Illinois scholar’s book examines how popular music connects to the past

John Paul Meyers writes about rock, hip hop,and jazz
John Paul Meyers
Although popular music is associated with youth and newness, it has a deep relationship with the past, said professor of African American studies John Paul Meyers. He writes about the widespread practice of invoking the past in rock, hip hop and jazz in his new book “Same Old Song: The Enduring Past in Popular Music.” Meyers is pictured with a Victrola record player from the collection at the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music, located in the Harding Band Building. (Photo by Fred Zwicky.)

Popular music is associated with youth, newness and originality. Yet such music has a deep relationship with the past through sampling, covers and commemorative reissues of decades-old recordings, tours by artists from the 1960s and ‘70s, and performances by tribute bands.

In his new book, “Same Old Song: The Enduring Past in Popular Music,” John Paul Meyers, an ethnomusicologist and a professor of African American studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, looks at what he calls “historical consciousness in popular music” — a sense in popular music culture that the past is worth remembering, celebrating and replaying.

“An emphasis on new artists and the cutting edge is the dominant way of understanding and thinking about popular music. I was interested in things that challenged that dominant narrative — all these moments of people engaging with the past in ways that were meaningful for them as musicians and for listeners as well,” Meyers said.

Invoking the past is a widespread and underappreciated practice in many genres, including rock, hip hop and jazz, he said. An example is Beyoncé’s last two albums. Her recent country music album features a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and an appearance by Willie Nelson. “This huge pop star is making a record that is about reclaiming the history of Black engagement with country music,” Meyers said. Beyoncé’s prior album paid homage to the house music of the 1980s and ‘90s.

Technology makes it easy for listeners to find music from the past on Spotify or YouTube and that’s contributed to greater engagement with it, Meyers said.

Book cover
“Same Old Song: The Enduring Past in Popular Music," by John Paul Meyers. (Photo by Fred Zwicky.)

In his book, he looks at five genres of music and how they’ve connected to the past. Rock music in the 1960s and ‘70s has remained popular with the baby boomer generation, who associate it with their youth. Through their sheer demographic power, baby boomers successfully produced an interest in it in successive generations, he said. The music can be experienced through commemorative box sets of recordings, exhibits at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, documentaries and tribute bands.

Likewise, the music of the 1970s is a source of inspiration to contemporary Black artists. A defining feature of hip hop is its use of 1960s and ‘70s soul and funk instrumental tracks, Meyers said.

“The 1970s was an important time in African American memory and is remembered in a really positive way. After the gains of the Civil Rights movement of the ‘60s and before deindustrialization, Reaganomics and the rise of crack cocaine and the policing of it, there was relative stability and prosperity,” he said. “The music carries the weight of the soundtrack of that time. There’s an idea that if it’s incorporated into new hip hop tracks, maybe it can repair the social bonds that were fractured by later developments.”

Black artists also take inspiration from the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s to inspire similar political engagement and activism today, particularly in songs addressing issues such as police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement, Meyers said.

He examined how singers, beginning with Ella Fitzgerald, have recorded the music of the Great American Songbook — songs written between the 1902s and 1960s — to establish musical credibility and claim artistic depth. Musicians that include Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt and Bob Dylan have recorded songbook standards that are viewed as timeless and holding an appeal for adults rather than young people.

“The common view is that this music of the past is historically important and might be better than the more modern, youth-oriented music because you can express deeper emotions. But it was originally written by and for young people,” Meyers said.

Technology also played a part in its appeal. It was available at the same time exposure to radio, movies and TV became widespread, he said.

In his chapter on jazz standards, Meyers focused on the music of Miles Davis, whose work changed substantially over the course of his long career. As with many jazz musicians, Davis played standards in the early part of his career. As his music became more experimental and avant-garde, he dropped all but one. Davis continued to play various interpretations of “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” a 1944 Great American Songbook standard, for many years after he abandoned similar tunes, Meyers said.

“It’s a recognizable melody that is still proving useful to him in the ‘60s to try to bring listeners along on the radical changes he was making. Typically, jazz musicians play music from the past and improvise on that. Miles was doing that. A traditional jazz audience is looking for a relationship with the musical past,” he said. “Eventually he’s trying to appeal to an audience that doesn’t have those associations anymore. He’s not going for a traditional jazz audience, but a younger, Blacker, countercultural audience, so he stops playing this song they don’t know.”

Meyers concluded that historical consciousness is a widespread characteristic in popular music culture and it will continue to be, but the musical past that the musicians reference will vary with who they are.

“It has largely been white critics and historians who have had the institutional power to document musical pasts. There are other musical pasts people are going to find interesting,” such as the music of Black, queer and Latino communities, he said.

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Jodi Heckel, Illinois News Bureau