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Bob Stanley’s pre-history of pop breathes life into a lost musical era

In Let’s Do It, the musician and journalist reveals how ragtime, jazz, blues and swing still shape today’s popular culture.

By Billy Bragg

The streaming of music offers us a two-dimensional view of pop. Stars that peaked decades apart seem close to one another, like the constellations in the night sky. A young fan of guitar rock, coming across “My Generation” and “Pretty Vacant” for the first time on a playlist, might imagine they came from the same period. That could never have happened during the vinyl age, when one look at the haircuts on the record sleeve would immediately tell you that the Who and the Sex Pistols came from different eras of pop. With nothing but the capacious but disordered resource of the internet to help us make sense of the vast array of music at our fingertips, what we need is a comprehensive handbook, a text that provides contextual depth to 120 years of recorded sound.

Step forward Bob Stanley, the writer and musician whose 2014 book, Yeah Yeah Yeah, achieved the seemingly impossible task of assembling an accessible history of pop music from 1950 to the 2010s. If anything could be said to hold that mammoth 800-page narrative together, it is teenagers: their culture is Stanley’s primary theme. In his new book, Let’s Do It, he turns his attention to the first half of the 20th century, a time when records were largely bought by adults and popular music meant ragtime, jazz, blues or swing.

Stanley begins his story in 1901, when Columbia Records switched from using wax cylinders to ten-inch shellac discs which span at 78 revolutions per minute, a format that would survive into the rock’n’roll era. When, three years later, The Billboard, a monthly magazine that had initially been “devoted to the interests of advertisers, poster printers, bill posters… and secretaries of fairs”, began writing about popular music, the record industry began to gain momentum. 

[See also: Billy Bragg: The rise of streaming has sidelined songwriters for far too long]

I was surprised to learn that some of the songs that my grandmother would play on the piano at family singalongs in the 1960s actually dated from before she was born. When she played “Lily of Laguna” or “Don’t Dilly Dally on the Way”, she was harking back to the music of her parents’ generation, suggesting that nostalgia for the old days was already a potent force at the beginning of popular music. Stanley also reveals that another of the songs we sang, the cockney classic “Down at the Old Bull and Bush”, began life in the United States as an advert for Budweiser, with a chorus featuring the name of the brewer, Anheuser-Busch. 

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The most dynamic music in the US in the first decade of the 20th century was ragtime, which Stanley claims “set the template for every successive pop boom”. Unlike the music hall songs that my nan was brought up on, ragtime made you want to dance. It hit Britain just before the First World War, provoking an 18-year-old JB Priestley into something of an epiphany: “I went over to Leeds to a variety show at the Empire and heard ragtime. Suddenly I discovered the 20th century, glaring and screaming at me.” Compared to the English tea dance, this was dynamite. 

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The craze had begun in 1911, when the song “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” sold over a million sheet-music copies and introduced the world to Irving Berlin, an immigrant from the Russian empire, who, if he didn’t invent the concept of Tin Pan Alley, certainly came to embody it. The names of his contemporaries will be familiar to anyone with a passing interest in popular music: George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael.

Astonishingly, Stanley finds PG Wodehouse among them. The creator of Jeeves and Wooster crossed the Atlantic in the first decade of the new century, a time when Broadway producers wanted music with an English accent. After teaming up with Jerome Kern he became, in Stanley’s opinion, “the first great lyricist of American musical theatre” – a view shared by Richard Rodgers who, as songwriting partner of both Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein, knew a thing or two about writing musicals.

As the First World War drew to a close, jazz exploded out of New Orleans. Stanley argues that the new music didn’t evolve out of ragtime – although many of the early jazz players thought they were playing a souped-up version of that syncopated style, until the Original Dixieland Jazz Band had a hit with the first jazz recording, “Livery Stable Blues” in 1917. Suddenly, the music they were playing was popular – who cared what it was called? 

[See also: How music helps us to feel]

While jazz provided the energy for the Roaring Twenties, blues emerged from the shadows in the same decade, pioneered by female singers who often wrote their own material. Ma Rainey, whose gold teeth would sparkle when she sang, was the first to gain fame, and Bessie Smith, Ida Cox and Memphis Minnie followed in her wake, taking the blues from rent parties and juke joints into 500-seat theatres on Chicago’s South Side. 

Duke Ellington is quoted as saying, “Jazz is music, swing is business,” a comment that sums up the development of American popular music in the 1930s. Swing is the mountain range that separates modern pop from what went before. The mainstreaming of this orchestral style of jazz outraged the purists, who, in the late 1940s, split into rival camps of trad and modern in an effort to reinvigorate a musical form they felt had become staid.

Although the subject requires a focus on American artists, Stanley regularly turns his attention to the UK, exploring how British artists contributed to the process, shining a light on domestic pop pioneers whom history has forgotten. Black, British and gay, Reginald Foresythe was a pianist and composer who went to California in 1930, played in the Earl Hines band, was a house guest of Duke Ellington and came home to make music that he likened to a higher form of mathematics. Twenty years ahead of their time, his tone poems were swept aside by the tsunami of swing. 

Stanley proposes Frank Sinatra as “the fulcrum” of his book, but I’d argue that Glenn Miller is a better candidate for that role. Unlike Sinatra, Miller has no post-war presence, yet, more than any other band leader from that era, his tunes are still familiar to us today. Miller’s disappearance in 1944, flying over the Channel in a light aircraft on a foggy day, not only prefigures the later loss of Buddy Holly – who was killed alongside Ritchie Valens and JP Richardson, aka the Big Bopper, in a plane crash in 1959 – but could also be argued to constitute an earlier “day the music died”.

After the Second World War, solo singers came to the fore and with them rose the idea of the Great American Songbook. That nostalgia – for tunes from a golden age of musicals, Tin Pan Alley and the silver screen – is with us still. It’s the reason this book, almost 600 pages long but neatly divided into 52 chapters, will often give you an ear-worm when you read the title of a song, even if it dates from over 100 years ago. 

In his penultimate paragraph, Bob Stanley declares that he wrote the book “to make sense of the different times, eras and genres… to sort out the chronology for myself and for anyone else who was interested”. By taking us with him on that journey, he has provided something invaluable to the growing numbers who get their music via streaming services: a guide to pop’s back pages, where artists mostly remembered in sepia tones are brought into vivid colour by the author’s enthusiastic sense of discovery.

[See also: Billy Bragg: Why I’ve made my old lyrics trans-inclusive]

Let’s Do It: The Birth of Pop
Bob Stanley
Faber & Faber, 656pp, £25

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This article appears in the 22 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Britain isn’t working