making its first appearance in Iraq and Syria in the 1980s, it has functioned as an agency of power, endurance, anger, and abuse. Artists, fans, and the military of al-Mašriq have found that metal can be used for catharsis, rebellion, or torture.

The extreme metal subgenres of thrash metal, death metal, and black metal have become important components of the Iraqi and Syrian civil conflicts. In these contexts, metal music can be a source of empowerment for both civilians and the military; it can be the only stability that some draw from during the continual devastation to their communities, and in exceptional circumstances it can provide passage out of the region.

This according to “Resistants, stimulants, and weaponization: Extreme metal music and empowerment in the Iraqi and Syrian civil conflicts” by Sam Grant (Metal music studies III/2 [2017] pp. 175–200).

Above and below, the Kirkuk-based Dark Phantom, one of the groups discussed in the article.

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Filed under Asia, Popular music

Allen Toussaint’s legacy

Ranking among America’s most influential and versatile musical figures, Allen Toussaint excelled as a songwriter, arranger, session pianist, and producer. His influence extends across the popular music landscape; though he is most often associated with the music of his native New Orleans, he enjoyed success in R&B, jazz, country, blues, and pop. His piano playing blended the wealth of Crescent City styles, barrelhouse blues, marching band references, jazzy intervals, and sweeping octave leaps.

By the late 1950s Toussaint was already cranking out hits and frequently doubling as keyboard player and/or producer. In the 1960s two of his instrumentals became huge pop standards—Java for Al Hirt and Whipped cream for Herb Alpert. Glen Campbell’s version of his Southern nights was nominated for the Country Music Association Song of the Year award in 1977, and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.

This according to “Toussaint, Allen” by Ron Wynn (Encyclopedia of the blues II [2006] pp. 1005–396); this encyclopedia is one of many resources included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today would have been Toussaint’s 80th birthday! Above, receiving the National Medal of Arts from President Obama in 2013; below, his classic Yes we can can.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Ruth Brown’s legacy

Ruth Brown’s recordings—including, just for starters, 5-10-15 hours, (Mama) He treats your daughter mean, and Oh what a dream—have come to define for generations of music lovers the epitome of 1950s-era R&B: elegant and swinging, yet with a sassy sexiness that proclaimed the freedom-seeking spirit of a new generation.

Generations of vocalists, extending into the present day, have cited her as a major musical role model. And they weren’t all women: Little Richard patterned his squeal on his hit Lucille after Brown’s squeal on (Mama) He treats your daughter mean three years earlier.

This according to “Ruth Brown” by David Whiteis (Living blues XXXVII/1:188 [February 2007] pp. 69–71).

Today would have been Brown’s 90th birthday! Above, performing in 2005; below, Little Richard’s muse in 1955.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Tweede Nuwe Jaar in Cape Town

Each January, Cape Town’s sixty-plus minstrel troupes take over the city center with a sweeping wave of sound and color in the annual carnival known as Tweede Nuwe Jaar (the Second of New Year). The celebration’s origins are often linked with the December 1st emancipation processions of the mid-to-late 1800s that celebrated the abolition of slavery in 1834, and also with the annual slave holiday, the one day a year slaves could take off work.

The parading troupes, called Kaapse Klopse (Clubs of the Cape), use their bodies to collectively lay claim to Cape Town and access urban space through sonic and embodied performances, re-appropriating city space in relation to the black community’s colonial and apartheid experiences of dispossession, forced removals, and social dislocation.

Despite the increased formal recognition that the event has received in recent years as an important heritage practice, participants’ embodied claims continue to be undermined, contested, and policed. Through their affective experiences, participants memorialize places of significance and occupy the city; far from a form of escapist revelry, these sonic and embodied acts are practiced and disciplined choreographic moves that pose a challenge to Cape Town’s contemporary spatial order.

This according to “Choreographing Cape Town through goema music and dance” by Francesca Inglese (African music IX/4 [2014] pp. 123–45). Below, Kaapse Klopse in 2013.

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Filed under Africa, Black studies, Dance, Popular music

Studies in the Grateful Dead

In 2017 the University of California Press launched Studies in the Grateful Dead to explore the achievement, impact, and significance of one of the most iconic American rock bands, the Grateful Dead. The series presents original monographs and edited anthologies by experts representing a range of disciplinary perspectives and fields that highlight the complexity, power, and enduring appeal of this protean, compelling musical and cultural phenomenon.

The inaugural volume, Listening for the secret: The Grateful Dead and the politics of improvisation by Ulf Olsson, is a critical assessment of the Grateful Dead and the distinct culture that grew out of the group’s music, politics, and performance. With roots in popular music traditions, improvisation, and the avant-garde, the group provides a unique lens through which we can better understand the meaning and creation of the counterculture community.

Below, a performance from 1974 that has been cited for its outstanding group improvisations (beginning just before the five-minute mark).

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Filed under New series, Popular music

Air guitar and Asian fury

Competitive air guitarists have long understood that their art form provides an ideal means for contesting the overwhelming whiteness of rock and the electric guitar, sometimes extending their critique to include gender as well.

Asian and Asian American competitors in particular have used their performances to comment ironically on the emasculation of Asian males and the infantilization of Asian females through the construct of Asian fury, helping audiences to reimagine the linkages between race and rock.

This according to “Asian fury: A tale of race, rock, and air guitar” by Sydney Hutchinson (Ethnomusicology LX/3 [fall 2016] pp. 411–33).

Above and below, David “C-Diddy” Jung, winner of the first U.S. national air guitar championship and perhaps the originator of the term Asian fury as it applies to air guitar; the video shows his award-winning performance in 2003.

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Filed under Curiosities, Dance, Humor, Popular music

Fletcher Henderson, composer-arranger

While there is no question that Fletcher Henderson had substantial compositional impact on the development of jazz, the term composition, with its overtones of singular artistic control and privileged aesthetic and legal status, fits only a small proportion of his creative work.

Henderson’s career is best understood from the broader perspective of a composer-arranger; indeed, distinctions between composer and arranger—and composition and arrangement, with their implied hierarchy—are precisely the kinds of differences that African American music making continually challenges.

This according to “Fletcher Henderson, composer: A counter-entry to the International dictionary of black composers” by Jeffrey Magee (Black music research journal XIX [spring 1999] pp. 61–70).

Today is Henderson’s 120th birthday! Below, Wrappin’ it up, one of the works discussed in the article.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Popular music

American popular music

In 2017 the University of Oklahoma Press launched the series American popular music to explore the evolution of folk, blues, gospel, country, rock, jazz, and soul by looking at the ways music relates to the land and people. The primary focus is on music identified with Oklahoma, Texas, and surrounding regions, following regional influences to the farthest extent of their reach.

Of particular interest are individual artists and how they express their ties to land and people uniquely and collectively. This series therefore considers the role that music plays in the lives of artists and the communities that identify with them, and demonstrates how the business of music has shaped their careers and legacies.

The inaugural volume, Sing me back home: Southern roots and country music by Bill C. Malone, presents the story of the author’s working-class upbringing in rural East Texas, recounting how in 1939 his family’s first radio, a battery-powered Philco, introduced him to hillbilly music and how, years later, he went on to become a scholar on the subject before the field formally existed. The book draws on a hundred years of southern roots music history, exploring the intricate relationships between black and white music styles, gospel and secular traditions, and pop, folk, and country music.

Below, Joe Thompson, one of the musicians discussed in the book.

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Filed under New series, North America, Popular music

The Original Pinettes Brass Band

Playing on male-gendered instruments, the members of the all-women Original Pinettes Brass Band contest the male domination of the New Orleans brass band scene, queering the normative relationship between instruments and musicians and carving out a space for female musicianship.

The group’s songs and performance decisions present agential and subjective sites of black feminist thought put into action to subvert the brass band patriarchy. The Pinettes force us to view the New Orleans brass band scene as an intersectional site where gender is a central element in the construction and consolidation of power relationships.

This according to “Street queens: New Orleans brass bands and the problem of intersectionality” by Kyle DeCoste (Ethnomusicology LXI/2 [summer 2017] pp. 181–206). Below, the Pinettes in 2016.

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Filed under Curiosities, Popular music, Women's studies