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Carolina Beach Music


April 16, 2023

I thought the following discussion of beach music was interesting. I do think the authors missed the opportunity to identify the origin of beach music as "race music" that wasn't played on radio stations in the South. In the 1940s and 1950s, the only place a Southern kid could here R&B and jump blues seas on jukeboxes at the beach. Or so I've been told.

What passes for today's new beach music -- and it's cousin shagging music -- is a (far) distant relative to that 40s and 50s beach music. There is something primal about the old tunes -- whether it be a raspy voice like Joe Pope (right, the Tams were early 60s) or the double entendres -- or not so subtle like "60 Minute Man."

How lucky was I to be in a fraternity where we loved this music? Answer -- very lucky.

What remains distinct – and frankly disturbing to outsiders like us – about white audiences who self-identify with Beach Music as opposed to rock, hip-hop, or even the master category of r&b and soul, is the persistent, morbid obsession with race and mortality. Listeners, shaggers, and DJs have a code for their preferences: “B & D” indicates a request for music by “black and dead” artists. This embalmed notion of a racial authenticity still pervades the scene, despite the coincident gradual erasure of blackness via a partial replacement with all-white bands and a subsequent shift in style starting in 1980. (Now Huey Lewis and Delbert McClinton can comfortably coexist with the Showmen and Sticks McGhee in a DJ set.)

The automatic alterity (and invisibility) granted by death somehow buttresses, authenticates, and tames those fanged bits of blackness perceived as dangerous or unsavory to white norms, quietly disarming deceased African American artists and removing them from Beach Music’s economic equation. However, the occasional ugliness of the racialist assumptions, oppositions, and conflations endemic to Beach Music doesn’t diminish the power and beauty of the music itself, most of which is likewise situated within other various genres and curatorial models too. To a certain extent, you’re free to choose what you call it. Like so much American music vexed by scarred race relations, Beach Music involves both despicable and idealistic elements and attitudes. It’s hardly singular in that respect. But it can be hard to prize apart the songs themselves from their thick Carolina context. Indeed, it has become difficult for us to consider come of these tunes outside our Beach Music experience, even those with which we were quite familiar before we began. “Under the Boardwalk” and “Stagger Lee” have been completely and permanently recontextualized for us.

Here’s where things get more complicated. Beach Music does not contain a coherent or stable genre, a fact that several of our consultants slyly celebrate. (Our status as academics and non-Carolina natives elicited a lot of laughter and sighs; we might never understand…) Instead, it’s a slippery, constantly shifting transgenre aesthetic, often seemingly contradictory and deliberately mystified beyond a core canon of mid-tempo shuffle jump blues, rhythm and blues, doo-wop, boogie, rock and roll, Motown, and sweet soul (heavy on the harmony, light on the shouting) dating from the mid-1940’s through last week. Country boogie, gospel, and that amorphous category known as “oldies” also make appearances—DJ ‘Fessa John Hook even maintains that he invented both “cowboy shag” and “gospel shag” subgenres. Applied retroactively after its coinage in the mid to late-`60’s, the Beach Music label was once nearly synonymous with shag music, though since the 1980’s, the two categories have diffused and drifted apart. In the contemporary context, Beach Music has developed into an affective complex as much as an aesthetic complex—songs (and much more rarely, artists) are chosen for obscure criteria of feeling, ways to access emotionally (or to time-travel to) that nostalgic beach space of yore, as much as for formal elements conducive to shagging. As a result, Beach Music today seems more heavily historicized, mythologized, and aestheticized than shag music, which has become more dynamic because technical or tempo-based in definition, with 120 beats per minute as the gold standard. What lies herein leans unabashedly toward the Beach Music side of the divide. In the interest of managing scale and scope, we limited our immersive albeit brief investigation to DJs and musicians, not shaggers.

Beach Music is both populist and elitist; it’s organized by the dictates of middle-aged to elderly male white fans, DJs, and shaggers, who police the borders while allowing a certain amount of immigration.

This wide-ranging phenomenon both affirms and explodes essentialist notions of culture, appealing to Southern white experience and memory as aesthetic attributes. If almost anything can be Beach Music, then what is it we’re talking about? Is the category destined for irrelevance? Yes, it can be nasty and racially and politically regressive. But there is hope, so let’s not bury our heads in the sand just yet. Let that song play out. “Rock and roll will stand,” sang General Johnson of the Showmen (and later the Chairmen of the Board) in the 1961 Beach Music anthem “It Will Stand.” “It’ll be here forever enough”: The song has outlived its original targets (critics of African American youth music) and now poignantly applies to Beach Music fans who were just kids when it was recorded in 1961. For Johnson, “rock and roll” provides an overarching and integrated rubric for the music he makes, an eternal and inclusive expression of African American artistry. He advises against the formulaic labeling of this “free-flowing” music: “Don’t you nickname it, don’t nickname it, you might as well claim it.” And yet “some folks don’t understand it”—maybe that’s why the leaky “Beach Music” container exists. But with the community’s increasing embrace of new musical forms and perhaps some younger recruits, hopefully the racist overtones of the history will wash away with the coming tide. “Forgive them for they know not what they’re doin’”…

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