At work, we’ve been listening to the Radio Museum’s station (102.3 FM, KMRE). This is mostly my doing, since I’m an absolute sucker for old jazz and swing recordings, and the choice of music gets mixed reactions from our patients–generally, if anyone comments at all, it’s the older folks appreciating the nostalgic tunes and the fact that at least some of the younger generations still listen to them, or it’s the middle-aged children of the older folks, rolling their eyes at the cheesy lyrics and peppy trumpet solos that they tend to associate with their parents’ nostalgia. But if there’s one comment that I’ve heard that baffles me, it’s the references to those old recordings as “innocent.”
Innocent? I know that some of the love and love-lost songs do sound this way, but I don’t think I could call an era of two World Wars, a Depression and, oh, yeah, some bitter Civil Rights struggles “innocent,” especially not when I take into consideration songs like Studs Terkel’s “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”, or Billie Holiday’s eerie, chokingly sad “Strange Fruit.” Having sat down several times to listen to the lyrics of “Strange Fruit” (and it’s the sort of song that blindsides you, that makes you sit down and listen to it), I can’t help but hear that eeriness, that anger and sense of ugly injustice, in every one of Holiday’s songs.
I cannot think of a less innocent song, not even taking Marilyn Manson and Britney and 50Cent into account.
But I suppose that’s exactly what “innocent” means in this context–there’s no screaming, no reference to cop-killing or suicide or pimpin’ or drugs (though Billie Holiday worked as a prostitute when she was young, and eventually died of liver disease due to heavy drinking and drug addiction). Maybe Holiday is an exception, given her tulmutuous personal life, but I doubt it. I think many people are inclined, myself included, to view any time other than our own as somehow better–more pure, more innocent, less corrupt–but in doing so, we forget about the atomic bombs, the wars, the poverty and oppression of over half our country’s citizens, based almost solely on the fact that we didn’t live through it. All we have is the memories of parents and grandparents, and these old recordings that sing on about love, and say very little about war.
I wonder, when I’m grown old, what popular songs will be in rotation as oldies? Will my kids listen to Jessica Simpson and sigh and say, “Oh, what a simpler time”? I hope not. I very much hope not. But I suspect that this is not far off the mark–that the most popular songs will show up again and again, while the ones that say an embarrassing lot about our era’s lack of innocence will be forgotten by all but those who lived through whatever it is that will define us. Probably, on the anniversary of September 11, years down the road, they’ll get all misty-eyed and play that god-awful country song about the red, the white and the blue, instead of digging up something more appropriate.
But I’m getting off track. My point is, I don’t think jazz from the ’30s and ’40s is any more or less innocent than our music today–happier, perhaps, more upbeat, but not any more innocent, because to say so is to pass judgement on something that, in many cases, we have never seen. For example: of the people who declared this music evidence of a more innocent time, not one of them was old enough to have seen that “more innocent time.” Not one of them could have known.
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.