And the Beat Goes On: An Introduction to Popular Music in America, 1840 to Today, by Michael C. Campbell

October 1, 1996

And the Beat Goes OnAnd the Beat Goes On: An Introduction to Popular Music in America, 1840 to Today, by Michael C. Campbell. New York: Schirmer Books, 1995, pp. xiv, 334. ISBN 0-02-870165-8.

Browse the MLs of any good music library and you may be amazed at the considerable number of American popular music history books. From new studies such as Jeremy Beadle's Will Pop Eat Itself?: Pop Music in the Soundbite Era (1993), Donald Clarke's Rise and Fall of Popular Music (1995), George Lipsitz's Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism, and the Poetics of Place (1994), Charles Hamm's Putting Popular Music in Its Place (1995), Richard Middleman's Studying Popular Music (1990), Peter Van Der Merwe's Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music (1989), and many more, to the older standards of Sigmund Spaeth, David Ewen, Isaac Goldberg, Edward Jablonksi, and others, these works document an extraordinarily rich musical heritage uniquely American. This scholarly interest in a field largely ignored fifty years ago may suggest, among other things, new models in music education that track from folk and popular music to art music, giving more emphasis to vernacular American musics before attempting pedagogical study of the "classics."

Michael Campbell's new slant on the history of American popular music, And the Beat Goes On: An Introduction to Popular Music in America, 1840 to Today, deserves a look. Campbell's premise asserts that African-American music is the most important ingredient in American popular music, and indeed provides its "Americanness." Campbell sees popular music's history proceeding two steps forward (revolution), then one step backward (mainstreaming)—change and consolidation—in three great cycles, each involving the inspiration, influence, and integration of African-American music (directly from West Africa or via the Caribbean) with white European-based styles (either classical or British folk music). He describes the three eras as follows: 1) "different accent," the rise of minstrelsy; 2) "discrete dialect," the era of fox-trot-syncopated song and dance; and 3) "new language," the age of rock and roll. In particular, Campbell stresses the importance of African-inspired rhythms (the ongoing beat of the book's title)—notably, the backbeat which Campbell finds significant from the 1920s on.

Having laid out his method, Campbell takes a stab at defining popular music. He tackles the confusions of popular music and non-popular music: the commercial success, cultural factors (how the music is essentially American in some features), and artistic factors (worth or influence) that make up popularity. He considers some fuzzy edges of the definitions, and comes out relatively unscathed. He admits a troubling bias for influence and worthiness over "merely popular" and quantitative sales, but remembers the fleeting quality of popularity (what is in today is out tomorrow) and stresses the individuality of popular music: "popular music prizes individuality of expression rather than adherence to a common standard (p. 10) as in classical music or, to a certain degree, folk music. There are no "pure" examples of this or that style in popular music: blends are everything (whatever works, whatever moves people), a situation very unlike the written traditions of classical music and the community decisions of folk music.

After ruminating on these issues, Campbell swings through music fundamentals and the sources of popular music. A good deal of the discussion centers on rhythm—backbeat, riffs, layering, and conversational and vernacular rhythm—which Campbell traces to African sources. The book is accompanied by a compact disc or tape cassette package with musical examples to support his contentions and help the reader. The language in this section is usually clear, but there are occasional tricky spots for the musically uninitiated, especially where musical examples are not provided.

Campbell then moves into the meat of the book, his three cycles of revolution in American popular music, now broken down into more detail in chapter studies: 1) the different accent: Foster and minstrelsy, antebellum song, ragtime, and blues; 2) the discrete dialect: syncopated song and dance, jazz, Tin Pan Alley, musical theater, country music, and Latin music—all up to about 1955; and 3) the new language: rock and roll, rock, contemporary song, jazz, country, and "jam" in the post-1955 era.

Campbell's book is more a history of the progression and blending of musical styles than a history of people and events. Consequently, the background and historical paragraphs are sketchy and party-line, composer biographies are bare-bones, dates are few and far between. The narrative centers instead on musical descriptions of pieces representative of stylistically important advances, and, as such, is appropriate and useful as a college text for non-majors.

However, there are a few drawbacks. First, Campbell's claim that the African-American ingredient in American popular music is important, even all-important, is surely true. But such a stance occasionally precludes discussions of other musics and forces lopsided evaluations. For example, Campbell says "Beautiful Dreamer" is not popular song in his sense of the term because "it does not represent a distinct musical style. That would only emerge from the interaction of European and African styles" (p. 37). But the song was a commercial success, and is still widely-known today. On the other hand, Campbell considers Foster's minstrelsy songs to be popular because they have a "distinct" musical style, a style influenced by African-American two-step syncopations. Similarly, Campbell praises James Bland, but denigrates his successors. "Despite Bland's contributions, the three decades after the Civil War were the low point in the history of American popular song" (p. 56). Turn-of-the-century songwriters such as Chester Harris (whom Campbell describes as a composer with "chutzpah") receive a nod of recognition from Campbell, but when their musical mixes involve only European stuff—here, waltz and march—Campbell implies that the results are not only less interesting but less successful or even less worthy. So Campbell nominates Sousa and Foster as the best of the nineteenth-century American composers "whose music remains popular and identifiably American, if only by association. But no uniquely American style had yet emerged. The country awaited the impact of ragtime on popular music" (p. 78). Twentieth-century discussion follows similar lines. Russ Columbo is good, but Billie Holiday is great; Chuck Berry is great, Elvis is "commercial." Not surprisingly, Paul Whiteman and George M. Cohan get good and fair discussion because their music effectively blended European and African-American material. Unfortunately, Campbell's historical filter causes some popular musics to fall outside the coverage of the book: most religious music, including white Gospel and Christian rock, music that involves other ethnic mixes (polkas, Celtic and Hawaiian music), children's songs, drum and bugle corps music, novelty songs, whitebread rock and roll, etc.

Second, Campbell's approach to history is occasionally doggedly evolutionary, with every music of importance evolving from African-American sources. Again, Campbell may be correct, but he risks being exclusionist in his reporting. For example, in his discussion of the march, Campbell claims that "most importantly, perhaps, the march also played a seminal role in the development of ragtime and jazz"—as if the purpose of the march in history was to be the forebear of these. Moreover, he repeats the cliché that musical theater evolved from The Black Crook to the present through shows that became more dramatically significant and musically "integrated," replacing the "flimsy" musical comedies and revues of the 1920s and 1930s. But even hightly-evolved operetta and musical-plays in the Rodgers and Hammerstein stylistic camp receive mild criticism: "By looking back to Europe rather than ahead to Africa, musical theater grew increasingly isolated from the popular music mainstream" (p. 163). West Side Story is in; Oklahoma! is out. Campbell even extends his argument to rock. Rhythm and blues is seminal, but punk rock is conservative, backward-looking, and an aberration in the progress of rock, and consequently Campbell views it with some disdain. In the book's Postlude Campbell drives home his point by expressing sadness about popular music in the 1980s because there was no "leader." He sees the rise of country radio stations and video channels ("always the most traditional popular style"), the multiplication of golden oldies stations, anthologies of older music (compact disc collections, sheet-music collections), and extensive sampling as bad signs, as music looking to the past rather than forging into the future. "Hopefully, the current creative lull is a prelude to an even richer future rather than a sign of evolutionary exhaustion" (p. 312) are nearly his last words in the book. Campbell seems to want more from popular music. "The primary unanswered questions are: can such moments [of profound intensity] be incorporated into a larger stucture; can they be sustained longer than three or four minutes?" The reader wonders if popular music leads or follows? Does it show the way or is it by nature reactionary, mirroring our desires and our obsessions?

Third, spots of vague writing and mechanical problems mar the book's narrative. For example, some of the discussion of form is difficult to follow. Notions of hierarchical and sequential ("endless loop") forms line up uncomfortably with through-composed and reiterative forms. Harmonic discussion is also occasionally opaque, perhaps because Campbell wishes to maintain an introductory nature in his coverage—but even so there are questions. Campbell suggests that a good deal of harmony in blues and one- or two-chord rock songs is "nondirectional" (p. 30), and avers that Stephen Foster's "I Dream of Jeannie" is based on a pentatonic scale because of its avoidance of the leading-tone (p. 50). Campbell avoids almost altogether discussions of harmony in AABA song form. Discussion of the beat of music—Campbell's strongest analytic tool—may be problematic for some readers: two-beat, four-beat, eight-beat, and sixteen-beat may confuse listeners making their way through rhythmic layers. Moreover, often dense rhythmic analysis needs charts and diagrams and the text provides too few. Occasionally, the book's narrative loops in circles and covers the same material over and over. Worse, terms (cakewalk, cotillion, others) or people (Patrick Gilmore, Foster, others) appear in the text, and Campbell explains them only many pages later without giving the reader a "discussed below" clue. Coverage in the bibliography is spotty—no rap, no jam, no funk, no minstrelsy, only one entry on country music. Dates of important figures are not consistently given. Sources are not always clearly cited.

On the plus side, the book's coverage is very contemporary, and, in fact, that of the last four decades is by far the strongest. The discussion of jazz pays perhaps too much homage to Storyville, but takes off in bebop and later incarnations of jazz in the rock era. Campbell writes well about blues and country, giving thoughtful remarks about their racial blends. Rock and roll coverage is fine, if a bit bland (where are doowop, white teen idols, and the Beach Boys?). Heavy metal discussion is surprisingly slim, too, even condescending—"all show, no substance" (p. 282)—and Led Zeppelin (a safe choice) gets the nod as exemplary. So, too, with punk rock, which rates only a few paragraphs of disdain: "intentional meaninglessness," "no subtlety," "no nuance," with the Ramones "I Don't Wanna Go Down to the Basement" as the example. Campbell's sensibilities here misread music aimed essentially at rebellious youth. But Campbell's remakes on "jam," (his term to replace Robert Christgau's "postpunk-postdisco fusion") are splendid: disco is not maligned, funk and rap and even "urban contemporary" are handled evenly (although rap comes off as a didactic and preachy music rather than something more variegated). No hiphop, no house, but, hey.

Another plus is Campbell's excellent coverage of Latin music. Campbell makes a strong case for its importance in the twentieth century and traces its intersection in all kinds of music. Terms, musicians, analysis, examples. This reviewer learned lots.

Finally, the narrow focus of the book—its African-American centering—is also arguably the strength of the book, although much worthy popular music gets cut (come to think of it, where is Porgy and Bess?) and much of it is dismissed or cast in poor light. And the Beat Goes On may not be as inclusive a book as one might want, but it is a good introductory book nonetheless, with clear layout, excellent music examples on tapes and compact discs, and thoughtful (and hard!) questions for discussion following each chapter. In the canon of books on American popular music, And the Beat Goes On may well find its groove.

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