Sunday, December 07, 2008

"White trash" folks are good for something other than cannon fodder

Of Rolling Stone's top 100 singers, 28 are white male Americans. The interesting fact is that 13 were born in the South. Even more interesting, most of these Southerners grew up poor. Elvis Presley, the third best singer on the list after Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, is a good example. His father was a sharecropper and a truck driver.

The vast majority of all the white males have English, Scottish, and/or Irish ancestries. The only men I found with some German in the family line are Bruce Springsteen, Greg Allman, Axl Rose, and Steven Tyler. While Italian Americans like Frank Sinatra dominated big band music, the only vocalists with some reported Italian blood that made this rock-dominated list are Springsteen, Tyler, and Frankie Valli. For such a small group, Jews did just fine with Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and Art Garfunkel.

Why so many white southerners? Well, popular music requires singers with soul, naturalness, and unschooled talent, and Scots-Irish men of humble origins seems to have it. I might be tempted to suggest that people with lower average IQs (e.g., blacks) tend to be more in touch with their instincts, but Jews contradict the idea. (Plus, I imagine that successful singers have above average IQs relative to their group). Another possibility is that there is greater extraversion among southerners, an important trait for performing.

Southern men also seem to have voices that are more resonant and lower. This isn't valued particularly with many types of popular music, but country western fans are drawn to it. Buddy Holly didn't have it, but it sure helped Johnny Cash and George Jones.

Women from the South didn't do too badly either. Of the nine white American women on the list, three were southerners: Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, and Janis Joplin. All three had a lot of passion, and Cline even had resonance like the men.

Keep in mind that so many of these men made a list that was chosen by music elites in places like L.A. and New York. People there are not known for their love of southern whites.

I guess "white trash" folks are good for something other than cannon fodder.


agnostic said...

Don't you see the same in Great Britain? Most famous rock singers seem to be Irish or Scottish, not English (or at least, Irish & Scottish are over-represented).

You need to be pretty rambunctious to be a popular musician, so a too-civilized race like the English or Germans are going to fare worse than the Scottish.

Carroll's encyclopedia *Human Cognitive Abilities* shows that most musical skills increase with higher IQ, except for the rhythmic ones (they're not *negatively* associated with IQ, though). So, most people with good rhythm won't be biased toward high or low IQ.

luis said...

"Southern men also seem to have voices that are more resonant and lower"

You and I must have a different set of ears: I don't find southern voices resonant, nor low.

Whiskey said...

Good rhythm is not the important thing Agnostic -- it is good melody married to rhythm. The Beatles being a point in case, also the Rolling Stones.

The English historically have been viewed, quite accurately, as drunkard louts until the Victorians through the early part of Elizabeth II. Most English were drunk most of their lives up until the reforms under Victoria's father King Billy. See Dalrymple's latest column in City Journal. Germans also have historically been viewed as rowdy degenerates -- a full third of German speakers were killed in the Thirty Years War, and unification and rule of law came quite late. Germany was the land of constant Catholic-Protestant strife, a zillion principalities, and lots and lots of weaponry.

I think the key to popular music is emotional expressionism. Listening to the Teaching Company course on appreciating Opera, you can trace the rise of emotional expressionism in Europe pre-Opera with singers, who sang first in Gregorian type chants, then some fairly complex but lacking in emotional range choruses (different keys for different singers, interweaving the basic melodies), through the chansons and finally Opera.

First, emotional expression requires deep emotions. A connection to life's events: births, deaths, marriages, romantic disappointment, loneliness, and so on. Middle class WASP society in the North and Midwest had relatively little of that, with the mass-media overwhelming native emotionalism and insulating people from these deep emotions.

White Southerners had relatively little mass-media, a connection to Black music with strong emotional expressionism, often through regional radio, and most importantly a tradition in Church of emotional expression in singing every Sunday. Elvis loved Gospel, for example, and Cash often like Elvis sang in Church.

Which leads to the second point. Music was integral part of their lives growing up, lacking formal Juillard training they nevertheless from early childhood on received apprenticeship type training in what works and does not in moving emotions, often "higher" emotions of loneliness and redemption (harder to do than pure sexual desire or romantic disappointment) in on-the-job training. In front of real live audiences.

Part of the problem of Black and White music's decline has been the decline of young people in the informal academies of Church choirs. Men and women by the age of 18 don't already have a firm understanding of what works and what fails to move listeners.

It is my position that the informal, "hidden" but in retrospect obvious institutions form the basis for most social activities. Music is no different.

RobertHume said...

Reference more your previous post, it occurs to me that the rise of rap may reflect the decline in church attendance among young black men. They no longer sang in church, didn't learn harmony, how to sing ... so they turned to rap.

In general we may look forward to a decline in music as the influence of church music declines.

ziel said...

What amazes me is there's not an Italian-American in the bunch! Never mind the generation before rock (Sinatra, Bennet, Martin, Damone, Laine, Como) but in the pre-Rolling Stone rock'n'roll era there were Bobby Darin, Dino Demucci, Frankie Avalon, Danny and the Juniors, any number of Doo-Wop groups and of course Frankie Valli who I'm somewhat surprised is not on the list.

I guess the Italian culture favored clear, stylish singers and that did not translate to the rock era very well, where (at least white male) performers were expected to mumble, whine, or emote their way through songs or else sound as much like a black man as possible.

Off hand the only male Italian rock singers of the Rolling Stone era I can think of are Felix Cavaliere and Jon Bon Jovi - hardly deserving of Top 100 status.

SFG said...

yeah, ziel. The Italians have a great tradition of classical music, it's too bad there's no way to capitalize on it today...

I sense some defensiveness here; whoever said Southerners were only good for cannon fodder?

As for rambunctiousness and Winehouse?