Monday, 21 May 2012

Fake Sounds and Folk Sounds

Published in The Humanities Today, The Clearing House, Vol. 35, No. 5 (Jan., 1961) 

Rarely has the bifurcation in American popular culture been so neatly summarized as it was in two recent television song fests broadcast a week apart on the most and the least mature television networks. The C.B.S. network presented a production of its electronic renaissance man, Robert Herridge, “Folk Sound, U.S.A.”; and A.B.C., where private eyes and public enemies roam at large, apotheosized teen-age fake sounds in an unrefreshingly long nonmusical pause sponsored by the Coca-Cola Company. The aural and visual juxtaposition of true vocal art with the most blatant prefabricated kitsch clarified the choices involved in having our musical culture dominated by show-business robber barons rather than imaginative and dedicated artists.

What the payola scandals never revealed, the A.B.C. teen-age special did: it matters more that the wholesome Pat Boones and Dick Clarks keep teen-agers from a truly satisfying musical heritage than that they make a lot of dough from their own music-publishing firms and pressing plants. It is less significant that the teen-agers and subteens get a bad deal on the $50 million they spend for single records each year; the true larceny is that the tinsel curtain of blah raised by the wizards of the echo chamber separates early 16 million kids from the kind of art and leisure which it takes to make adults.

This is no academic quibbling; genuine maturity doesn’t coexist with the fake substitutes for art that package producers like P & G have sponsored for a generation in soap opera, and tat soft-drink makers support in their subliminal campaign to equate sociability with the cultivation of caries. The marketing strategies of the mass-volume, low-unit-cost manufacturers (with exceptions that prove the rule, like Purex sponsoring “The Sacco-Vanzetti Story”) are committed to a philosophy that puts the profit picture of their individual corporations above any and all other considerations—the security of a country of befuddled entertainment addicts, the over-all programming balance of the dominant medium of our culture, the real growth of individuals captain in a teen-ager culture.

The “Coke Time” special provides a good insight into the dynamics of a teen-age culture, perhaps symbolized by the title of Dick Clark’s book, Your Happiest Years, its basic assumption being that maturity is a necessary anticlimax. The TV program of “face sounds, U.S.A.” sketched out this Normal Rockwell image of fun. Pony-tailed innocents affecting their fathers’ tail-dragging shirts; the stereotype (and implicitly pathetic loneliness) of the teen-ager forever on the telephone, looking for the kind of friendliness and perspective that his popular culture denies him; the dreamy irrelevance of the songs fixated on going steady (will we stop this madness when it gets back as far as kindergarten? it's back to junior high already), the terror of realizing that this program celebrating an adolescence of carefree innocence (despite the tacked on seriousness of the last few bars) is a concept of life also accepted by the adults who watch this program—half of Dick Clark’s afternoon sessions in cultural amnesia are adults, using the term loosely.

One hears about the miracles performed by tape editors and echo-chamber masters on the tonsils of Fabian and Frankie Avalon, but one has to see them, eyes full of fear and amateur-night-stiff on camera, to realize how much these children have been had. One wonders what kind of an adult life such pseudo performers can live the day they are barred from the echo chambers. Annette Funicello, who was as charming as it is possible for a Mouseketeer to be, looked literally terrified as she tried to carry a tune with Frankie Avalon. In a taped montage of “hits” by the stars, where echo chamber prevailed, it was possible to separate the singers from the long-playing pinocchios. It is interesting to speculate on the wish fulfillment involved in making stars out of them. In the ugliness of working-class sections of our big cities, it is easy to identify with someone, who, but for the grace of R.C.A.-Victor goes I, easy to forget the cheapness and despair of actual life by dreaming through television and the network of fan magazines that feed on the same pseudo-art.

But the horror of the teen-agers’ bargain with the show-business robber barons is fully apparent only when its emptiness is compared with the real article. Robert Herridge, though a kind of cultural polymath himself, is wise enough to go to the best consulting talent to develop his specials. Nat Hentoff, who collaborated with Herridge on “The Sound of Jazz,” the best single program on the subject so far on television and the only one to win a Newport Jazz Festival TV Award, was also the consultant for this program. What this means is that directors cannot take over with tricky exhibitionism, but must stick to a hierarchy which subordinates TV’s resources to the hegemony of the musical form under consideration. Cisco Houston was the narrator, keying fluid transitions from singer to group to singer as the camera explored the wide and varied terrain of folk music. The Herridge tradition of spare, even austere, staging was doubly appropriate for a program of folk music. Two things distinguished the teen-ager’s pseudo world from the fully dimensional cosmos of the folk singer: the comprehensiveness of emotional range and thematic content. There were songs about working, songs about living, and loving, and dying, chants about Whitman’s America and chants about selling peanuts, songs of hope and despair.

And there was a magnificent display of unique personalities, a colorful spectrum of individuation that made the gray blurs of the teen-age heroes all the more pitiful: John Lee Hooker, lips quivering in the honest laments of his feelings; John Jacob Niles, with a prophetic kind of intensity in both eye and tenor voice; Joan Baez, a teen-ager with voice and soul both beautifully her own; Cisco Houston, a roustabout sensibility. 

There is a certain logic after all to the gimmicks and gyrations of Teenland’s pseudo artists: they must try to establish themselves by an external sign that hides their inner lack of grace. Ed “Kookie” Byrnes, as Jack Gould wryly observed, is the only performer that ever combed his way to stardom. His narcissistic gesture, so typical of today’s teen-age obsession with surface, betrays an empty head. Just as the painfully arch hip talk between him, the “beatnik” of the Dobie Gillis Show, and Pat Boone (aging, unhip representative of that adult land known as Squaredom) is another example of the fake individuations of the teen-age kitsch makers. (Teen-agers can buy for 50 cents at their drugstores now a dictionary of hip Kookie talk.)

Nor should we be misled by Coca-Cola’s shrewd merchandising campaign in the high schools, with its sloughing off an artistic problem by a phony genuflection to Culture. Hi-fi clubs have been formed in several hundred high schools to encourage talent in the popular arts. The three winners—a painfully chopped up Chopin etude, a reasonably interesting soprano aria, and a sympathetic version of the best-selling quartet—show how possible it is for fake popular art to coexist with genteel Culture, six days of noisy tripe followed by a hushed day of reverence. If Coke really wants youngsters to grow, rather than simply to hook them early by “being more sociable’ than its competitor, it should distribute kinescopes of the Herridge program for high-school assemblies and give their English teachers free Folkways albums—to show the teen-agers what they’re missing in their sticky little cotton candy cosmos.

For when you finally get down to it, the tragedy and waste of fake art is that it renders people “connable”—these poor innocent lambs believing they’re living in the best of all possible worlds! (Don’t their transistorized ears keep telling them they’re on the right wave length?) And the measure of our respect for folk art is that it keeps little people wise in their own way, ready to spot and spurn the faker. We have Herridge to thank for making the case so clear.

--The Humanities Today, The Clearing House, Vol. 35, No. 5 (Jan., 1961)

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