If You Ever Have the Blues ...
The multi-ethnic basis of American culture is an essential feature of its success. Unlike other societies, it was unable to strike roots in a common, centuries-old tradition and found itself obliged to invent itself anew, and also to ensure that as many as possible of the new immigrant communities would be able to relate to it. This is how the USA came to be a warily regarded example of globalisation, long before the term was ever coined. This development was nowhere crowned with as much success as in music, music created, ironically, by people who had never chosen to go to America and who were entirely divested of their rights once they did: African-American slaves and their descendants. Slaves didn’t speak their tormentors’ language, and communication amongst themselves was also difficult, for they came from vastly different regions. Music therefore became a major means of expression, one in which African and European elements merged to gave rise to something completely new. Perhaps even more astonishing than its genesis is the incredible success that the Blues and its sheer endless spectrum of derivative styles came to enjoy. Despite rampant racism in the USA and the fierce resistance put up by the traditional, European-dominated music scene the Blues quickly conquered, not only America but the whole world. It is striking that each new generation seems to identify itself with its own new version of Pop, perhaps because each has to deal with a situation that inevitably comes around: to wrest a sense of identity from a feeling of powerlessness.
The following programme comprises a parallel montage of American films focussed on Black music and films of the GDR.
Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life very clearly aimed to give visual expression to Black music before the latter had become established. Visual heroisation of the working class, so typical of the 1930s, cedes to an implausible drama about jealousy and lovesickness among the middle-classes. The combination of emotion – above all, of suffering – and music is nonetheless unambiguous and moving.
Jazz was quickly accepted in the GDR as the music of the oppressed. Rock’n’Roll, on the other hand, was fiercely condemned for many years as ‘St. Vitus’ Dance’ – also in the Federal German Republic, by the way (2). Its explosive rebellious energy not only electrified the oppressed in distant America but also youth in the GDR, and was therefore an obvious threat. Whilst the first version of Augenzeuge (1958) develops an adventurous logic between the two banes of society, Rock’n’Roll and military service, the second version from 1959 presents a homemade creation – the Lipsi Nr. 1 – designed to put an end to odious wriggling. Yet, as later newsreels had to admit, this was a somewhat “tired” dance.
The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins is a portrait of the legendary musician and even more so of his home territory, Texas. Blues, we get to feel in this film, is not only music but a philosophy of life, one that gives expression to the grief that ensues from an experience of permanent injustice and, at the same time, to a great joy in life, which seems to permeate every aspect of every day. Intense observation, the special hallmark of this film, allows the viewer to delve in and be part of the culture, for “If you ever have the blues, remember what I tell you: you will always hear it in your heart”.
All endeavours by the GDR to control the young generation’s musical culture, be these to ban it or offer home-grown alternatives could do little in the long-term to thwart youthful desire for a different, personal means of expression. With a soundtrack by the rock group Pankow, Einmal in der Woche schrein documents an underground (illegal) disco, in which kids – eager to copy American rebels of the silver screen – could indulge their personal longings. Whilst young people could not be controlled the film at least could be - and was - banned.
In the early 80s, when everyone felt that the rebellious energy of Pop had finally dissipated on the disco wave, along came Hip-Hop, once again from the ghetto, from the street, from the bottom of the social pile. Even more than its predecessors Rock’n’Roll and Rock, it spoke not only to youth but to kids all over the world. Even adamant enemies of America express themselves in Rap. Beatbox, alternate take portrays Hip-Hop’s ‘fifth column’, Beatbox, in which artists use their bodies to generate each sound. It seems that the innovative power of American musical sub-cultures remains as undaunted as ever.
(1) For example, in the documentary film Vom Lebensweg des Jazz (Wolfgang Bartsch, GDR/DDR 1956). Jazz was also routinely used to underscore clips about African-Americans’ struggle for civil liberties, featured in the GDR’s weekly news programme.
(2) “On stage tonight at the Sports Palace, American Bill Haley’s attempt to whip the crowd into a frenzy with a pathetic offering of convulsive jerks, screams and guitar riffs degenerated into the biggest teenage riot ever seen in Berlin. After forty tiresome minutes the event flopped amidst an indescribably deafening racket. Mr. Haley and his St-Vitus’ dance instrumentalists fled in a mad rush for the exit.” West German daily, Der Abend, 27.10.1958