Saturday, February 20, 2010

The "Segregated Musical"

By 1940, both America and the rest of the world recognized swing music as America’s “most distinctive contribution” to world musical culture (David W. Stowe, Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America 142). After Pearl Harbor, or around the beginning of 1942, perhaps not surprisingly, Stowe observes, “swing found itself transformed into a galvanizing symbol of national purpose” (142). In the years preceding the war, beginning around 1935, swing had accrued a distinctive and highly functional ideology, representing the values of “American exceptionalism . . . ethnic pluralism and democratic equality,” and therefore was seen as an ideal weapon with which to fight fascism (Swing Changes 143). Hence, like jazz, swing functioned as an agent of ideology. “It repeated,” as Michael Jarrett has observed, “on an aesthetic level, myths of identity-through-integration. It naturalized and helped shape a social regime, state apparatus, or, more kindly, values we hold dear.” (Drifting on a Read: Jazz As a Model For Writing 31). In short, swing embodied the utopian impulses of pluralism, ethnic inclusiveness, and racial tolerance.

Strange, then, that a wartime film such as Cabin in the Sky (completed late October 1942, released April 1943), would be, as Thomas Cripps observes in Slow Fade to Black, a “segregated musical.” It is true, as Krin Gabbard observes, that as part of the war effort “Hollywood was trying to pay more attention to African Americans, largely because they were fighting and dying in World War II” (Jammin’ at the Margins 178), but as an “all-black film,” despite its rather obvious purpose—to call attention to the lives of African Americans and to fight long-established attitudes toward the participation of blacks in the work force—it nonetheless was evidence of the state apparatus supporting segregation, as was, at the time, the Jim Crow military. Therefore, the fact that the musical was made, but made with an all-black cast, reveals one of the ideological stresses of the war, the great divide between the symbolic content of swing and the actual social realities of the time: it was made, but rather than having been made with an integrated cast, it was made with an all-black cast—Cripps’ “segregated musical.” Hence Cabin in the Sky duplicated, but within the culture industry and therefore on an aesthetic level, the ideology that supported a segregated military. For instance: Kenneth Spencer, who plays the Reverend Greene character in Cabin in the Sky, also plays in the film the role of the heavenly emissary addressed as “The General.” He would also play the role of the token black soldier in Bataan, also released in 1943, appearing just a couple of months after Cabin in the Sky. While Krin Gabbard argues that the sequence in Cabin in the Sky featuring Duke Ellington and His Orchestra performing “Goin’ Up” serves “to gently sabotage the film industry’s racial stereotyping” (184)—hence revealing the existence of an ideological crack or fissure—the film nevertheless suggests the way that war, and wartime behavior, serves to naturalize other cultural behaviors and practices.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Hard Bop

An oft-repeated tale in the annals of modern jazz has it that bebop was born at Minton’s Playhouse in New York City in 1940, where the house band included pianist Thelonius Monk, drummer Kenny Clarke, trumpeter Joe Guy, and bassist Nick Fenton. (See, among other sources, David H. Rosenthal’s fine book, Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music, 1955-1965, Oxford UP 1992.) Rosenthal quotes at length a passage about bebop from Ross Russell’s novel The Sound (1961), in which Russell writes, “It [bebop] seemed to reflect the turmoil and insecurity of the war years. At the same time it implied a profound contempt for those who had been foolish enough to become involved with the war” (13). If bebop was connected to the wartime mood of the 1940s, and (following Amiri Baraka) with frustrated black hopes in a desegregated America which adhered to the principle of “freedom for all” as well, the post-bebop form of jazz referred to as “hard bop,” emerging in the early years of the Cold War, was influenced by the post-war rise of R&B. Incorporating blues and gospel elements, hard bop, according to jazz expert Michael Jarrett, “combines the melodicism and crisp rhythm attack of r&b with harmonies and minor modes associated with bebop” (Sound Tracks: A Musical ABC, Volumes 1-3, 239). Largely associated with jazz musicians such as Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Cannonball and Nat Adderley, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, and with labels such as Blue Note and Prestige, hard bop “provided bohemians with a soundtrack for living” (239). The first important hard bop recordings roughly coincided with the popularization of rock ‘n’ roll, and 50s hipsters found in hard bop records an alternative soundtrack to the music of pop-oriented Top 40 radio. For those such as myself born in the 50s, hard bop (and cool jazz) formed the soundtrack to many of the television shows that form my earliest memories. For hard bop signified, in the words of Michael Jarrett, “fast cars, loose women, hard drugs, shady deals, and weak or addled minds” (239).

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Common Cause

In my last entry I wrote about Casablanca (1942) as an example of wartime propaganda, about how the film enacted the ideological need to value (public) duty over (individual) desire, which corresponded to the wartime need for sexual abstinence and fidelity. I don’t claim any originality in this insight, as I think the film’s ideological purpose, given the virtue of “20/20” hindsight, is rather “obvious” in this regard, as many critics have observed. However, it occurred to me that it is probably worth mentioning that the film, seen also with the clarity of hindsight, also enacts America’s wartime sense of ideological purposelessness. Historian Paul Fussell, in Wartime, argues that the reason why Americans fought the Germans was even less clear than why they were fighting the Japanese (the reason for fighting the latter was revenge against the attack on Pearl Harbor). Although Victor Laszlo refers to Nazi concentration camps when addressing the Nazi military commander, Major Strasser, the death camps were not widely known about in the late summer of 1942 when the film was made, as the U. S. government had downplayed the brutality of Nazi anti-Semitism before the war. Hence there’s no clear sense of the nature or extent of Nazi criminality in Casablanca—they are, simply, the villains. Major Strasser seems confident that the victory of the Third Reich is inevitable. He and his fellow officers sing one (traditional) German folk song in the film, and his villainy is defined by whatever sort of (undefined) act of brutality he perpetrates on his captive, Ugarte (Peter Lorre). Victor Laszlo is wanted by the Nazis because he is a resistance leader fighting Nazi tyranny, and hence is a figurehead (but not a Jewish one). He has been tortured (as indicated by his reference to the “more persuasive methods” used when he was a prisoner in a concentration camp), but the word “torture” is never used. (The question of whether Ugarte is tortured is unclear, but his death is highly suspicious. He was murdered, but was he tortured? We're never explicitly told.) When Rick has finally made his decision to help Laszlo (and Ilsa) escape from Casablanca by giving them the "Letters of Transit" to board the plane to Lisbon, Laszlo praises Rick’s return “to the fight”—they are now fighting on the same side, for the same cause. In his chapter in Wartime entitled “The Ideological Vacuum,” Fussell argues that since Americans didn’t have a positive reason for fighting the war, they fell back on sheer pragmatism—the belief that “common cause would somehow substitute for formulation of purpose or meaning” (139). Hence Rick is told by Laszlo, “this time I know our side will win,” meaning they are now fighting together for a common cause. They are now on the same “side,” but there still remains, to use Fussell's phraseology, an “ideological vacuum.” Outside of common cause, there remains no clear purpose or meaning in fighting the war.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Hill of Beans

In my blog entry yesterday, I wrote about the effect of World War II on jazz music, and how it rendered the modernist values jazz had come to represent in the 1920s and 30s—“individualism”—unfashionable. As a consequence of the need for personal sacrifice during the war (personal sacrifice was required to win the war), individualism was no longer as highly valued as group cohesion and communal harmony. I referred to Paul Fussell’s observation, in his book Wartime, that the most popular songs during the war were about sexual depravation or pleas for fidelity—think of the Glenn Miller Band's “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me).” Fussell also noted that if the songs were not about sexual abstinence and the virtues of self-denial, they were about nothing at all (“Little Brown Jug”).

The opposed values of individual expression and group cohesion were often enacted, dramatically, as duty vs. desire. A classic wartime film in which the tension between duty and desire is dramatically enacted is, of course, Casablanca (1942). In the film’s climactic scene, Rick is faced with a choice that also happened to correspond to the need to resolve an ideological contradiction: should he allow Ilsa to go with her legal husband, Victor Laszlo, or keep her with him in Casablanca? The film demands the audience choose between love and romance (desire) or duty to a higher cause (getting Laszlo to Lisbon).

RICK: Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.
ILSA: But what about us?
RICK: We’ll always have Paris. We didn't have. We lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.
ILSA: When I said I would never leave you—
RICK: And you never will. But I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that.

It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world—in other words, the woman must be sent away. Rick’s “hill of beans” line is a virtual restatement of the quotation by Eileen M. Sullivan that Fussell cites in Wartime: “There was no room in this war-culture for individual opinions or personalities, no freedom of dissent or approval . . . .” (195). Interestingly enough, the ideological need to value social duty over individual desire corresponds to the wartime need for sexual abstinence and deprivation, yet another form of personal sacrifice that was needed to win the war.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Sing-Along

The effect of World War II on jazz music was to render the modernist values jazz had come to represent in the 1920s and 30s—individualism and spontaneity, represented by the improvised solo—unfashionable. The individualism represented by popular personalities such as Louis Armstrong, for instance, was devalued, while the virtue of “tightness,” represented by Glenn Miller’s big band, was highly prized because it represented group cohesion and communal harmony. His Army Air Force Band cemented the relationship between self-effacement and subservience to the group, or unit. In Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (Oxford UP, 1989), his revisionary history of World War II, Paul Fussell discusses the popular music that was played in Allied factories, “instrumental music only,” suggesting that instrumentals were associated with the wartime values of conformity and mindless labor, the values of the machine and assembly line. Fussell notes that the most popular songs during the war were about sexual depravation or pleas for fidelity, for instance, the Glenn Miller Band's “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)” (recorded by other bands at the time, of course):

Don’t go walkin’ down Lover’s Lane with anyone else but me
Anyone else but me, anyone else but me, no, no, no
Don’t go walkin’ down Lover’s Lane with anyone else but me
Til I come marchin’ home

I just got word from a guy who heard from the guy next door to me
The girl he met just loves to pet and it fits you to a T
So, don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me
Til I come marchin’ home

Fussell also notes that if they were not about sexual abstinence and self-denial (individual desires, as were personal opinions, counter-productive), they were about nothing at all, e.g., “The Beer Barrel Polka,” AKA “Roll Out the Barrel.” Most of the hit songs containing vocals were communal or intended as sing-alongs, such as “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” To make his point clear about the function of music during the war, Fussell cites Eileen M. Sullivan: “There was no room in this war-culture for individual opinions or personalities, no freedom of dissent or approval; the culture was homogeneous, shallow, and boring” (195).