A few weeks ago, my wife and I had one of our occasional date nights, when we call a sitter to watch the kids for a few hours and head out on the town for drinks, dinner, and dancing – only without the dancing (though we used to!). It’s one of those pleasures we allow ourselves, because we still remember the days when we could do it any old night we wanted, before the maternity wards and diapers made their first appearance.
On this night, we headed up to the Canary Wharf section of London. We had reservations to eat at a steakhouse at around 8:30 pm, which means we had a couple hours to kill before eating (the sitter showed up at 6:30 pm). We wound up in one of my fave new spots –TAM’s Vineyard & Jazz Club, a cool little hang in the basement of a millennial-friendly food/wine/craft beer market.
The TAM is done up in a kind of retro/shabby/loungey vibe, all dark walls, mismatched furniture, and soft lighting. I go up there every couple of weeks to catch their Wednesday night jazz jam.
The club is located in a very modern and relaxed part of town, away from the noise and grime of Old London. People who know such things compare it to Singapore, because it’s clean and modern, with shiny new buildings, plenty of water (in the form of canals), and lots of open green space. Many of the locals look down on it, but I’m guessing more than a few expats love it for the very reason many locals look down on it.
Anyway, date night. We caught the beginning of a performance by the Davide Mazza Duo, consisting of a guitar player and harmonica player, both from Italy. They played American blues music that would have sounded perfectly at home in a Mississippi juke joint, circa 1954.
For the 2,000th time in my life, all I could think about was this: These two Italian dudes in London were playing the music whose roots come from a tiny, microscopic portion of the world I happened to be born and raised in: the Southeastern region of the United States. Those musical roots eventually led to a handful of genres that have dominated the global pop charts for the past century and counting.
I went home and did some research. The largest countries in the world by surface area are Russia (3.35%), Canada (1.96%), and China (1.88%). The other nations that surpass the 1% mark for surface area include the United States (1.87%), Brazil (1.67%), and Australia (1.51%).
The Southeastern portion of the U.S. – which we will henceforth refer to as “the South” – makes up about 0.01% of the global land mass. It makes up about 0.016% of the world’s population.
But chances are, just about all the popular music you hear today was born in the American South, comprised of a dozen or so individual states. The South is where the blues was born. And jazz. And rock n’ roll. And rhythm and blues, country music, and, indirectly, hip hop. Hip hop was officially born in the Bronx, New York. But there would have been no hip hop without the R&B/funk sound rooted in the South.
Everywhere we travel – either in this part of the world or elsewhere – you hear music that took root in the American South. Just in our five years living in London and bouncing around Europe, I’ve heard country music in Paris, jazz in Copenhagen, blues in Amsterdam, rock in Glasgow, R&B in Lisbon, and hip hop in Barcelona. This happens consistently, all the time, in every city. None of this music existed before Southern musicians either invented it or invented the forms that led to it.
There should be no logical reason that I can sit in a bar in Paris and hear American country music. There is nothing about Paris that conjures up images of country music. I am pretty sure I have never once in my life heard traditional French accordion music while sitting in a bar in the USA – or any other bar outside of France, for that matter.
Copenhagen became one of the world’s great jazz cities last century, and remains so to this day. But there was nothing about Danish music that remotely resembled jazz before the American jazz artists carried it across the Atlantic. The same can be said of Tokyo, another jazz capital whose native music has no relation at all to American jazz.
For a couple of decades, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, the best rock n’ roll in the world arguably came from the UK (Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Van, Who, Cream, Traffic, Zeppelin, Floyd, Elton, Pistols, Clash, E. Costello, Dire Straits, Police – you get the idea). But nothing about traditional British music resembles the blues that led to rock n’ roll.
Of all the American musical forms that sprang from the South, probably none has stretched wider or deeper than hip hop. It’s simply everywhere, in every nation, in every language, across geographic and cultural divides. Name a country, and it has a list of hip hop artists ready to lay down fresh rhymes for the Sean Jean crew. We hear it all the time, along with all the other musical genres with roots in the American South.
This is when I remind our two daughters that they were both born in North Carolina, in the American South, which planted the seed for just about all the popular music they hear.
To which our oldest daughter now replies: “Yes, but it has its deeper roots in Africa.” (One of her middle-school classes has focused on Black American music this term, so she knows of what she speaks).
Which is true. Four of the five main ingredients in popular music over the past century – blues, jazz, R&B (including soul and funk), and hip hop – were all borne from the music of African slaves who wound up in the American South. The other main influence – country music, also born in the American South – traces its roots to the highlands/folk music of Scotland, Ireland, and England, but also with a heavy dose of Black American blues.
Now, let us pause to recognize that there are plenty of other musical forms that originated elsewhere, ranging from European classical music to African music, Latin American music, Caribbean music, Indian music, Middle Eastern music, east Asian music, native American music, South Pacific music, etc. They have plenty of fans in their own right, and have influenced plenty of other sounds.
But how many of them gave birth to specific genres that came to dominate the world’s pop charts? You could say Jamaican music, but it might never have evolved without the early jazz/blues/R&B influence of New Orleans and other Southern cities.
K-pop from South Korea is one of the hottest musical genres around these days, but it’s basically a mishmash of hip hop, disco, and other sounds that got their start in Southern blues.
Techno might have partly developed in Europe by experimental electronic groups, but they all borrowed heavily from American dance beats that borrowed heavily from Black Southern rhythms.
The top YouTube songs of 2022 – nearly none of which I have actually heard before writing this blog – are heavy on hip hop, pop and techno sounds that, again, evolved from the black music of the American south. For more about how all that came to be, here’s a decent primer from Smithsonian that goes into the roots of African American music.
Now, a cynic might say that all this Southern American music spread so far and wide because of the Mighty American Marketing Machine. The folks in the suits and ties recorded it, packaged it, marketed it, and sold it like the business geniuses they are. Okay, fine.
But people also had to buy it – and they did, in droves, like crazy, like f’ing fanatics. The French and Japanese became semi-obsessed with jazz. The Brits gobbled up so many American rock n’ roll records that they would sell out overnight even during periods of economic distress. Hip hop is ravenously consumed by nations in Africa, South America, Asia and everywhere else. It’s not like these folks needed a lot of convincing.
If it all came down to marketing, then the right marketing guru would have turned Polka into an international sensation. And some tried. But you know, it didn’t really take off….
I come here not to lay claim to musical greatness just because I rubbed shoulders against it as a kid growing up in the American south. I suck as a musician, but I am a good listener.
I just think it’s amazing that so much of what we hear today owes its roots to a tiny slice of the world that was once best known for producing cotton picked by slaves who were shipped across the Atlantic hundreds of years ago.
Those slaves carried their African musical traditions with them, mixed it up with gospel music taught to them by their white, Christian slaveowners, tossed in more expressive techniques borne of pain and suffering – along with heaping helpings of humor, wit, and bombast – and somehow created a sound that would one day evolve and expand until it reached from Mississippi to Monaco and Malaysia, Morocco, Malta, Montenegro, Mexico, Mozambique, and Meverything Minbetween.
That’s a Minor Miracle to Me.
Note: The photo collage includes (clockwise, from upper left) Bessie Smith, Hank Williams (the first and only, as far as I’m concerned), Beyonce, John Coltrane, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and the Allman Brothers Band. Southerners all.