- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 21, 2002

Where does music come from? Sometimes we know, and sometimes we don't. When we listen to classical music, like Beethoven or Mahler or Bach, it's easy to picture how the music got from someone's pen to our ears. The same can be said for much of rock and roll: We understand the genesis of music from The Beatles and U2. But there are some genres of music whose origins remain mysteries. Who can tell where "I Got Rhythm," "Body and Soul," or "Mack the Knife" the great standards come from?
Will Friedwald can. In his delightful new book, Stardust Melodies: The Biography of Twelve of America's Most Popular Songs (Pantheon $27.50, 397 pages, illus.), Mr. Friedwald gives miniature histories of some of our best loved pop standards from the '20s and '30s.
For instance, "Mack the Knife," made famous for successive generations by Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and McDonald's commercials, began as a German song, "Moritat." In August, 1928, German composer Kurt Weill and lyricist Bertolt Brecht were putting the final touches on a musical, "Die Dreigroschenoper," an update of John Gay's 1728 "The Beggar's Opera." They decided that their main character, a murderous gangster named MacHeath, was too charming and not quite evil enough.
So they wrote a song for the opening of the show that would catalogue MacHeath's crimes: A corpse is found, a wealthy man and his cashbox disappear, a woman turns up dead with a dagger in her breast, a fire is set in Soho that kills seven, and a young girl is raped in the middle of the night. At every turn, MacHeath is just off-stage, smiling and claiming not to know anything about the crimes. "Die Dreigroschenoper" was a mild success, but "Moritat" became a sensation in Berlin.
Years passed and American producer George Avakian decided to bring "Moritat" to the States, believing that it would make a great jazz song. He got the sheet music and took it to Turk Murphy, a West Coast jazz band leader. Murphy instantly knew the song was ideal for another musician Armstrong. Avakian and Murphy went to see Armstrong to pitch the song to him. After 40 seconds, Armstrong said, "Well I'll be! I used to know some cats like that in New Orleans!" He agreed to record "Mack the Knife," and gave Avakian's sheet music to his valet.
But when Armstrong and his band showed up at the recording studio a few weeks later, the valet had lost the sheet music. So Armstrong and his All-Stars cut the track cold. "Mack the Knife" would go on to become an enormous hit and one of Armstong's signature songs. It would be recorded by everyone from Bobby Darin to Ella Fitzgerald to Bing Crosby.
In one of Mr. Friedwald's asides he relates that Armstrong opened his version by saying "Dig, there goes Mack the Knife," while Crosby opened with "Lay way back, you cats! Dig in! Bivouac! Mr. Mack is movin' in." "Stardust Melodies" is full of such loving details. Mr. Friedwald has given us a literate, engaging, "Behind the Music" for the Jazz Age.

Like it or not, Willie Nelson is the living embodiment of country music. He's a fine tunesmith but not a stellar musician. He is, however, like Paul Cantor's Gilligan, the democratic man, par excellence. The secret of his success is that he is the quintessential 20th-century American.
It is to Mr. Nelson's credit that his book, The Facts of Life: and Other Dirty Jokes (Random House, $21.95, 232 pages), was not ghost written. Instead, it is pure Willie Nelson a loosely assembled amalgam of travel notes, meditations on life, autobiography, song lyrics, and dirty jokes. Mr. Nelson is equal parts minstrel, scoundrel, and cowboy and all of it's genuine. When he talks about his ex-wives, there's love and remorse. When he talks about his music, there's unaffected wonder. When he talks about life, there's no nonsense.
An inveterate dope smoker, Mr. Nelson gives four reasons not to toke up: "1) It's too expensive. It costs more than gold. 2) Over usage will cause you to get bronchitis. 3) You'll smell like a skunk. 4) Everytime someone says anything negative about smoking pot, you become somewhat hostile and start yakking about how hemp could save the world, and you start quoting page after page of The Emperor Wears No Clothes, and you wind up only sounding like a pothead trying to justify your habit."
In his songs and his writing, Mr. Nelson calls 'em like he sees 'em.

Some day a great novel will be written about gangster rap. Everything about the music lends itself to fiction, from the bluster and cruelty of its lyrics to the desperation and ambition of its performers. Mark Goldblatt has taken a first crack at the gangster-rap novel with Africa Speaks (Permanent Press, $24, 176 pages) and while he comes up short, it's an admirable failure.
"Africa Speaks" is a series of first-person monologues, given mostly by Africa Ali, a young gangster from New York City. The conceit of the book is that Africa has consented to being part of a study, and is speaking into a tape recorder while being interviewed by a white sociologist. Africa talks about his father and Islam and life on the streets. He talks about dealing drugs and his gang, the 149th Street Crew. Periodically, his friends appear to give short monologues of their own.
Every so often, Africa raps, singing: "You face the wrath of the Nubian pasttalking 'bout outerspace, / The math gods that filled the caves with a pale face."
Mr. Goldblatt, a columnist and Bible studies professor, is white. "Africa Speaks" is filled with "authentic" language, which is to say that it is filled with anti-Semitism, misogyny, and lots of bad words. But while Mr. Goldblatt gets the idiom down, he misses out on the bigger picture of what motivates the young black men who turn to the gangster life. He draws Africa as more Leonard Jeffries than Tupac Shakur, and consequently misses the awful, compelling beauty of gangster rap music.
At its best, gangster rap is the last authentic bastion of American tragedy. The men who pioneered the form, such as, Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre, and the Notorious B.I.G., started out in life as criminals. They joined gangs and dealt drugs for a living, in an attempt to make enough money to lift themselves out of poverty. Many of them spent time in prison. They eventually found success in music by making records about their lives. Suddenly these men were accepted into civilized society and showered with riches. They had been given the winning lottery ticket that they always longed for.
But they could leave the gangster life behind. They treated the music business as if it were gang warfare, traveling in heavily armed convoys, making threats and starting fights. They started shooting at each other, and eventually some of them died.
There is a terrible authenticity to gangster rap which is missing from "Africa Speaks." Mr. Goldblatt has the language right, but the subjects and the posture wrong. He understands how men like Africa might talk, but not what they would talk about, or how they would view their world and their actions. But his inauthenticity his whiteness isn't what dooms Mr. Goldblatt; it's his misunderstanding of classical drama.
A gangster who does not know himself is just a thug, but a gangster with self-knowledge is, like Macbeth and hundreds of figures in literature before him, a tragedy. For all of his tough talk and pretentious philosophizing, Mr. Goldblatt's Africa is just a thug.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide