The Sin in Syncopation

Welfare workers tell us that never in the history of our land have there been such immoral conditions among our young people, and in the surveys made by many organizations regarding these conditions, the blame is laid on jazz music and its evil influence on the young people of to-day. Never before have such outrageous dances been permitted in private as well as public ballrooms, and never has there been used for the accompaniment of the dance such a strange combination of tone and rhythm as that produced by the dance orchestras of to-day.

Certainly, if this music is in any way responsible for the condition and for the immoral acts which can be traced to the influence of these dances, then it is high time that the question should be raised: "Can music ever be an influence for evil?"

Anne Shaw Faulkner, The Ladies Home Journal, August 1921 (pp. 16-34.)
Mrs Faulkner goes on to list several reasons to why jazz is evil, and the first reason is the most blatantly obvious one: because people think it is. Of course, not any kind of people. Clergy don't count - they can't be expected to approve of dancing generally. Jazz is recognised as an evil influence by the proprietors of "large dance halls" and "big country clubs", but interestingly also in "big industry", where it was claimed that workmanship and efficiency declined after the workforce had enjoyed jazz.

"Jazz" was defined differently in the early 1920's; for some, it was a very vague term, applicable to almost any kind of "out-of-tune" music, or syncopated rhythm. The latter is also common in many varieties of folk music around the world. Mrs Faulkner focuses on this trait:
Syncopation, this curious rhythmic accent on the short beat, is found in its most highly developed forms in the music of the folk who have been held for years in political subjection. It is, therefore, an expression in music of the desire for that freedom which has been denied to its interpreter.
Both Russians, Poles, Hungarian Gypsies and African-Americans share this historical experience. But is there also a universally human appeal in the rebellious, sinful syncopation? Is that why the workers become less efficient? Mrs Faulkner tries to exorcise jazz by explaining it, by dissecting it and analysing it to bits and pieces, but in the end, there's only strangeness and weirdness left. And when she cannot explain, she conjures up new demons.

Jazz originally was the accompaniment of the voodoo dancer, stimulating the half-crazed barbarian to the vilest deeds. The weird chant, accompanied by the syncopated rhythm of the voodoo invokers, has also been employed by other barbaric people to stimulate brutality and sensuality. That it has a demoralizing effect upon the human brain has been demonstrated by many scientists.
Mrs Faulkner now attacks the elusive jazz devil head-on, summoning "many scientists", the authorities of benevolent "white" magic, to her help. The "black" magic of jazz threatens not only workplace efficiency and public morality. It threatens the very foundation of bourgeois civilisation. Young people have become "imbued" with the spirit of rebellion - with jazz - "that expression of protest against law and order, that bolshevik element of license striving for expression in music".

And now we come to a piece of popular science that was quite en vogue in the early 20th century, and that I hope to return to in a future post. It is also vital to the later development of the storyline in Goldenbird.
The human organism responds to musical vibrations. This fact is universally recognized. What instincts then are aroused by jazz? Certainly not deeds of valor or martial courage, for all marches and patriotic hymns are of regular rhythm and simple harmony; decidedly not contentment or serenity, for the songs of home and the love of native land are all of the simplest melody and harmony with noticeably regular rhythm. Jazz disorganizes all regular laws and order; it stimulates to extreme deeds, to a breaking away from all rules and conventions; it is harmful and dangerous, and its influence is wholly bad.
Curious preferences, just a few years after the horrors of the Great War! No wonder that people should be trying out these new vibrations, after witnessing what the regular beat of marches and hymns could lead to! But Mrs Faulkner fears something else than war: she fears "degeneracy".
A number of scientific men who have been working on experiments in musico-therapy with the insane, declare that while regular rhythms and simple tones produce a quieting effect on the brain of even a violent patient, the effect of jazz on the normal brain produces an atrophied condition on the brain cells of conception, until very frequently those under the demoralizing influence of the persistent use of syncopation, combined with disharmonious partial tones, are actually incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, right and wrong.
Or - could it be - that syncopation and disharmony, those musical methods of rebellion, simply fan the flames of discontent with the present state of things and reveal the artificial nature and natural artificiality of society? There is a battle between two modern worlds - the good, hierarchical, efficient and regular world of Mrs Faulkner and her scientist sorcerers, and the evil, rebellious, crazy, disorderly, sexually charged and racially mixed world of jazz musicians and dancers.

I fear that "good" won the battle by taming the "evil", de-clawing it and fattening it on dollars if it conformed, banishing it into oblivion if it rebelled. But rebellion will always find a way...

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