One Nation Under a Groove

1.

The boogaloo is, or was, one of the thousand dances the land was full of in the 1960s, enumerated in inventory songs such as James Brown’s “There Was a Time” and the Isley Brothers’ “Nobody But Me”: the skate, the swim, the pony, the monkey, the camelwalk, the shing-a-ling. Arthur Kempton notes that it made its debut as the title of a million-selling but faintly remembered 1965 release by the Chicago duo Tom and Jerrio, a song that launched two major catch phrases of the era, “sock it to me” and “let it all hang out.” The boogaloo outlasted many of its competitor dances, or at least its name did, even making the transition into Spanglish as bugalú.

Somewhere along the line, perhaps around the time most people forgot its steps, the name metamorphosed into a sweeping term that could encompass almost all of African-American popular music, or at least everything that has arisen since World War II. The names of styles, which embody novelty, date more quickly than the substance they describe. “Soul” now sounds antique; “R&B” can be applied to the works of Wynonie Harris in the late 1940s, or to those of Mary J. Blige fifty years later, but not much in between. But because “boogaloo” is a term transmitted more often orally than in writing, it has enjoyed an immunity to the flux of fashion.

Boogaloo is therefore an exactly apposite title for Arthur Kempton’s book, which is a panoramic critical survey of black popular music over some seventy-five years, and which emphasizes the continuities that underlie fashion cycles. There is no book quite like it. The story it tells has been parceled out in genre studies and recording-industry histories, and in the as-told-to autobiographies of individual performers, but attempts at a broader synthesis have been few. Moreover, Kempton has chosen to tell the story as a multiple or sequential biography, a form which is most familiar from Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, as well as from Part of Our Time, by Arthur Kempton’s late father, Murray.

The form allows for an intimacy not available to other sorts of historiography, and when the biographies are sequential, as is primarily the case in this book, it emphasizes genealog-ical connections and currents of influence. As in a quattrocento portrait, each subject stands in relief against the broad and teeming landscape of his or her time, figure and ground each illuminating the other. In such a work the choice of biographical subjects may be obvious, as it generally was in Wilson’s study of the development of socialism, the shape of which was determined by the impact of the books written by its protagonists. Kempton, however, is faced with a much more diffuse history, especially in its early stages, and he has made subtle choices that may not immediately appear inevitable but soon prove convincing.

He might, for example, have begun his story with W.C. Handy, or Blind Lemon Jefferson, or Louis Armstrong (although that would have…


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