R. Crumb on the death of authentic American music

robert_crumbWhile I have friends who play in bands, and, on occasion, even make music myself, I rarely, if ever, listen to anything recorded after the start of World War II. Yes, every once in a while I pull out a record by the Ramones, Television or the Velvet Underground, but, for the most part, I just listen to pre-war jazz and blues 78s online. There’s something about the music of the 1920s and 30 that really resonates with me in a way that modern music just doesn’t. And, because of this interest, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for underground comix artist R. Crumb, who, in addition to probably being the best known artist of the 1960s counterculture, is likely the best known advocate for this music that I so love. So, when I saw yesterday that he’d given an interview on the death of authentic rural music, I was anxious to check it out. And, as almost everything that he said rang true to me, I wanted to share a few quotes with you today.

…Living in a culture like this, you have to make choices, and search out what has the most authentic content or substance. As a kid I became increasingly interested in earlier periods of culture…

With jazz and other pop forms it takes a sharp nosedive in the early 1930s. When it goes from the “jazz age” to the swing era – Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, they get those smoother sounding “sophisticated” sounds. Everyone was supposed to sound sophisticated as an alternative to sounding naïve and country. “Country” was such a term of contempt. It sounds like you’re a hick from the sticks. You’re supposed to be embarrassed by that. It was the death of real, authentic rural music. Truly a cultural disaster.

…The difference between the stuff that I really like (the 1920s and early ‘30s) and that stuff is a whole different mood, a whole different… I don’t know what it is… a magic that’s not there. Maybe it’s a romantic thing. It conjures up visions of dirt roads and going deep into the back country. Even if they work in factories they still have that sound of something old and atavistic. Something that has been lost in the push to make music modern and commercial and slick. Something has been lost in this, this whole commercialisation of music.

It’s not discussed enough… someone should write a book on it – how we really lost how we make and listen to music with the onslaught of mass media. It’s changed so much – in 1933 there were 20,000 jukeboxes in America. By 1939 there were 400,000 jukeboxes! That immediately eliminates so many live musicians – a juke joint – which is where jukeboxes got their name from –would fire the barrelhouse pianist. “We don’t need you anymore! Got a jukebox!”

CrumbBluesJazz…To me, the buying and selling of music, what they’ve done to it is a disaster on the scale of cutting down the rainforest. It’s horrible what they’ve done… took it away from the people. You hear people say “I can’t sing, I don’t have a good voice.”

Who has a good voice? What they mean is they don’t sound like a slick professional they hear on the radio and on CD. It’s just professionalism and training, like opera singers. People have lost confidence in themselves to make music for their own pleasure. They can only see making music as a thing to be a star, to have a hit record. The mass media gods, strutting upon the stage… and people seem to need gods, I s’pose. That’s not going to go away [pauses] but let’s be clear, it isn’t really about music…

For the past several years, I’ve made the same suggestion here on the site come New Year’s Eve. I’ve encouraged people to tune into Radio Dismuke, and listen to a little pre-war jazz. (Trust me, there’s no better way to usher in the new year than with a fire in the fireplace, some champaign, and Radio Dismuke.) Well, this holiday season, I’d like to make one other suggestion. Buy someone on your list a copy of R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country. It’s not only a beautifully illustrated book, but it comes with a 21-track CD, curated by Crumb, featuring songs by the likes of Charley Patton, “Dock” Boggs, and “Jelly Roll” Morton. You will not be disappointed. I promise.

Also, for what it’s worth, authentic rural music wasn’t the only genre pronounced dead this week. It’s also come to my attention that John Olson from Wolf Eyes made it official that noise music had officially died. (note: When I decide to retire from blogging, will someone remind me to have a press conference and pronounce blogging dead?)

update: This post has generated some good comments. One of my favorites is from our old friend in New York, Doug Skinner. Here’s what he had to say… “For some reason, Crumb seems to prefer comics and literature that are urban, smart, and iconoclastic (like Kurtzman and Bukowski), but music that is rural, anti-intellectual, and reactionary. It seems like an odd double standard to me. I love pre-war jazz and pop myself, but it was hardly rural. It was made by hard-working professional musicians in big cities.”

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19 Comments

  1. Alex
    Posted December 7, 2013 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

    How can anyone in the era of Blues Hammer say that authentic blues doesn’t exist anymore?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZaM6lTmhnak

  2. Posted December 8, 2013 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    And, as it’s Sunday morning, it’s worth saying one more time that I still miss Arwulf’s EMU show terribly. It was the best radio show in the planet.

  3. Posted December 8, 2013 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    In the interest of open, honest debate, I have friends who think that Crumb is the worst kind of elitist hipster. Here’s a comment left by one such friend on my Facebook page.

    “To me, Crumb is like the most insufferable of OG hipsters. I glanced at the article and it is the same old shit he has been whining about since he did interviews in the Comics Journal in the 80’s. I like his work but always have detested his preening whiny interviews and nihilistic negative outlook on anything not from 80 years ago. He’s always been one of those guys where you can’t really tell if his misogny is for ironic affect or if he truly is this unhappy and bitter. I’ll go with the latter, because he has never let up with this affect.”

  4. Posted December 8, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    For some reason, Crumb seems to prefer comics and literature that are urban, smart, and iconoclastic (like Kurtzman and Bukowski), but music that is rural, anti-intellectual, and reactionary. It seems like an odd double standard to me.

    I love pre-war jazz and pop myself, but it was hardly rural. It was made by hard-working professional musicians in big cities.

  5. Posted December 8, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    I never liked Crumb.

  6. Dave M
    Posted December 8, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    “People have lost confidence in themselves to make music for their own pleasure. They can only see making music as a thing to be a star, to have a hit record.”

    I love this. Pick up a damn instrument and try. It’s fun. I hate that the entertainment industrial complex makes music into such a spectacle that it dissuades people from even trying. This is what I like about the Monkey Power Trio project. Hopefully people think, “If these retards (of which I am one) can put out an album and get it played on the radio, so can I.”

    “The mass media gods, strutting upon the stage… and people seem to need gods, I s’pose. That’s not going to go away [pauses] but let’s be clear, it isn’t really about music…”

    Mixed feelings on this perspective. It is about music. Just because great performers are insanely rich/famous and putting on giant shows with pyrotechnics, doesn’t mean they aren’t musical. Lady Gaga is a fantastic powerful singer. Louis Armstrong took that early jazz to a new level with sheer musical skill.

    On the other hand, if you look away from the spectacle, you likely can find people nearly as skilled as these stars right in your own neighborhood. Literally. I know of players every bit as good as some of the stars/legends walking distance from my house in a working class neighborhood in Portland. I’m certain there are others I don’t even know. These are all people I could go borrow a cup of sugar from right now:

    Lap guitar: http://pimen.to/mary.mp3
    Singer/songwriter: http://pimen.to/jenna.mp3
    Jazz guitar: http://pimen.to/matt.mp3
    Jazz bass/vocal: http://pimen.to/EastoftheSun.mp3

  7. anonymous
    Posted December 8, 2013 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    i’m embarrassed for you when you post stuff like this

  8. Posted December 8, 2013 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    Really? This is the post that makes you embarrassed for me? You must be new here.

    And thanks for the links, Dave. I’m going to check them out.

    As for the comments of Crumb, I particularly liked the part about jukeboxes and how they decimated juke joint culture. I’m sure it was obvious to most of you, but it really had never occurred to me.

  9. John Galt
    Posted December 23, 2013 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Authentic, meaningful music IS still being made in the United States. Just look at this year’s best selling country records.

    http://gawker.com/proof-that-every-country-music-song-this-year-was-exact-1488547290

  10. Kurt
    Posted May 4, 2017 at 12:23 am | Permalink

    It’s despondent to say that authentic music is dead, which is against what authentic music really needs: courage. Further, it’s untrue to say that music is dead because dead things don’t come back, but music is always coming back. Like R Crumb said, people don’t seem to feel confident to make music for fun as much as they used to. So the goal is really to have more people making music for fun, right? The solution is not to say “Ah to hell with new music, music is dead,” but rather to embrace revival by listening to current music as well to find authenticity. Of course, listening to old music is equally as important.

    It might be better to say that authentic music is dwindling and needs some help to grow in the right direction again. But I actually can’t really fully agree with that, because perceived authenticity depends on how the listener’s brain processes the music. I would sort of agree that not as much music is authentic as it used to be according to my own preferences, but I can’t say the same for people with different preferences. Anyway my recommendation is, search for new music that you like and maybe create a bit of your own. Or don’t, I don’t have any stake in your life, I just find this true for me.

  11. anonymous
    Posted June 17, 2018 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    “… I rarely, if ever, listen to anything recorded prior to the start of World War II… ”

    It seems like you omitted a “not” in the above sentence – in that you mostly listen to the old stuff. Makes for a very confusing start for your the post.

  12. Posted June 17, 2018 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    You are, of course, absolutely right, and I apologize. The correction has been made. I am sorry for any confusion you might have experienced.

  13. Jean Henry
    Posted June 17, 2018 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    I’ve learned some things about Crumb lately that make me think he’s a total creep.
    It really colors his work for me, even though I respect a lot of the vision and craft.
    I guess that’s not so surprising really. Oh well.

  14. Sad
    Posted June 17, 2018 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    But is he more or less creepy than James Franco?

  15. Jcp2
    Posted June 17, 2018 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    Creepy

    A word girls use to describe usually well intentioned guys who haven’t the slightest clue about how to interact with females without scaring the fuck out of them.

  16. Jean Henry
    Posted June 17, 2018 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    I was being generous.

  17. Jean Henry
    Posted June 17, 2018 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    I dont haven’t heard anything to make me think Mr Franco is creepy so far. At least not in so far as his treatment of women. (I’m not crazy with what he does to literature and art and film…)
    That’s my take. Others will have other views.

  18. Jcp2
    Posted June 18, 2018 at 5:42 am | Permalink

    https://amazingcavalieri.blogspot.com/2017/01/r-crumb-is-sexual-predator.html?m=1

    As always, the comments are more revealing than the article.

  19. Iron lung
    Posted June 18, 2018 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    I never got why people were at all interested in Robert Crumb.

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  1. By My love for 1920s | naviernaj1920sfilms on December 19, 2013 at 11:09 am

    […] R. Crumb on the death of authentic American music (markmaynard.com) […]

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