Music in colonial America began with the human voice, and string instruments followed closely. I had to think a moment before writing that, as I know little of Native American music. What I’ve heard is indeed vocal music, and the technology available to the varied pre-Columbian cultures would indicate that percussion, woodwinds, and perhaps string music may have graced North America. Drums, gourds, clapping and stomping seem likely. Primitive flutes may have been brought to the continent by Asian hunter-gatherers in the first wave of migration. And hunting and fire bows have their musical uses. So all the necessary elements of a blues or rock band would have been present in North America from about 13,000 years ago, except perhaps the African affinity for the pentatonic scale.
Still, I like to think of vocal music as the natural antecedent of all other musics, indeed of all literature and even the basis of the common and consciously shared memories we term “culture.” Melody and rhythm are aids to memory, whether the issue is which kind of stone makes the best spear-point, where the herds go in the dry season, or how grandfather got his scar. Supplication, appeasement and pleas for favorable intercession of divine or natural forces would also figure into musical evolution. All these activities become markers of identity--we are the people who our songs describe, entertain and instruct.
The early English settlers brought their own songs and voices, mostly hymns and psalms for the Sabbath. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Anglicans and Congregationalist who followed them came singing to the New World, and playing as well. Gilbert Chase’s magisterial survey AMERICA’S MUSIC: From Pilgrims to the Present notes that among the most popular instruments was the cittern, an ancestor of the modern guitar with a fretted neck, flat body and metal wire strings which stayed in tune better than the gut-strung lute. Violins and viols of various sizes also made the voyage from the Old World.
By the early years of the 18th Century, the violin and the fiddle were distinguished from one another by the moral character of the owner and audience. Samuel Kendall is among the earliest known American fiddlers of dubious morality, charged in 1705 by Boston’s select men as being “not a suitable person to be admitted to keep a Tavern in this Town.” One might respectably keep a violin in one’s parlor for uplifting music-making; making merry in the tavern with a fiddle tune was the devil’s past-time.
Accounts of African musics in the New World are as old as Kendall’s indictment, and often as morality-tinged. Africans made music for dancing, and early accounts always note the participatory nature of slave music. The praise and narrative responsibilities of the griot in West Africa were observed, as was the use of various harp- and lute-like instruments, including the “bangelo” and “bangeon” in Sierra Leone, clearly the ancestor of the banjo, by the 1740s. While few observers bothered to pay close attention to the details of emerging African-American culture, slaves were permitted their musics in some areas, partly to encourage their survival in an otherwise harsh circumstance, even during the Middle Passage. Dena Epstein’s SINFUL TUNES AND SPIRITUALS: Black Folk Music to the Civil War cites numerous primary source accounts of early African-American musics, including one from a slaver in 1693 describing the ship-board music of “bagpipes, harp and fiddle” (presumably played by the white crew) to which slaves were made to “jump and dance for an hour or two…to preserve them in health.” And as early as the 1690s, Virginia slaves were fiddling for white dancers, sometimes even earning a little money for their labor.
Music seems to unite the Aristotelean and Platonic modes of thought: a collection of empirical phenomena with objectively measurable details, and a collection of ideal forms that we only know through imperfectly realized shadow performances. Songs rise from earth to heaven. They give voice to our expressions of faith and our carnal desires. They inspire and seduce, sometimes in the same song. I learned to sing in church choir as a boy soprano, singing hymns and high mass in Latin, but also from my father’s love of singing and his records of Peggy Lee and Helen O’Connell singing pop standards and Burl Ives singing folk songs. My dad loved to sing lullabies to his children, and I learned “Sidewalks of New York” and “Streets of Laredo” lying in bed in the dark while he crooned from the hallway so all seven children in all three bedrooms could hear.
I was just a little too young to experience directly Elvis Presley and the great synthesis of black and white musics that birthed rock and roll; I remember Elvis going in the army and his return to music two years later, and I remember some of the big hits of 1958-59 when I was 4-5 years old: 1958’s “Purple People Eater” is the first song I recall hearing and wanting to hear again on the radio, but every other hit from that year I know only retrospectively. But 1959 is a different story--somehow at five years old I crossed the great divide and began absorbing pop music firsthand from a radio I knew how to tune away from the AM “easy listening” stations my dad favored to the far right of the dial, WMEX 1410-AM and its top 40 format. The Kingston Trio’s “Charlie of the MTA” was a huge hit, and the Boston radio stations near where I grew up seemed to play it hourly. Lloyd Price’s “Staggerlee” is the first r&b song and the first folk song I can recall hearing on the radio and loving even without really understanding what all the noise was about. Marty Robbin’s “El Paso” was another favorite, with his soaring tenor and the guitars and violins in ¾ time. These were my “scenes of primal instruction” I suppose, in Harold Bloom’s post-Freudian literary scheme of poetic development. I sang along to the radio, and I kept singing whenever I could.
So I was ready for rock and roll, for the Beach Boys, then the Beatles, for Dylan acoustic and Dylan electric, for the Rolling Stones and Them and the Yardbirds. Guitars were the thing, first via folk music, then rock and roll. And like any young fan/devotee/obsessive-in-training, I got picky, even snobby. Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennet were hopelessly square, with their draggy tempos and string-laden arrangements. Music was about guitars, piano maybe, and drums. Violins held music back, made it too commercial, too acceptable to the old folks. The banjo was okay for folk music. I had no idea what a mandolin was. I saw Alvino Rey play a pedal-steel guitar on tv, which sounded odd in the context of the pop standards he performed. If an album said, “String arrangements by…” I skipped it. Even worse would be “string and horn arrangements by…” I was making Puritanical judgements according to my own gospel, and missing a lot of music thereby. Still, I heard a lot as well, and musicians who knew better started to open up my ears--George Martin and the Beatles on “A Day In the Life“, and Lew Merenstein and Van Morrison on ASTRAL WEEKS most memorably.
Another of my dad’s favorite singers was Nat King Cole, and though I rejected Sinatra and Bennet (a necessary rebellion I later corrected), I always loved Cole. He had hits with “Rambling Rose” and “Cat Ballou” and other pop songs, and I remember watching his television variety show and loving his Christmas carols, but Cole was an accomplished, even important, jazz piano player and singer before becoming a pop icon. His early hits were with the King Cole Trio--piano, bass and guitar plus his swinging vocals--and he never lost his touch even as he broadened his approach with more commercial sounds. His work with Gordon Jenkins produced some of the greatest recordings of American standards, fully on par with Sinatra, Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Among their best is “Stardust” by Hoagy Carmichael, one of the most beautiful songs any American has composed. The song has a long verse preamble before the main lyric, so long it is sometimes skipped. Jenkins cushions the romantic reverie in Cole’s voice with harp, violins, violas, cellos, a haunting evocation of “the music of the years gone by” that the lyric summons. “Sometimes I wonder why I spend the lonely nights/dreaming of a song/the melody haunts my reverie/and I am once again with you,” begins the main lyric, and I do not know a finer example of music about music itself than this song in this version.
There are many great versions of this song; I’ve been using the Benny Goodman version with its classic Charlie Christian chordal guitar solo to practice my guitar playing for years (I wish I could report great progress, but no). I have a rare recording from a Harlem nightclub jam session with Helen Humes singing and tenor saxophonist Don Byas playing his own signature solo c. 1941, and another instrumental version from Byas’ own small group in the same era. Sinatra and arranger Don Costa included it on his 1961 SINATRA & STRINGS album. Carmichael originally wrote the song as an instrumental in the 1920s, titled it “Stardust” and recording it as an up-tempo pop song with Emil Seidel’s Orchestra in 1927. Seidel had a “society” band playing pop songs with jazzy touches; an early photo shows a nonette with alto and tenor saxes, two trumpets, piano, trombone, drums and violin. In 1929, Isham Jones, a very popular white dance band leader/violinist, recorded another instrumental version. Carmichael was a staff songwriter for Mills Music, a major music publisher, and his colleague Mitchell Parish was a lyricist at the firm. Someone needed a song to sing in 1929, and Carmichael showed Parish his music as a possible score. “I had a job to do,” Parish told George T. Simon for his THE BIG BANDS SONGBOOK, “and, as a professional, I did it.”
The song was a huge hit in 1940 for innovative big band leader Artie Shaw, who had brought in a string section to augment his horns/reeds/rhythm section band. Strings were common to the society bands and early white “jazz” bands of the 1920s such as Paul Whiteman’s group where Bix Biederbeck and Bing Crosby cut their teeth, but the true “swing era” bands, white or black, such as Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie Orchestra, Duck Ellington, Charlie Barnet, Cab Calloway, shied away from strings other than the occasional violin soloist (early Basie broadcast recordings have guitarist Claude Williams playing a bluesy violin on some numbers). Shaw was among the most ambitious of swing band leaders, a clarinetist of enormous facility (like Goodman) who could play both gutbucket blues and classical music, and his writing for strings supporting trumpet and trombone solos was the song’s breakthrough moment in popular music. The tempo is slow and steady, Billy Butterfield’s Armstrong-influenced trumpet leading the way before yielding to the strings, coming back with piercing high notes to end the opening chorus. Reeds then introduce Shaw’s solo, supported by the strings, until a trombone takes the bridge, and the whole unit swings it lightly to the clarinet finale, a string cadenza and coda. An audio clip here gives you a listen, and note they do not use the verse preamble.
Cole’s complete version, with Jenkin’s haunting strings, can be seen and heard here which is a clip from Cole’s variety show. The arrangement is strings and woodwinds and light percussion--listen for the arco bass just before the ending. There’s not a blue note in evidence, yet this is one of the “bluest” of pop songs, full of longing for a past love and of the isolation erotic reverie brings, when “my only consolation/is in the stardust of a song.” 12,000 years of making music in North America has produced a practically infinite variety of sounds, but the means--strings/percussion/winds/voice--sometimes show startling consistencies across centuries and ethnicities and performing cirumcstances.
Sometimes I really do wonder why I spend what can sometimes be lonely hours dreaming of songs heard, songs imagined but yet composed, songs I mess up every time I try to play them yet keep trying. I’m lucky enough to play with some swell fiddlers, violinists, viola players, in my own groups and working with others. In the right hands, the violin casts such as strong musical spell on me that I have to concentrate to keep playing my own guitar or mandolin part. Hearing a violin solo improvised on a song of mine is more than I ever dared dreamed possible for my life. I can’t prove music has a life of its own, but I suspect it does, that the music “of the years gone by” still lives in the music of today, that somewhere someone is always singing and playing something not entirely of their own invention but drawn from ancestral tones and voices, sustained by shared experience, then notations, then wax cylinders and shellac discs and now digital codes and youtube, but still seeking its own being and telling us something essential about our hearts and souls in the process.