It’s the question teenagers have been asking each other for decades to size up each others’ style, philosophy, and even politics. There’s no doubt about it, music communities matter. But how much credit should we give to musical geniuses like George Clinton, or James Brown? Which musical failures should we blame on greedy record labels, or jealous spouses? And how much did spectacular events change musical history? What about Dylan going electric in Newport, or Hendrix playing Woodstock? In Banding Together, Jennifer Lena argues no genius, no accident, and no event matters as much to American popular musics as the everyday activities of the communities that support them. But Jenn not only offers a sociological explanation for the growth of 20th century American popular music, she also made us a mix tape! She was kind enough to share with me a “Spotify playlist for Banding Together”, along with some thoughts on her choices, which range from “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” to “Me so Horny.” You can check out her playlist here:
Anyone that wants to hear the playlist needs to join Spotify (by creating a login ID and password), and downloading the free software. Then you can find the playlist for “Banding Together” by typing “
spotify:user:lenajc” into the search box, or clicking on the link, above. Read on for some great music trivia after the jump:
I love that my friend Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) claims that my book “has a beat and you can dance to it,” but it just isn’t true. I begged Princeton University Press to make the world’s first musical book—I imagined something like those greeting cards—but it wasn’t to be. Thank goodness for Spotify. This free service will allow you access to an amazing repository of recorded music (including the stuff in your existing digital library). You can create playlists, share them with others, and even collaborate in their creation! It really is a terrific resource.
The playlist I created for the book (“Banding Together: The Spotify Playlist for the Book”) clocks in around 3 hours, and I’m still looking for more music to add. Each of the songs I chose is either specifically mentioned in my book, or stands as a representative of a musical style that I discuss in Banding Together. Here are a few of my favorites:
- “Funky Butt” by Mississippi John Hurt. The Library of Congress did us a magnificent favor by funding the Archive of Folk Song of the Library of Congress, which now contains over 3 million artifacts including recordings like this one. “Funky Butt” is King Buddy Bolden’s “signature tune” (and on page 79 I describe its link to other “funky” things), but I love Hurt’s version—a beautiful guitar tone, a strong and sweet vocal, and hilarious lyrics.
- “Livery Stable Blues” by the Original Dixieland Jass Band. I included this song for two reasons: the first is that I discuss the politics around the crediting of this white band as “original Dixieland” in Chapter 3 (starting on page 98). The second is that Chicago Judge George A. Carpenter argued (while presiding over a copyright dispute) that “no living human being could listen to that result on the phonograph and discover anything musical on it” (see page 101). I wonder what you think about Carpenter’s taste?
- “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” by Mahalia Jackson. If you’ve never heard black gospel, this is a great place to start. The song was penned by the “inventor” of gospel, the Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey, and later became a million-record seller for Elvis Presley (see pages 104 onward, and his version is in the playlist, too!). Here, one of Dorsey’s “discoveries,” the great Mahalia Jackson, shows incredible vocal control and spiritual inspiration. Jackson toured the “gospel highway” for five long years, but her hard labor was rewarded with a feature in Time Magazine, and the honor of performing at JFK’s 1961 inauguration and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral.
- “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” by Bill Monroe. Monroe, the “father of bluegrass,” performs this country and bluegrass standard, the lyrics of which are etched on the wall of the Country Music Hall of Fame, in Nashville, TN. Originally a hymn, adapted into country song, and performed by scores of musicians ranging from Johnny Cash to Moby, it is a true American original.
- “Night in the City” by Judy Collins and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” by Crosby, Still and Nash. These two songs, plus singles by Janis Joplin (also with Big Brother and the Holding Company), The Doors, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, and Leonard Cohen (singing one of my all-time favorite songs, about his brief romance with Joplin), represent the wild and wonderful years of the “Laurel Canyon” group on Ridpath Lane. Stephen Stills plays guitar on the Collins song, and his bandmate Graham Nash wrote and named the second tune after Judy. You can read more about their bohemian grove in Chapter 3.
- “You Send Me” by Sam Cooke. Quite simply, one of the very best pop tunes ever written, but one of those nearly lost to history. Cooke originally recorded the tune while working under the name “Dale Cook.” After the weak sales of his first single, “Lovable,” Specialty Records released him from the contract leaving the rest of the session, including this song, on the cutting room floor. Thankfully, his producer kept the tape and it later was a hit for the singer recording under his own name.
- “Chocolate City” by Parliament. The wild ways of George Clinton’s twin groups Parliament and Funkadelic are carefully detailed in Chapter 3 of Banding Together. The lyrics of this song figure in the text. Which of today’s black entertainers do you think Clinton would hire for cabinet posts?
- “Me So Horny” by 2 Live Crew. This song topped the charts at the very height of moral panics around the dysfunction wrought by popular music (in 1989). The song samples dialogue from two movies—do you know which they are?
- “On & On” by Jesse Saunders. Alleged to be the first House music single, this song attracted attention at the 1986 New Music Seminar in New York, and led a generation of DJs to be signed by British record labels—a brain drain that arguably led to the end of “original” House music in Chicago.
- “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana. This song represents the rapid rise and fall of Seattle’s Grunge music. This song’s chart success in 1991 propelled the rock group Nirvana to the top of the charts, although the band was said to quickly tire of its infamy. It is often cited as the greatest rock song ever recorded.
- “Nothing to Lose” by Cui Jian. I was so glad to see this classic of Chinese rock included in the Spotify library. The title is a mistranslation of the song I refer to in the book as “I Have Nothing.” While we watched from afar, Jian’s music was the soundtrack to China’s Tiananmen Square revolution.
- “La carta” by Violeta Parra. This is easily my favorite song to emerge from Chile’s nueva cancion movement of the 1970s. The title references a letter that brings Parra’s protagonist news of her brother’s imprisonment. She laments: “A letter comes to tell me/ There is no justice in my country/…/Luckily I have a guitar/ With which to lament my pain.” Heartbreaking.
- “Water Get No Enemy” by Fela Kuti. Fela was and still is the king of African music (in as much as Elvis is American music’s king). I won’t spoil his amazing life story (see Chapter 4 in Banding Together!), but it is the only one in the book to include a defenestration.
- “39.2” by Ceca. The wedding video of Serbian turbo-folk star Svetlana “Ceca” Veličković to paramilitary commander Željko Ražnatović Arkan was played outdoors for days, a technique designed to antagonize and terrorize the Croatian residents of Mostar during the terrible Balkan Wars of the 1990s. Her songs are a testament to the destructive power music can have when it falls into the wrong hands.
This Banding Together Spotify playlist demonstrates the varied influences, instruments, and personality of several musical idioms, while the book emphasizes the things they share in common. Within each genre, fans, club owners, journalists, merchandizers, musicians, and other community members must band together to make music, and the book is a study of how and when that happens. You will only hear traces of those communities in these songs: in the featured performers, borrowed lines, and references to people and places in the lyrics. I hope you’ll read Banding Together to learn more about how genres create communities in popular music, and I hope you’ll have fun with my musical book, even if you can’t dance to it (without Spotify).
Jennifer C. Lena is visiting assistant professor of sociology at Barnard College.