Advertisements

Dave Bartholomew, RIP

The past weekend was full of news about war and peace and politics and possible economic problems, but we thought the big story was the death of Dave Bartholomew at the ripe old age of 100. It was another desultory reminder that a better century of American musical culture has also passed away.
You have to be an obsessively avid student of America’s glorious vernacular music history to know who Bartholomew was, but if you are you’ll know he was one of the very important guys who made it great. Back in the ’50s and early ’60s the essential American music city of New Orleans was right up there with Memphis as the rocking and rolling-est and rhythmic and bluesy place in the country, with the likes of Fats Domino and Little Richard and Lloyd Price and Lee Dorsey and Shirley & Lee and Jimmy Clayton and Professor Longhair and Ernie K-Doe and Clarence “Frogman” Henry and The Showmen making it damned hard for a hep cat music lover to decide where to do his drinking and dancing on any given night. Bartholomew never seemed to mind they were all more famous than him, but in most cases he was the songwriter and arranger and band leader and record producer and session trumpet player and musical visionary who brought it all together, and he was seemingly content that all his peers acknowledged it.
Bartholomew was born in a small town near New Orleans not long after the Crescent City gave birth to the quintessential American art form of jazz, and he started his musical career as as trumpet player in the big bands of the brilliant swing era that soon followed. In ’42 Bartholomew wound up in the Army, where he learned to write and arrange music and put it all down paper while on a very lucky assignment in an Army band, and after that he was pretty much set on his career path. The post-war years proved crazy for American culture in general and American music in particular, but Bartholomew seized the moment. Jazz and swing had given way to rhythm and blues and then the even more subversive rock ‘n’ roll, and Bartholomew knew exactly what to do about it.
Up the Mississippi River in the other essential American music city of Memphis there had always been a harder edge to the music ever since it gave birth to the blues. Such bluesmen as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King had piercing guitars and gravelly vocals, and with the unheralded poor white trash Sun Records boss Sam Phillips watching over such poor white trash boys as Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis they added that to their country-and-western laments and rock ‘n’ roll was born. Surf and psychedelic and hard and heavy metal and punk and post-punk rock soon followed, for better and worse, but under the watchful eyes of Dave Bartholomew New Orleans went its own way.
Farther down the Mississippi River in New Orleans they tended to ignore the hard times and laissez les bon temps rouler, and hew to the ancient and venerable ┬átradition of jazz, and Bartholomew made sure that New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll kept that up. The white Elvis Presley was the record-setting singer of early rock ‘n’ roll, but the black Fats Domino was always close behind, with his rollicking piano licks and good times feel, and the very black Bartholomew was always closely involved in every hit. He was in on other countless New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll classics as well. As much as we love that low-down Memphis rock ‘n’ roll we have to admit the New Orleans version was jazzier and more sophisticated, and we credit Bartholomew with the occasionally more elegant turns that rock ‘n’ roll has taken since then.
In most of the many decades after that Bartholomew continued to be involved in great New Orleans and American music as a trumpeter and writer and arranger and occasional record producer, recording some great Afro-Caribbean and straight jazz tracks, and he didn’t seem to mind much if he didn’t become as famous as he deserved to be. The most avid fans of America’s great vernacular music will appreciate what he did over his century on earth, at least, and we hope that and his rich musical legacy and God’s mercy will satisfy his considerable soul.

— Bud Norman

Advertisements

When the Music Stopped

A television was on Sunday evening at one of the locally owned stores we frequent, and as we made our purchase we caught a glance of what looked like Madonna cavorting in a skimpy outfit among a chorus line of beefy fellows in what looked like minotaur costumes. We momentarily assumed it was a Super Bowl half-time show before recalling that a Super Bowl had recently been played, with some other scantily-clad chanteuse doing the half-time honors, and we figured there probably wouldn’t be another one until next winter, so we asked the clerk and he explained that it was the annual Grammy awards ceremony honoring the best of the recording industry. That was all we saw of the show, and the snippet of the forgettable song being performed was the most we’d heard of the recording industry’s latest offerings in a long while, and we didn’t worry that we’ve been missing out on anything.
The next day’s news was full of stories about the event, however, with some of them spilling over into the political pages that usually command our attention. This led us to wonder if we were blissfully ignorant of some important cultural phenomenon blasting through everyone else’s car stereos while we’re listening to the monophonic sounds of Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee on the old folks’ station, and if we might soon arrive at some social event and find ourselves in the embarrassing position of being the only ones there not wearing a minotaur costume. Then we headed out to a writer’s meeting for the upcoming Gridiron Show, a satirical song-and-sketch fund-raiser that is our annual amateur theatric experience, and were confounded by all the unfamiliar titles of songs that the younger members of the ensemble wanted to parody. We had thought that popular music was no longer a significant influence on the broader culture, not like in the days when shaggy-haired, shirtless rockers were exhorting the youth of America to burn to their draft cards and speak truth to power and do it in the road and all the rest of that youthful rebellion schtick, but apparently one is still expected to have some familiarity with the sort of music that is being played on those newfangled FM stations and performed at the Grammy’s.
Judging by the breathless coverage of that extravaganza, studded with stars whose names we vaguely recognize, it hardly seems worth the effort. The big brouhaha of the evening involved someone named Kanye West interrupting one of the winner’s acceptance speeches to protest that the award should have gone to someone named Beyonce, which is apparently his habitual practice at these sorts of affairs, although there was also scandalized talk of the outfit Madonna wore off-stage that revealed her 56-years-old but still shapely buttocks. At the edges of the conservative media there was worry that prominent Democrats Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz were in attendance and might have been there on the taxpayers’ dime, and others were mocking the president’s video-taped statement made the dubious claim that one-in-five American women have been raped and urged the audience to knock it off, but at this point it hardly anyone seems to find it worth mentioning that the entirety of the recording industry except for a few studios in Nashville is outspokenly associated with the Democratic party. If these people do exert an influence on the broader culture, all the more reason they should be ignored. This Kanye West fellow strikes us as merely rude rather than revolutionary, even the most callipygian fifty-something should have acquired some sense of dignity and decorum, and with no draft cards left to burn and speaking truth to power no longer required during a Democratic administration all that seems to be left of the youthful rebellion schtick is doing it in the road, which seemed to be the Big Profound Message of that Madonna number we happened to catch at the store, and so far as we’re concerned the Democrats are welcome to it.
We console ourselves with the belief that the popular culture isn’t so popular as it used to be, and that the recording industry’s influence in particular has waned along with its rapidly declining sales. That’s largely because the music streaming freely through the internet has dismantled the industry’s old model of pitching music through a limited number of radio stations and then selling it on long-playing albums or cassette tapes or compact discs or MP3 downloads or whatever the tech guys have lately come up with, but we suspect it’s also because no one thinks it is worth paying money to have the music permanently. The plethora of terrestrial and satellite and internet radio stations has fragmented the market, which happily allows listeners to indulge a taste for doo-wop or Dixieland or polka or Hawaiian slack key guitar or techno-house whatever other obscure genre they might prefer, and no one seems to have a truly mass appeal even if the marketing schemes for them existed. A handful of highly publicized acts still dominate free streaming audience at sites such as YouTube, and cash in with concerts full of elaborate choreography and high-tech stagecraft that fill huge arenas at exorbitant ticket prices, but none are nearly so ubiquitous as Glenn Miller in ’41 or Elvis Presley in ’56 or The Beatles in ’64, and even the most hyped of them will likely have little effect on the sizable chunk of the country that won’t shell out for the over-priced shows.
Although we’re heartened that the likes of Kanye West aren’t a particularly pressing problem, it’s kind of a drag that there isn’t a popular American musical culture. In a golden age that ran from about the early ’20s to the early ’70s there was a flood of great of music pouring out of America’s radio speakers, from low down blues to up-tompo swing to rough-hewn country laments and sophisticated pop standards to fervent gospel and rowdy rock ‘n’ roll straight from the garages, and sharing the experience of the best of it with everyone else was one of the cultural advantages of being an American. We’d love to see that old American musical inventiveness revived, and a new generation of performers emerge who will cover up their buttocks and ditch the elaborate showmanship and share some lovingly hand-made music at reasonable ticket prices, and we’d even shell out for a vinyl record or compact disc or whatever else it takes to put it permanently on our shelves to share with posterity. In the meantime, we’ll be tuned into the old folks’ station.

— Bud Norman

Independence Day

The past several Independence Days have been bittersweet. It is still sweet to celebrate the ideas of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that gave birth to our nation, but there’s no escaping a bitterness when looking around at what has become of them.
Almost everywhere is evidence of the decline and fall of America. The news briefs on the radio invited us to take heart in the latest job numbers that have pushed the unemployment rate down to a more or less respectable 6.1 percent, but they were too brief to mention that the number of working age Americans not working actually increased, that the number of full-time jobs actually decreased, and that the more the U-6 rate which includes the underemployed and involuntary part-time workers and discouraged workers remained at a Depression-era 12.1 percent. That $17 trillion of debt and all the bubble-inflating money printing that has kept the numbers even at these sluggish levels also went unmentioned, and of course there was no time to consider if the looming disaster of Obamacare and its incentives for employers to hire part-time workers who rather than pony up for the mandates on full-time workers has anything to do with it.
Obamacare and all the rest of the thousands of regulations and taxes and assorted governmental intrusions into the economy are clearly part of the problem, but there’s a nagging suspicion that it’s not all that’s gone wrong. The government is bossier and more lawless and as as incompetent as ever, as shown by the relentless storers about everything from its use of the almighty Internal Revenue Service to punish the dissenters to the endless waivers and delays and recess appointments and far-reaching executive orders issued by the president to the infuriating mistreatment of American veterans by their health care service or the administration-made invasion of illegal immigrants unfolding on the nation’s southern border, but none of that would have happened if the public hadn’t allowed it.
Another one of the great ideas that gave birth to our nation was a notion that America and its and government aren’t quite the same thing. The government had important work to do, and over the years it has done it with varying degrees of success and ethical behavior, but the heavy lifting was done by the likes of Thomas Edison in his laboratories and Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club and Milton Friedman in his office at the University of Chicago’s School of Economics and those guys eating lunch on the beam of the New York City skyscraper in that iconic photograph. The people used to do great things, and the government would let them, but for whatever reason we’re seeing less of it these days. Nowadays the great inventions are new social media and libido-boosting pills, the music no longer swings or bops or boogies or rocks but rather just thuds a monotonous nihilism, the big economic idea seems to be that no one should be allowed to get rich, and the photographer in search of an iconic image will have to find a disgruntled fellow in casual Fridays attire sitting glumly in an office cubicle. There’s still some space left between the government and the people, but it isn’t being put to good use.
Fireworks are already being ignited around our neighborhood in defiance of the city’s ridiculous ban, though, and the people of a small town in southern California have just risked the wrath of the high-minded media to repel an invasion of illegal immigrants, and some encouraging polls show people are wising up about the government. Ideas such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not easily extinguished, and might yet reassert themselves. There’s still some room left to make them happen again, and people who still prefer them to free contraceptives or the state’s protection from an oversized soft drink, and reason for hope.
A former Miss Texas has invited over to her swank lakeside home for a party, and a hipster pal down the street has asked that we join him in blowing things up along the banks of the nearby Arkansas River, and we’ll charcoal some hamburgers and bratwurst in between and revel in the sweetness of the American idea. Come Monday we’ll resume our modest efforts to make it come true again, and we urge you to do the same.

— Bud Norman