I have been following the Michael Jackson discussion on the AMS-L mailing list (I can’t locate a publicly accessible archive at this point). MJ is dismissed by some as too eccentric to be worthy of attention (much less scholarly study). In his defense others raise Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner as examples from “classical” music; presumably these individuals transcend their eccentricities through their music. MJ has also been categorized as a mere entertainer–one person even described him as a kind of updated Vaudevillean. I take from this view that (a) “classical” composers were never in the business of entertaining and that (b) vaudeville and its related forms of American musical theater are caricatures and not a vital and durable part of the American musical history. Some of the writers on the list have reduced Jackson to merely a singer or a dancer, which apparently does not make him a musician and therefore a creator of music. His music has also been judged an artifact of the production, containing no intrinsic value of its own. At the same time, production, singing, dancing, and other dimensions of music carry no significance. After all, you cannot put the Moonwalk or the left-to-right or front-to-back stereophonic movement of popular music into a score. Finally, among the condemnations raised by these scholars was one that had the sound of a playground taunt: well if he was so important, then someone would have written about his music before he died. So where does that leave Bach, Beethoven, and the boys?

I am disturbed by the way in which some musicologists continue to fight to reduce the field of inquiry to Western classical composers who are usually European, white, and male, most of which who died before the middle of the twentieth century, and whose music, in some fashion, can be conveyed on paper. Performances take place in concert halls with orchestras and are observed by attentive, well-educated audiences who clap at the appropriate moment. The rest of the musical world need not apply. I could climb on my soapbox and palaver for days, but that’s not terribly productive, and I believe others, such as the group at Musicology / Matters, will do a better job about that and about Michael Jackson. I might suggest, though, that some of these scholars actually read some of the popular music literature and perhaps even listen to a bit of the music that they dismiss, repeatedly and with open ears (like I had to do with Schoenberg). My thought is that if it appeals to someone on any level, then it is worthy of some respect on my part and I may learn something fascinating about music or society or history by not dismissing it.

Now, I’m going to get off my soapbox and crawl back into my headphones to continue transcribing various renditions of “Salty Dog Blues,” from Papa Charley Jackson (1924) to several variations by the Allen Brothers (1927-1934) to the Morris Brothers (1938). The song and its variations (not covers of the song but modified versions of it) tell a fascinating story about African American and white performers in the 1920s and about the blues and hillbilly music in their infancies. These recordings also provide insight into the concept of “originality” in 1920s and 30s and how the US copyright law of 1909 and the recording industry influenced musical compositions. Bach and Beethoven it is not, but I like to think they might appreciate some of the issues at hand. They might even have admired Michael Jackson. I’m pretty sure Mozart would have!


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