Sunday midday, November 15, 12–12:50 CST
Postwar Transformations of the American Common Stock
Chelsea Burns (University of Texas at Austin), Chair
The musical language shared among Black and white American vernacular musicians, sometimes referred to as the “common stock,” underwent profound transformations of musical style and meaning in the postwar era. Musicians explored new approaches to the common stock in response to dramatic changes in American society, including the continued migration of African Americans out of the South, so-called white flight to the suburbs, and heightened nationalism. Discourses surrounding common stock styles increasingly emphasized reductive narratives of American music genres as racially segregated, and as only vaguely attached to the musical styles and approaches of prewar society. While much scholarship has complicated such narratives, including work by Karl Hagstrom Miller and Christopher A. Waterman, the specific strategies of musicians engaging with common-stock sources from the 1950s through the 1970s warrants further exploration.
The papers in this panel combine musical analysis and historical inquiry to examine the ways in which postwar country, rhythm-and-blues, and punk rock styles engaged with prewar common stock resources, including traditional blues patterns, orally transmitted fiddle tunes, gospel musical tropes, and chord sequences such as the passamezzo moderno. Our methodologies blend close musical readings, formal analysis, prototype modeling, and critical reception theory. Together these papers aim to reconsider the performance styles of postwar musicians within these markedly American genres as they refracted their changing social environments. They lengthen the historical range in which postwar American vernacular styles are considered, and widen the lens through which we view American music genres as sharing a single multifaceted and multiracial tradition.
The Transformation of Prewar Blues Into Postwar Rhythm and Blues
Nicholas Stoia—The transformation of Prewar Blues into Postwar Rhythm and Blues—Bio
Nicholas Stoia is an assistant professor of music at Duke University. His work has appeared in Music Theory Spectrum, Music Theory Online, Music Analysis, the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, and Race and Justice. His book Sweet Thing: The History and Musical Structure of a Shared American Vernacular Form is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
The standard twelve-bar blues, arguably the most productive resource of the common stock, underwent profound transformations in the transition from prewar to postwar popular music. When large segments of the African American population migrated to cities in the years following the Second World War, traditional blues traveled with them—but the new urban environment engendered alternative approaches to blues that reflected the new circumstances, and rhythm and blues emerged as an urbanized transformation of the earlier, more rural genre. As many scholars have observed, rhythm and blues was emphatically energetic and highly electrified, but what has received less attention are the many new compositional approaches that marked the emerging style. In addition to electrification and livelier tempos, rhythm and blues was characterized by faster textual pacing, greater phrase-rhythmic density, and pervasive elaboration of the twelve-bar idiom, changes that were similarly engendered by the new urban environment. These developments had profound implications for the postwar common stock, because both Black and white musicians forged much of the newly dominant genre of rock and roll from these modern twelve-bar variants. This presentation explores the postwar transformation of the twelve-bar blues through the work of several pivotal rhythm and blues musicians, including Willie Dixon, Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, and Fats Domino.
“Show Me”: Fiddle Breaks and Politics in Country Covers of R&B
Jocelyn Neal is the Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Professor of Music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her books include The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers, from Indiana University Press, and Country Music: A Cultural and Stylistic History, from Oxford University Press. She directs the UNC Bluegrass Initiative, which launched in 2016, and her current larger research project addresses the intersections of copyright practices and songwriting culture.
In 1972, country singer Barbara Mandrell covered soul star Joe Tex’s “Show Me,” remaking the song into a southern stew of soul, fiddle hoedowns, and a final gospel shout chorus combined with a fiddle break. The recording serves as a metaphoric biography of its producer Billy Sherrill, with his complicated career spanning Muscle Shoals to Nashville’s country boom period. The recording also offers an opportunity to probe one of the underlying tensions in country music: its indebtedness to a rich blend of cross-racial Southern common-stock elements, yet frequent predictions from cultural gatekeepers such as eminent country music historian Bill C. Malone of the genre’s ever-impending demise from the continuation of such blending.
Within that framing tension, this paper examines country covers of soul hits, including “Show Me” and Shirley Brown’s “Woman to Woman,” to illustrate the impact of soul on country music’s vocal styles, specific songwriting practices, and fan reception in the late 1960s and 1970s. The contemporary academic discourse of Diane Pecknold, Charles Hughes, and others lays out the historiography of music industry personnel moving fluidly across country/soul scenes. These analyses enrich that history by cataloging and interpreting the musical artifacts that resulted from those cross-genre moves. Ultimately, these cover songs ended up exposing the dual nature of genre reception: they offered shared musical ingredients but reinscribed genre difference through the deployment of distinctive musical tokens, amplified by the marked racial identities of the performers.
Common Stock Sources of Early American Punk
Evan Rapport is Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology at The New School. He is the author of Damaged: Punk Music and America (University Press of Mississippi, 2020), about the musical style of punk and its relationship to American ideas of race, and Greeted with Smiles: Bukharian Jewish Music and Musicians in New York (Oxford University Press, 2014), about the musical life of Jewish immigrants from Central Asia. He has also published on settings of Persian poetry, arrangements of George Gershwin’s concert works, and the idea of “ethnic music” in New York. He currently directs the Contemporary Music program at The New School’s Eugene Lang College as well as the college’s Civic Liberal Arts civic engagement program. Rapport is also an accomplished saxophonist.
Punk was first developed mostly by white American baby boomers as an expression of paradigmatic changes in postwar society, including “white flight” to the suburbs and the continued mass movement of African Americans during the Second Great Migration. Today, punk is considered one of the “whitest” genres of music, although musical analysis reveals close ties to shared common stock sources and styles primarily associated with African Americans. Initial intimations of the punk style came from musicians in the late 1960s and early 1970s such as the Stooges and the MC5 who were heavily engaged with Black music. Early American punk musicians such as the Ramones and Blondie drew on a range of common stock sources, with a particular focus on the uses of common stock resources in the music of the late 1950s and early 1960s of their childhoods, such as doo-wop. Early American punk rockers especially articulated a complicated relationship to Black music, sometimes reinforcing and sometimes obscuring the connections, and punk’s critics further severed ties between punk and its multifaceted musical past. The result was a tension between punk’s musical genealogy and narratives about punk’s whiteness, and the ambiguities surrounding whiteness and blackness in punk became a core element of the style. Placing the compositional choices and performance styles of early American punk musicians in the specific context of the racial landscape of the 1970s sheds new light on that era and its contemporary importance, especially for formations of American whiteness that persist today.