Tuesday, November 20, 2007

America and the Transcendental Beat: Let My People Groove

A typically contemptuous European once wrote of American society that "it's half judaized, and the other half is negrified."

I've never actually read Mein Kampf, but I do believe that Hitler was inadvertently correct in this respect. First, we are the only explicitly Judeo-Christian nation on earth (see here for many wonderful examples). Second, as Van der Leun (can't find the link) might have said to Hitler, you just hate us because we've got the groove. And because it's such a drag to be you. But that's a separate issue.... then again, maybe not, since a famous Jew once zonged a positively zimmilar zinger.

Both of these influences have contributed to the uniqueness and the greatness of America. It is sad to me that so many American blacks wish to be called "African American" -- as if America would even be recognizably American without their influence. The other day, someone mentioned to me that he wasn't sure if he liked the genre of "southern rock."

But as a startled Gregg Allman once said in a similar context (and it's not very easy to startle someone with that much opium in their system), the adjective "southern" is wholly redundant, analogous to saying "rock-rock," since rock came out of the American south and could never have come from anyplace else on earth: Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, etc., etc. The list is endless.

And of course, it came out of the south because of the proximity of its early practitioners to forms of musical expression wholly invented by American blacks: jazz, blues, gospel, and rhythm and blues. Elvis never thought he was doing anything new. Rather, he was simply attempting to copy some of his musical heroes, most of whom were black (he also had some white musical heroes, such as Dean Martin, which accounts for his later affinity for grooveless schlock).

Now, what do blacks and Jews have in common, culturally? Yes, they are the most persecuted peoples in history. That might come up later. We're not talking about that for the moment. What else?

Well, I can only speak as an outsider, but the Jewish wedding I attended last Saturday night once again reminded me that Jews have their own whacked-out version of the groove, and that it is as earthy and over-the-top as any black gospel performance before an audience of fervent worshipers, or by some R & B combo playing at 2:00AM before a crazed audience on the "chitlin' circuit" in 1962.

Let me put it this way: I am very white. But I probably didn't realize the extent of my whiteness until I married into a Jewish family. Interestingly, being that they are largely secular Jews, they have no idea just how Jewish, which is to say ethnic, which is to say, non-white, they are. But for me, it has been an ongoing culture shock. (By the way, when I say "white," "non-white," and even "black," I assume you realize that I'm not talking about race, much less, "genetics.")

As I was watching the celebrants dancing with insane abandon to the bone-jarring rhythm of hava nagila -- which must have gone on for half an hour -- one thought came to mind: the idea of my parents ever engaging in such a frenetic celebration devoid of cerebration is literally inconceivable. Way, way too white.

But to see the men of all generations holding hands in a circle while kicking and jumping to the pounding beat -- true, they had the grace of a sleep-deprived and disinhibited Jerry Lewis lurching around the set at around hour 23 of the telethon -- but that's not the point. It was the complete absence of self-consciousness combined with the complete and joyous bypassing of the mind and immersion in the senses.

As we touched on yesterday, there has always been a certain life- and body-denying strain in Christianity. While it's not necessarily intrinsic, you have to admit it's there, a sort of distrust, sometimes verging on disgust, toward the human body and toward sensual pleasure in general. I constantly encounter this attitude among saints and mystics that I otherwise revere. In fact, it is also often present in Eastern religions as well -- is if physical pleasure is in the realm of "maya," and is to be shunned and transcended.

It is interesting to me that so many of the early and middle-period jazz greats who weren't black were Jewish: Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Stan Getz, Paul Desmond, Andre Preven, Shelly Manne, Buddy Rich, and many others -- not to mention many of the great songwriters whose music became the basis for jazz improvisation, e.g., the Gershwin brothers, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Lerner & Loewe, Rodgers & Hart, etc. The greatest jazz label, Blue Note records, was founded in 1939 by a couple of jazz-loving European Jews, Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff, while the greatest R & B and soul label, Atlantic, was co-founded by Jerry Wexler. And I am reminded of the fact that Louis Armstrong wore a Star of David around his neck in honor of the Jewish family that often took care of him as a child, even giving him the money to buy his first trumpet.

America: good constitution, easy to dance to.

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to get too far into this post, and now it's time for work. I'll just have to leave you with an obscure Petey-ism from the Cosmobliteration section of the book. If it means what I think it means, then you could say that gospel music (and its derivatives) really puts the body back into the body of Christ.

Do the monkey bone, do the shingaling, get your slack back & take a trip, slip, lose your grip, & turn a backover flip and say: not the god of the philosophers, not the god of the scholars!


River Cocytus said...

The Scotch-Irish know it, brother. Get out the pipes! The fiddle! The fife! The drum! And they were some darn early Christians!

I wrote about the Mary->Church connection here...

My opinin' reckons that the story we tell about Mary is the story we tell about the Church, and we, them Saints.

And there's trouble when the Mary you know didn't do no dancin'.

I'm just pullin' a GKC and concocting my own heresy... as per usual.

Re: the post, early on, my two favorite musicians (As a classically trained pianist): Gershwin and Joplin.


Gagdad Bob said...

Yes, but is that the pagan influence? At the very least, it's an ethnic thing, is it not? If I'm not mistaken, when the Irish first emigrated to America, they weren't even considered "white!"

Gagdad Bob said...

I don't know anything about Korean culture, but would this kind of thing exist without our having exported the groove? (Note the ironic musical selection.) (You can fast-forward to about 1:35.)

River Cocytus said...

Hmm, maybe. Didn't think of that. But I've always thought of the immigrants - the non-puritans and so forth, as the real Americans, provided they actualized (made real) the ideas of the founders and colonists through their lives and actions.

I'm with Chesterton - something is missing. My belief is that in preserving the core the whole got overlooked. Have you read this?

"In the dull, dusty, stale, stiff-jointed and lumbering language, to which most modern discussion is limited, it is necessary to say that there is at this moment the same fashionable fallacy about Sex and about Property. In the older and freer language, in which men could both speak and sing, it is truer to say that the same evil spirit has blasted the two great powers that make the poetry of life; the Love of Woman and the Love of the Land. It is important to observe, to start with, that the two things were closely connected so long as humanity was human, even when it was heathen. ..."

I think we're led to believe that these things are fully 'lusts of the flesh' and no more - which baffles me to my American core!

River Cocytus said...

As an addendum, it is not a uniquely Orthodox issue to be life-denying and other-worldly. It runs through all of Christendom. I think that because the earliest Christians thought it would literally end SOON as in IN THEIR TIME ON EARTH - combined with more or less continuous trouble and martyrdom - they developed a theology around the other-worldy. This created a problem because when ol' Constantine did the whole religious freedom thing Christians now COULD be worldly. The result was a bifurcation - the adaptation overall was ... poor.

Correct doctrines today were mostly passed down by monks and their students. While this is good in that corruption of basic ideas was minimal, it also results in a human skew towards the inner life and away from fully integrating the outer life in to the paradigm of Christian existence.

But I'm probably working more on my horrible, hideous heresy as we speak.

Lord have mercy.

hoarhey said...

Would the "Scotch-Irish" be a single malt?

Anonymous said...

It may be useful to make a distinction between groove and swing. Swing being a particularly sophisticated example of "groove". One can surely "groove" but not "swing".

A lot of Irish music gots the groove. Think about some jigs we've all heard...it certainly gets you moving "in the pocket" to say the least. But compared to Ellington, Monk, Miles etc etc...it don't mean a thing.

Also as the great Willie Dixon said : 'Blues are the root. The rest is the fruit.'

On purely harmonic grounds the true "blue note" (the ultra-flat minor third and ultra flat seventh. Which is best heard in vocal inflections and with a fixed pitch instrument such as bottleneck slide guitar) is so far outside the traditional Western Harmonic System as to truly constitute a tremendous, epochal breakthrough in the West.

Perhaps only those both inside and outside the system could incorporate that newness into the Western Tradition (ii-V-I anyone?) and make work so breathtakingly well.

Add to that new harmonic ground that ineffable, transcendent "blues expression" to the aforementioned "swing" and nothing will ever be the same.

Anonymous said...

sorry NON-fixed pitch instrument such as bottleneck slide.

Mizz E said...

". . .or by some R & B combo playing at 2:00AM before a crazed black audience on the "chitlin' circuit" in 1962."

What ? You were there? I was and I didn't see any white folks there 'cept my white drummer/boyfriend, who was enrolled in the College of Music at North Texas. He could really frisk the whiskers.

North Texas was the first university to offer a degree in Jazz Studies in 1947. We grooved with some of the South's finest.

I'd dance in church, if they'd let me.

Gagdad Bob said...


That was outstanding!

Perhaps mastery of the slide guitar explains the eery, otherworldly quality of the Allman Brothers best music, e.g., recent performances of Dreams, with the amazing Warren Haynes & Derek Trucks.

Gagdad Bob said...

Interestingly, that song is in waltz time but still has a hypnotic modal groove, similar to Kind of Blue.

Anonymous said...


Yes, I agree wholeheartedly. It's incredible what happens when you add a glass cylinder to the playing of the standard "spanish" guitar...it becomes, in a very real way, a completely different instrument--capable of an expression more or less OUTSIDE of the western tradition. In my opinion it opens up new *soul*/psychological possibilities inherent in being human.

It may be worth noting that slide guitar most likely came from Hawaii... again both inside and outside the United States.

A fretted guitar, like the piano, is bound by the 12-tone equal tempered system. In many ways 12TET (and it's more or less related predecessors) made possible the types of expression we know so well in Western Classical Music.

Slip that beer bottle on your finger and a whole new harmonic world of expression opens up. An expression taken full advantage of by the likes of Robert Johnson, Son House through to the Allman Brothers etc

Combine that with the Early Modernism of Stravinsky et al and the first-rate musical genius of say Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie is just around the corner.

Cousin Dupree said...

Oh, Raccoons know all about the slack key guitar.

Van said...

I can't think of where I first heard this... (might have been Thomas Sowell's Red Neck?)... but when the Scots-Irish came, they were definitely considered not quite up to the latest version of Human, and so they got the jobs no decent person would do... such as overseer of the slaves.

The two groups had one thing in common, being thought of as less than human, and ecstatic music being central to their lives. They mixed.

Listen to the old Scots-Irish jigs, listen to old Blues - put them together and you get Rock 'n Roll.

There's a reason why the Beatles came from the disreputable north of England, and not the bleach white south.

Gagdad Bob said...

Even the Beatles' northern accents made them more conducive to the groove -- for example, they would pronounce "can't" with a hard a, instead of "kont buy me love," or "I wanna hold your hond."

Robin Starfish said...

Beat Steady Eddie
jazz is for horses
look how they stretch the barbwire
groovin' on blue grass

Anonymous said...

Seeing that it is more difficult to DENY groove then to give into it. Does anyone have any thoughts on why it is that some of the greatest groove-denial occured in Anglo-America?

Is it that the world-historical role that Anglo-America took on is somehow incompatible with groove? Is that part of some unfortunate Faustian Bargain?

Thankfully groove came in through the side doors, regardless.

River Cocytus said...

Groove is by nature oblique. It never comes on time, and it never uses the front door. That's just how it rolls.

Don't defame the piano, by the way - now this is not true for a straight up 'digital piano' (though good synths work fine) a real piano has the quarter-tones for those willing to realise they're there. The 'blues note' is acheived by a 'grace note' from the flat third to the major third. With knowledge of it, the blues note 'enters time' on the piano and is a 'bridge between notes'.

The blues organ? It is so funky as to defy description. The Leslie creates sounds ... that just ooze groove.

Plus, the equal-temperament system allows for major-sevenths,ninths,elevenths (Etc) to sound and feel right on the fixed scale instrument.

Chopin experiments in a few of his pieces with whole 'grace note sections.'

Grace indeed!

River Cocytus said...

If I have my way, there will be some new chants... and they may...


That is all!

I have to write an ajax implementation, like, for reals.

Van said...

Anonymous said "Is it that the world-historical role that Anglo-America took on is somehow incompatible with groove? Is that part of some unfortunate Faustian Bargain?"

Yes. Stiff upper lip and all that, as Viceroy Col. J.C. Beaglehole could no doubt elaborate for us.

Restraining and even rejecting distractions, especially pleasurable and relaxing distractions, was key to Anglo success. unfortunately, not partaking of Slack until after, easily leads to forgetting about it all together, or worse remembering only that it is something to be pushed aside.

Probably had something to do with bad teeth too.

wv: tvizmmlp - yes, too much tv leads to mumbling & fumbling.

Anonymous said...

Oh I am no way denying the absolute brilliance of 12TET and it's use on the modern piano. It made the practice of free modulation to distant keys not only possible, but inevitable.

So much incredible music could not have been created any other way from the aforementioned Chopin through to Art Tatum, Bill Evans Etc.

I truly believe that the spiritual/musical history of West would have been impossible without 12TET and without the most versatile and brilliant Piano.

But of course *any* tuning system has it's limitations.

CrypticLife said...

Bluegrass has groove.

I know you don't mean genetics or race, but if not, why do you use the terms?

River Cocytus said...

You could also say, "Chocolate and Vanilla". They're two perspectives, and everyone knows Twist is the best flavor.

wv: hirbeorf - the original Danish band from back in Beowulf's day. They knew the groove...

Mizz E said...

Presenting ::::
The Spoon Slide Master.

ht: Joan of Argghh!

hoarhey said...


There is something to being understood for what one is actually saying without having to be crushed into P.C. speak to get a point across.
It's freeing and we need more of it.
Sort of like throwing off the shackles. Let my people go.

ximeze said...

What words would YOU use?

maineman said...

Like when we say we're in the mood for Italian, capisce?

Warren said...

"There has always been a certain life- and body-denying strain in Christianity. While it's not necessarily intrinsic, you have to admit it's there, a sort of distrust, sometimes verging on disgust, toward the human body and toward sensual pleasure in general. I constantly encounter this attitude among saints and mystics that I otherwise revere."

Interesting perspective. My reaction to Christianity has often been just the opposite. Since my intellectual background was, for decades, Platonist/Hindu, I have often been mildly shocked by the seeming obsession with the importance of matter - the senses, the body, etc - in Christianity. (I mean, if your soul in Heaven is already united with God, why do you then have to get reunited with your friggin' BODY, fer cryin' out loud? Who would want to?!?) This is the Jewish part of the heritage, of course - and it's a really BIG part - which it took me a while to come to terms with....

NoMo said...

“…there has always been a certain life- and body-denying strain in Christianity.”

The vision statement of a local church in my area begins, “We are called by God to love Him with all of our minds and all of our emotions and all of our decisions.” Their information goes on to say, “American Christians have been taught that they must compromise between a church that offers sound doctrinal training but is very cold and stale, versus one that offers a vibrant, relational atmosphere, but with no substance. Truth versus Spirit! This is not what Jesus taught. We cannot properly worship God if it is not both a passionate response to Him (in spirit) and a response proportionate to who He has revealed Himself to be (in truth). The Christian who has been truly born of the Spirit is thirsting for deep theological reflection and growth as well as a place to express the joy of being a Christian, in worship, prayer, and fellowship.”

I like the balance they seek. No, I don’t currently go there, but I have been giving it some serious thought.

Van said...

"...a sort of distrust, sometimes verging on disgust, toward the human body and toward sensual pleasure in general..."

Doesn't that come compliments of (interpretations of) Platonism?

"What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?"

Lots and lots...

Van said...

Did you (cackling evily) see my sports commentary at the end of yesterday?


NoMo said...

...and lots.

Van said...

CrypticLife said... "I know you don't mean genetics or race, but if not, why do you use the terms?"

Why do you seek further explanation for something you don't doubt?

Why do you object to the terms? Why are you so alert to, or perhaps even seeking after, the possibility of unintended offendedness?

What is the point of your question?

cousin Dupree said...

I just happen to be reading Bob's old copy of Chesterton's Othodoxy at the moment, and it explains the mind of that idiot so perfectly that it's uncanny.

Van said...

Yes indeed. I've my
latest post up related to that, and the next and last'll be up this week. The Greeks took this world, as far as could possibly be gone with alone and/or with Paganism, - in a big "Aha!" moment, I think the Judeo/Christian conceptions opened the fire escape to them, and there was much reciprocation that took place.

wv:moiispt - wv! that seems very inappropriate

Van said...

For those with pocket change AND a fondness for a nice solid book, rattle Petey's tin cup and click Gagdad's link above... for those lacking the change, G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy can be found online here.

Van said...

woops... sorry Cuz... thought that was Gagdad's comment - didn't mean to swipe from your tin cup...DON'T TAZE ME BRO!!!

Gilbert said...

As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of the madman's argument, at once the sense of covering everything and of leaving everything out -- of understanding everything in a world that isn't worth understanding.

Anonymous said...

The discussion reminds me of the old joke: Catholics have religion but no faith, Unitarians faith but no religion and Presbyterians (choose your Protestant demoniation) dress nicely.

Susannah said...

I don't know if it's a side-track from this discussion, but I do find myself drawn to John Piper's "Christian hedonism."

I guess it's no coincidence that John Wimber, who's had a lot of influence on us, was a keyboardist for the Righteous Brothers early on.

Here's a story I've heard from Wimber himself, from a retrospective by Sam Storms (I found this at the DesiringGod site):

[Storms writes]

John will be remembered for many things, one of which was his unrelenting commitment to “doin’ the stuff,” as he often put it. As John told the story, he and Carol visited a church early in his spiritual journey, immediately after he had spent considerable time reading the gospel accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus. Following the service, John approached the pastor and asked him:

“So, when do we do the stuff?”

“The ‘stuff’,” said the pastor. “What’s the ‘stuff’?”

“You know,” John replied, “the stuff in the Bible, like healing the sick and casting out demons. The stuff!”

“Oh,” replied the pastor. “We don’t do the stuff. We believe they did it back in biblical days, but we don’t do it today.”

With a rather confused look on his face, John could only say: “And I gave up drugs for this?”

But don’t be misled by John’s humor. One should never mistake his simplicity for simple-mindedness. He often referred to himself as “just a fat man trying to get to heaven,” but he was extremely well-read and theologically discerning. I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone as streetwise as John or as perceptive of the dynamics of human nature. He was a remarkably gifted leader and tens of thousands (if not considerably more) will credit him with their awakening to a more robust view of the ministry of the Spirit in today’s church.

[end Storms]

Hard to believe it's been 10 years since Wimber went home!

Ricky Raccoon said...

Get post, Bob.

However… this completely fictitious “someone” to whom you refer has left a certain “someone” feeling like “someone” has been demoted.

Ricky Raccoon said...

“Sorry to bother you sir. Someone handed this to me.
Said to give it to you.”

“Thanks, Ricky.”

...reading, reading, reading...

“What the!”

(...as the principal architects of Southern rock, the Allman Brothers Band...
Executive Editor

debass said...

Those flatted 3rds and sevenths are from the natural harmonics of the string. In just intonation, those natural harmonic ratios produce those flat sounding notes. Just intonation has been around for at least 5000 years. Early European composers used it but I think the standardization of equal tempered scales came about with the invention of the piano in the 1800s. Previous keyboards, like the harpsichord were much easier to retune between the performance of each composition, therefore it was much easier to use just intonation or any other system than it is with the piano. We are accustomed to equal temperment, so when we hear flat notes, it sounds odd to our ears except for us jazz and blues aficionados. The white guys did it until about the 1850s when they decided that they wanted all the intervals to be equal. I wonder if Karl Marx had any influence on this?
Did I put everyone to sleep yet? Google "just intonation" and you'll find more info than you wanted to know.

ge said...

Satchmo? Just reading about 2 of his favourite topics here: http://www.ukcia.org/potculture/30/louis.html
Satchmo: My Life As A Viper

Smoov said...

Ah, groove!

I married a gorgeous young African American girl many moons ago. The first time I laid eyes on her she was gently shimmying her hips to a laconic beat and meeting my slack-jawed gaze with full clear eyes that remained perfectly still as her body became the music. White people (I'm with Bob, this is not about race) cannot do that.

Our brains are not wired in a way that allows us to connect to music in that way, and although white folks can become elegant ballet dancers, they cannot get down.

Man, she was sweet. Memories.

ximeze said...

Van 2:21:

I soytanlee did - gave me a good ISS event this morning.

Favorite lines:
"Nothing beats baseball and if you don't believe that YOU'RE JUST A BIG JERK!!!


Thank you for participating in this symposium on WHO the best sports are, and thanks for agreeing COMPLETLY with me."


shantisha said...


Couldn't hang eh?
Mebe you oughts to change yer name.

Van said...

" on WHO the best sports are..."

You're definitely one of 'em!


shantisha said...

I used to work the Playboy Club in A.C. as a Chocolate Bunny. ;)

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

"America: good constitution, easy to dance to."

Amen to that, Bob!
And what better dance than the dance of Thanks and Giving?!

Golem14 said...

"Yes, but is that the pagan influence?"

Apart from the Jews, who else was there? :-) It's just the human influence; I don't think there's anything specifically pagan about dancing and having a good time. As you say, I think it's more a cultural thing than a religious thing; the pagan world has had its share of aescetic, cynical, and fatalistic philosophies, and they seem to be as much a part of the human condition as the desire to eat, drink, and be merry. As Chesterton pointed out, what the Church did was to moderate and channel these things, partly so they wouldn't develop into sins-- which means that it catches flak from both sides! (You should hear some of my aescetic New Age friends go on about Catholic 'hedonism'!)

Smoov said...


Maybe so... not sure if I can hang with my legendary namesake -- Smoove B. -- or not.

Willing to give it another try though. Ever been to Tuscany? *wink*

Steve Chandler said...

What a wonderful tribute to America and its best music. It's funny how the best hiphop tracks are only good because of the earlier black music they "sample" on the track...ie.Kanye West.

What I love about boogying with Bobby G. is that he is a hipster. Most religious folk have a missing limb in this area. Must be all those years idolizing Koufax.

River Cocytus said...

Steve: It's gotten me in trouble. When I feel the beat I just can't stand still. My mom says when I was a wee one I'd bebop along (walk and dance.) So Smoov, maybe I'm a black kid in a white body, or maybe it ain't a wired thing.

(I've played for black folks that Don't Have Rhythm.)

Smoov said...


Precisely what I meant when I said it ain't about "race".

Amy Winehouse channels Motown directly.

My dentist is a black man, but judging by his golf swing he ain't got no rhythm.

Jacob C. said...

My opinin' reckons that the story we tell about Mary is the story we tell about the Church, and we, them Saints.

And there's trouble when the Mary you know didn't do no dancin'.

And if she didn't, what the hell was she - or her son - doing at that wedding in Cana?