sweet music came before rock music -- 3/06/15

Today's selection -- from The B Side by Ben Yagoda. Ever wonder why popular music was so saccharine before the arrival of rock 'n' roll? Because teenagers and college students wanted it that way -- they wanted a type of music that came to be known as "sweet music." And they largely eschewed fast music. They had just endured a war with over 70 million casualties, the atomic bomb, and the emergence of the significantly more powerful hydrogen bomb:

"A year after [World War II] ended, Life noted, 'If the songs a country sings are any indication of its mood, the U.S. last week was lolling in an amorous, sentimental daze. On dance floors and radios were heard such plaintive queries as "Why don't you surrender?" and such pleas as "Linger in my arms a little longer, baby." ' In a 1949 Billboard poll, well over three-quarters of college students said their favorite kind of music was sweet; swing was second, while just over 1 percent voted for 'Progressive Jazz, barely beating out "Corn." ' Some college promoters put a 'three-ballads-out-of-four' clause into orchestras' contracts; Billboard reported that 'Cornell University, in addition to asking for the slow dance music proviso, forced an agency to include a clause which would prohibit the ork [orchestra] from smoking [playing fast music] on the bandstand.' A William Morris Agency music booker was quoted in a 1947 newspaper article titled 'Swing Has Swung': 'Ballroom operators complain that the kids walk off the floor when the music gets hot. Kids haven't got so much money to throw around these days. When a fellow pays a couple of bucks to take his best girl dancing, he wants to hear music that makes her want to cuddle up a little closer, not swing.' ...

Couples dancing to a band at the 1949 Engineers Ball at Hotel Syracuse

"In an uncanny process, jazz was being surgically removed from popular music. Popular music, for its part, didn't seem to mind. With 350 million records sold, 1946 was the biggest year for the industry ever . The figure climbed to 375 million the following year. The records may have been flying off the shelf, yet the fact remained that they weren't very good. The writer Wilfrid Sheed's parents were British, he spent his childhood in the United States and developed a passion for the great popular songs. He was away during the war, and when he returned in 1947, at the age of sixteen, he was struck that 'the Hit Parade ... seemed to show no variety at all. One day, for instance, it seemed as if the whole city of New York had conspired to play the exact same record out of every door and window I passed, a dental drill of a song called "Near You" that apparently had the power to keep itself playing indefinitely.' ...

"Sheed observed:

And just like that, the magical coincidence of quality and popularity was over, the music in the public square is nowhere near the best music anymore. Listening to a program recently of the top pop hits from 1940 to 1955, I was startled all over again at how sharp the break was at the end of World War II, as if the bad stuff had been waiting for its cue. And perhaps it had, because several of the new hits seemed to depend on the latest gimmickry and special effects, to celebrate technology more than music. The kid at the piano syncopating everything had died in the war and been replaced by his country cousin.

" 'Country' is right: during the postwar years, ASCAP writers, the major record companies, and national audiences finally came fully on board with the folk, quasi-folk, western, and hillbilly sounds that BMI had introduced at the beginning of the decade. The most successful record of 1948 was Dinah Shore's version of Livingston and Evans's faux-western ditty 'Buttons and Bows.' (Shore was from Tennessee, Patti Page from Oklahoma, and Rosemary Clooney from Kentucky, so all three could convincingly put across homespun.) Number one in 1949 was a slightly more authentic western tune, Vaughn Monroe and His Orchestra's 'Riders in the Sky (A Cowboy Legend),' in which cowboy has a vision of a herd of cattle being chased by the spirits of a group of damned cowboys, one of whom warns him about being doomed to join them, 'trying to catch the devil's herd across these endless skies.' ... The song was number one on the charts for twelve straight weeks.

"Another notable country hit that year was a Capitol novelty number called 'Slipping Around.' It was notable because it was a duet between a bona fide country-western singer (Jimmy Wakely) and Margaret Whiting, the daughter of veteran Hollywood songwriter Richard Whiting ('Hooray for Hollywood'), who was a former big-band singer with impeccable pop credentials.

"Interviewed by a California newspaper in 1950, Jay Livingston and Ray Evans mentioned 'Slipping Around' as an example of the way genres seemed to be cross-pollinating, and pointed to some currently popular songs with an oddly old-fashioned flavor. One was Teresa Brewer's 'Music! Music! Music!,' which, though written the previous year, begins, 'Put another nickel in, in the Nickelodeon.' Another was 'Johnson Rag,' which was composed during the ragtime craze of the 1910s; Jack Lawrence had added some lyrics in 1940, and now it was a hit in four separate recordings. Both songs had a kind of ersatz 1920s feel, which was referred to as 'Dixieland': in essence a watered-down, self-consciously white floater-hat version of the New Orleans jazz championed by the moldy figs. 'It's a throwback,' Jay told the reporter. 'People are trying to forget the H-Bomb. History goes around in circles. Music does the same thing. Musicians got so progressive with bebop, they had to start over. Most people can't understand it. It's just noise.' "


Ben Yagoda


The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song


Riverhead Hardcover


Copyright 2015 by Ben Yagoda


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