The Famous Door

The path of social progress can take loopy turns. In the week since the R&B singer Frank Ocean announced the not-such-big-news that his first love was a man, influential figures in contemporary black music have portrayed the not-so-big event as a major test of character in the world of hip-hop and R&B.

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I’m not blaming Andy Griffith—not the actor, who died this week in his home state of North Carolina at 86, the age he has always seemed to me. It’s not his fault that the theme song to The Andy Griffith Show had the impact that it had on me—and, I presume, on others who found themselves watching the series at some point during in its eight-year network run in the 1960s or in its perpetual cycle of cable reruns. The tune is, without question, one of the catchiest trifles ever composed for commercial consumption. It’s bouncy and swinging, with an angular, syncopated melody.

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No excuse is too flimsy to justify talking about seriously terrible music.

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A few years before the Beach Boys made their first record, the three brothers who formed the original core of the group sang together in the bedroom they shared in a tract home in suburban Southern California. Close quarters fed close harmony, and Brian, Carl, and Dennis Wilson taught themselves to emulate the sound of the pre-rock vocal groups—the Four Freshman and the Hi-Lo's, in particular.

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Doc Watson, the guitarist and singer who died this week at 89, seemed the embodiment of traditional American rural values. He was a handsome mountain man, solid in body and temperament, and he comported himself on stage with courtly grace and gentle humor. Born in the hills of North Carolina, he lost his sight as young child (though he would always have limited perception of light), and found early that he had a knack for playing the mountain music he heard growing up—first on a banjo his father made with the skin of the family’s recently deceased pet cat, then on the harmonica and guitar.

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I don’t mean to slander his legacy, but the news this week of the death of Chuck Brown, the  “Godfather of Go-Go,” made me think of Scopitone, the proto-video platform for cheesily risqué musical films that Susan Sontag enshrined in the early canon of camp. Brown, who worked since the 1960s around the area of Maryland (where he was born), northern Virginia, and Washington, D.C., never made a Scopitone film. He did something better, though, leading the development of the sexy, upbeat subgenre of funk that has its own name, go-go, but could just as well be called Chuck Brown’s music.

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The vice president was not at Rufus Wainwright’s house, I know. Yet the sweet little scene that Joe Biden described on Meet the Press, of infectious warmth in a family with same-sex parents, sounded almost as if it had been taken from the lyrics of the latest Wainwright album, Out of the Game.

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People uncowed by the tyranny of history should take up the jazz trumpet. Others would be smart to try another instrument—or avoid music, where the specter of the past is always looming, and seems to loom larger and larger in the Youtube era. In jazz, the trumpet has a privileged status, and one of the privileges it carries is that of terrorizing expectations, by way of association with the music’s past masters.

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Nothing quite captures the myth of the vinyl-era music industry as a benevolent autocracy like the narrative of the career-making audition. A scruffy young unknown hitchhikes from the mine country of Minnesota to midtown Manhattan, where a white-haired and golden-eared man in a suit hears something in the boy that no one else has noticed and signs him to a record contract, through which fame and glory ensue.

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The history of popular entertainment is not the same thing as the history of recording. While the wonders of our digital devices seduce us into thinking we have instant access to everything, most performances in the first form of mass entertainment in America—Vaudeville—are lost to history. Astronomers tell us that we’re still receiving light from the Big Bang, but the sights and sounds of the first pop acts, Vaudeville stars, are all but gone.

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