Prof. Nicholas Gebhardt (Birmingham City University, UK), 6.11.2018, 18:00, Palais Meran, First Floor, Kleiner Saal
Vaudeville Melodies: Creative Fragmentation in Popular Song
"At one time", explained the vaudeville songwriter and actor Bert Williams, "it seemed to me that almost everybody in the United States was writing a song just like 'Nobody'. [...] Most of these imitations were called 'Somebody', and that was the only single solitary idea they had, just a feeble paraphrase of 'Nobody', with the refrain switched around to 'Somebody'. The majority of writers apparently think that one idea spread over three or four verses and the refrain is enough to carry the song. A really good song must be fairly packed with ideas."
Taking a cue from Williams' claims about what makes a good song, this paper explores some of the standard song writing practices that emerged on the vaudeville stage in the United States in the period 1870-1929 and the theories that were developed to explain them. It focuses primarily on the concept of "creative fragmentation" and makes the case that this became a critical practice for songwriters working in vaudeville. Drawing on the example of songwriters such as Irving Berlin, Stephen Foster and George M. Cohan, this paper suggests that creative fragmentation opens up a different way of conceiving of song writing practices that emphasizes the process of song writing and not simply the product. This, in turn, opens up a very different perspective on how we understand the songwriter's creative agency within the popular music industry.
Nicholas Gebhardt is Professor of Jazz and Popular Music Studies at Birmingham City Universtiy in the United Kingdom and Director of the Birmingham Centre of Media and Cultural Research. His work focuses on jazz and popular music in American culture, and his publications include Going for Jazz: Musical Practices and American Ideology (Chicago, 2001) and Vaudeville Melodies: Popular Musicians and Mass Entertainment in American Culture. 1870-1929 (Chicago, 2017). He is the co-editor of The Cultural Politics of Jazz Collectives (Routledge, 2015), The Routledge Companion to Jazz Studies (Routledge, forthcoming), and the Routledge book series Transnational Studies in Jazz.