More Country

Sources of country musicThomas Hart Benton, The sources of Country music (1975).

Three chords and the truth—Harlan Howard

Do you know what the southern definition of a true music lover is?
It’s a man who, if he hears a woman singing in the shower, puts his ear to the keyhole—cited in Dawidoff, In the country of country.

Complementing his classic series on jazz, the new PBS series by Ken Burns on the simpler but equally meaningful language of Country music reminds us that far from being a quaint byway, it represents the soul of modern US culture. The eight two-hour episodes have been re-edited and pared down into nine 50-minute programmes for BBC4. [1] Now that I’ve watched the latter, I’m keen to see the full version. Here I can only outline a few of the themes and personalities.

If you know about Country, then you won’t be reading this, and indeed you may bring more critical perspectives to bear on Burns’s portrayal; but for the rest of us, it deserves taking seriously. Here’s a trailer:

As with any genre (Aboriginal dream songs, Iranian chamber music, French baroque, and so on), you just have to immerse yourself in the style and the culture (for a more detailed project on flamenco, see the amazing series Rito y geografia del cante).

With Peter Coyote’s distinctive voiceover, the series judiciously blends interviews and performances with lingering photos, encompassing the personal and political, artistic and commercial, poverty and pain, ecstasy and drudge, church and honky-tonks, domestic stability and outlaw excess, survival and solace. Looking beyond the hillbilly costumes and cowboy hats to the heartache, amidst all the drink, drugs, divorces, early deaths, and the ravages of the touring life, Burns accessibly draws us to the lyrics and music, always identifying themes in the history of cultural transmission, and the very nature of tradition.

Gradually over the series, the early log cabins, railroads, coal mines, textile mills, timber yards, and sharecroppers give way to mansions and Cadillacs. And as one review comments, you can almost trace the history in the performers’ faces: the lean lines of the early stars such as Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, giving way to the gnarled faces of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, and then the soft, untroubled faces of the ’80s and ’90s stars. But to see it as “a simple journey from the sublime to the ridiculous” risks succumbing to the bourgeois nostalgia for poverty.

Despite the later countrypolitan sounds, audiences constantly returned to the roots authenticity of old-time, bluegrass, hillbilly. Female performers play an exceptional role, such as The Carters, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, Rosanne Cash, and Emmylou Harris.

oldies

The Rub (beginnings to 1933) makes a captivating opening, with wonderful archive photos evocatively deployed. Folk music is always eclectic. Spreading through barn dances and travelling medicine shows, the history of Country is intertwined with gospel and spirituals, slavery and the blues, as well as folk traditions of Appalachia and European migrants, notably the British Isles. Though Country has been described as “the white man’s soul music”, the series acknowledges its debt to African-American culture. In addition to the new technologies of phonographs and radio, it soon became a highly commercial proposition, with patronage from institutions like the National Life and Accident Insurance Company and its WSM station, which gave rise to the long-running Grand Ole Opry. Among early performers, the 1927 discovery of the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers was a seminal moment.

In Hard Times (1933–1945) (“The sad songs are the best”), the industry continues to grow through the Great Depression and World War Two, with major migrations. The Texas Swing of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys was based on strings rather than horns—a classic case of the eclectic melting-pot of immigrant styles (Cajun, Hispanic, and so on) (cf. Accordion crimes). Nashville becomes the heart of the scene with the rise of the Grand Ole Opry. Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe are admired, and the Carter family become ever more popular. The steel guitar plays a growing role. Social dancing is still a major element.

Why don’t Baptists make love standing up?
Because people would think they’re dancing.

Country helped people cope with loss. Hard times was adopted from Stephen Foster’s 1854 parlor song:

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears
While we all sup sorrow with the poor
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears
Oh hard times come again no more

Tis the song, the sigh of the weary
Hard times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door
Oh hard times come again no more

While we seek mirth and beauty and music bright and gay
There are frail forms fainting at the door
Though their voices are silent, their pleding looks will say
Oh hard times come again no more

’Tis the song, the sigh of the weary
Hard times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door
Oh hard times come again no more

’Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave
Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
Oh hard times come again no more

Hank and Holly

Hank Williams and his granddaughter Holly.

The Hillbilly Shakespeare (1945–1953) evokes the postwar period, focusing on the great, short-lived Hank Williams, with fine vignettes from his granddaughter Holly, and Marty Stuart reminding us of the importance of black musicians in the tradition. Also featured are the stellar bluegrass lineup of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs; and the Carter sisters with their mother Maybelle.

Carters

In I Can’t Stop Loving You (1953–1963), the confluence of blues and hillbilly music at Sun Records in Memphis gives birth to rockabilly, the precursor of rock and roll; at the forefront are Johnny Cash (with comments from his daughter Rosanne) and Elvis Presley. Not “Walking the Line”, Johnny Cash gets together with June Carter. Among the rapt inmates for his 1959 concert at San Quentin was Merle Haggard. Like Russians listening to Vladimir Vysotsky, when they heard him they couldn’t believe that Cash hadn’t done time in prison.

Meanwhile in Nashville the country twang was replaced by a smoother sound, with Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn among its stars. Before Patsy Cline’s tragic death in 1963, there’s a nice story about how they reached the perfect tempo for her recording of Willie Nelson’s song Crazy, whose exceptional melodic and harmonic invention quite transcends the cheesy accompaniment:

In The Sons and Daughters of America (1964–1968), the Grand Ole Opry story continues, even as social conflict intensifies. Johnny Cash embodies the spirit of the age, his self-destruction mirroring his artistic triumphs. From the new East coast folk revival scene he took on board the current of social protest; his admiration for Bob Dylan was mutual. His 1968 Folsom Prison concert was a triumph. Merle Haggard (“San Quentin graduate”, another engaging commentator throughout the series; he died in 2016, R.I.P) emerges from his misspent youth as a great singer.

Amidst the civil rights movement (note also Detroit 67), Charley Pride overcomes racial prejudice with his fine voice. The unfiltered songs of Loretta Lynn chime with the new wave of Women’s Liberation. Dolly Parton, fourth of twelve children from a rural cabin without electricity or running water (the kind of CV that was still de reigueur for that generation of singers), demands to be taken seriously—despite joining a select group of strong women reluctant to acknowledge the boons of feminism.

Tammy and Loretta

Tammy Wynette with Loretta Lynn.

The story continues in Will the Circle Be Unbroken? (1968–1972). As the Vietnam War intensifies, the industry and its audience react to divisive social upheavals. George Jones and Tammy Wynette get together. Despite Tammy’s submissive Stand by your man, she didn’t—by contrast with the tough-talking songs of Loretta Lynn, who did; as Jennie Seely comments “I always kinda thought they wrote each other’s songs.”

Among a growing number of Country recruits from outside the archetypal deprived rural background was Kris Kristofferson. Several singer-songwriters pay tribute to his exceptional lyrics, such as Casey’s last ride:

Casey joins the hollow sound of silent people walking down
The stairway to the subway in the shadows down below;
Following their footsteps through the neon-darkened corridors
Of silent desperation, never speakin’ to a soul.

The poison air he’s breathin’ has the dirty smell of dying
‘Cause it’s never seen the sunshine and it’s never felt the rain.
But Casey minds the arrows and ignores the fatal echoes
Of the clickin’ of the turnstiles and the rattle of his chains.

 Oh! she said, Casey it’s been so long since I’ve seen you!
Here she said, just a kiss to make a body smile!
See she said, I’ve put on new stockings just to please you!
Lord! she said, Casey can you only stay a while?

As he explains, his song Bobby McGee (Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waitin’ for a train, And I’s feelin’ near as faded as my jeans…) was inspired by La strada. Johnny Cash was hugely popular, and increasingly countercultural. And the Californian hippies of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recruited senior Country legends like Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, and Roy Acuff for an album that bridged the gap between generations.

In Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way? (1973–1983) (a sentiment that recalls Taruskin) opens by asking a question central to ethnomusicology, how much change a genre can embrace while retaining its identity; and reminds us how resistant Country had always been to arbitrary borders. As the smooth countrypolitan sound reaches new audiences, singers like Dolly Parton achieve crossover success, finding time for the classic epithet

It cost a lot of money to look this cheap.

And Emmylou Harris, with her background in the East Coast folk scene, tells how she found herself by becoming a convert to Country. At the same time, despite pressures from the Nashville bosses, Waylon Jennings managed to persist with a rougher style. And we hear the compelling story of Hank Williams Jr as he emerges from the long shadow of his godlike father to forge his own path (exemplified in his brilliant song Family tradition!)—with further endearing comments from his daughter Holly.

Marty and L Flatt

Lester Flatt with Marty Stuart.

In Music will get through (1973–1983) the less mediated, marginalized bluegrass style enjoys a roots revival: “It was so old that it was new”. It had never gone away, it just hadn’t hit the headlines. Marty Stuart, who provides thoughtful comments throughout the series, comes into his own as a fine performer, touring from young with Lester Flatt and Bill Monroe, and later with Johnny Cash. I’m struck by how much performers themselves revere the whole tradition:

Walking into the Grand Ole Opry with Lester Flatt was like walking into the Vatican with the Pope. It was like that old scene in The Wizard of Oz where the world went from black-and-white to color.

Nelson and Haggard

Merle Haggard with Willie Nelson.

The veteran Maybelle Carter finds a new audience; George Jones and Tammy Wynette, now divorced, come back for a reunion album. Willie Nelson (“Willie’s not from round here—I mean, Earth”) thrived in the freewheeling, genre-bending scene of the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas. With Waylon Jennings he launched the Outlaw movement, later going on to work with Merle Haggard.

Following in her father’s footsteps, Rosanne Cash becomes a fine singer-songwriter. Emmylou Harris bridged folk, rock, and Country, influencing a new generation of artists, including young Ricky Skaggs, with all his bluegrass credentials.

As doors continue to open, the final programme, Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’ (1984–1996) features artists like Reba McEntire, Naomi Juggs and her daughter Wynnona; k.d. lang (“a punk reincarnation of Patsy Cline”), Kathy Mattea, Rhiannon Gid, and megastar Garth Brooks.

Cashes

Johnny Cash with Rosanne.

But the pull of the more traditional elements still remains strong. Ricky Skaggs and Marty Stuart stay faithful to the bluegrass sound of Bill Monroe, taking Country back to the front porch. Johnny Cash reinvents himself, bowing out on a high note, with Rosanne offering more insights. The series concludes with a wonderful montage on the whole tradition.

And the story continues…

My purpose here, apart from drawing your attention to a fine piece of film-making, is not so much to provide a superfluous summary as to remind myself, in the spirit of ethnomusicology, that all the musickings of all the cultures around the world deserve to be treated on an equal footing, and that they offer a revealing window on societies in change.

 

[1] Currently online, alas only briefly, so catch it while you can; otherwise, the DVDs are eminently worth buying. The book, like that complementing Burns’s series on jazz, also looks tempting. Among many reviews far better informed than I can offer, see e.g. here and here. Among the extensive literature (note Malone and Neal, Country Music, U.S.A.), I’ve enjoyed re-reading Nicholas Dawidoff, In the country of country: a journey to the roots of American music (1997).

 

A flamenco Christmas

Xmas 1

As a relief from the seasonal bombardment of tinsel, schmaltz, and sprouts, you can’t beat a flamenco Christmas in Andalucia.

I featured the Navidad flamenco programme from the brilliant documentary series Rito y geografia del canto in my article on gender, politics, wine, and deviance, but a separate post seems timely—and like this recent addition to my series on flamenco, it bears on the wonders of inter-generational family upbringing.

Filmed with all the characteristic intimacy of the series, the episode features shots of customary life (“not suitable for vegetarians”) and the making of the zambomba friction drum that accompanies villancicos carols; as well as a fantastic Christmas bulerías session featuring the Soto family in Jerez, with the children taking their turns to sing:

For saeta devotional songs at Easter, see Calendrical rituals, and under Cante jondo.

Growing into flamenco

After recent excursions into other genres of musicking around the world (Iran, Uyghur, Hélène Grimaud, Noh, Polish jazz, and so on), it’s always wonderful to come back to the Rito y geografia del cante series on flamenco—what a great achievement it was!

I gave a roundup of my posts on flamenco here. We might also incorporate it into our consideration of improvisation. Many of the programmes in the Rito series focus on bulerías. I’ve already explored this genre in some detail, but the programme Fiesta gitana deserves a separate post.

It features several lengthy sequences in the setting of a bodega: the Utrera sisters (regularly featured in the series), with Miguel Funi, accompanied by Pedro Bacán; the Perrata family, with some fabulous dancing, accompanied by Pedro Peña; Manolo Jero, Juan Morao, Juana la del Pipa, and Tío Borrico; and El Chozas. And for rhythms, don’t miss the sequence (from 21.05) at a cooperage in Jerez (cf. martinetes)!

But most exhilarating is the street scene near the opening (from 1.26) with young flamencos in Seville. How wonderful to grow up in such an environment, surrounded by (and receptive to) the domestic culture of one’s family elders, a world of pain and joy—singing, clapping, dancing, and guitar all one seamless whole. Another genre to consider along with those in Growing into music!

Indeed, the series devoted a whole programme to young flamencos. Niños Cantaores features enchanting vignettes: (from 5.45) Antonio de la Marena singing seguiriyas accompanied by guitarist Moraito, (from 9.36) comments from Carmen Montoya introducing bulerías and rumbas featuring her daughter Carmellila, (from 19.37) Manuel Morao introducing his son Manuel Moreno Pantoja, and (from 26.09) Luisa Peña Soto’s daughter La Macanita, with comments from Camarón (himself part of some great family scenes towards the end of this post):

With the filming matching the majesty of the subject, the point is not stardom but the whole environment of domestic and street culture.

See also A flamenco Christmas.

Mary Lou Williams

 

MLW

Laudably, in his fine BBC Radio 3 series Composer of the week Donald Macleod often features female composers and performers (Hildegard of BingenÉlisabeth Jacquet de La GuerreLili Boulanger, Meredith Monk, to name but a few; see also The T-shirt), who have been generally neglected. In jazz, female singers have featured more prominently than female composers and instrumentalists; so last week’s programmes (here) on Mary Lou Williams (1910–81) are all the more welcome.

From the Composer of the week website:

A prolific composer and arranger, she was also a gifted pianist. A master of blues, boogie woogie, stride, swing and be-bop, Williams was quick to absorb the prevailing musical currents in her own music, naturally able to exploit her ability to play anything she heard around her. It is this restless musical curiosity that defines her own compositions, and led her to become friends with and mentor many younger musicians, among them Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie.

Born around 1910 in Atlanta, Georgia, Williams grew up in Pittsburgh, where she had to overcome racial segregation, gender discrimination and the disadvantages of an impoverished family to realise her musical ambitions. Learning to play entirely by ear, she was performing locally by age six. Barely into her teens she was touring professionally as a pianist, living proof that—contrary to the prevailing views—women really could play jazz as well as men. But her artistic success came at some personal cost, with instances of domestic abuse, two divorces, a gambling addiction, and the ongoing strain of trying to support her extended family, all taking its toll over the years. After taking a spiritual path, she spent some years trying to rehabilitate addicted musicians, and developed an interest in writing sacred jazz pieces, and after a long career of some sixty years she took on the mantle of educating future generations about the cultural roots of jazz.

Over the course of the week Donald Macleod follows Mary Lou Williams as her life and musical pathways intertwine, from the early years playing Kansas City swing, to embracing be-bop, religion and modern jazz.

When she was around three years old, sitting on her mother’s lap as she played the harmonium, suddenly Mary Lou Williams reached up and replicated exactly what she’d just heard her mother do. It was a defining moment. Williams’ future had just been decided, and in her own words, “I never left the piano after that.”

MLW
The Composer of the week survey features a variety of fine music, with her style constantly evolving. Programme 4, “Music for the soul”, explores her spiritual epiphany—complementing that of John and Alice Coltrane—with works such as Hymn to St Martin de Porres and Mary Lou’s Mass—note the 1964 Folkways album Black Christ of the Andes. And here’s a Greatest Hits album:

See also the documentary Mary Lou Williams: the lady who swings the band (Carol Bash, 2015)—trailer here:

 

Meredith Monk

MM

Pursuing my New York theme, another great female composer on the splendid T-shirt is Meredith Monk (b.1942).

Donald Macleod’s ever-engaging coverage on BBC Radio 3’s Composers of the week makes a useful introduction; see also this appreciation from Tom Service. Here’s an extensive playlist:

Some tracks I like:

Porch (1970):

Songs of ascension (2008):

Hocket (1990) (cf. here):

Here’s a playlist for her opera Atlas (1991):

Monk’s sound world has affinities not only with minimalism (cf. here, and here) but with folk and early music. Apart from music, theatre, and dance, her work in film is also striking. Here’s an excerpt from Book of days (1988):

And to complement my Halloween post, here’s Scared song (1986):

I love the way New York (and indeed London) has room for this kind of thing alongside Blondie, Madonnapunk, and so on—genre-bending, always dissolving boundaries.

Some remarkable female vocalists feature prominently in my Playlist of songs, such as Nina Hagen, Barbara Hannigan and Enza Pagliara.

 

 

Two guttural vocalists

While Private passions is generally more satisfying (see e.g. the contributions of Philippe Sands, Tanita Tikaram, and Vesna Goldsworthy), episodes from Desert island discs led me to two remarkable vocalists. [Note: author’s source for popular culture appears to derive almost entirely from the demure echelons of the BBC—Ed.]

Gary Kasparov’s selection led me to the Russian actor and singer Vladimir Vysotsky (1938–90):

WOW. As the wiki article comments:

With his songs—in effect, miniature theatrical dramatizations (usually with a protagonist and full of dialogues), Vysotsky instantly achieved such level of credibility that real life former prisoners, war veterans, boxers, footballers refused to believe that the author himself had never served his time in prisons and labor camps, or fought in the War, or been a boxing/football professional.

How could the Soviet system encompass such alternative performance culture, when nothing remotely so challenging emerged in China until after the demise of Maoism? This playlist contains many searing songs from him. Just as Nina Hagen makes me want to work on my German, Visotsky makes me want to learn Russian.

Meanwhile I’m grateful to the brilliant Elif Shafak for introducing me to the Canadian singer Alissa White-Gluz with the Swedish “melodic death metal” band (another instance of the subtle taxonomy of popular music!) Arch enemy:

More material here for Voices of the world

Northern soul 北靈

YSR

Inspired by Detroit 67, I’ve been reading

  • Stuart Cosgrove, Young soul rebels: a personal history of northern soul (2016).

In all kinds of wonderful ways, this book does my head in. [1]

Quite rightly, devotees of northern soul will be underwhelmed if I describe it as a diachronic ethnography based on participant observation—which is just what it is, like some of the great works of ethnomusicology…

Cosgrove captures the buzz of his addiction:

Saturday passed slowly as I browsed around local market stalls. The night slowly fell and we walked through the backstreets of Stoke along cobbled terraces. The army of leather feet resonated like a drum solo, building percussion in our speeding heads and raising the adrenaline of anticipation. A swell of people hung by the door of what looked like a wartime cinema, and a blackout curtain seemed to have closed across the north of England. It was virtually impossible to make out faces or detail; everything was sound. A pounding noise escaped through the doorway and the wild screeching sound of saxophones pushed through the fire escapes, desperate for air. We paid at the ticket booth, but even in the foyer, an intense heat much like an industrial oven scorched through the thick aggressive air, and the noise was so pure, so fearless and so commanding, it dragged you inwards into a scrum of lurching bodies: hot, wet, and demonic. This was in every respect the Devil’s music, and I had travelled hundreds of miles from home to sip with the deranged serpents that slithered so gracefully on the floor. There was no going back. No music later in life would ever touch its uniqueness, no rock concert could match its energy, and no rave could come close to its latent illegality. This was northern soul: the reason they invented youth.

Themes
Of all the diverse tribes of popular music, this scene is just as alien to me (and, I surmise, to Alan Bennett) as the spirit mediums of Guangxi are to a scholar trained at a Beijing conservatoire (for China, I broach the issue of insider/outsider status here, here, and here).

Ethnomusicologists like Nettl and Small highlight music as a social activity, and McClary valorizes the physical, bodily response to music as a caveat to the cerebral, disembodied, “autonomous” bias of WAM.

Basic to the northern soul experience were the all-nighters hosted by clubs throughout the north. They may evoke the “red-hot sociality” of festivals worldwide; but such club scenes also broaden our picture, in that live music is subsidiary. At the heart of northern soul was live dancing, athletic and technical—amazing dancers like car mechanic Frankie “Booper” New, at the Torch:

It was as if NASA had invented a device that could drill into the surface of the moon, and the device was a sixteen-stone guy from Widnes.

Some visiting live bands made memorable appearances, but recorded music was more common. After all, a multitude of bands, often inspired by old blues records, were being formed (not least in the north), creating all kinds of new music; but here the point was not to try and form your own soul band—the fetish for rare Motown discs was sacred. Nor did club-goers care to keep pace with the ever-changing tastes of black Americans, for whom both blues and soul were mere staging posts in a constantly evolving scene.

Thus DJing assumed a crucial role (akin to that of the conductor?), with fanatical, driven DJs like Ian Levine and Ian Dewhirst. Another basic element was the amphetamine scene. While not hesitating to depict its squalor (the Wigan toilets “resembling a war zone”), Cosgrove naturally refrains from moralistic prurience. Andy Wilson, a northern soul pioneer from Harrogate who spent much of his formative years at Wigan Casino, going on to become senior lecturer in Criminology at Trent University, “is now an expert in drug subcultures. He always was”. A model of participant observation, then.

Obscurity and obsession
Alongside the sweaty hedonism of northern soul, just as important was the craving for obscurity—not just any obscurity, like seeking out early blues, but “rare soul”—rougher, less polished than the mainstream Motown sound. Even the origin of the term “northern soul” itself, commonly attributed to Dave Godin, is somewhat arcane (pp.25–6).

Cosgrove lovingly details the nerdiness of the scene: “compiling lists and recording obscure detail is part of the everyday autism of northern soul”. OCD was rife. He even provides a suitably nerdy Glossary.

One of the cardinal rules of the northern soul scene is a respect for obscurity and those who die young. […] Northern soul cherishes its role as savior of the neglected—rescuing some acts from being almost wholly forgotten while plucking others from semi-obscurity and giving them the status of gods.

Ill-fated singers like Linda Jones and Darrell Banks were idolized. Cosgrove also pays tribute to some of the casualties within northern soul itself.

He notes, and shares, the jihad mentality, “the Hezbollah rituals that defined the scene”:

Eclectic tastes were rarely tolerated on the northern soul scene, which by the mid seventies was hardening into a zealous sect with its own strict rules. […]

One night, a DJ was brought in front of the crowd charged with playing a Bowie record; he was given a stern warning and a second chance, but there was a noisy faction on the committee who wanted him hounded through the streets in sackcloth and then burned at the stake outside H Samuel. I was among that zealous throng and I have not mellowed since.

Northern soul devotees shared a virulent aversion to the mainstream as embodied in Top of the pops; they were creating their own charts. Meanwhile in a parallel universe, Morris dancing was enjoying a revival, and my own nerdy tastes were for Boulez and Zen scriptures. The northern soul collectors remind me rather of scholars poring over the cataloguing systems of the Daoist Canon, or WAM bores who can’t help citing Köchel numbers.

At a certain remove from the quest of Oxbridge academics for neglected Renaissance church music, northern soul addicts were on a different kind of “early music” craze. Trapped in a mythical past, they were also on a constant quest for new material from that past.

Cosgrove notes the importance of rail and road networks (“You can go everywhere from Wigan train station”, as DJ Richard Searling commented), the impact of immigration, and the scene’s distinctive fashion sense. Chapter 7, elegantly titled “Soul not dole” after a Doncaster club, explores the effects of the miners’ strike, with the story of pit closures running in tandem with the high points of northern soul. There’s a cameo for Grimethorpe, whose brass band was to be immortalized in the film Brassed off. And the heyday of northern soul coincided with the Yorkshire Ripper’s reign of terror.

Unlike punk, which was more openly anti-authoritarian, the northern soul scene has often been written about as if it “floated free” from the politics of the day, but the reverse is true. The northern soul scene was rooted in the industrial towns and cities of Britain, which across the arch of time faced unprecedented waves of deindustrialization.

The book has more on the relation with punk:

Britain’s two greatest subcultures had much in common. Both were underground and frequently misunderstood. Northern soul had grown up organically across a period of ten years since the height of the first-generation Mods and was a subculture that was more authentically the product of young people themselves, often hiding from authority, dodging the drug squad and attending self-managed clubs that were only sparsely advertised. Punk was largely contrived and skillfully managed in part by [Malcolm] McLaren, driven by his genuine love of New York garage bands and an opportunistic interest in anarchism and the Situationist movement.

He cites Paul Mason: “we were using the black industrial music of the late sixties to say something about our white industrial lives in the seventies”. I think also of the intriguing Finnish affinity for tango.

Though—like Daoist recluses—the northern soul crowd prided themselves on shunning outside attention, the scene was soon discovered by media moguls like Tony Palmer, whose 1977 film This England: Wigan Casino divided opinion:

Echoing Alan Bennett’s lament, Palmer

added smouldering furnaces, decaying coalfields and derelict canals—overwrought historical imagery that the citizens of Wigan had long since tired of.

But amidst ongoing debate over “purists not tourists”, the Casino soon became a casualty of economic recession.

Cosgrove’s passion for the music is always evident too:

If the beginning of the night was hectic, the end was emotionally more subdued: it was regretful, solemn, almost elegiac. By 1973, it had become established practice that all-nighters would finish with “3 before 8”: these were three soul songs to mark the end of the night, played as the clock reached 8am and the morning light sliced through the skylight windows in the decaying roofs of the Casino.

Discussing them in sequence, he gives pride of place to the second-to-last song in the set, Tobi Legend’s “Time will pass you by”:

Venues
The chapters describe the heydays of the legendary clubs in turn. In the early days they came up against another kind of fundamentalist, James Anderton (“God’s copper”), with his moral crusade to clean up Manchester. The Twisted Wheel there became “the template by which all subsequent northern soul clubs were judged: the intense atmosphere, the rare soul music and the extravagant dancers”. It was succeeded by the Golden Torch Ballroom, a converted cinema in the suitably obscure venue of Tunstall, near Stoke-on-Trent:

The interior of the Torch also told a story of change, not least the collapse of traditional religion and the rise of youth culture. It was a small hall with marble pillars and a balcony overlooking the wooden dance floor. It had started out as a church, before becoming a roller-skating rink and, in the immediate post-war period, morphing into the Little Regent Cinema. Local soul fan and businessman Chris Burton changed its use again and it became a Mod club, and then eventually an all-nighter whose influence stretched across the Potteries, to Lancashire in the north and the Midlands to the south.

Many clubs

aped the patterns of older working-class institutions—electing committees and treasurers, and holding nights in fading workers’ clubs, miners’ welfares and industrial social clubs.

Next the baton was taken by Wigan Casino and Blackpool Mecca, with their musical policies competing. Describing the rise and fall of seaside venues, their decline complementing the rise of foreign package holidays, Cosgrove gives an evocative portrayal of Blackpool, “a wonderland of donkey rides, kiss-me-quick hats and venereal disease”.

He sings the praises of the all-nighters at the Top of the World in Stafford, a late flourishing of the scene from 1982 to 1986, and serving as a bridge between the warring factions. By now he had moved on to a media career, joining the drift to London—a city pithily described by a friend as “just like Barnsley but with more wankers”. He continued to collect rare soul:

After a few days in Washington DC I had perfected a modus operandi that has served me well over many years in America. Written down on paper, it sounds like the machinations of a serial killer, but here goes…

In Birmingham, Alabama he has an epiphany as he discovers a rare copy of the DC Blossoms’ “Hey Boy” (Shrine, 1966) in an inauspicious-looking store minded by an inscrutable assistant:

For northern soul collectors there is nothing more visceral than a “find”. A sudden surge more emotional than meeting an old friend, more powerful than an away goal, and more satisfying than sex itself. I stared in wonder at the light blue label and the iconic burning Shrine logo. I checked for vinyl cracks and deep scratches, but whatever its wandering history, the disc was virtually pristine and had survived its orphan years with no damage. The paint that had splashed over it like semen on a truck driver’s T-shirt had stained the sleeve, but the record itself was flawless. It was a moment of sheer unadulterated joy. I had an uncontrollable urge to snatch the Kool cigarette from the woman’s hands, kiss her peachy lips, rip off her velour pants and make urgent love to her over the cash register. But sense prevailed. I calmly gave her another dollar bill and waited obediently for my fifty cents change. As she handed me the loose coins, her lips curled into a chubby smile, and she gave me the most generous grin I’d seen in three days in Alabama. It had the look of post-coital ecstasy—the look of true love.

Of course, as he notes, northern soul collectors were far from alone. Such initiatives had

a hundred-year history of collectors and black-music pioneers scouring the backwoods of America, visiting brutal prisons, outdoor chain gangs and hidden rural villages, searching for blues performers and for early recordings. […] Northern soul was not the unique leader I had imagined; it was part of a long legacy of trying to collect and catalogue the very best of the African-American heritage from jazz, to blues, and on to soul.

In 2009, just as Frank Wilson’s “Do I love you” came up for auction,

the National Gallery of Scotland had secured the £50 million it needed to prevent Titian’s 16th-century masterpiece Diana and Actaeon being sold at auction. Fearing that Kenny Burrell’s copy of Frank Wilson would also leave Scotland, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek feature for the Sunday Times arguing that northern soul was as worthy of public investment as high art: “Comparing a soul record to a masterpiece by Titian will seem ludicrous to the uninitiated. But leave aside the mores, prejudices and snob value that separate high art and popular culture, and the strange world of northern soul bears very deep similarities with art. Both are driven by collectors who are fixated by rarity, authenticity and the provenance of their collections. So far, both have also resisted the pressure of recession and the value of collections has either increased or held strong. Words like rare, original and limited edition exist in both communities. Respected dealers existed in both worlds and auctions are a familiar mode of transaction. Art and soul share a culture where fakes, bootlegs and shady attempts to replicate the look of original works are not uncommon.”

Cosgrove mentions the multitude of new underground subcultures, like warehouse parties, the Carolina beach scene, the Chicano low-rider scene, and the rare groove scene in London—where the 100 Club also played a major role.

By the millennium, there was a new and lasting schism within northern soul, the latest division in a series of civil wars: those who wanted to look back to the grand days of the past and saw northern as a revivalist and reunion scene; and those clubs that kept the torch burning and insisted on new discoveries and an upfront music policy. Each new era brought with it ever more demanding clubs. […] Many thousands of people who had drifted away from northern soul returned to swell the ranks of new faces who had discovered the music via the scooter scene and still more who had lasted the journey and never left.

The final chapter, opening with the excellent quote

Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born,

describes how social and digital technology has given the scene a new lease of life—YouTube, Facebook groups (where he notes in particular “I used to Go to Stafford All-Nighters”, a veritable popular history project), Mixcloud, and so on.

For all his fundamentalism, Cosgrove admires the new generation:

Younger and brasher than the survivors on the scene, are passionately engaged in the scene and its origins, but have a healthy disregard for its arcane rules: the chin stroking, the soul police regulations and the grumpy insistence that yesterday was always better. […]

The worldwide web has been kind to northern soul. What was once a scene restricted to cardboard boxes and wooden crates in a few obscure clubs is now a global phenomenon, and the footprint that was restricted to a few hundred miles of the industrial north of England now has worldwide reach.

Popular all-nighters now sprung up in Germany, Spain, and Japan (cf. the punk scene in Beijing).

Fran

Fran Franklin.

As to gender, while many female singers from the Motown heyday were worshipped by aficionados (as long as they weren’t too well-known), there were few female DJs, and we find little portrayal of the lives of female dancers—like the young Pat Wall from Rochdale, an early denizen of the Twisted Wheel:

While swimming, she would imagine the body turn at the end of a length as part of a dance routine and would simulate the northern soul “swallow dive”. She often practised in the kitchen of her mum’s council house, mastering the smooth sliding style across uneven linoleum, and within a matter of weeks she would compete with any of the Twisted Wheel’s young men. Her dance trucks were mesmerising and her unassuming smile, whispering the lyrics as if she were praying, as if there were no greater music in the world, made her stand out in a crowd of older and brasher men.”

Another regular on the scene was none other than Jane Torvill, who described her 1984 Boléro at the 1984 Winter Olympics as “the dance of my life”—but as Cosgrove gleefully observes, “that had already happened nearly ten years earlier on the floor of Blackpool Mecca’s Highland Room.”

As the obscure civil war raged, a more benign figure on the scene was Mary Chapman, who hosted events at Cleethorpes Pier—also including a 1976 appearance of the Sex Pistols as the moral panic over punk exploded. And the much-loved Fran Franklin (1961–2014) gives perceptive insights in documentary footage. More recently, female DJs have become important on the scene.

On film
As usual, however evocatively one writes about music (or ritual), it’s still a compromise: silent immobile text can never approach the sensation of the lived experience (cf. China). Among myriad finds on YouTube, following Tony Palmer’s 1977 This England, try

  • Paul Mason’s tribute Northern soul: keeping the faith (BBC, 2013):

  • Northern Soul: living for the weekend (BBC, 2014; some breaks in sound):

Note also Ian Levine’s YouTube channel.

* * *

I’m rather envious that they coined the term northern soul 北靈 before I could use it for the ritual groups of Hebei and Shanxi, but ethnographies like this can inspire us (obscurely, as ever) in documenting pilgrimage networks and temple fairs in China. Echoing northern soul aficionados’ aversion to the mainstream, I essayed an arcane Strictly spinoff here.

And as I write, I also delight in the wondrous Bach orchestral suites in a live broadcast from the Proms, alternating with new compositions inspired by them. Though from an utterly different social milieu, devotees of Bach—whether amateur concert-goers or nerdy professors poring over manuscripts and watermarks—have more in common with the early music movement of the northern soul scene than one might think. Up to a point…

 

[1] Apart from numerous websites, other books on northern soul include

  • David Nowell, The story of northern soul: a definitive history of the dance scene that refuses to die (1999)
  • Elaine Constantine and Gareth Sweeney, Northern soul: an illustrated history (2013, complementing the former’s feature film).