Sunday, February 16, 2014

Icons Connecting the Past and Future

In the 1960s it was becoming clear that pop culture was becoming American culture. By now that seems perfectly normal. The media covers pop music and movie stars as our royalty, television shows and movies like the latest artistic and cultural events. Scholars study Beatles lyrics and Doctor Who scripts. The new myths of gods, goddesses and heroes are the scifi and superhero sagas. But that didn't seriously begin to dominate until the 60s.

 Early boomers will remember the roots of this change in the 50s and 60s, especially as icons of those decades and earlier reemerge in the news one last time. The death of Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers reminds us that aspects of pop culture are really refinements of folk culture.

 I've just been rereading William Eastlake's early novels and came upon this sentence: "The secret in creating anything new seems to lie in borrowing all you see and hear about you and adding one small touch." That's often true in music particularly. Linda Ronstadt and Paul Simon talked about the Everly Brothers both in terms of the music they transformed and their effect on the music that followed theirs (like Simon & Garfunkel.) (Ronstadt was even better in this Time Magazine piece--the rest of it requires registration but even the intro paragraph adds something.)

 Adapting folk culture in a different way is seen in the life of Pete Seeger. He only slightly changed folk songs (though his strengthening of the lyrics of "We Shall Overcome" helped it become immortal) but he applied them to contemporary issues with roots in the past, such as civil rights, an end to war and preserving the natural environment. Here's Josh Marshall's remembrance, and one by Bruce Springsteen. 

To put it another way, as Marshall McLuhan did, each new medium (or form) at first adopts a previous medium as its content. So we've seen in our early boomer lifetimes how television took program models from radio and movies, which had earlier adapted them from the stage. As this essay says, the now classic early TV comedians brought sketches and approaches they adapted from the rich stage traditions of vaudeville. This was true of one of the great TV comedians and comic actors of the 1950s who died recently, Sid Caesar. Here's more of what I've written about him on this site, and still more on another.

The death of actor Ralph Waite is an occasion to recall how deeply and for a long time he has been part of establishing a cultural image, first as the young father on The Waltons and most recently as a father and grandfather figure on the TV series NCIS and Bones. I will also remember him for a little known but culturally evocative fantasy film about JFK called Timequest. Here's a biographical obit.

 Finally, the little girl who helped a country and a culture through the dark days of the Depression has passed away. One of Shirley Temple's proudest moments was that in one of those movies, she held the hand of the immortal dancer Bill Robinson--perhaps the first time a white female had touched a black male on the silver screen.  This reminds us of pop culture's role in change, as all of these examples do in different ways.