By Carrie Evans (this piece also appears on the Workers Liberty website and in the present issue of Solidarity):
On 10 March 1997 something was created that changed my world forever. This is not using hyperbole to illustrate a point. Buffy the Vampire Slayer shaped my world. Unfortunately for me (or fortunately depending on context) I’m not the only person who feels this way. Which is why Buffy has launched a thousand think-pieces.
But Buffy’s originality still stands up today because it took every cliché and trope and turned them on their heads. To the people who still think Buffy is exclusively for hormonal teenage girls who long for the “bite” of a vampire and basement-dwelling neck-beards — where have you been for the last 20 years?
The first time I saw Buffy I was seven years old and BBC 2 just happened to be on. There was this new American show with a stupid name, but the title sequence caught my attention… Episode One opens as a horror genre show would open. A beautiful blonde, with a petite frame and soft voice, wearing a Catholic school uniform, is being talked into breaking into school by her bad boyfriend.
The boyfriend is an archetypal creep who is simultaneously trying to impress a girl with his badness and bully her into “making out” with him. I remember the rush of fear and excitement I had knowing she was about to die. “I’m scared. I think I can hear something outside” says Darla. (“Owww, she’s definitely about to get it”, thinks me.) “Baby, there’s nothing out there” says creepy boyfriend. Then in a plot twist that my seven-year-old mind could barely comprehend, Darla says “Good”, transforms into a vampire and sinks her teeth into creepy boyfriend’s neck. “OMFG! She was the monster!”
From then on I was completely and utterly hooked. I was a Whedonite (fan of Jess Whedon, the show’s writer). I wasn’t disappointed by the rest of the show. Whedon purposefully makes the opening scene a microcosm of what is to come.
Buffy started out simply. Firstly, what if a young woman walks down a dark ally at night and gets attacked by a monster. But instead of dying as she would in a horror show, she kicks that monster’s arse. Secondly, growing up and going to secondary school is hell for most of us. But what if your school was built on the mouth of hell?
Buffy is a typical teenage girl in every respect apart from the fact she is the vampire slayer. The one girl on earth with the supernatural strength and skill to fight the forces of darkness. Horror is a brilliant medium through which to represent society’s fears. It is why “penny dreadfuls” and Dracula became widely popular during the 19th century’s industrial upheaval and intense urbanisation. Buffy is simply the last and in my opinion best example of this tradition. On the surface it a show about vampires, demons and the forces of darkness. However the demons are metaphors for our own demons. They allow us to safely process and analyse our own deepest fears.
For instance, Angel, the love of Buffy’s life, is a vampire cursed with a soul. In the buffyverse the demon takes your body when you’re “turned” and the soul quits you, unharmed. All that’s left should be a remorseless killing machine with no empathy or morality. However Angel is thought to have killed the most beloved daughter of a gipsy clan. They exacted the perfect revenge by putting his soul back into his body to spend the rest of eternity fighting with his demon.
Angel has a conscience. Angel has to be suffering all the time. If he feels even one moment of true happiness the curse will be broken and his soul will be freed. Here’s the real kicker though, guess what makes Angel happier than anything else? You’ve got it, Buffy. Or more specifically, sex with Buffy. In the episode Surprise Buffy turns 17 and loses her virginity to Angel. Only to wake up the next day with a boyfriend that’s a monster. The story is fantastical yet completely truthful at the same time. Many women experience this phenomenon of going to bed with one person and waking up with someone else. The phrase “He wasn’t like this when I first met him” is a cliché for a reason.
Demons and magic also act as devices through which to analyse wider society. Sometimes this takes the form of long overarching narratives, as with the dark and brilliant Season Six, with three separate but intertwining story lines painting a grim pictures of what it’s like to be a twenty-something woman in the modern world. A lot of this season focuses on Buffy trying to reconnect with humanity.
The Scooby Gang (Buffy’s friends) accidentally bring Buffy back from heaven, thinking that they were saving her from a hell dimension. Only her mother has died, so she’s pulled out only to face being the primary carer to her kid sister, having medical debts her mother’s brain tumour incurred and having no prospects except menial jobs and poverty wages. The season is a great big metaphor for the depression you face in your mid-twenties. Buffy is directionless and lacking inspiration. She isolating herself, alienating her friends and engaging in risky sexual behaviour. Meanwhile two “big bads” are developing right under her nose in the forms of Dark Willow and The Trio.
Dark Willow is the storyline in which Buffy’s best friend becomes addicted to magic. She transforms from being everyone’s favourite shy geek into the world’s most powerful and out-of-control dark witch. Buffy is unable to stop this from happening or even recognise it because she is so lost herself.
The Trio is a group of super villains who are in fact just three misogynistic men, who can’t cope with not being popular, athletic or sexy and decide to turned their frustrations on the Scooby Gang. The Trio start out as comedy villains — typical sad, hapless, kind of pathetic, misogynists, but morph into something a lot more sinister. By the middle of the series, one of the Trio has bewitched his ex-girlfriend into being his sex slave. Fortunately for her his spell goes wrong; she wakes from the spell, confronts him with the reality of what he did, telling him that this isn’t just some sick fantasy but that he has repeatedly raped her. He freaks out and murders her.
Whedon and his gang of merry writers often analysed society’s ills in a single episode, often directly critical of capitalism. In the episode Double Meat Palace, Buffy is forced to take a job in a fast food restaurant but soon realises that her co-workers are disappearing at an alarming rate. At first we think the secret ingredient in the double meat medley is in fact human meat, but there is actually a demon who is picking the workers off one at time. In our culture, workers are just disposable pieces of meat; they come, they go and no one notices. Buffy: “Wow they’re all so identical”. Boss: “Yeah they all start to look the same to me too.” Buffy: “No, not the employees. The chicken slices”.
Similarly in the episode Life Cereal, Buffy takes a job in retail and gets caught in a time loop, forcing her to live the same day over and over again. This is a pretty obvious (even heavy handed) metaphor for the monotony of working life. In the same episode Buffy gets a job in construction but is fired because the men can’t cope with her being stronger than them. In The Wish, the vampires work out how to mass-produce and start factory farming humans. They reflect on their activities: “Undeniably we are the world’s superior race. Yet we have always been too parochial, too bound by the mindless routine of the predator. Hunt and kill, hunt and kill. Titillating? Yes. Practical. Hardly. Meanwhile, the humans, with their plebeian minds, have brought us a truly demonic concept: mass production!”
Marx delved into the world of gothic horror when explaining capitalism and often (quite poetically) compared it to Vampirism: “Capital is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.”
Another favourite episode was Anne. Here Buffy runs away to LA and takes a job in a diner. Again, she notices young runaways are disappearing with no trace. She follows the trail and it eventually leads her to a church group that are doing outreach work with the young and homeless. But free meals come at a cost. If you allow the group to baptise you, you get sucked into a parallel hell dimension where you are forced to slave in a factory until you die, for a boss class of demons. As a final cherry on the cake for communist buffy fans, when Buffy does lead the factory rebellion, she picks up two tools to fight with — a Hammer and Sickle. Buffy literally destroys the exploitative class and frees the slaves using a Hammer and Sickle!
I don’t think every staff writer on Buffy was a Bolshevik; I think they saw the opportunity for a joke and ran with it. But there were a lot more thoughtful criticisms of capitalism, state power and modern culture in Buffy than in most popular TV.
Buffy was one of the first shows to treat TV as a complex art form, rather than just cheap entertainment. It established a reputation for innovation, experimentation, witty dialogue and meta humour. It broke new ground in what a prime time TV show could do. When Whedon was accused of using witty, pithy dialogue as a crutch for the show, he decided to do a whole episode, The Gentleman, in silence. It is still one of the funniest and scariest things I’ve ever seen. Here, The Gentlemen come into town and steal everyone’s voices in order to help them harvest organs. When they rip out your heart no one will hear you scream.
There is also a musical episode, a few episodes set entirely inside dreams and an art house episode called The Body which has absolutely no score — a first for television. Another stand-out arty episode is Normal Again. In this episode we find out (or do we? no we don’t. Wait, maybe we do? No. Fuck, I have no idea what is going on…) that the whole Buffyverse is actually just the complex delusion of an institutionalised girl. By doing this, the writers were able to tear down the fourth wall and critique their own work without being obnoxious. Psychiatrist: “But Buffy, it all fell apart when you introduced this sister character into your delusions didn’t it? You can’t just invent a sister out of nowhere.”
Breaking new ground was very apparent in the way the show dealt with gender and sexuality. Buffy isn’t just one super-woman in a man’s world. The whole show centres around amazing women. Women who are powerful, intellectual, magical, caring and sexual. Some of them butch, some of them fem, some of them gay, some of them straight. Most of them are a mixture of both bad and good. All of them however, are belittled, talked down to and held back and physically abused by men who couldn’t even dream of being in the same league as them.
Then when you think you’ve seen it all, Buffy goes and pulls the ultimate socialist feminist move by giving her super powers away to every woman in the world. She is no longer the chosen one, nor is she the burdened one. We all share the power and work together. Buffy: “What if you could have that power now? In every generation a slayer is born because a bunch of old men made up that rule. Those were powerful men. This woman is more powerful than all of those men combined. So I say we change the rule… From now on, every girl in the world who might be a slayer, will be a slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up. Slayers everyone of us. So make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?”
So yes, Buffy may look like a show about vampires and high school, with cheap production and a painfully outdated wardrobe, but there’s a reason it consistently features in “best TV ever made” lists. It is camp, complex, beautifully moving and never patronising. It inspired women and girls all over the world to stand up and be strong. It got a generation of writers to treat TV as art and push the boundaries on what is acceptable.
Forever a Whedonite.
Guest post by Robin Carmody
There’s a long history of Libertarian Rightists being mistaken for Leftists because of the huge culture gap between them and mainstream conservatives. This was especially marked before Thatcherism had done its work, when there was a much greater frowning upon brashness and vulgarity, openly showing that you were capitalist, on the English Right (the ancien régime of Arsenal FC always seemed to embody this, with the at least implicit anti-Semitism built into it, especially in the context of their rivalry with the more raffish Tottenham) and before a deeper generational shift, and the effects of things like the Golden Jubilee and James Blunt, had seamlessly merged pop music and pop culture generally into the Tory Interpretation of History.
The best example of this – at least until now – was Mick Jagger, whose essential Toryism was not widely recognised at the time (other than, famously, by a prescient William Rees-Mogg) because he obviously stood outside the cultural shibboleths of Conservatism as it was then, and also because his Libertarian Right worldview and outlook was at its most – ha ha ha – exiled from mainstream in British history, at a time when the dominant strain of the Tory party accepted the role of the state in certain parts of the economy in a manner wholly unthinkable in earlier and later periods (in retrospect, we can clearly see that the state was easily the best way of strengthening in adversity those very cultural shibboleths, whose final abandonment by mainstream Conservatism in the 2000s helped it back to what may be an indefinite period of power). Ignorant of what it might represent, through their very unfamiliarity with what had become an extremely marginal and fringe position in British life during and after the Second World War, certain idealistic Leftists of the late 1960s – arguably unaware of how good they actually had it – imposed their own views on Jagger, saw him as a symbol of what they themselves believed in, in a way which feels like the ultimate example of Getting the Future Wrong, the single greatest concentration of this misconception being Richard Gott’s rapturous Guardian eulogy to the Stones’ 1969 performance in Hyde Park (“taking place in a Socialist society in the distant future“, indeed!).
As we reflect on Wikileaks’ intervention in the US presidential election blatantly on Trump’s side (will the mistaken typing of “legitimate” for “illegitimate” by an aide to Hillary Clinton’s campaign prove to be the biggest butterfly effect of all time?)*, and on the joyous enthusiasm for its founder by several Trump groupies, can we possibly dispute that Julian Assange is, in every possible way and in every last detail, the same thing all over again, a Libertarian Rightist initially mistaken for a Leftist by those who did not understand the position? Only in this case, of course, with the position being so much more relatively mainstream and having influenced so much more of the wider society than in the 1960s, they had much less excuse.
*Correction, I think: it should be “prove to be the biggest butterfly effect *of recent history*”, because even I don’t think it could be comparable to things like the absence of fog which might have enabled Hitler to be killed in 1939, etc.
From: Felix Stalder
Date: 2 January 2017
Subject: <nettime> John_Berger (5 November 1926 – 2 January 2017)
John Berger is dead. He died today, at the age of 90. Obits are surely
being written right now. However, Sally Potter’s birthday thoughts
from last November seem a more apt and personal way of remembering.
“Ways of Seeing was, together with Robert Hughes’ “Shock of the New”,
one of the first books about art I read as teenager. It stayed with me
As if as a testament to his continued relevance, the LA Review of
Books published today a long article on his theory of art.
That theory evolved considerably between the 1950s and the 2010s.
Yet two threads hold it together with the tenacity of spider silk: a
critique of the political economy of art and a sophisticated account
of its human value, each rooted in a committed but elastic Marxism.
A Marxist art criticism of any real subtlety has to be elastic,
because it must deal with a problem Marx himself diagnosed but
failed to solve. Berger puts it like this:
A question which Marx posed but could not answer: If art in the last
analysis is a superstructure of an economic base, why does its power
to move us endure long after the base has been transformed? Why,
asked Marx, do we still look towards Greek art as an ideal? He began
to answer the question […] and then broke off the manuscript and
was far too occupied ever to return to the question.
H/t: Bruce R
Guest post by Robin Carmody:
In October 1984, early in the season that ended with Bradford and Heysel, there was a major fire at Norwich City football ground. You’ve almost certainly never heard of it, because it didn’t happen during a match and so nobody was killed. But it very easily could have done; football grounds had been allowed to decay, partially out of a Tory belief that the conditions in which working class people had to live didn’t matter, so badly that Bradford, like Hillsborough, could have happened to multiple other sets of fans at multiple other times. It is, in fact, a wonder that they didn’t.
But imagine if that fire had actually killed as many Norwich fans as Bradford or Liverpool fans were killed in the disasters that did happen. How would the Left’s response have differed? Could it – would it – have responded with as much empathy and fellow feeling for the dead and the bereaved? Might elements of it, even, have felt that those who died were en masse class traitors, unworthy of equal levels of support?
The unfortunate situation that continues to prevail on much of the English Left is that when many Leftists say that they support working class people who do not speak RP, and the right of those accents to be heard and not discriminated against and perceived as a badge of stupidity, they only mean working class people in areas, and the accents of those areas, which were largely made by the industrial revolution and have experienced heavy non-white settlement since 1945. When it comes to working-class people in areas, and especially the accents of those areas, which were largely unaffected by the industrial revolution and have not had such levels of immigration (other than, in a much more concentrated period the reaction to which has now had disastrous political consequences, from Eastern Europe), they are often capable of the most obscene levels of prejudice, discrimination and the treatment of entire forms of working class speech as badges of stupidity.
It hurts much more to hear this sort of thing from the left in the same way that, even after Maxwell had withered away the paper’s soul and got rid of everyone from Pilger to Waterhouse, it hurt much more to see the Daily Mirror run covertly racist and anti-Semitic lies about the Beastie Boys in 1987, or to equate modern Germans with Nazis in 1996, than if it had been The Sun; you simply expect better, and expect more, from those who portray themselves as against prejudice and discrimination. Portrayal of people with, say, Scouse accents as thick – a partial factor in the Hillsborough disaster (and over-compensated for by the constant tabloid references to “Jamie” Bulger, a name never used by his family, as if they could only counterbalance the years of dehumanisation with an equally insulting faux-chumminess) – comes pretty much entirely from people who do not deny their prejudice, but flaunt it, boast about it, wallow in it. You don’t expect anything else from them. Portrayal of people with West Country or East Anglian accents as thick, on the other hand, comes disproportionately from people who make a great point of how immune they are from prejudice, how even-handed and equal their treatment of others is (eg leftie comedians on Radio 4). But in this field they completely abandon those rules and are, quite often, guilty of some of the most obscene, incontinent and just plain unpleasant abuse and mockery of other people I have ever come across. It is, by those criteria, far more actively disappointing.
And what makes it worse is that the prophecy is self-fulfilling. While accents with left cred, such as that of Liverpool, have strengthened and enhanced, those without are in the process of withering and dying. Worse, leftists from regions such as south-west England have, in many cases, internalised such rhetoric and believe it applies accurately to themselves; in my direct personal experience, they frequently do not speak up against negative stereotyping of their regions and actively join in with it themselves. Read the rest of this entry »
Guest post by Robin Carmody
In response to the letter to the Morning Star (a paper which is, ultimately, little more than the Daily Mail with the ending changed; it peddles the same populist Europhobic nationalism, uses the same pejoratives for its opponents and is just as great an apologist for censorship in theory, and quite possibly more so in practice) which I suspect was written wholly if not entirely by David Lindsay, and which has Neil Clark and George Galloway among its signatories, I am reminded again that whether or not people support universal public funding of the whole BBC – and not just those parts of it considered “100% British” by Daily Telegraph letter-writers and “not sufficiently lucrative” by Rupert Murdoch – is, over and over again, a litmus test for their other views.
(In saying this, I am burning out elements of myself; at various points in my life, a significant traditional-conservative streak has surfaced).
Lindsay, it should always be remembered, believes that the BBC should be funded by an increased but voluntary licence fee (interestingly, considering his endorsement by many as an anti-racist icon, Gary Lineker also thinks this) and should not do Radio 1, 1Xtra etc. In other words, he thinks it should become a long-shadows-on-county-grounds heritage broadcaster, and that petty-racist whingers should be conceded all the ground in the world (even more than they have already, which in itself is far too much) and should define what the broadcaster does entirely on their terms, not on the terms of the whole nation. His plan would be a wet dream to those who resent the fact that the music of the post-1980 black Atlantic is funded on their money and they can’t opt out of it.
Clark, similarly, has endlessly moaned and whinged about hip-hop and its tributaries in Mail-esque language, and has attracted people with similar views, one of whom once told me that I was “a cell in the cancer that killed the Left” because I said he should not have moaned about it in such a way, referred to “the Ecclesiastical Court of the Liberal-Left Inquisition” (language that even the most lurid Mail Online commenter would have been hard-pressed to dream up, and note again that he is using identical pejoratives, identical terms of attack) and accused me of “sanctimonious yoof bigotry” – both a dehumanising Mail-esque spelling and a refusal to acknowledge the fact that he might not even be right on those horrible terms, because many of his opponents are now in their forties and do not like current rap-based music at all.
It’s not hard to see the connection between such attitudes and their apparent endorsement – however qualified – of someone who clearly thinks (and many of whose supporters blatantly, unequivocally, unapologetically think – I knew Obama would inspire a backlash but I never dreamt it would be this bad, and I certainly never dreamt that anti-Semitism in the United States, as opposed to anti-Muslim bigotry in Western countries or anti-Semitism in, say, Poland, would be mainstreamed again in this way; I thought the Jewish influence and presence was far too integrated into the mainstream of American culture and society for that) that the people who invented hip-hop, and continue largely to produce it, aren’t really American.
When people de-Anglicise the very concept and the very form of expression – and, by implication, the people – in such a way, their endorsement of those who dispute its American-ness can hardly be considered surprising. It justifies all my previous doubts and warnings as practically nothing else could have.
Sad and (for me, at least) unexpected news in today’s Graun: the great saxophonist Bobby Wellins has died.
He was one of the finest jazz players these isles have produced (he was Scottish) and could play in a variety of settings, from fairly conventional modern-mainstream groups through straight-ahead hard bop, to more adventurous avant garde scenes, whilst always retaining his distinctive and highly individual sound.
He was also, by all accounts, a thoroughly decent and likable human being.
As a general rule I’m not that keen on attempts to marry jazz and poetry, but Bobby’s contribution to the 1965 recording of Stan Tracey’s Under Milk Wood suite ensures his lasting reputation as one of the greats; this track is his masterpiece, IMHO:
Obit in the Herald Scotland
By Matt Cooper (this article also appears on the Workers Liberty website)
The 1950s saw a revival of interest in “folk” music in Britain and the USA. Folk revivalism in Europe has a long heritage going back to the early nineteenth century and was largely allied to nationalist movements.
European nationalists sought out, and often invented, national cultures on which to base their claims for statehood. This was not always an illiberal project — it was based on the idea that a common identity was the basis for national self-determination and that in turn was the basis for democracy.
Composers helped the search for common identities: thus Greig researched Norwegian hardanger fiddle music and orchestrated folk tales, Bartok adapted Hungarian folk dances into his work, and Glinka interpreted the balalaika music of the Russian peasantry.
In the 1930s this “nationalist” view of culture re-emerged in the state policy of the Soviet Union. It was a million miles way from the cultural policy of the Bolsheviks in the early years of the Russian Revolution.
The Bolsheviks were for free artistic expression, and if their policy had a tendency it was towards modernism, cosmopolitan internationalism and the avant garde.
Like all else democratic and progressive in the Russian Revolution, cultural experimentation was abandoned and subverted with the rise of Stalinism. In 1934 the USSR adopted an official cultural policy of socialist realism.
Socialist realism had two elements. The first, and the one that is unusually emphasised, was that the measure of good art is the degree to which its message was “progressive”. That was in practice synonomous with the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy. As one supporter of the new orthodoxy put it in the 1930s, “A writer today who wishes to produce the best work that he is capable of producing, must first of all become a socialist in his practical life, must go over to the progressive side of the class conflict… unless he has in his everyday life taken the side of the workers, he cannot, no matter how talented he may be, write a good book, cannot tell the truth about reality”.
In Britain or the US Stalinists, and those who lived in their intellectual shadow, began to like any old crap so long as it toed the party line. In Soviet Russia and its satellites it was accepted that art and culture be put at the service of the “people” and “socialism”, or rather the state that claimed to embody these. In the USSR it was dangerous to think otherwise. Writers who refused to adapt to the new thinking were executed or died in labour camps.
There was a second element to socialist realism — an element of folk culture. One of architects of socialist realism, Andrey Zhdanov, stated, after the Second World war, that music should be, “realist and of truthful content, and closely and organically linked with the people and their folk-music and folk-song.”
The idea was that music should not only carry a socialist message but also be the “people’s” music, a national music, music that is not “owned” and only enjoyed by a cultural elite but of everyday life. In Russia this came to mean regimented state folk ensembles that make Riverdance look like an honest, restrained and tasteful expression of Irish culture.
Outside of Russia, coming as its did at the time of the Popular Front where the Communist parties sought to align themselves with the “progressive” section of their own ruling classes against fascism, this very quickly came to mean promoting a nationalist conception of folk music.
Of course the Communist’s approach could also attach itself to a living tradition. This was particularly true in the USA which had a strong and living tradition of workers’ song, both black and white. Woody Guthrie was someone in this tradition. He became intellectually close to the Communist Party while never joining. A writer and performer of real merit, his songs often transcended the kind of doggerel and simplistic propagandising that characterised what passed for “socialist” song-writing at the time.
It is impossible to say whether the folk revival in the 1950s and 1960s in Britain and the USA were directly caused by the ideas and the members of the Communist parties, but it is certain that they were heavily influenced by the Communist line.
In Britain one of the major protagonists for the folk revival was A L Lloyd, a card-carrying CPer, as were some performers such as Ewan McColl (although he left the CP in 1953, he continued to bear its politics). The CP ran a Workers’ Music Association and its record label, Topic, was the first British folk label.
In the USA the folk-song collector and folk-promoter Alan Lomax was a CP member, as were key performers such as Pete Seeger (like McColl, Seeger left the CP — in 1950 — but continued to hold its beliefs in music).
The folk-revival had programmed into it the idea that there was an authentic workers’ music that was superior both in its folk-style and its political content to the pop music of the day. This “authenticity” was something of a concoction. The folkies were, at heart, middle class urbanites. The folk revival in the USA happened in Greenwich Village and university campuses; in Britain it happened in rooms above pubs in middle class suburbs.
The invented nature of the tradition it claimed to stand in can be seen in its attitude to the blues Most of the important blues artists in the US in the 50s played in electric bands in the north, but this is not what the folk purists wanted. When John Lee Hooker played New York and when Big Bill Bronzy played in Britain, they had to go acoustic, and imitate a Southern country blues style for the white middle-classes. They were not “allowed” to present the revolution in popular music that they were really engaged in.
Folk music was also seen as politically of the left. Tribune had a folk music column until the mid-1960s.
The folk revival was not a bad thing. It engendered interest in music beyond the increasingly bland pop-mainstream, which after the rock and roll of the mid ’50s had fallen back into saccharine crooning. Much of what collectors like Lomax collected was interesting in its own right and suggested new musical directions. It was not merely bucolic reaction. Out of the folk-revival grew the 1950s British skiffle boom and out of that eventually came the British beat bands, including the Beatles.
But these developments were opposed by many folk purists. Folk became a straitjacket — performers were expected to work within the tradition. Even when they wrote there own music it was expected to be musically conventional (and above that meant acoustic) and “realist” in its lyrical approach.
By the early 1960s new folk writing consisted either of “protest songs” — topical songs that showed folk’s political engagement — or songs which simulated the form of the “folk canon”. The template for this was Woody Guthrie, who mixed political songs, traditional songs, and songs that sounded very much like traditional ones although he had written them. It is at this point in the story that Bob Dylan comes in.
In the early 1960s, when Dylan came on the folk scene in Greenwich Village, he consciously modelled himself on Woody Guthrie — sang his songs, mimicked his clothes and his political engagement. It soon became clear that Dylan had a greater and more mercurial talent than his idol. After a throwaway album of folk standards, Dylan’s real debut as a songwriter was The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Here Dylan went beyond the protest song.
Typically a protest song would retell a news story, sometimes with a bit of editorialising. Indeed Phil Ochs, a protest singing contemporary of Dylan’s, called his first album All the news that’s fit to sing. Sometimes there would be calls to action, such as Pete Seeger’s Which side or you on? But the songs on The Freewheelin’… and its follow up The times they are a-changing’ did not fit these templates. The questions raised were often rhetorical; they offered no answers. In many ways Dylan’s most famous protest song, Blowin’ in the wind was not a protest song at all. It mentions no specific injustice, and offers no answer; it was a demand to think. As Dylan commented at the time, “Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is, but oh, I don’t believe that.”
The complexity and texture of Dylan’s lyrics gained Dylan a huge following. (As opposed to his music, which was derivative; his guitar playing, which was mediocre; and his harmonica playing, some of which was diabolical.) Bizarrely Dylan’s non-specific “message” raised him in the eyes of many to the spokesperson, if not the leader, of a new movement. The designation clearly revolted him, and eventually angered him. In his next set of songs, the carefully titled Another side of Bob Dylan, he began to question the ideas of the left, the morality and motivation of himself and those around him. In My back pages he writes:
“Equality, I spoke their word
as if a wedding vow
but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now”
As Dylan stated, “Me, I don’t want to write for people any more — you now, be a spokesman. From now on I want to write from inside of me… the bomb is getting boring because what is wrong goes much deeper than the bomb… I’m not part of no movement…” For those who expected folk to be about the repetition of received truths and comforting consensus, it was something of a shock, but it really was no preparation for what was to come.
Dylan’s first albums had been musically unexceptional, old folk and blues tunes recycled. But all along something else musically had been happening in the world. While the folkies were singing to themselves, while mainstream pop was sinking into a pit of pink glop, black urban America had created a new, dynamic, electric music. For a long time this had been designated a “race” music, and then Rhythm and Blues, and despite Rock and Roll (which was R&B played by white people) it had really passed the American mainstream by.
In Britain, to the disgust of the folk purists, some moved beyond acoustic blues and started to discover the electric R&B. Bands like the Rolling Stones, the Animals and the Beatles took black urban music back to the USA.
For Dylan these developments were a way to cut himself out of the cocoon of folk music. Dylan gathered a group of (white) electric blues musicians around him. In response to the heckler in the Albert Hall in 1966 demanding that he play folk music he responded that, “This is not British music, this is American music, now come on.” Popular music had at last very imperfectly come to terms with a changed world. While modernism had transformed the visual arts, jazz had been transformed by bebop and orchestral music was comfortable with dissonance, pop music was still swaddled in easy certainty and formal order. Folk music even more so. Dylan splashed out with shocking colour and let rip a splenetic howl.
Freed from the assumption that songs should be realist, topical and in service to a movement’s immediate political requirements, Dylan looked to the avant garde, the absurdist and the surreal to develop his lyrics. This kind of experimentaion underlay a trio of albums, Bringing it all back home, Blonde on blonde and Highway 61 revisited.
The story of the huge confrontation created between Dylan and his folk audience, a section of which booed him for these years, has been well told. But what it is difficult to understand is enormity of what Dylan had wrought. This was loud, raucous and challenging music. He played American music, the music brought to the UK by the Beatles and Stones, but played with more energy than either. And welded to this were rich and multilayered and at times downright oblique lyrics, that demanded to be listened to, demanded to be questioned. This was pop-music as art, serious, literate and modernist. It was a cultural watershed.
So when someone shouted “Judas” at Dylan when he was playing his electric set at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, there was a political background to it all. The “purist” heckler was demanding that music was not modern, was rooted in tradition, even if that tradition were invented. It was a demand that easy questions be given and that the audience could already mouth the answers. It was a demand not to be challenged, confronted and questioned.
As Irwin Sibler, a leading member of the left-folk establishment in the early sixties who denounced Dylan’s electric turn, and later recanted, put it: “Dylan is our poet — not our leader”. Of course in time he ceased to be that, but that is another story.
I’ve just attended a long overdue tribute to the great poet of Birmingham and the Midlands, Roy Fisher. Roy himself couldn’t be there, but sent greetings. Four poets who admire the man and his work – Luke Kennard, Ian McMillan, Peter Robinson and Jacqui Rowe – read and explored Roy’s poems, written over 55 years. I was pleased that the opening reading – by Ian McMillan – was Roy’s powerful evocation of a favourite jazz pianist, the now nearly forgotten Joe Sullivan. The evening closed with a recording of Roy himself playing superb jazz piano, accompanying the Birmingham singer Ruby Turner. I suggest listening to Mr Sullivan himself, before reading Roy’s poem:
The Thing About Joe Sullivan
By Roy Fisher (1965)
The pianist Joe Sullivan,
jamming sound against idea
hard as it can go
florid and dangerous
slams at the beat, or hovers,
drumming, along its spikes;
in his time almost the only
one of them to ignore
the chance of easing down,
walking it leisurely,
he’ll strut, with gambling shapes,
underpinning by James P.,
amble, and stride over
gulfs of his own leaving, perilously
toppling octaves down to where
the chords grow fat again
and ride hard-edged, most lucidly
voiced, and in good inversions even when
the piano seems at risk of being
hammered the next second into scrap
For all that, he won’t swing
like all the others;
disregards mere continuity,
the snakecharming business,
the ‘masturbator’s rhythm’
under the long variations:
Sullivan can gut a sequence
In one chorus-
-approach, development, climax, discard-
And sound magnanimous,
The mannerism of intensity
often with him seems true,
too much to be said, the mood
pressing in right at the start, then
running among stock forms
that could play themselves
and moving there with such
quickness of intellect
that shapes flaw and fuse,
altering without much sign,
so wrapped up in thoroughness
it can sound bluff, bustling,
just big-handed stuff-
belied by what drives him in
to make rigid, display,
shout and abscond, rather
than just let it come, let it go-
And that thing is his mood:
A feeling violent and ordinary
That runs in standard forms so
wrapped up in clarity
that fingers following his
through figures that sound obvious
find corners everywhere,
marks of invention, wakefulness;
the rapid and perverse
tracks that ordinary feelings
make when they get driven
hard enough against time.
Above: live performance of Wholly Cats, c 1940 with the Benny Goodman Sextet inc Count Basie and Charlie Christian
There is some doubt about Charlie Christian’s date of birth, but most informed opinion now puts it at 29 July 1916.
Charlie was a very important and influential musician, revered in jazz circles as a pioneer (though not the inventor) of the electric guitar and a precursor of the bebop revolution, though he died in March 1942 (of TB, like many other great African American musicians of that generation), before Parker and Gillespie put bebop (or just plain ‘bop’, as it became) on the jazz map.
But his influence goes far beyond jazz, and continues to permeate all of popular music right up to the present day, due to his mastery of the electric guitar. I think it’s fair to say that Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King and George Benson are Charlie Christian’s children just as much as Barney Kessel, Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery.
Christian’s big break came in 1939, when an initially unenthusiastic Benny Goodman was persuaded (by John Hammond, Goodman’s socialite brother-in-law and a keen champion of racially-integrated jazz) to recruit him for the Goodman Sextet.
Goodman’s biographer James Lincoln Collier (in Benny Goodman And The Swing Era) gives a good account of how Charlie’s influence and musical ideas developed from there:
Although Christian eventually played with the [Benny Goodman] big band for a brief period before his death, for the most part he played only in the Sextet, and it was with the small group that he made an enduring mark on jazz. Aside from bringing the electric guitar to national attention, he is best known for having contributed ideas to the bop movement which would begin to coalesce around 1942. For one thing, Christian was using some of the upper notes of the chord — ninths and elevenths — more frequently than other jazz players. He was also prone to substitute a diminished chord for the dominant seventh in places. The boppers would eventually develop these practices to the point where chromatic alterations and the upper-chord notes would be a major characteristic of the music.
For a second thing, Christian liked to use long lines of unaccented eighth notes. This was in part due to the nature of his instrument. It cannot be made to accent notes with anything like the subtlety of a wind instrument. But it was also a matter of taste — Charlie Christian liked to run long lines. There is a surprising lack of syncopation in his work. The use of long lines of relatively uninflected notes also became a characteristic of bebop.
Christian habitually phrased against the grain of the tune. Jazz musicians have always played asymmetrical phrases, but there is nonetheless a tendency to design a solo to match the two-, four- and eight-bar segments most tunes are constructed of. Christian persistently played phrases of odd lengths — one of three-and-a-half bars, followed by another of five, and then one of two — interjected at irregular points in the chorus. This use of disjunctive phrasing was also typical of bebop.
Finally, Christian frequently ended phrases on the second half of the last beat of a measure. This is the weakest point in a measure, and in most standard music, ranging from the operas of Mozart to the worst material from Tin Pan Alley, phrases are ended at stronger points, often at the first beat of a measure. But this inclination to plunk down at a weak point also became a characteristic of bebop.
(from Benny Goodman And The Swing Era by James Lincoln Collier, pub: Oxford 1989).
But, as it turned out, Charlie Christian didn’t live to see or hear the musical revolution he’d set in train: in 1941 he contracted TB and died in March 1942 from associated pneumonia in a Staten Island sanatorium. He was buried in Harlem in the cheapest coffin available. His advocate, John Hammond, wrote, “He was a sweet loving man with few defences against the world. His only resource was his music and when he was unable to play he was unable to live.”
[NB: I’d like to acknowledge the assistance of Digby Fairweather’s entry on Charlie Christian in the Rough Guide To Jazz, by Carr, Fairweather and Priestly, 1995]