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Requiem for the Blues

Article # : 12240 

Section : BOOK WORLD
Issue Date : 5 / 1994  2,835 Words
Author : Eric P. Olsen

       The Loss of Beauty and Meaning
       in American Popular Music
       Martha Bayles
       New York: Free Press, 1994
       380 pp., $24.95
       "As people feel life, so they will feel the art that is most closely related to it," wrote Henry James in his distinguished 1884 essay "The Art of the Novel." As with the other fine arts, he said, "catching the strange irregular rhythm of life, that is the attempt whose strenuous force keeps Fiction upon her feet." Quoting the poet and jazz critic Philip Larkin, author Martha Bayles neatly paraphrases James' sentiments in her splendid new history of American popular music, Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music:
       To say I don't like modern jazz because it's modernist art simply raises the question of why I don't like modernist art . . . . I dislike such things not because they are new, but because they are irresponsible exploitations of technique in contradiction of human life as we know it. This is my essential criticism of modernism, whether perpetrated by Parker, Pound, or Picasso; it helps us neither to enjoy nor endure.
       After reading Bayles' harrowing description of the fall of popular music, one can only wish that the causes of the dismaying state of contemporary music were as simple as Larkin's criticism of modern jazz. The dilemma posed by modernism, to judge from Bayles' account, is not simply alienation from the "irregular rhythms of life" in behalf of pyrotechnical virtuosity, but a more grave spiritual infection, a hole in our soul that, like the theoretical black hole, is irresistibly sucking our culture into the lifeless maw of nihilism.
       Bayles takes the title of her book from what she says is an old saying: "If you don't like the blues, you've got a hole in your soul." It's too bad that there is no attribution to the saying, because it strikes me as inauthentic-uncharacteristic of bluesmen who more probably would be wondering about the fate of their own soul playing "devil's music" than making pronouncements of concern for others'. Despite the incongruity, Hole in Our Soul is a tour de force of scholarship and criticism, ardently sympathetic to a musical tradition Bayles sees as poisoned by profoundly antimusical, indeed, antisocial accretions.
       Challenging the prevailing view that the emergence of rock and roll in the fifties inaugurated a cultural revolution, Bayles argues rather that there was an essential continuity between earlier jazz and swing bands and rock and roll. `The real break," she says,
       came in the 1960s, when the counterculture went sour, and popular music began attracting people who were less interested in music than in using such a powerful medium for culturally radical purposes. The harbingers of this break were the Rolling Stones, who relished the blues but did not hesitate to make it over in the image of the stale perverse modernism that some of their members had picked up in British art colleges. Thus the Stones enhanced their musical reputation by shocking the public and being arrogantly rude to their audience--behaviors now accepted as part of rock but thoroughly alien to the blues.
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