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Music of the Month – July 2021

Posted about 3 years ago by Ben Himmelfarb
Posted in Book Reviews
Music Of The Month is a monthly round-up of RPL’s music-related programs and resources.

Gellman Room Concerts

The 2020-2021 Gellman Room Concert season is complete, but you can always watch past concerts on RPL’s YouTube page. If you watched April 24’s concert by River City Opera, check out the list of pieces they performed here.

From Our Collection

Summer is here and, with it, come certain musical and aesthetic associations. People have long used music to describe and evoke (or take the edge off of) heat and the sun. RPL’s extensive music collection includes items that show the different creative and commercial products of various tropical, summer-y lineages.

Bud Tutmarc’s “Paradise Isle” and the packaging it comes in are a paradigmatic example of mid-20th century tropical kitsch. The record sleeve says the song “wings you to Hawaii,” where you can “let your feet dangle over Hawaiian musical cliffs and enjoy breathtaking moments of enchantment.” Tutmarc was from the Pacific Northwest, where he encountered the influence of music from the Pacific islands.

Bill Wolfgramme’s “On The Beach At Waikiki” is another example of mid-century Hawaiian/tiki culture, this time from a more credible musician who was born in Tonga and found fame in New Zealand. So-called “tiki culture” was really an American product that idealized and exoticized parts of indigenous South Pacific life, and sometimes invented its own. Music was one area where the kitschy marketing of music from the South Pacific belied an authentic, unique traditional form of steel guitar music. Just as the United States’ political and military expansion into the Pacific during World War II and the mid-20th century was the material basis for the growth of so-called “tiki” culture, the growth of California in the 1950s and early 1960s produced a new summer-themed musical culture: surf.

According to David Szatmary in A Time To Rock: A Social History of Rock n’ Roll, “buoyant surf music, born amid the California boom, reflected and promoted the myth of the California wonderland.” Dick Dale and the Del-TonesThe Beach Boys, and Jan and Dean all topped the charts with surf-related music. In a mutually reinforcing cycle of marketing and personal experience, surf music is now part of the “sound of summer.”

People who were adolescents during the heyday of surf music are the fanbase for figures of eternal summer to follow, most famously Jimmy Buffett. Buffett’s music is just one part of his cultural impact. On the cover of A Pirate Looks At Fifty, Buffett is shown ankle deep in sand with a laptop, presumably working on the very same book. Buffett’s music, lifestyle, and tropical geography are the apotheosis of American popular culture’s mix of tiki kitsch, surf music, Caribbean music traditions, and capitalist marketing.

Reggae is another musical tradition that emerged in a tropical island climate. Reggae, and earlier calypso, mento, and ska, emerged from a cosmopolitan Caribbean culture that combined African, European, and American musical traditions–whether recorded and folk. In So Much Things to Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley, friends and fellow musicians recall how Bob Marley wrote “Sun Is Shining” and “Misty Morning” during a country retreat from increasing fame in Jamaica on “a beautiful piece of land between two mountains.” For great deep cuts and hard-to-find tracks from the Caribbean, check out Trojan Records albums and compilations on Hoopla!

Staff Playlist

Nicole B. says summer music reminds her of bands like Sublime and 311.

Nancy B. says her summer music is “Dancing In The Street” by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and tunes like “Under The Boardwalk” or “Up On The Roof” by The Drifters. Learn more about the history of the 1964 song “Dancing In The Street” in Mark Kurlansky’s book Ready for a brand new beat : how “Dancing in the street” became the anthem for a changing America. For a historical perspective on mass displays of joy, irreverance, protest, and celebration, check out Barbara Ehrenreich’s Dancing in the streets: a history of collective joy.

Summer B. says Fela Kuti’s music reminds her of summer. Check out the Young Adult nonfiction book Black music greats: 40 inspiring icons and Alex Gibney’s film Finding Fela for more information on Kuti.

Ben Himmelfarb

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