Why We Should Teach Music History Backwards

Rock fans do their own investigative work to understand their favorite groups’ influences. So why can’t the rest of us get with the program?

Sam Smith and Mary J Blige
History in the making: Sam Smith performs with Mary J. Blige, one of his main influences. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/Corbis

The problem with music history is it’s almost always presented in the wrong direction: forward, from the beginning of something to the end. History would be more meaningful if it were taught backwards.

Think about it: how does one discover and fall in love with the music by the likes of the Black Keys? Is it through first investigating Charley Patton and then working the way through Son House, the Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd till finally reaching the Ohio-based blues-rock band? Not if you’re under 35, because by the time you began listening to music, the Black Keys were already part of your world. Once hooked, you love them so much that you read every interview to find out who influenced them. That’s how you and other true fans find out about the backwards progression to North Mississippi Allstars, R.L. Burnside, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and then finally back to Charley Patton.

Fo their part, the Beatles and Rolling Stones sent music lovers scouring for recordings by Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters in the dusty back bins of the local department store. Holly and Perkins in turn led to Elvis Presley, who led to Bill Monroe and Hank Williams. Berry and Waters led to Howlin’ Wolf, who led to Robert Johnson, and then once again, back to Charley Patton.

That’s how we learn about music: backwards, always backwards. We don’t start our investigations at some arbitrarily chosen point in the past; we begin where we are, from our current burning passion. This is the most effective kind of learning, driven by emotion rather than obligation. If learning is best done this way, shouldn’t music history writing and teaching be done in the same backwards direction?

Obvious problems present themselves. In the history of Western narrative, stories have always been told in the forward direction—with such rare exceptions as playwright Harold Pinter's Betrayal, “Seinfeld”’s riff on Pinter, and the noir thriller Memento, written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. Authors want to give us the earliest incident first and the subsequent incidents later, the cause first and then the effect. But when it comes to cultural history, we already know the effect, because we’re living with it. What we’re curious about is the cause.

The solution to this conundrum is the flashback, a common device in modern fiction. Within each flashback scene, the action and dialogue move forward—even the most sophisticated readers aren’t ready for backwards dialogue. But through the skillful manipulation of such scenes, writers and teachers can lead readers and students backwards through history, reinforcing the audience’s natural inclination.

How might this work? Suppose we were teaching a class of high school students about American music. Where would we begin? We might start with the Brit-soul singer Sam Smith singing his signature song, “Stay with Me.” When that song, its album, In the Lonely Hour, and the singer swept four of this year’s biggest Grammy Awards—Best Record, Best Song, Best Pop Vocal Album and Best New Artist—the natural reaction was to ask, “Where did this come from?”

Sam Smith - Stay With Me

It’s not that Smith is merely copying the past, for he and his producers/co-writers have honed the R&B ballad tradition to a new leanness: the simple drum thump and half-note piano chords allow Smith’s honeyed tenor to remain so conversational that it feels like we’re eavesdropping on his mumbled plea to a departing lover. But Smith is not inventing this sound from scratch either, and the curious young listener is going to want to know what he borrowed. (Curious listeners may be a minority of all listeners, but they’re a significant minority—and it’s for them that music critics write.) Smith is transforming arena-rock anthems by setting their clarion melodies in hymn-like arrangements. With “Stay with Me,” the rock source material (“I Won’t Back Down”) was so obvious that Smith had to share writing credits with Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne.

So we critics must lead those listeners backwards through history. We don’t have to go very far to hear Smith confessing his debt to Mary J. Blige. “I remember holding her Breakthrough album,” Smith confesses in an interview snippet on Blige's newest record, London Sessions. “Holding it in my hands, in my car, listening to it on repeat. To me she was this untouchable goddess.” Smith repays that debt by co-writing four of the new disc's dozen songs with Blige, including the first single, “Therapy,” an obvious allusion to “Rehab” by another Brit-soul singer, the late Amy Winehouse.

Mary J. Blige - Therapy (1 Mic 1 Take)

Blige sounds revitalized on The London Sessions, as if working with Smith and his British colleagues had returned her to the days of 2005’s The Breakthrough, when her all her collaborations with rappers such as Ghostface Killah, Nas and Jay-Z allowed her to refashion R&B by replacing maximalist arrangements with minimalist beats and romantic sentiment with streetwise skepticism. But let’s go backwards even further and find out where Blige found her sound.

If her attitude and backing tracks came out of the hip-hop scene in the Bronx, where she was born, the vibrancy of her big mezzo was inspired by gospel-soul singers such as Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and Anita Baker.

Blige recorded songs made famous by all three of those role models early in her career, and got her start singing in churches in Georgia and the Yonkers, where she spent her troubled childhood. Like Blige, Franklin was a church soloist and a child-abuse victim, according to Respect, the new biography by David Ritz. That dramatic combination of deep wounds and yearning for redemption marks both singers.

Following our historical trail backwards, we find ourselves in 1956 at Detroit's New Bethel Baptist Church, where the 14-year-old Franklin is singing hymns from her new gospel album. She has been touring with her famous preacher father C.L. Franklin and such gospel stars as Sam Cooke, Clara Ward and Inez Andrews, and the teenage prodigy already displays the robust warmth and piercing urgency of those role models. But she also hints at something extra, a cutting edge that comes not from buttery bounty of the “Gospel Queen” Mahalia Jackson but from the guitar-playing gospel renegade: Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

So we go back even further and find ourselves at New York’s Carnegie Hall on December 23, 1938, as the 23-year-old Tharpe performs in the legendary “From Spirituals to Swing” concert organized by John Hammond, who would later sign Franklin to Columbia Records and produce her early albums. This show introduces white New York audiences to the genius of African-American artists such as Tharpe, Count Basie, Joe Turner, James P. Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy, and kicks off the boogie-woogie craze with appearances by pianists Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons. Ammons accompanies Tharpe on her two songs, and she steals the show. When she sings her recent hit, “Rock Me,” the lyrics may be asking God to rock her in the bosom of Abraham, but her voice and guitar are hinting at another kind of rocking.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe - Didn't It Rain

They are also hinting at how easily a love song to God can be turned into a love song for a more earthly creature and how that porous boundary will inspire Franklin, Cooke, Blige, Winehouse, Smith and much of the rest of Anglo-American music for the next 77 years.

If we had tried to tell this story forward, we would have lost most of our audience once they encountered Tharpe’s old-fashioned dresses, twangy guitar and sanctified lyrics. But by telling the story backwards, we were able to lead our listeners from their existing enthusiasm for Smith to newfound excitement over Blige and then Franklin. When our reverse historical journey finally reached Tharpe, our fellow travelers were primed to embrace a spectacular talent they may never have bothered with coming from any other direction.

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