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Youth, Aging, and the Making of Music History

By tunequest June 19, 2010
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Hi folks! I bet many of you were thinking you’d never here from the ol’ tunequester ever again. I can’t say I blame you; it’s been months since I’ve written anything for this site. And it’s been a busy handful of months. But lately I’ve been pondering something and I’ve decided to share.

I recently finished a course in the history of rock music. I like rock and I like history, so I of course enjoyed the study. We started with early 20th century blues and old time country as the roots of rock and progressed through the development of rock n roll, british beat, folk, soul, funk, psycadelic rock, metal and so on.

One of the central themes of the course was that the development of a new style comes from the appropriation, combination and adaptation of existing styles. To wit, artists start out imitating their influences and gradually add in their own creativity, bringing about a new form. This can be seen in early rock n roll artists of the 1950s (e.g. Bill Haley) extensively covering existing rhythm and blues songs from the 40s (Big Joe Turner) and early British beat groups of the 60s (The Beatles) covering the rock n roll music of 50s (Chuck Berry), and so on.

At the same, or perhaps because of, societal changes in the wake of World War II, a “teen culture” emerged in the western world. Before the war, there was very little media aimed specifically at young adults. But with post-war economic bounty and increased urbanization, a market and the means to make purchases developed, and suddenly “dad’s music” wouldn’t cut it anymore.

Mix these two factors together and get a situation where change comes very quickly. This much should be obvious to anyone who pays attention to the prevailing tastes in music. What was hip in 1978 was hardly the same as what was hip in 1974. And this is because rock/pop music is a game for the young. Young performers playing to young audiences. Young artists building off their inspirations in rapid succession. And because the definition of “youth” is fairly narrow, this succession is quite rapid indeed. The entire history of rock music is the story of chasing what the teenagers like.

One side effect of this succession is that artists tend to make their main contributions to music, then fade from popularity. Barring accidents or tragedy, these people then tend to stick around for a while.

And this brings me to the point of my ramble. So often in history, the accomplishments and contributions we hear about people tend to occur later in their lives. Most of the time, we expect these people to have died not long after. Because in most fields, it requires a lot of time and effort to reach the point of great accomplishment: years studying science, working the halls of political power, building a business, honing a craft, etc. No matter who the person, we almost never expect them to still be alive when studying their history.

Yet in the case of music (especially within the relatively short history of rock music), because success can be found at so young an age, we routinely see musicians living well past their marks of primary contribution. It completely blows my mind that 50 years adding to music history, the likes of Chuck Berry, Pete Seeger, Little Richard and George Clinton (among others) are still around and kickin’ it.

The fact that many of these “elder statesmen” of music still perform and make new contributions to musical heritage creates a living connection to the histories and traditions of the form. As time goes on and new waves of performers and creators come and go, it is important to remember those connections.

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  1. David Says:

    Interesting post. It’s always interesting to see how things measure up in something that has had such a short history such as modern popular music.

    that, and I didn’t know Chuck Berry was still alive. That’s pretty cool!

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