One year ago to the day…

…I attended the first class meeting of “The Music Of The Beatles”. There was no hint that this course, and its sequel (or should I say prequel) “From Plymouth Rock to Rock ‘n’ Roll”, would have have the profound impact that they have had at that initial meeting. This changed very rapidly.

The credit for this goes entirely to the teacher, and now my good friend, Ken. He has a knack for leading the student to the essence of whatever music is under consideration, not least because it is clear that he himself is deeply involved with the music. Ken’s true stoke of genius was to invite the student to integrate himself as closely as possible with the time and place of the music in question.

His recommendation was follow the music – and this applies particularly to The Beatles’ course – chronologically, and listen to it develop as naturally as is possible (allowing for the current ubiquity of Beatles’ music!). The classes provided historical context through the use of film and video that reinforced the immersion, and the texts, particularly Ian McDonald’s “Revolution In The Head” continued the process out of class.

I took his advice. It was a revelatory experience that in my case led to a far deeper psychological involvement and exploration that I would have considered possible beforehand.

There is no doubt that today I consequently listen far more deeply and with a far greater sense of history to popular music. All of these thoughts struck me as I was listening to a version of Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks At Home (Swanee River)” recorded by Louis Armstrong with The Mills Brothers in 1937.

This is very interesting track indeed. Apart from an acoustic guitar and Armstrong’s trumpet, all the instrumental effects are provided by the Mills Brothers themselves. Coming out of the barbershop quartet tradtion, this group lay the essential groundwork for the doo-wop stylings of the 1950s. Armstrong sings the sentimental lyric with tongue firmly in cheek, whereas the brothers keep it straighter.

The juxtaposition is very effective. Despite its clear sympathies for blacks in the deep South, the white man’s idealization of plantation life expressed in Foster’s song rings very hollow for Armstrong. A final sardonic ‘yeah man’ verges on disgust; by 1937 unacceptably sweet homilies to slavery did not have to be sung to please the white man. Overt songs of black pride were still to come, but Armstrong is being pretty subversive with this song. One wonders how many white listeners of the time picked up on what must come through loud and clear to Armstrong’s African-American audience.

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