An American musical journey

Jon Waterman presents history through popular music.

In 1877, Thomas Edison created a machine with two needles: one for recording and one for playback. — Wikimedia Commons

One thing you can say about American popular music: it’s a complex issue. Jon Waterman’s engrossing singing and guitar playing about its roots was the perfect way to enjoy the lull between the holiday celebrations and New Year’s revelry. The Oak Bluffs library hosted his presentation last Saturday.

For Waterman, American popular music is about our collective experiences and is an important part of who we are now. The afternoon was a rich, engrossing exploration and celebration of the topic through songs about music, songs about musicians, or songs that have a backstory that help to illustrate the story of popular music. He wrote all but two of them, and each made a point about the music’s origins.

Let’s start with a definition. By popular music, Waterman means: “The entirety of the music of the people that’s not considered ‘classical’ or ‘high culture’ and is intended for all or any of the people. So, I don’t think of church songs or military marches or college fight songs as popular music. Of course, there’s a lot of crossover.”

Waterman’s first song, “Press It in Wax” tells the tale of an early momentous shift that occurred with Edison’s invention of the phonograph in 1877 — and the initial recordings, which were pressed in wax cylinders. Waterman recounted how before this time music happened in a social milieu, with musicians making their living by performing. But now you could listen to music in the privacy of your own home on the phonograph or the radio. Suddenly, musicians had to get their music recorded in order to survive. The song speaks of five early talent scouts and record producers who did a lot to shape popular music in this country — Ralph Peer, Sam Phillips, John Hammond, and John and Alan Lomax.

An enigmatic theme was the question of where the Blues came from, which Waterman talked about before playing “Butler May.” Waterman shared that traditionally, it’s thought that the Blues evolved out of the field hollers, spirituals, and African folk songs of the Mississippi Delta region. An alternate theory, although not necessarily mutually exclusive, says that it evolved out of black vaudeville in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Waterman told us that Butler May was a popular performer in that circuit. His signature number was about the Titanic in which he’d stand at the piano and sway back and forth to show the ship rocking in the water. He’d slowly sink, all the while belting out this song about how he was on the Titanic yet able to swim to safety because he had the Elgin movement in his hips and “a twenty-year guarantee.” As it happens, Elgin was a watch brand and the movement of its mechanical elements came with … yep, a twenty-year guarantee. That “Elgin Movements” metaphor turns up repeatedly in the Blues. Butler May was known to be pretty vulgar and black press criticized him for being too “blue,” a vaudeville term for being vulgar on stage and may have contributed to the belief that Butler May was the original Blues man.

Waterman didn’t shy away from the difficult issue of minstrelsy in “Thomas Rice and His Traveling Review.” He began, “There are two contradictory themes you hear in the story of popular music. One is the blending of influences from the different sources of the American melting pot, and the other is the artificial and arbitrary setting aside and keeping apart of some of those influences, most notably that of black Americans. The worst of which was the emergence of minstrelsy, which became a horrible form of political propaganda in the aftermath of the Civil War.”

Waterman continued, “Minstrelsy was a vehicle through which a representation of black music was introduced to a large number of non-black Americans who had had little or no contact with them. Even as the minstrel shows became increasingly insulting and derogatory towards African Americans and other minorities, the performers in those shows, ironically, would be competing with one another for who could do the most authentic representation. So, what they were insulting and degrading they were simultaneously idealizing, which is a kind of weird juxtaposition. But the qualities in the music that they were idealizing they attributed to the irrelevant characteristic of skin color rather than to the hard work and passion of individual black artists and the openness of black culture generally. That’s basically what prejudice is, taking away credit from individuals and giving that credit to a whole population based on irrelevant criteria like skin color or ethnic origin. Sadly, that’s still here.”

For Waterman, “Popular songs tell our stories, mark events in our lives. Not just big historical events, say of World War II, but everyday experiences. And by sharing them individuals come together and start to identify as a people, as a culture, whether it’s from celebrating the heroes of the stories or the stories the heroes told. Or whether it’s from atoning for past injustices. The voices of musicians play an important part in shaping our identity as a people and in a country as divided as ours, we need that sense of commonality — that there is, in fact, an American culture and it’s in the stories and experiences that we share.”