Sunday, February 04, 2007

History and Sonny Til

Here’s how my dissertation is going: I am currently up to my neck writing the chapter that is on African-American vocal harmony groups. This is the music that will later turn into what we now call doo-wop. It originated from religious sources, like the jubilee quartet tradition, as well as secular groups like the Mills Brothers. Since the period of my dissertation ends in 1954, I am mostly concerned with the early wave of this post-war music, groups like the Orioles and the Clovers. I highly recommend, by the way, Stanley Goosman’s fascinating ethnography of vocal harmony’s roots in urban Baltimore and Washington, DC.

I am running into one philosophical problem, however. That problem is history. History is very important to me. Musicologists have problems with historicizing their research subjects. I can understand this, in many respects. Music of the classical canon is, after all, a living performance tradition. Almost all of us grew up playing and listening to classical music, and when we analyze it, our corporeal interaction with classical music as a living art invariably comes into play. Our own pleasures and entanglements guide our analyses. We talk about “wanting resolution,” as if our own desire for a cadence is a transhistorical desire. We listen quietly, we objectify, we conduct in our heads, we make charts, we label chords. None of it is historicized. I often joke that the closest analogy to musicology in some ways is theology. Many interpret historical texts not to know more about history, but to know how to perform in their current lives.

That’s perfectly fine, as far as it goes. But since I consider myself first and foremost a historian, it doesn’t quite cut it for me. Sure, history is useful for the present. I also consider myself an activist, and I chose my dissertation topic, McCarthyism, for its current political relevance in addition to its historical and musical interest. But it is an important part of my intellectual politics that you take history, and historical people, as seriously as you can, and on their own terms. Many of my colleagues have responded to this issue by analyzing the body transhistorically, assuming that if their own body performs a work a certain way, we can safely presume that an earlier body did as well--a friend of mine likes to write about the heaving bosoms of women playing the piano in Regency England, and one imagines that today bosoms still more or less heave the same way. Other friends of mine have responded by attempting to shape their own physical engagement by using various historical techniques to re-shape their bodily engagement, as for instance taking a historical dance class does, or using historically-informed instruments. All of these techniques sound good to me.

With recorded pop music, however, there is much less corporeal engagement to draw upon. And although you would think that the existence of sound reproduction would make doing history easier, it actually serves to heighten historical difference. To whit: one of the centerpieces of the chapter is a long analysis of the Orioles 1953 hit “Crying in the Chapel.” It was this song that drew me to the repertoire in the first place, it’s a really fabulous track. I bought the Orioles greatest hits last spring, liked a few songs, and cheerfully assumed that they were a great group. Now that I have known their career and music more thoroughly, I still think that.

But I have a problem. Sonny Til, the lead singer, was by all accounts a sexy man. He drove the crowd wild. He supposedly had an amazingly expressive voice, and he knew how to work the stage like nobody else. Panties were flung. Unfortunately, I just can’t hear it. I listen to their tracks over and over again. And I just can’t find him sexy. “Crying in the Chapel,” yes, that is sexy. But that is a late number, when pop music is going through the great cataclysmic shift towards the condition it still lives in today. The Orioles first huge hit was “It’s Too Soon to Know,” from 1948. And man, it is boring. I just cannot hear the sex appeal at all. I try to listen to the song while staring at pictures of the Orioles, and I don't see it. Same with almost all of their music. Turns out that those few tracks I liked idly last spring were the exception, not the rule.

So obviously I am running into the problem of doing history. People are different. Historical people were especially different. It is impossible to accurately feel the same response that those crowds in West Baltimore felt upon hearing this song. This historical difference is always present, but sometimes it is less pronounced. My chapter on John Cage, for instance, was quite easy to historicize. I share many attributes with Cage: we’re both white men, from California, less than heterosexual, and have a taste for avant-garde pretensions. These similarities, plus the fact that I have been engaged with his music and his biography for almost a decade, created a situation where I felt like I could accurately predict Cage’s emotional response to issues—and archival research almost always proved me right.

Sonny Till has neither of these conveniences. I share very little biographical affinity with a black guy from a poor neighborhood of Baltimore—and I have not been engaged with his music for nearly as long. Taking another step back, I guess this is part of the problem of doing a dissertation that looks at a number of disparate genres. Although my tight chronological focus means that I know a tremendous amount of cultural and historical context that I can apply to all of this music, I can’t get to know every single historical subject in my dissertation as well as I would like. Maybe for the book.

The solution? Guess I'll find out. Keep listening to the music, I suppose, and trust all those sources that say Sonny Til was a sexy man. Try to figure out what exactly made him sexy. I need to look at fashion magazines from the period, and the archives of Baltimore's old black newspaper The Afro-American, and old hairstyles, and publicity photos. Listen to as many obscure Baltimore groups as possible to see how the Orioles were different. Dig up accounts of their performances--at what exact point in the song were the panties flung? And then use this all to try and listen to his music differently. We’ll see how it goes.


Doug Gentry said...

Wouldn't it be fun to find someone who saw the Orioles in person? Maybe sexy is in the eye of the beholder, and there was a quality in Sonny's performance that doesn't come through the sanitized publicity photos.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I really underestand what it is you're to say here. I am sure that Sonny Til was sexy to some people in his day. Women through panties at Sonny Til because he was simply sexy to them. What more answer do you need. You are not that female and you are right it was a different time period and that should be enough for you to contemplate. I saw Sonny Til perform and for me he is a very romantic singer and through his songs conveys love and the loss of love and yes he seems like a man who is or can be sexy to women. At any rate you can hear some of these great songs on my radio show heard on the internet every Tuesday night from 6pm to 8pm on (east coast time USA) Yours, Rockin' Richard Phillips (p.s. I am very sexy also)

Caroline said...

I was also confused by parts of this post. I think the beginning and end are great: I do music HISTORY, this is how I'm going to approach this writing-about-history problem I've encountered.

The relationship between writing about history and you finding someone attractive, I don't understand. You would never write "Sonny Til is attractive to me because...", but rather "women found him attractive because." Since this is what you're doing, why does it matter if you find him attractive?

Maybe it's a guy thing.

BBound said...

Ah, I see the way to provoke discussion on my blog is to write muddily! It's true, it is not crucial that I myself find Sonny Till attractice--although I did actually mean to say that it is not so much that I find him unattractive, but that it is hard to imagine him provoking the particular reception he got, namely the sexualized frenzy.

I worry about this, I guess, because my larger problem with this period is that I, like every other musicologist who studies music immediately after WWII cannot help but find a lot of the music boring. And that is definitely not historicization. But I can't help liking popular music more and more as it gets closer to rock and roll. And since one of the main goals of my project is to argue against reading this music teleologically, I want to do my best not to listen to it teleologically.

But that's really hard, I am finding! And Richard, I will definitely check out your show.

sushipjs said...

Boy do I feel you on this one; however, I would expand the historical dimension to a more broad reading. How do we understand subjects that are not only historical but from a completely different habitus, country, etc...? I went to a concert last saturday by one of the subjects of my dissertation and, let me tell you, nothing was as scary as not comprehending fan reactions. "Why are they going nuts here and not before? Why is half the audience angry? What's going on?"

The only thing that keeps me from losing all hope is something that the outside member of my committee once said about his own experiences with research. The instant that he was able to accurately predict the answer to a new question, he knew it was time to move on. In his eyes, knowing a musical cultue so well that he could fully anticipate answers without any additional research meant that he had stopped formulating good questions. And this happened many years after he finished his dissertation. I keep returning to this when I don't understand something about my own project. It means that there is still work to do...

Anonymous said...

I hope you were able to resolve your problems. If you want to evaluate Sonny & the Orioles, you may need more than a "greatest hits" CD. Any arbitrary list of 10 songs is probably not enough to understand the group that stood as a beacon and benchmark for so many vocal harmony groups who followed. You certainly have to listen to "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" until you can appreciate the song that was an anthem for doo wop fans, on a par with the Drifters' White Christmas. Every Dog-Gone Time and Moonlight are 2 other songs where Sonny made love to the microphone, as music historian Marv Goldberg said.

Every Dog-Gone Time & Moonlight are below.

Always envision that scene of Sonny & the microphone, and Sonny's sex appeal may become clearer. I compare it to Sam Cooke's appeal with the Soul Stirrers. Sam went more uptempo because he was utilizing all the tools of gospel, but the female reaction has been called rapture, a kind of religious orgasm. Sonny's world was secular, but the experience was like bobby-soxers for Sinatra.

Also, I think you have to travel back in time. First, you need to visualize the right pictures. This will give you a better glimpse of Sonny. It is also from Marv Goldberg.

You probably have to recall the music of the time to appreciate Sonny. '40s music was mellow. The Orioles broke the pattern of fast side-slow side and frequently put 2 ballads on a 78. They did it because it worked for them. The big-band sound was gone or going, and the human voice was now preeminent, in part because of the musicians' strikes. The group was experimenting with bass lines and soaring tenors, which would result in doo wop, but the girls were there to see and hear Sonny. I find it easier to understand Sonny's magnetism than Frank Sinatra's. Both had great voices and knew how to use them, but Sonny seemed like a man compared to Frank's baby-faced little-boy image, impish as it was.

Marv's bio on the group follows.

Anonymous said...

I remember exactly the time and the mood when Sonny Til and The Orioles (the originals) were in their heydey.
They set a fashion trend for us the local people: when they came to town,they always had something new that was a fashion statement to the black community; so after you saw the show,you knew what you wanted to do with your wardrobe. Popular music from that era offered no sex appeal that I can recall. Its very simple, listen again to any of their slow romantic ballads and try to imagine how many women had sex and orgasms while listening to the orioles. "Lets Sit Under The Apple Tree" and "How Much Is That Doggy In The window" won't get it in the bedroom. If you cant dig what Im telling you - maybe you just aint tan my man!