Roll Over Chuck Berry & Tell Fred Bowers the News

[This paper was delivered at the April 1993 Society for Textual Scholarship meeting. Although the examples involve popular music, it was drafted assuming an audience of textual scholars in literature. In the program “Chuck Berry” in the title inadvertently ended up as “Beethoven.” The musicologists who came to the session expecting to hear talks on Elliott Carter, Renaissance German lieder, and Beethoven were not expecting Otis Redding and The Byrds but were, even so, polite.  Aspects of the piece are, alas, dated. It was written before vinyl made its recent comeback and before video cassettes gave way to DVDs then BluRay discs, and now streaming. The basic points do, I think, come through in spite of these shifts in the mediascape.]


I’ve recently been working to finish up the final volume of the only editing project my wife trusts I’ll have the good sense to attempt, and with visions of Robinson Jeffers dancing in my head (and the study floor awash in commas) I found myself regretting the title I’d proposed for this conference and wondering why the program committee had called my bluff. So with that initial dismay I suspect we all have when the time comes to make good on something proposed on impulse, I picked up the copy of Jerome McGann’s The Textual Condition I’d dutifully ordered but not yet read to remind myself how to walk the walk and was relieved to find that, yes, reissues of recordings of popular and folk based musics (which I would term vernacular) offer a useful perspective on some of the theoretical issues those of us who are textual currently debate.

I attended my first STS meeting April 1991 and found people exploring pre- and post-modern notions of whether authors exist and the different implications answers might have for how transcendentally idealized or socially actual texts should be constructed and transmitted. A proper and increasingly middle-aged academic, I couldn’t decide whether to pray my Gregian beads the harder or trade them for a Foucauldian or Derridean set and then declare theoretical solidarity with my theoretical friends outside the textual realm (does post modern theory allow for friendship?). Instead I stood outside the CUNY Graduate Center in my least favorite city with my thoughts moving in two seemingly non-academic directions—toward my own intermittent non-career as a poet and toward the glories of the CD, in particular newly reissued material by The Byrds and Otis Redding. The first direction has no relevance, partly because you have no reason to concern yourselves with my poetry and partly because I couldn’t figure out whether to regard myself (borrowing Peter Shillingsburg’s terms) as “author-” or “socio-centric” nor what an edition of myself would look like in spite of my seemingly privileged textual position.1 The second direction, though, does have relevance for textual studies.

Literary examples have mostly dominated our explorations of the competing claims of those textual theories that emphasize, on the one hand, authorial intention and creative autonomy and those that emphasize, instead, the way texts emerge from, interact with, and remain enmeshed in social constructs. This is to be expected. We are trained to read and teach literature, and writing is an inherently ambiguous activity. We do it more or less alone, yet are governed in part by some sense of audience, and eventually watch or participate in its transformation into a transmittable product (this is true even for such extreme cases as Emily Dickinson). And writing’s essentially dualistic nature—the inherent conflict between writing as self-expression and writing ass social object inscribed in differing ratios in each act of writing and publication—has perhaps helped generate the theoretical split Shillingsburg and others have described and may in part account for the difficulty we have in formulating ways to bridge this split.

At first glance (or listen) the work of Chuck Berry seems irrelevant to this debate. But in recordings of vernacular music the social matrix of production is more apparent and perhaps more central than it is in literature, and this actually makes such material a particularly useful realm for considering these competing claims about the nature of texts. The prominence of the social matrix in vernacular recordings stems from at least three factors: First, they are either texts of performances (or carefully manufactured simulations of performance), and performing necessarily presumes an audience. Literary works may be equally performative at root, but this factor needn’t be overt or explicit in them. Second, authorship in vernacular music is usually at least partly collaborative, since pieces are often reworked to a greater or lesser extent from communal, traditional, and/or formulaic materials. (How many pop songs have the same 32-measure structure, how many rock pieces rely on the same instrumentation and cycle of chords, how many blues artists have wondered if a matchbox will hold their clothes?) In vernacular music “creation” is more clearly and fully a matter of appropriation, adaptation, and recirculation than it is invention,2 and even if it weren’t typically collaborative in this sense, it would still be unavoidably and deeply collaborative, since performance is usually collective (even when a single name appears as artist) and since the technologies of production are sufficiently complex that various specialists (engineers, etc.) must help produce the product. And third, as the word product suggests, market is unavoidably a consideration in vernacular recordings. With mass mediated arts the technologies of production and distribution enlarge the field of potential consumers for a performance, but the expense of these technologies also means a relatively large number of people must consume the performance to recoup expenses. Literary texts are also market commodities but not necessarily to this extent.

Generalized as these comments may be, they still point to the centrality of the social dimension in works of vernacular music, but one might well question whether it makes sense to treat them as texts at all. Perhaps they should simply be viewed as performances that can be accessed after the act. The question and issue are both somewhat clearer if we consider for a moment the relationship between text and performance found in most art music of the European tradition. Whether by Mozart or Ives, we would distinguish between a work’s score (its text) and any particular realization (performance) of that score, whether concert performance, concert recording, or a “performance” constructed from different recorded moments. As editors we would likely focus on the nature of the score’s authority and the degree of its accuracy, and our concern with its textual history would reflect our concern with these issues and our sense that performers would want to use our text to realize the work’s details and intentions, not to transform them. We would, that is, face a situation analogous to the one we face as editors of literary texts. A few days back, for instance, I saw a review of a new recording of Roy Harris’s “Third Symphony,” which restores some forty measures trimmed in 1938 in order to fit the piece onto two sides of a 78.3 Nearly all subsequent performances have used the truncated score—shades of the raft chapter in Huck Finn. Which is the true “Third Symphony” and why?

Vernacular music, though, often has no notated score, or one so minimal or bearing such a tangential relationship to the actual music that using it to generate a performance is pretty close to flat out hopeless (in my even more naive wannabe days, ah junior high, when “twang was the thang” I once bought the sheet music to a Duane Eddy hit, plugged in my shiny black Danelectro, and decided that knowing how to read music ranked up there with knowing which fork to use for the salad you didn’t want to eat). Here again I seem on the verge of concluding that vernacular music has to be treated in terms of performance, not text, but a look at Ellington’s “composing” methods suggests this would be the wrong jump to make.

Ellington did write out his pieces, and his work (whatever the case with Duane Eddy) is textual. But although his scores delineate the basic melodies, harmonies, and structures of his pieces, they don’t (and given the limits of musical notation can’t) capture the array of smears, vibratos, growls, and bubberings so central to their performance. Significantly, Ellington typically derived these unnotatable features from the stylistic quirks—even the limitations—of the musicians in his band, and while they might use their written parts as cues to the often idiosyncratic structures of what they were playing, they would not have needed the score to tell them what effects to use even if the score could convey such information. Many of Ellington’s key musicians stayed with him for long periods, but when key musical personalities did leave, the replacements often learned the gestures and devices the scores could not convey from recordings of the pieces featuring their predecessors. (This is not, by the way, to suggest that such Ellington Orchestra originals as Bubber Miley and Tricky Sam Nanton by themselves defined Ellington’s compositional palette. Ellington brought plenty to the stew himself, and as new musicians brought new capacities, he wrote new pieces—”Concerto for Cootie,” “Pitter Patter Panther,” etc.—to exploit their quirks and limits and at times recast early pieces to match the capacities of the evolving ensemble.)

Anyway, an Ellington score has a different status than a Harris score. With Harris, the score exists to be performed just as the text of a poem exists to be read. Each text of the score is a witness to the work; and the score is the work, in the sense that the conductor and musicians strive to translate it accurately and fully from one medium (the abstraction of the page) to another (the realized sound of the instruments in performance). Interpretation has a place in this process, but the rules of the game stipulate that the score is authoritative; the conductor and musicians re-present the composer’s work; they do not recompose it. With Ellington’s jazz composition, not only do the performers have greater interpretive latitude but the score is not the work. At best it is an accessory to     it—a kind of precis and gloss in one. But this certainly doesn’t mean there is no “work” (even though the option to recompose exists in the jazz community in a way that it doesn’t in the classical). Nor does it mean that the work is without a “text,” if by text we mean a material representation that allows the work to be transmitted to, and performed by, others. With jazz composition such as Ellington’s the “text,” that is, is not the score but the recording, even though (actually precisely because) the recording is simultaneously the work’s textual representation and its performance.

In vernacular music less adapted to the methods of European art music than Ellington’s jazz—commercial rhythm and blues, for instance, or soul or rock or country—the recording’s status as “text” (or at least the recording’s capacity to function as a text) is even clearer, because there is often no score at all; the recording is the work’s only material representation, thus its only possible form of transmittal. In part this situation arises from the way the distinction between composing and constructing a performance tends to collapse in these traditions. Although Otis Redding ”wrote” a number of the songs he recorded, he often began with no more than a preliminary sketch (some lyrics perhaps, or an idea for the melody, maybe a rough sense of the chords). Typically he and Steve Cropper (the studio guitar player) would then work the material, generate a few performance cues, and then demonstrate the elements of the piece for the rest of the musicians. This larger group (rhythm  section and horn players) would then experiment with it until it was ready to record—elaborating and refining their parts as they rehearsed it in the studio and/or played it for audiences. Additional inflections and refinements might also emerge during the recording. And some final touches like the wave and sea gull sounds on “Dock of the Bay” might be added after the song was otherwise finished and realized. With McLuhan safely dead, I’m tempted to say “the record is the record” but will settle for “the record is the score is the text.” If it isn’t, there’s no text.

These examples, generalized as they are, lead to more issues than I can address here, but two stand out. One is how to model the relationship between work and text with these materials. Another is the question of the extent and nature of the performer’s authority for the “texts” that result from these sorts of constructions given their collaborative nature and the way they are enmeshed in the commercial realities of the mass media.

In recordings of popular music, the work and the text are (I’ve suggested) unified, but the matter is more complex than this. Ellington, for instance, not only performed early pieces such as “Black and Tan Fantasy” numerous times from the late 1920s on, but recorded them multiple times as well. We have, thus, a series of “texts” realized over decades by different sets of musicians under different market conditions. If each recording is a text, do we have a single work with many texts? or many works and many texts? The answer is probably some of each. In the 1950s tape technology and the 33 1/3 long play album doomed the 78. Ellington capitalized by recasting early pieces and recording them in “uncut concert arrangements” both to renew the market for his work and to exploit the new medium’s possibilities. In cases such as these the new recording is either the text of a new work or of an independent, alternate version of it.

However, the earliest recordings of “Black and Tan Fantasy” differ little from each other. In the late 1920s, vernacular performers were usually paid a flat fee for each side recorded, and contracts were not exclusive. As a result, artists often recorded the same piece for several labels in quick succession.   In 1927-1928 Ellington recorded most of his repertoire three times (for RCA Victor, Decca, and a forerunner of Columbia). Although the first three recordings of “Black and Tan Fantasy” differ slightly in execution and personnel, they are so similar that it makes little sense to think of them as different versions, and it would be arbitrary to label one as the work’s definitive or authentic realization; each can stand as text of the work. Here the existence of multiple recordings of the piece underscores the materiality of any text but suggests (conversely) that the work a text realizes is actually a conceptual entity, an imaginative construct, that exists in a field defined and determined by the set of texts that relate to it but which no single text fully represents or exhausts. For this reason, students of Ellington have no problem thinking of the early recordings of “Black and Tan Fantasy” as defining a single work (even as they savor the particularities of each of the recorded performances). Nor are they much troubled by the way Ellington at times rearranged pieces to exploit changing personnel and recorded these adjusted versions as well.

The example of Ellington also points to why “authority” is a complex and problematic notion when applied to vernacular recordings. Musicologists typically label Ellington a composer, and if any jazz artist fits the designation he does. But we should remember that part of his compositional genius was his ability to elicit motifs and textures from his musicians that he could organize, contextualize, and elaborate. For this reason a number of his famous pieces appropriately list one of his key players (Hodges or Stewart or Tizol or…) as co-writers. We might even say that he was a re-composer as much as a composer and that a part of his genius was his insight into how one might write music collaboratively and still be able (through the marks of re-composition) to create a recognizably individual style and voice.   Equally important was his ability to appropriate and transforms the changing conventions of commercial music in ways that kept his music central in the marketplace yet (again) unmistakably personalized and his own. These same two factors, collective composition and the role of market and convention, are even clearer with the example of Redding. His collaboration with Cropper and others was probably more nearly a partnership of equals than Ellington’s with his musicians (Cropper, as it happens, actually added the gulls and waves to “Dock of the Bay” after Redding died in a plane crash), and the soul music pieces he, Cropper, and the others produced was much more formulaic than Ellington’s jazz. One might even argue that Ellington, the more powerful musical thinker of the two, would have created stunning music from whatever players he drew within his orbit, while wondering if Redding could have reached his peaks without Cropper to help him find the settings he needed for his songs. But even if this is so, these are differences of degree, not kind; the recordings of both synthesize their inventions and intentions with those of others, and both shaped their recordings partly in terms of the formulae of the market place.

My goal here is not to develop a model for the textuality of vernacular recordings (though I do like excuses to sit in front of the speakers instead of the terminal). Instead, I want to suggest that the development of the compact disc and the spate of reissues this has generated makes this an appropriate time to consider how the “editing” of vernacular recordings might bear on our understanding of the competing claims of author- and socio­centric textual theories and their implications for our practice as editors of literary texts.

The desire of consumers to replace their 78 and LP recordings with CDs (combined with other market twists) has given record companies a tremendous incentive to reissue vernacular recordings from the1920s forward. And with that come questions about how the material should be edited (record people would likely say repackaged). Should an edition of a classic LP from the sixties have previously unissued songs from the same sessions added to it, since CDs can be longer than LPs and extra songs from the original sessions often exist? Should the original tapes—processed originally to compensate for the limitations of vinyl and the sound of the typical 1960s record player—be re­mixed to take advantage of the CD’s resolution and frequency response and today’s playback systems? adjusted to current tastes in production? or treated documentarily? Should a mono recording be reissued in stereo? How much does a work change when (borrowing McGann’s term) its bibliographical code (i.e. art work, packaging, etc.) is altered? Who has the authority to make changes such as these? These questions parallel ones we confront in our work with literature, and they are being hotly debated by the marketing departments of record companies, in the trade press and popular press, and (most crucially) at the cash register of your local Tower Records (I debate these matters as much as I can).

Two recent CD reissues—editions if you will (and the ones I thought about standing outside the CUNY Graduate Center)—suggest the possible relevance of this editorial activity to our more literary debates. The first, The Complete Stax/Volt Singles, 1959-68, collects all the A-sides (along with some B-sides) of the 45 RPM singles issued by the independent Memphis soul label Stax Records and its subsidiary, Volt from its founding in 1959 up to its major reorganization in 1968—nine CDs and 244 tracks in all, including (yes) Otis Redding along with Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & the MGs., Albert King, and, and…. Classic stuff (and I cast my vote willingly, in spite of the price).

Editorially, the set is an interesting mix of the conservative and revisionary. The tracks have been left in mono and carefully remastered to preserve the original sonic balance, yet textures and details masked by the sloppy original production have been teased out of the old tapes. The effect is like encountering a restoration of a faded, begrimed Renaissance painting—all the grain of the horn work is suddenly there but with the thick made-for-AM-car-radio bass still intact. Technically, that is, the set strikes a plausible balance between recreating the original sound and exploiting the capacities of the new medium. More intriguing, though, is the principle of selection and organization.

Like all labels, Stax issued many tracks that never dented the charts. How many of us remember (even heard) “Bango” by Billy and the King Bees (September 1963)? Yet it’s there just two tracks away from the Rufus Thomas classic, “Walking the Dog” (released the same month), which hit #5 and #10 on the R&B and Pop charts respectively. Hits, flops, the set presents them all in chronological order by date of release. This strategy, and the title, foregrounds the label, not the “artists” listed on the original 45s (usually the vocalists), and even though back then we bought (we thought) Otis and Rufus, not Stax and Volt, there’s a rightness to this. For it allows us to appreciate the label’s role in shaping individual performances. We can trace step by step how its set of writers, producers, and studio musicians evolved a sound and fitted the various vocalists to it. We can, that is, appreciate the label as a collective artist and the tracks as a single oeuvre. And as such the set provides a compelling demonstration of the socio-centric claim that texts are collective and social. Yet listening to it as a whole, those great Otis Redding tracks still leap out of the grooves (rather strings of 1s and 0s) as transcendentally as ever, and the focus is suddenly Redding, his presence, his enactment of authority. Ironically hearing his work framed by the work of others for the label rather than by other tracks of his own (as we would on a reissue of one of his own albums) brings both his work’s formulaic dimension and his power of self-expression (both market driven yet not market driven) into inescapable and impressive relief. Redding, that is, demonstrates that one can bend even the most formulaic, commercial, and collaborative art forms and “author” a work (this dynamic of self-expression through and by means of highly formulaic materials is, of course, reminiscent of what happens in folk art, even though the commercial matrix is not). And if this is so, it suggests that what we need are textual theories that recognize that such simultaneities indicate that texts are both author- and socio-centric and that offer ways to understand these perspectives as complementary in our theory and practice.

My concern with the other set I thought about that day—a four CD retrospective of The Byrds—moves in a somewhat different direction. It’s perhaps more a coda than a conclusion, but the methodological claim is the same (if a piece such as this can claim to have method)—and that is that there might be something to gained in our understanding of what texts are and how they work if we look for ways to test our hypotheses against the various texts that we consume (and our ways of consuming them) when we are not acting as scholars and theoreticians. The Byrds package is a deluxe set: plain black but embossed box, an elaborate booklet that details the group’s history, the traditions that shaped it, its artistry, and its cultural impact. All this invites us to take the group seriously, more seriously than the original LP packagings which offered them as the latest youth trend (the hip clothes, the psychedelic camera shot, and the gee whiz liner notes long on gossip and short on pretty much all else). How much does the repackaging, the new selection and arrangement, the refurbished sound, the new logic of production and market—this new, as McGann would term it, “bibliographic code” for the otherwise unchanged material—change the experience (and meaning) of the music? What does it mean to consume these texts at a different time and under different conditions? As textually oriented literary scholars we know these questions are worth asking, but when we deal with the literary examples that interest us most, our ability to probe these matters is limited by the way different editions of a work are often pitched to different sets (often, in fact, different generations) of readers. But the way the CD has led companies not simply to reissue but to repackage such performers as The Byrds creates a different situation. Did it cost me $3.98 or $4.98 to buy Mr. Tambourine Man when it first came out? (My beads at the time were neither Gregian nor Foucauldian, and I thought my hair was long.) Whichever, I was the original audience for that packaging of the music, just as I am now the audience targeted for its repackaging. I could, of course, make a similar observation about our ability to buy video cassettes of The Honeymooners and Saturday Night Live, but my parents preferred I Love Lucy and I always preferred Sam and Dave to The Blues Brothers. Still, with popular art (once we view it as textual) we can, from our own experience, compare what it meant to consume a text in its original state and what it means to consume it in its re-edited state and in the process test out both the nature and extent of the impact of the bibliographic code on our perception of the work. This is not, I’d suggest, the situation we face when we turn (or should I say “Turn, Turn, Turn”) from the Cornell Wordsworth to a copy of the original edition of Lyrical Ballads.


  1.  See “An Inquiry into the Social Status of Texts and Modes of Textual Criticism,” Studies in Bibliography 42 (1989): 55-79 (especially 72-75).
  1. John G. Cawelti’s The Six-Gun Mystique (Bowling Green, Ohio: Popular Culture Press, 1971) presents a concise and elegant analysis of the inter-play of formula and invention in popular art. Although he deals specifically with the Western, his analysis has implications not only for the particular branch of formula literature and formula literature in general but for popular art of other media as well.
  1. See Richard Schneider’s review of Eduardo Mata’s recording of Roy Harris, Symphony 3 (Dorian DOR-90170), Stereophile 16.4 (1993): 279.