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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 7 The Sixties
Richard Taruskin

This fusion of purviews in a single critical patchwork was inspired by rock, or rather by rock's success in overthrowing social hierarchies as expressed in music. Rock as a democratizing force had strong repercussions within all other fields of musical production, influencing all of the genres (folk, jazz, classical) that had formerly been considered alien or antithetical (in a word, superior) to the commercial pop scene. The influence of rock as a democratizing or leveling force on these other genres produced furious controversies. In particular, it inspired backlashes from those interested in insulating or protecting the “authenticity” of the non-pop genres from commercial contamination.

The infiltration of “folk” began with covers. In 1965, a band called the Byrds recorded Bob Dylan's “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the anthem of the drug counterculture, with amplified instruments and a heavy dance beat, and sold a million copies, many times more than Dylan's original recording. Three years later they began giving songs by Dylan, Pete Seeger, and even Woody Guthrie (1912–67), the left-leaning patriarch of the folk scene and Dylan's mentor, the full high-tech electronic studio treatment. That much was legitimate business.

But when Dylan himself took up the use of electrically amplified instruments, many of his fans regarded it as an act of betrayal. He was heckled at the Newport Folk Festival in the summer of 1965 and actually booed the following year while touring in England. A serious motorcycle accident later in 1966 caused a lengthy withdrawal from live performance, during which time he forswore the rock influence and went back to acoustic instruments. (The songs he recorded during this period—the “basement tapes” as they are called—have become cult classics.) But as many sensed at Newport, including Pete Seeger and the folk song collector Alan Lomax, who, according to a durable legend, together tried backstage to sever Dylan's power cables with an ax, Dylan's defection doomed pure “folk” as a genre with a mass following.

“Within a year,” Greil Marcus has written, “Dylan's performance would have changed all the rules of folk music—or, rather, what had been understood as folk music would as a cultural force have all but ceased to exist.”35 All the “folk” singers who grew up along with Dylan—Joni Mitchell; Peter, Paul, and Mary—had to convert to a rock style or face effective extinction. Resistance and resentment, at first, were as much social as musical. To the folk elite, as Mike Bloomfield, Dylan's lead guitarist at Newport, testified in retrospect, “rock was greasers, heads, dancers, people who got drunk and boogied”36 —that is, people who didn't know how to dress or behave at concerts, and who used illicit substances.


fig. 7-7 Miles Davis, 1960s.

Even greater controversy (because it entailed race among its social issues) surrounded the jazz-rock fusions that began to take place at the end of the 1960s. Again, it was the perceived “defection” of a universally acknowledged “great” that brought matters to a head. Miles Davis (1926–91) was one of the leaders, in the late 1940s, in the rise of bebop, jazz's most esoteric and individualist (that is, modernist) phase. As such, he was conspicuous within the jazz faction most self-consciously concerned with the identity of their music as an art form, as distinct from entertainment. Davis acted the role of artist, “disinterestedly” concerned with beauty rather than interested in fame or fortune, with special vehemence, even going so far as to play at times with his back to the audience and leave the stage without acknowledging applause. But he was also, in the words of the critic Barry Kernfeld (writing in the New Grove Dictionary of American Music), “the most consistently innovative musician in jazz from the late 1940s through the 1960s,”37 which also reflected his voraciously modernist bent.

It created a dilemma for his admirers, therefore, when Davis's questing spirit led him, beginning in 1968, to collaborate with “sidemen” or accompanying artists who played electric keyboards and guitars, and drummers who backed his improvisations with a heavy rock beat, an alla breve beat that seemed like jazz at half speed, subdivided (to compound the transgression) equally rather than into the swinging “jazz eighths” rhythm that for many was the indispensable hallmark of true jazz. Two Miles Davis albums, In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, lit a fire of debate that even two decades later had not died down. As late as 1990, the African-American jazz critic Stanley Crouch pronounced a ringing anathema on them in The New Republic, a journal of opinion mainly read by the white liberal establishment:

And then came the fall. In a Silent Way, in 1969, long, maudlin, boasting, Davis's sound mostly lost among electronic instruments, was no more than droning wallpaper music. A year later, with Bitches Brew, Davis was firmly on the path of the sellout. It sold more than any other Davis album, and fully launched jazz rock with its multiple keyboards, electronic guitars, static beats, and clutter. Davis's music became progressively trendy and dismal. His albums of recent years prove beyond any doubt that he has lost all interest in music of quality.38

There is no need to make a musical test of these claims, because it is clear that the complaint is not musical but social. It is the very presence of rock (embodied in its “electronic” instrumentarium) that is decried, in a strangely inverted replay of the original fear of transgression or “cultural miscegenation,” now manifested from the black perspective. Despite its roots in R&B, rock was since the British invasion irrevocably identified as a white genre, and its infestation of jazz was regarded, in the words of the playwright and black nationalist Amiri Baraka (originaly named LeRoi Jones, b. 1934), as a “desouling process.”39 When, finally, a white jazz critic, John Litweiler, seconded the rhetoric, and made it even more pointed (comparing the new Davis sound to “the enduring, debilitated stimulation of a three-day drunk on white port wine”40), the cult of authenticity took on a familiar colonialist tinge. Jazz-rock fusion, it was argued, appealed mainly to the rock audience, namely middle-class, educated whites, and was therefore inauthentic. (But by then, “pure” jazz was also playing chiefly to a white audience, ironically enough, even if it was performed by blacks.) The main difference, and it was a big difference, was in the size of the audience, not its racial complexion. The underlying issue, as usual, was commercial appeal, and the mixed scorn and envy that it inspired.


(35) Greil Marcus, Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes (New York: Henry Holt, 1997), p. 13.

(36) Quoted in Marcus, Invisible Republic, p. 14.

(37) Barry Kernfeld, “Davis, Miles (Dewey, III),” in New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Vol. I (London: Macmillan, 1986), p. 585.

(38) Stanley Crouch, “Play the Right Thing,” The New Republic, 12 February 1990, p. 35.

(39) Quoted in Gary Tomlinson, “Cultural Dialogics and Jazz: A White Historian Signifies,” in Disciplining Music: Musicology and Its Canons, eds. Katherine Bergeron and Philip V. Bohlman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 83.

(40) Ibid., p. 79.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 The Sixties." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-007006.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 The Sixties. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-007006.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 The Sixties." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-007006.xml