• Book review: 'From Mummers to Madness: A Social History of Popular Music in England, c.1770s to c.1970s'

    Book review: 'From Mummers to Madness: A Social History of Popular Music in England, c.1770s to c.1970s'

    Posted by Huddersfield Press on 2022-05-11

Our title ‘Mummers to Madness’ has been reviewed by Dave Russell, the author of ‘Popular Music in England, 1840-1914. A Social History’ (1997, second edition). Dave has also published numerous essays and articles on the history of popular music and popular leisure.

Although the ‘Madness’ in the title of this excellent new book clearly refers to the north London pop band, I could not help wondering if it actually described the task that the author had set himself: any attempt to survey two hundred years of English popular music might euphemistically be termed ‘brave’. In fact, David Taylor has more than succeeded in producing a compelling and coherent analytical narrative that contributes richly to the history of English music. Concentrating specifically on the ‘popular songs and dances, from Georgian to Elizabethan times, and the meanings they had at the time’ provides a firm structure which is further reinforced by a keen eye for effective case studies. His chapter on the 1960s, that most rapidly changing of musical decades, focuses only on the Beatles, the Who and the Kinks and results in a far more nuanced discussion of pop music’s evolution than could have emerged from a more exhaustive coverage.

Three main themes emerge. The threat that some social elites and moral reform lobbies perennially believed popular music to pose is thoughtfully documented and debated, as are the relationships between music and identity, both individual and collective. Covering a range of genres from minstrelsy to reggae, Taylor is particularly good on race and the power of black music in reinforcing but also challenging racial stereotypes. Finally, the book seeks to explore the processes of cultural fusion that arose as numerous international (often American) styles blended with pre-existing English styles to create new, often hybrid forms. This approach underscores the book’s greatest strength, its acceptance of the messy complexity of popular music which he sees as ‘not a single, coherent category but…a range of musical forms that vary over time’. The supposedly ‘high’ and ‘popular’ happily co-existed, ‘ballroom’ and ‘bar-room’ meeting in eighteenth-century dance, operatic arias and Tin Pan Alley in twentieth-century song cultures. At every point of novelty and radical change, continuities could also be observed, with film musicals as prominent as rock ‘n’ roll in the soundscape of the late 1950s, long-forgotten performers of ‘light music’ such as Troise and his Banjoliers taking their place alongside exponents of the fashionable new modes and music hall exercising a potent influence long after its demise as a cultural institution.

The book demonstrates a full immersion in the secondary literature and an extensive mining of primary sources. Highly readable, it combines deep scholarship with an infectious love of the subject matter (especially obvious in his close and perceptive analysis of lyrics) which never allows scholarly attention to obscure the essence of the popular musical experience. As Taylor concludes, ‘popular music was produced and, more importantly consumed, not for the benefit of later historians, but for enjoyment at the time’. All those studying, or interested in, English popular music, should both read this book and heed that wise warning.

Read ‘Mummers to Madness’ here completely free: https://unipress.hud.ac.uk/plugins/books/28/

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