by Arnold Goldman

The first half of That Crazy American Music is a sadly self-indulgent run-through of the history of music in America since colonial days, mainly a sequence of space-filling anecdotes interspersed with lengthy opera plots. Only when his remarks seem to have some half-way personal application does Paul’s prose suddenly lift, for example as he describes the German emigré Johann Christian Gottlieb Graupner’s turn-of-the-Eighteenth Century discovery of Negro music:

Every musician knows what it means to hear, suddenly and unexpectedly for the first time, a kind of music he has never heard before - new timbre, a different beat, a tune from some weird and unknown source. Graupner... wept with joy when first that Negro music burst on him, not because it was sentimental or in any way nostalgic or sad, but as a botanist might have wept in finding without warning a new kind of orchid or a striped satanic vine.

- or in the characterisation of Stephen Foster and Foster’s attitude to family and marriage:

His amazing product ranges from careless slapstick to sublime detachment and esthetic tranquillity. To describe his best works as sentimental, nostalgic, miniature or with any of the usual combination of adjectives, misses their essentials and falsifies their appeal.... He was never profound, or truly tragic. His character was loose. His sins were largely of omission. His personality must be understood from various angles, separately; and whatever integration results must come, largely, from the scope and experience of the observer, or judge....
  Stephen Foster was a hard drinker, the kind who today would be labeled an "alcoholic...." Unequipped for happiness, he had learned as a youth to get along without it.
  Much has been made of his "love" for his family, and his dependence on its members, when actually he was more a misfit in the bosom of his family that in society in general. His parents had no understanding of Forster’s gift for music, and tried, with unbelievable density, to steer him away from his only supportable course. One may grant that his wife... was technically faithful....
  ...Stephen spent little time at home. He did not love [his wife], nor miss her when any other company was at hand....
  ...Stephen Foster’s experiences, including his befogged inner life, were characteristically North American. He loved his parents without wanting to be near them or expecting them to understand anything vital to him. This density on their part he never resented. He took it for granted. His marriage he realized was a blunder, but he assumed others were, and that men and women, somehow, were not equipped to make one another happy. He found that being broke was a nuisance. When, intermittently, he was in funds, he did not enjoy any sprees or excesses. Money simply leaked away.1

Despite illuminating passages, the book remains largely inert until mid-way through. Suddenly, however, Paul’s prose comes alive as he begins to describe black American music: "How little those able and successful white [composers]... seemed to realise that the Negroes (while working against all odds for a foothold as free men) were creating the really pure and crazy American folk music that was to fascinate and transform the world!"

It is as if this were the book’s true and originally-intended beginning, with the earlier parts added to make up the length. There is a direct relationship between the music he admires and the quality of his writing about it. The chapter on "Dixieland Jazz" radiates belief:

Imagine [Buddy] Bolden, at the age of twelve, standing in the dust and smoke of Congo Square, hearing and seeing his race reveal itself and give promise derived from vitality and rhythm, yearning and melody, counterpoint (from the urge for mass or neighborly activity) and weird suggestions of harmony (because the different range of voices flowed an octave, or a fifth or a fourth or even a third apart). The young boy, on the side lines in order to see the great spectacle and sense its significance as a whole, had the same ease of posture, the confident tilt of the head, the personal acceptance and artistic curiosity, the necessity to create, which he showed years later wherever there was music, indoors or out. The extent to which he would be effective in passing on the best of his racial gifts (refined and clarified, with an appeal to all peoples) was not known to him; but the desire for leadership, for doing big things, for giving voice to the whole gamut of emotions, caused him to grow and improve his foothold in several essential respects at once. He shined shoes, but always near the saloons, honky-tonks or barbershops where there was music and talk. He listened and his mind found patterns....
  When he listened to the whites’ European classics or standard pieces, or the mellow smooth Creole band music, or Baptist hymns being transformed into spirituals, he realized that the process of transformation had just begun, and that it impelled an inspired musician to move forward in a continuous present - a maximum of searching, a minimum of static rest or imitation.

Later (in the book’s Envoi), Paul identifies "his feeling for a continuous present", which he had once thought he saw in the writings of Gertrude Stein, with jazz itself. It functioned best, in its halcyon days, in one of those few indoor locales in which Paul ever felt at ease, the brothel "parlour." (He devoted pages of his chapter on New Orleans to Storyville’s "200 bawdy houses.") The latter, jazz-inspired half of That Crazy American Music, some of which had perhaps been research or "treatment" for the film "New Orleans," is a different book, with sustained prose about Bolden, Joe Oliver and Louis Armstrong - who "has furnished as many springboards for creative musicians as Picasso has suggested to modern painters." But the book fades again into only fitful consequence: Paul’s sympathy for "bop" and "be-bop" as legitimate developments in African-American - and therefore American - music, and even a surprising defence of Liberace as a popular entertainer, cannot outweigh his distaste for the contemporary "rock and roll" and in particular the Elvis Presley phenomenon, for Paul a saddening matter of musical dilution and mass marketing. In conclusion, he was ambivalent, embarrassed, and apologetic about his too patched-up cook’s tour of

the essentials of European long-hair music in America, early American pioneer imitations, folk music, Foster, minstrel music, boogie, jazz, Dixieland, swing, small combinations and big bands, Tin Pan Alley songs, vout, rock and roll, college or contrapuntal Jazz; not to mention musical comedy, church music, the blues[, bop and be-bop].2


1 Elliot Paul, That Crazy American Music (Indianapolis and New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1957), 41, 76-80. Published first as That Crazy Music, the Story of American Jazz (London: Frederick Muller, 1957).
2 How little: ibid., 165; Imagine Bolden: ibid., 170-71; Envoi: ibid., 293; Picasso: ibid., 227; the essentials: ibid., 274.

This analysis of That Crazy American Music is taken from Arnold Goldman's biography-in-progress of Elliot Paul. ©Arnold Goldman 2001.

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