“If you don’t like the blues,” goes the old saying, “you’ve got a hole in your soul.” Martha Bayles takes the phrase for the title of her superbly well-argued, entertaining polemic arguing for a return to the wellspring of American popular music: the Afro-American idiom. By “Afro-American,” Bayles means the American tradition as a whole. In her view, all music truly deserving to be called “American” ought to be called “Afro-American”—so intimate has been the historic and cultural link between white people and black people in America.
This intimacy, wrenching though it has been, has been mostly salutary in musical terms, claims Bayles. Why, then, is popular music “these days” so balkanized, attenuated and unsatisfying? Bayles’s answer is that the self-conscious avant-gardist mentality she terms “perverse modernism” has invaded music and replaced the Afro-American spirit of hope and affirmation, smuggled in by Frank Zappa, Lou Reed (abetted by Andy Warhol) and John Lennon (by way of Yoko Ono).
HOLE IN OUR SOUL is dense with argumentation and with references to Plato, Friedrich Nietzsche, Allan Bloom and other highbrow lights, at the same time amply displaying Bayles’s great enthusiasm for American popular music and her hope that it can overcome its present blight. She writes with humor and with the blend of erudition and common sense that marks the best criticism. Her hope lies in young black performers such...
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