Putting Popular Music in Its Place

By Spring, Howard | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Putting Popular Music in Its Place


Spring, Howard, Canadian University Music Review


Charles Hamm. Putting Popular Music in Its Place. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. xii, 390 pp. ISBN 0-521-47198-2 (hardcover).

The title, "Putting Popular Music in Its Place," is not meant as a put down of popular music but as a pointed summary of what this book does: attend to popular music and "its place in the world" (p. xi). It is a collection of essays that vary widely in scope, purview, purpose, and historical period-from broad postmodern overviews of popular music historiography to detailed studies of particular music makers; from South Africa to China and the United States; from Dvorák to Gershwin, from Elvis Presley to Irving Berlin, from Paul Simon to John Cage.

John Cage?-a name not usually found in the pantheon of popular music icons. But Cage is one of the first who proposed a "proto-postmodern aesthetic" (p. xi), and thereby provided support for the notion that all musical events and musics are worthy of attention. He thus paved the way for the serious study of popular music at a time when it was considered outside the pale of "serious" musicology. Hamm knew and admired Cage and it was Hamm's connection with Cage that set the stage for him to consider popular music as a meaningful field of study.

In the spirit of Cage's approach to music, Hamm included in his research musics that were not considered to be part of the popular music canon. His work on popular music in South Africa and China is a case in point. Today, writing on the popular music of these areas is not so out of the ordinary. But when Hamm wrote his articles, during the late 1970s and early to mid-1980s, serious attention to popular musics outside of the United States, especially by American musicologists, was not common. Even rarer were articles that compared "black" musics in the United States and South Africa in terms of how the musicia'ns in the latter responded to the music of the former ("AfricanAmerican Music, South Africa, and Apartheid," "Home Cooking and American Soul," and "Rock 'N' Roll in a Very Strange Society"). To this day, comparative discussion of this kind is not very widespread. With these articles then, Hamm can be considered a pioneer in the academic study of world popular musics, a field thai only now is starting to be accepted in the academy (if we are to judge from courses on this topic that are beginning to appear in university music curricula).

Hamm states in his preface that all of the essays share some common assumptions. The first is that popular music is both an acoustical and a cultural event and therefore the music must be dealt with as well as its social context. Here, Hamm may be responding to the plethora of popular music literature that focuses on cultural and social contexts while giving short shrift to sounds, if not completely ignoring them. Even though he is aware of this shortcoming in other literature on popular music, he is somewhat guilty of it himself. Except for the articles, "vlf I were a voice': or, the Hutchinson Family and Popular Song as Political and Social Protest" and "A Blues for the Ages," where Hamm discusses Gershwin's use of blues in his Concerto in F, there is not much musical discussion. This is'unfortunate since these articles, which focus on sounds, are characteristically insightful. More of these kinds of essays would be welcome.

Hamm's second assumption is that "one cannot fully understand the nature of a given musical event unless one is present at it, or can reconstruct it from critical or historical documentation" (p. xii). In this case Hamm lives up to his supposition. Nowhere is this more apparent than when he speaks of the popular music of China and South Africa based as they are on trips he took to these countries. On his visit to China, Hamm spoke to officials of the Central People's Broadcasting Station, listened to hours of radio programmes in six different cities in China, carried on discussions about Chinese popular music with faculty and students at various conservatories, and talked with members of the Chinese Musicians' Association.

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