Today when I hear the thunder that rattles sheet metal while blasting from the trunks of cars, containing no tonal construct of melody, harmonic progressions, bridges, vocal harmony or any of the qualities of tonal harmony, I often say to myself what happened to the melody? Oh how I long for the rapture and feelings of love evoked by the power of the (iii-vi-ii-V-I) turn-around, at the end of the harmonic progressions artistically arranged in the melodic love ballads and dance songs written in (AABA) form in the African-American rhythm and blues that I used to hear.
The “urban music” of today that I hear does not represent the very strong melodic and harmonic structure created from the blues and jazz forms that made African-American music great as it influenced every form of American music genre. A few genres of American music still feature a bit of melody and harmony structured by blues and jazz progressions but, not to the extent that African-American rhythm and blues did. It seems that the pop genre still features some melody on progressions but, I hear very little virtuosic instrumental performance today, instead what I hear commonly is a processed computer assisted facsimile of what was once truly talented gifted displays of dynamic vocal and instrumental human musical artistic performance.
It is rumored that; “Music can sooth the savage beast”. In the middle ages legend of the “Pied Piper”in the writings of Rattenfanger Von Hamelin, depicts a 13th century piper playing melodies on a “magical flute”. The works of the piper identified as a “rat catcher” allegedly could lead rats away from cities battling rat infestation with his pipe melodies and in one instance his talent of mesmerizing through melody coincided with the disappearance of a large number of children in the town of Hamelin, Lower Saxony, Germany. During that time common belief held that the piper led the children away with his mesmerizing melodies, the children disappeared forever.
Nursery rhymes; a term used for poems and songs for young children commonly referred to as lullabies, are found in every human culture and serve as a method to help children sleep. Research evidence suggest that nursery rhymes set to melodic music, aids in the development of children and suggestion is that a child’s spatial reasoning is enhanced through melodic music and rhyme resulting in increased mathematics and science performance in school.
The act of serenading a lover, melodically singing in their honor calmly, lightly, and suggestively in an alluring voice is a hallmark of romance. During the Baroque period Italians received much noted and revered acclaim for this style of melodic vocal delivery. Later in the Classical Romantic era the instrumentalists and their melodies on progressions prevailed, most notably Ammadeus Mozart. I remember hearing aspiring orchestral virtuoso music students during my music studies at Jacksonville University say “Mozart’s melodies sound childlike in their simplicity and brilliance”.
The one constant and common thread binding the above references is that they all feature emphasis on melody and harmonic textures delivered in various forms and styles.
In the late 19th century inventions by greats like Thomas Edison with his cylinder phonograph invented in 1877, several years later Emile Berliner and Eldridge Johnson in 1901 invented what we know as the RCA Victrola. In addition, new components of music presentation began to emerge; amplification and electronic musical instruments began ushering in a new era of American Popular Song. New songs created by some gifted melody-maker composers, delivered to us by very talented vocalists and instrumentalists, and published in the infamous “Tin Pan Alley” on West 28th Street in New York City.
African-Americans contributed an African musical trait to American popular song called (call and response) it would prove to be an essential element of the American song form that eventually led to some of the most harmonic and melodic vocal and instrumental music created and composed in America “blues and jazz”.
After the turn of the 20thcentury early masters like Scott Joplin, W.C. Handy, Vernon Dalhart, Ester Walker, Mamie Smith, Vaughn De Leath, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Papa Charlie Jackson, and many others began making their mark on American music art form the art form eventually crossed the Atlantic and influenced Western music in general. These artists laid the ground work and forged pathways into the era of the roaring 20’s, a time when more people lived in cities than on farms, people from coast to coast bought the same goods, listened to the same music, and did the same dances. Some people might say that the 1920s represented the jazz age.
By the end of World II in 1945 Americans began to refocus on America, in an isolationist manner on the merits of America itself as opposed to Europe, and a new era was taking over American popular music that manifested in the 1950’s. This new era offered many different genres of music: blues, jazz, rock & roll, rhythm and blues, love songs, etc. Along with the new styles came very exciting artists like; Nat “King” Cole, Patti Page, Buddy Holly, Peggy Lee, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bobby Darin, Elvis Presley and countless others. If you peel back the layers of that music’s composition you will find the” blues form”, its harmonic structure, and very pronounced melodies.
As American music became more and more popular around the world the “blues form” began to shape the landscape of music composition of the 1960’s, 1970’s and the 1980’s. During that time great things were happening with melodic presentations and song composition like those of the Motown sound, rhythm and blues, soul music, the sounds of Philadelphia, the rock and roll revolution, protest songs, musicals etc.
Composers had great affinity for the aesthetics of beautiful arrangements of intervals, exquisite textures of harmony, predictable chord progressions, resolutions, vamps etc. This attention to detail in music composition was prevalent in all American genres.
The great composers: Ray Charles, Burt Bacharach, Miles Davis, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Brian Wilson(The Beach Boys),Sly Stone, Smokey Robinson, Merle Haggard, Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier, Thelonious Monk, Carol King, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Lionel Richie, Buddy Holly, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Willie Nelson, Isaac Hayes and David Porter, Elton John, Barry Manilow, Al Green, Robert Plant, Maurice White, Steven Tyler, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, John Denver, Jim Croce, Barry White, Lee Greenwood and many others, created some of the most memorable lyrics and melodies ever written.
When you listened to their music you heard unmistakably and recognizable melody and harmonic structure, it is memorable and you could sing along with it, the truly beautiful tonal harmonic music and the melodies would linger in your subconscious mind. Once the music industry began to redefine musical art with the technical definition of art; (the conscious use of skill and creative imagination of works so produced) tonal harmony became less relevant. That facilitated the journey away from the technical definition of music; (the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity). Acceptance of this blurring of lines and semantics in the definition of music led to the gradual abandonment of tonal harmony and the increase of exploitation of the oppressive realisms of life (that some people live in America) establishing a less melodic product marketed as “urban music”.
When the purpose of redefining the definition of music is to make millions in the record industry by glorifying the oppression of inner city life as opposed to making millions from elevating tonal music genius, our communities got thunder blasting out of the trunks of cars coupled to negative degrading prose and nothing-resembling melody, harmony, hope, brotherhood, love or happiness. Most other genres of American popular music seemed to have avoided the perils and ills that ravished the tonal harmonic construct of African-American rhythm and blues, for whatever reason.
I alone am powerless to make meaningful change to what is viewed as the “new normal” music in today’s’ African-American music culture. Today most of the music presented to our children and young adults, feature little if any emphasis on love, happiness, brotherhood and hope, while it is devoid of tonal harmony, and melody and music composition.
I have listened to pundits say “instead of complaining about the (so-called) music, don’t let your children listen to it and don’t allow them to buy the music”. That statement of posture in and of itself is indicative of the conundrum for concerned individuals who accept that charge as I do. What is over looked by people making those statements and who have the choice of musical art representative of their own culture is this fact; today the record industry and music industry power-brokers act as if every African-American wants and desires this product of degenerate decay. Hence, they will not market or allow any wholesome positive messaged secular music product for the African-American music culture within our communities. Therefore, today there is no option to choose new compositions of what was traditional, as was authentically composed rhythm and blues.
Over the last two or three decades a great deal of what I’ve heard presented and marketed as the “music” contributed by many African- American artists, voraciously emphasizes degradation of women, glorified street-life, violence, poverty, urban hardship, drugs etc. As I write this legitimate discontent, I have not lost sight of the fact that there are many people in this country who must live life every day in an environment where all of these things are real world. I have real concern with the message content of the lyrics depicting inner city life and individualism in today’s urban music. I realize that the absence of inspiration, hope, virtuoso musicians, melody, tonal harmony, harmonic progressions, and original music composition are complicit in the downgrade of R&B. All of those omissions combined with the politics of identity and division, the exploitation of women, overtly sexual messaging, and the record industry “Big Dogs”, facilitated the malignant assault upon African-American rhythm and blues.
I do not expect urban music lyricists to write about subjects regarding the time value of money, the risks discernible in a prospectus, quantitative easing, global economics, or a dissertation contrasting civil liberties vs. civil rights etc. I realize that these lyricists write about their real-life experiences, tribulations of people they know, the realities of how they are viewed and treated by other segments of society, of what they see in America, as well as the many imagined experiences and potential outcomes prevalent in Americas’ pop cultural.
If you have never lived in the inner cities of America where economic depravity is incubated in the form of political weapons of mass destruction wielded by people with power and influence that use lobbyists and the ballot box as instruments of exclusion, it is then easy to view this dilemma from the perch upon the proverbial high horse. If the quality of life for people who must live within the inner cities of America is an after-thought for those who live in the surrounding suburbs, then the reality of what these recording artists write about will appear farfetched and self-deserving to suburbanites.
I have lived in the inner city and it is nothing less than difficult to write about my beloved music (virtuosic African-American rhythm and blues) without the mention of politics and the silent, invisible role that politics played in the demise of traditional R&B. The people in the upper echelons of power in this country would never tolerate any effort to defile the classical music genre; they would never tolerate the degradation of opera, ballet and chamber music to the extent that they have allowed African-American R&B music to be degenerated and bastardized for profit.
The major record label executives, MTV, music and television producers, national symphony orchestras, classical ballets, musicologists, the editors of Pollstar and Billboard, music critics and any other groups dedicated to the preservation European culture and arts would raise hell if any activity began to manifest itself in a manner that would diminish the image of European arts and culture. Here in America, the after 6:00 black tie and evening gown will continue to shield the classical repertoire. The special interests and their lobbyist that influenced the FCC to allow virtually unrestricted obscenity in music targeted for the African- American youth music markets would not agree with any marketing strategies that might tarnish the culture and image of classical music. Those power brokers would descend upon the music and entertainment industry and politicians with the veracity of an “old west-gunslinger” if that were to begin to happen.
When I hear the arguments of music industry executives declaring there is no market for R&B so we have to produce what the marketplace will value, to ensure we recover production costs, recoup advances and ensure that the shareholders get a return on their investment, I usually say okay. The facts are that the marketplace value of the current music is as they have created it for financial profit, it is no coincidence that the positive messages of R&B is exchanged for negative messages of what they are now selling in the marketplace. What I would like to know is; why is it that the virtues of music composition of R&B, allowed to whither on the vine as the trends of pop culture’s expression of oppressive life conditions serve as an instrument to ensure dividends on their statement of retained earnings, rather than the genius of competent music composition?
Which begs the question what is the point of sending our gifted and talented young children to voice and instrument music lessons? Our colleges and universities teach music curriculum comprised of tonal harmony, the refinement of instrumental and vocal technique as well the history of music. Today a young African-American musician aspiring to be a singer/composer or instrumentalist with the hope of fame and fortune in major music performance is finding that the recording industry is not interested in competent music virtuosity but, rather a new definition of urban music that is rancid, violent, degrading, and disparaging lyrical content devoid of civility, melody and harmony. So they had better desire a career in the classical music genre, if the desire is to perform the urban music genre that we knew as rhythm and blues they will find no distribution channels or audience because they (the wholesale and retail music industry) have undermined it for profit.
I am not yet ready, to place a R.I.P. marker upon the virtues of the melodic and harmonic structure of urban R&B that so many gifted African-American composers and entertainers delivered to us in song. The nomenclature assigned to the magic of the art was soul music, created by artists who represented and conveyed love and hope to a people who did not live life “totally” free in America. Through it all they were able to reach deep within themselves to create this invisible yet audible and soul stirring touching musical therapy, parceled out in a relentless backbeat or a mellow ballad that was soul music. We were willing and able to believe the God Father of Soul James Brown when he said “I Got Soul and I’m Super Bad”. Today, I do not know what the urban music trendsetters believe or if they are even able to believe anything other than the images they see in music videos and what the music industry markets as the “new definition” of urban music. In addition, I do not know if they are willing to believe that this soulful music is needed now more than ever, to once again convey messages of love, happiness, hope, unity and brotherhood to our young people. It would be beneficial to all of us if once again our urban music would demonstrate the many ways to say I love you and the many artful ways of asking to be loved. The R & B composers, who knew that they had soul, gave those eloquent virtues of language to us wrapped in the beautiful adornment of harmony and melody, delivered in melodic rhythm & blues music.