Musical Tradition

PrintPrintEmailEmail Most Overrated Musical Tradition:

The singer-songwriter tradition. What’s more American than a kid named Robert Zimmerman from Hibbing, Minnesota, reinventing himself—taking the name of a Welsh poet and copying the style of a Depression-era folksinger? After Bob Dylan took his guitar case on the road to New York, however, in addition to writing some nice songs, he inspired an earnest army of guitar poets who took a dubious message from his example: that songs had to be homemade in order to be deeply, authentically felt by their listeners. The singer-songwriter movement was born, with its credo that a song’s value was morally tied up with its authorship by the singer (however clumsily constructed or performed). Generational distrust about the corporate music business elevated the raw, sincere singer.

A true singer-songwriter could sneer at the preponderance of “covers” of other people’s tunes listed on a performer’s LP. What had been a strength for Sinatra or Billie Holiday—the ability to interpret and convincingly feel the moods of a variety of people’s compositions—was now suspect and slick. There were notable exceptions to the moral code: Throughout the singersongwriter decades, Aretha Franklin stubbornly refashioned other people’s songs into hits with her outsized voice (beginning with Ronnie Shannon’s “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)” and Otis Reading’s “Respect” in 1967), and no one dared question her authenticity.

The singer-songwriter imperative is weakened but still with us, providing new voices and nonvoices each year, but it’s had some holes poked in it by hip-hop music (with its “sampling” of old tunes in new compositions) and by the commercial examples of people like Madonna, who can neither write nor sing but, like the old-time record executives the singersongwriters had meant to replace, knows a marketable hit when it is brought to her.

Most Underrated Musical Tradition:

The drum battle. Most music critics would rather listen to a wood mulcher than a drum solo, but the drum or trap set itself may be our great undervalued musical instrument, evolving from the era of one-man bands and ultimately (in the hands of a melodic rhythm artist like the great Count Basic drummer Jo Jones) able to evoke a wider range of musical moods than some more celebrated native inventions like the ever-hopeful banjo. The trap set was a natural driving force in early jazz combos, of course, but it took center stage during the swing era, when each big band was anchored by its rhythm star: Gene Krupa, Big Sid Catlett, Cozy Cole, Jo Jones, Dave Tough, Chick Webb, Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson. The classic drum battle was really a break time for the singers or other band members, but it nonetheless became a crowd favorite: the battle of the bands winnowed down to simply drummer versus drummer.

The ferociously crisp playing of Buddy Rich (of Artie Shaw’s and other bands) blew away Benny Goodman’s former drummer Gene Krupa in such a contest, and in 1949, after hearing about the “revolutionary” play of Louie Bellson (who used two bass drums instead of the customary one), the ill-tempered Rich got so angry he played a full solo using only his feet.

The competitive drama of the drum battle peaked when the swing era did, after World War II, and died in a fuzzy whimper under the increasing amplification of early rock. But its greatest showdown came over two days in the spring of 1959, when the swing era’s extraordinary soloist Buddy Rich, with his quintet, met his match in the bebop drummer of the day, Max Roach, and his quintet.

The meeting is an awesome dialogue (Rich in the left speaker; Roach in the right), a kind of percussive game of chicken. The summit is surrounded by its own lore: that Roach (the younger challenger) was given inferior mikes by Rich sympathizers; that the stress of the drum battle is what gave Buddy a heart attack that same year.

Once, in the late 1970s as I waited to step off a New York City bus, an elegant and vaguely familiar older black man pointed to me as he whispered something to a pretty red-haired woman beside him. It was Roach, but older than on the album covers I had at home and wearing contacts instead of his studious tortoiseshell glasses. “Buddy Rich,” the stranger repeated louder, and I realized he was amused not by my face but by the Rich concert T-shirt I had on. “Buddy’s my man. He’s one of the greatest ever.” He laughed, and it wasn’t until I hit the pavement that I got the joke.