Historical Methods and the Issues relating to Popular Music

This essay focuses on how the history of music became, and the historical methods used to preserve it. It looks into such methods as journalism, media, canons and museums and uses musical examples such as the Summer of Love, Beatles and the Rock ‘n’ Roll era. History is defined as a study of the past, “a chronological record of events, as of the life or development of a people or institution, often including an explanation of or commentary on those events,” (Author Unknown, www. hefreedictionary. com). In most cases the sources of historical knowledge can be split into three categories which are, what is written, what is said, and what is physically preserved. To be a historian or philosopher of music one needs to be well educated in different fields such as languages, geography, and the histories of many cultures, as music dates back as far as one can think.

This essay will be focusing on Popular Music where most of its history is preserved in English, and its cultural, social and geographic background is Western. Music has always been present, what has not always been around is the recognition of the fact that it has been a large part of our lives. “Music ceased to be seen as a craft, in the middle of the eighteenth century” (Kivy, Peter. 2002. p 10) it then gradually became one of the fine arts.

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The interest in the history of music and its place in our lives and culture began to accelerate towards the middle of the nineteenth century, “where the development of the academic disciplines of historical and ethno-musicology: that is to say, academic disciplines devoted to the history of western music and the systematic study of non-western musical traditions. ” (Kivy, Peter. 2002. p 11) ‘Histography’ is the study of the practice of history which explores the examination and problems of historical writing.

There are many processes towards the writing of history such as who writes it and for what reasons, which will affect the way history is understood to take place. Is it the media with the music press who writes these histories? Although the media are very powerful the public still have to agree with the media for it to become popular as popular music means so much more, in terms of cultural significance. As Roy Shuker stated “to study popular music is to study popular culture. ” (1994. 1) A good place to begin with popular music history is by also looking at the poplar culture surrounding it. Further discussed below are a number of ways which history is preserved by the use of the culture it is, or was in, such as music journalism, biographies, canons, academia research, and physically preserved artefacts such as art, music, videos and such things found in museums. Historical study’s often focus on events and developments that occur in particular blocks of time.

The names given to a period can vary with geographical location as can the dates of the start to the end of a particular period such as, the Rock ‘n’ Roll era which is often represented as 1955. Many different accounts have been noted on this topic and one of them is by Peterson who wrote the book ‘Why 1955? Explaining the advent of rock music’ in Popular Music (Peterson, R. 1990). However as Peterson suggests Rock ‘n’ Roll was created before 1955 by black African artists not realising they were creating a new genre.

Just because it did not have notable status in the Western world until the mid 1950’s, that does not mean that Rock ‘n’ Roll’s birth was then, it was taken from the black Africans and marketed in an American way to produce a white American pop version. Another memorable account of 1955 being the Rock ‘n’ Roll era was when Richard Brooks decided to use Bill Haley and his Comets ‘Rock Around the Clock’ as the theme tune to the film ‘The Blackboard Jungle’.

However the film was first released in 1954 where it hardly hit the movie charts, but when it was released again in 1955 with the song included, the film went down in history as “the first rock film”. (Marshall Crenshaw, p. 41) Despite the fact that there was no Rock ‘n’ Roll music other than during the opening and closing credits. Music can be looked at very “minutely – microscopically, in fact; we dissect it and analyze its appearance, but the true object of our study forever escapes us. ” (Leichtentritt, Hugo. 1938. xi – xii) By looking at the details of music, it keeps one from getting the bigger picture and prevents us from gaining an insight into the certain ‘essential properties’ of the music. “Many of these essential properties can only be perceived when we put music back into its natural connection with the physical and spiritual world of which it is a mere fragment. When we see it as a larger whole we ask, what does this fragment of music mean in the vast symphony of nature, in the immense compass of culture? ” (Leichtentritt, Hugo. 1938. p xi – xii)

As Leichtentritt suggests history can mean something totally different when you put it back into the context it came from rather than just looking at it by itself, to do this it needs to be accessible, and popular music history is usually accessible by using archiving although not everything has been kept, for example, the BBC where only able to start recording programmes in 1947 and even then they did not keep everything as it was not deemed important, and this only started to become organised in the 1970’s (Author Unknown, www. bbc. co. uk).

Popular music can be defined as music which is “accessible to a wide audience, distributed through the mass media as a commercial product. It tends to be associated with urban rather than rural cultures, and is performed by professional musicians. ” (Aurthor Unknown. www. music. princeton. edu) As popular music is made reasonably accessible there are many different ways to study its history, such as canons, where the arts and music studies fulfil a list of artists, writers, acts, composers or works which are assigned value through agreement.

However not everything is put into a canon, some things are remembered more than others as they may be more popular, accessible or influential. A good example of this is the Beatles and why they where so revolutionary of there time. They where not the first to be authentic of that genre, but where framed the first, one of the reasons for this is most musicians copy off each other but its weather they make a new sound and the time is right, which the Beatles accomplished both.

As popular music is reasonable accessible when researching its history music journalism is a good place to start as it is widely practiced in the Western culture consisting of general magazines, music magazines and newspapers. Music magazines such as the Melody Maker, the Rolling Stones, and NME give good music accounts, however they are not always accurate as they are for entertainment purposes, and respect and drop bands and musicians in an instant. The main forms of writing are record reviews and interview based stories about particular artists.

Other types of articles consist of concert reviews, book reviews, and stories about the music industries events, trends and issues. One of the music journalists skills can be defined as “to be able to assess whether a recorded track or performance is groundbreaking or interesting (or not), the music journalist needs to be able to place it into some kind of historical context. ” (Hannan, Michael. 2003. p 211) Many questions should be asked when reading journalistic history such as weather it is primary or secondary research, and what sources where privileged or ignored.

A typical example of music journalism differentiating its writing styles is where an article adjusts itself to the audience it is being written for. Examples of this can be found in many historical events such as the ‘Summer of Love. ‘ The era can be told in many ways, one of these depending on when it was written. Centuries and decades are commonly used as defining periods, and the time they represent depends on the dating system used. The way periods are constructed and the names given to them can affect the way they are viewed and studied.

The ‘Summer of Love’, is often identified with the summer of 1967 and on the song by the Beach Boys – “summer of love” depending on who you have heard the version from. One version of the ‘Summer of Love’ is from a tourist book, which goes “the two or three years preceding the ‘Summer of Love’ were the most romantic and idealistic period of the decade. Outdoor rock concerts where free, LSD and marijuana proliferated, public nudity and free love were pretty much going on all of the time… by the late ’67, towards the end of the year-long summer of Love, the Haight had turned into too much of a good thing… y the early 70’s, Haight St was skid row for burnt-out hippies and winos. “(Benson, Sara. 2006. p 125)

Another outtake but considerably different is taken from a writer of the New York Times, who is reviewing the ”Summer of Love’: Art of the Psychedelic Era’ at the Whitney Museum of American Art, he is describing his account of events which made the Summer of Love: “In 1965 antiwar protests started – 25,000 students marched on Washington that year – and they grew larger and more frequent. By 1967, more than 400,000 troops have been sent to Vietnam. Che Guevara was killed that year; the Black Panthers had formed the year before.

In 1968 the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. Racial uprisings spread across the country. ” (Cotter, Holland, www. nytimes. com, 20/04/08)He describes 1967 the ‘Summer of Love’ the “Flower Power instant, and it was over in a flash. But for many people it is what the ’60s were all about. ” (Cotter, Holland, www. nytimes. com, 20/04/08) These two versions are both taken from published journalistic writing, and again give very different accounts on the ‘Summer of Love’ Another form of preserving history is through Museums, they enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment.

Problems with museums are they may not be able to tell the whole story as “much of what was produced in the past even the recent past, does not survive today because it was not thought that this “disposable culture” was important enough to save”. (Broadus, Browne, Ray. books. google. com. 18/04/2008) From carrying on with the example of the ‘Summer of Love’ and the exhibition at the Whitney Museum, it describes itself as “The art in the exhibition is conceptualized through a wealth of documentary material highlighting events, people and places ; from the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival to Timothy Leary to the UFO nightclub in London. (Author Unknown. www. whitney. org. 20/04/2008)

It is now a criticised show that remembers a lot, but forgets much more. From there website (Author Unknown. www. whitney. org 20/04/2008) most of the art in the show is mass-produced posters, book covers, magazine graphics, record album jackets which where not intended to be framed. “It was stuff people bought cheap, and lived with for a while, and that museums rarely show. ” From Holland Cotter’s view of the ‘Summer of Love’ (which was earlier described) he criticises the Museum stating: “You will learn almost nothing about any of this from the show.

Nor would you have any inkling that, for Americans at least, pop culture during these years meant black culture. Apart from Hendrix’s presence, the show is overwhelmingly white. Aretha Franklin’s first big hits – “Respect,” “Chain of Fools” and “Natural Woman” – were all 1967. You won’t find her here. Nor will you find Marvin, or Smokey, or Otis, or Fontella or Ray. Again, take one style for the whole picture, you leave most of the picture out. ” (Cotter, Holland, www. nytimes. om, 20/04/08) Museums have many constraints such as the volume of material they can hold, the collection policy, copyright laws, the budget they hold, the time they have, and the Museum voice which stop it from giving a full and accurate account of the event being re-enacted. Biographies are usually about composers or performers. In the case of popular music they are sometimes about bands. The aim of a biography is to present a critique and description of a person or bands life and work against the social and cultural and historical background of the time and place they lived in.

Questions should be asked when reading a musicians biography such as what pressures where the source under which may affect the version given. A biography creates a timeline of the subjects life looking at documentation of facts such as birth, marriage and death certificates, photographs, interviews, letters, press clippings, diary’s and interviews with the subjects or there family, friends and colleagues if there are still alive.

Although biographies are a good source for a timeline of events, criticism of the writing should still be present as the writers motif may be different from giving an accurate account of history, and may hype things up to stand out and be different from the rest of the books and articles already written on the subject. A similar example of this is shown by early British tours by the Stones, which witnessed a number of audience disturbances, and segments of the press put the blame firmly upon the bands, the daily mirror referred to them as “a menace to law and order” (Jones, Steve. 1994 .

P 116) the press often destroyed accounts of the bands gigs. Again the inaccurate or hysterical reporting of events was apparent and caused resentment amongst both musicians and fans. ” (Jones, Steve. 1994 . P 116) Depending on ones motif, happenings may be eliminated. Conclusion This essay explored a few historical methods to give a clear picture on the issues in studying popular music history. I have looked at how these methods can significantly contribute to our understanding of the social contexts and production of popular music whilst engaging with the limits and potential problems of methodologies.

So, from the examples discussed we discover that love was never all you needed in the 1960s, in fact, it was barely there. ‘Summer of Love’ does not feel like a exceptionally loving time, unless by love you mean sex, which was generous, as it tends to be in youth movements. We also see that the writers of complex histories such as the Rock ‘n’ Roll era often feed off each other’s material. They repeat each other’s mistakes of selectivity and methodical exclusion continuously repeating myth upon myth. In a very real sense, there is an element of myth in the way rock histories skip from one commercial peak to another, or from one ‘great artist’ to another, ignoring almost totally the social roots of both, the music making and the listening, which ought to be among their objects of study. ” (Bradley, 1992:12)Every methodology will be flawed and every event written will always have more to it. In the words as an old saying, one swallow does not make a summer, so not one event can alone be said to have constituted anything so definite as the beginning of something if taken into isolation.

From researching different historical methods it has told me that everything needs to be considered culturally and socially around it, even when simply looking at a song, it will also have a history trail of events behind it which made it what it was. Not everything should be ignored when researching history and not everything should be listened too either. History is about different peoples interpretations and all society can do is be aware of this. Danto suggests that “history is of necessity selective. ” (Danto quoted in Bunzl. 1997. p 28)