Reggae

I feel like most people  who say they like reggae don’t really mean reggae, they mean Bob Marley. Now I don’t mean everyone because there are wide swaths of folks into Ts and the Maytals, Burning Spear and a slew of other reggae acts. I mean middle America, the rank and file citizenry–they know only Marley in my experience.

Marley should be credited for bringing the music to the masses. However, reggae as a form  itself doesn’t get enough respect and I think that it should. It may not be developed to the level of blues or jazz, but it hasn’t had the time either; reggae as we know it hasn’t been around that long. Even jazz wasn’t even considered an art form for a long time and was eschewed by the music buying masses as “race music”. (Now it’s turned into this slightly snobby type of thing that only the intellectual elite can enjoy, but that line of thought is for another day.) Reggae, enjoyable to listen to and socially aware at times, demands respect.

Reggae has a fairly short history and you could probably do yourself a favor by googling it and reading for a while. However, for the sake of this post, I will give a summary. As we know it, reggae came together in the late 1960’s and is an amalgamation of the traditional Jamaican genres of ska and rocksteady. Those types of music basically blend African traditions, Jazz, and American rhythm and blues into their own character. This is how all music starts, by blending a few different styles into one original sound. It’s distinctly different from popular rock music with its use of off beats and stop timing, perfect for dancing around like a fool. They say the Maytals popularly coined the term with a 1968 song called “Do the Reggay”, but after some research, it looks like it was around long before. Marley got his start in the late 60’s but wasn’t international for a few more years.

As I said early, Marley really did bring reggae to the masses. Or, more aptly, Eric Clapton did when he covered Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff”. As usual, it took a white dude to bring a black art form to the masses, a lamentable and recurring event in musical history. But, eventually, Marley become a superstar on his own and his appeal seems to grow more each year. Walk into any high school in America and count the number of Marley shirts worn by kids thirty years after his death. He represents freedom, social awareness, pot smoking and a plethora of other ideas. His cultural impact is matched by his musical impact, bringing reggae to the realm of pop music.

Every white boy reggae band and numerous Clash rip-offs have covered Marley and to great effect, since it has advanced his musical messages. Sublime, 311, O.A.R., Dirty Heads, and every college band since 1980 have lifted something. I can safely say that nearly every reggae band owes a debt to Marley and the Wailers because they were the first superstars of the genre. His messages of peace and acceptance are universal and it’s a shame we don’t have more pop stars like him. I am sure he will be in the social fabric for decades to come and with all this in mind, I think there is a multitude of other reggae to enjoy and it’s too bad Marley seems to be the standard answer when you get into a reggae conversation.

I have been a reggae fan since about ninth grade when I visited my sister at UVM and went home with a copy of Legend, the ubiquitous greatest hits album. I really liked “Stir it Up” and “Redemption Song” but soon moved on to deeper cuts as my hippie neighbor bought me Songs of Freedom. Referred to by fans as “the bible”, this four cd set contains tracks from his entire career including his oft covered “Acoustic Medley” which is still one of my favorite Marley tracks. It does a better job than any other song to really show Bob Marley the man.

I had the good fortune of going to college in a town that had constant acts rolling through so I was able to see many of today’s top reggae bands. I have seen Toots and the Maytals at least eight times, the Wailers, Culture, Mike Franti, Easy Star All Stars and a slew of big and smaller time bands that are not now coming quickly to my mind. Yes, I have also ran the gamut of white reggae but I don’t want to get into that as it is probably best saved for another day.

My major impetus for writing this post was the recollection a conversation I had with my neighbors in college, the dirty hippies. They lived in a very dirty house near my apartment in college whose occupants were dubbed as such; they all played music or were artists and all of them hated reggae. I think this is due to mostly everyone in the college age liking it nowadays. I’d go out of my way to expose them to what I thought was quality reggae and was always rebuked based on the principle that they “didn’t dig on reggae”. I have always taken offense to this and I needed to get it out of my system.

Reggae should already being viewed as a completely legitimate musical art form ranking up there with Jazz and Blues. I know many people will disagree with this, but for decades, both of the above mentioned forms of music were not considered by the populace at large as legitimate, largely based on ignorant race judgments. The mass appeal of reggae is apparent by people like Eric Clapton and bands like UB40 having a huge hits with reggae covers. Further, the influence of reggae can be seen across genres of music, from it’s use in dubstep to country stars like Zac Brown using reggae breakdowns in his number one hit “Chicken Fried” to a classic rock band Rush adding a reggae beat to their hit “Working Man” in live shows last year.  Everyone loves the stuff because you can shake your booty to it. The stop times are literally designed for you to get your groove on which brings me to my final point.

Reggae is the same deal. Jazz and blues comes from a wide variety of sources from a lot of different places, just like reggae. It’s a constantly changing style of music that will almost always make you move, just as Jazz and Blues does. This, to me, is the ultimate judgement of a lot of things. Even if you dislike the lyrics or style of song, if it makes you move, it must be at least a little good.

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10 comments on “Reggae

  1. professormortis says:

    This is a genre I need to delve into more deeply. New England Hippies, with their love of only loving Marley, and only loving something like 4 of his songs, made me never even consider digging around his back catalog….that was always the music for my sister and cousins, who were more into that scene. I ended up getting introduced to it sideways, through the soundtrack to The Harder They Come and through the ska/reggae songs that influenced Punk and New Wave acts I like, but sometime I need to go into it proper. Its unfortunate how people, myself included, can dismiss something just because we find the casual fans irritating.

    • theelderj says:

      Oh, professor, you and I are cut from the same cloth when it comes to our pre-conceptions about reggae. My brother did eventually convince me of how wrong I was, and I will post something about that next week.

      Other bands New England Hippies made it impossible for me to listen to:

      1. The Grateful Dead
      2. Phish
      3. Ben Harper
      4. Phish
      5. Phish
      6. The Allman Brothers
      7. Phish

      • professormortis says:

        My brother-in-law is a huge Dead Head, which is always disconcerting to me because he’s a former MVP Linebacker and a lawyer. I guess he had some surfing days in there, which helps explain it, but he is the only reason any Dead was played at our wedding.

        My allergy to The Allman Brothers is less pronounced, but I am so with you on The Dead and Phish.

  2. theyoungerj says:

    hahaha I love the Dead and the Bros…..I am right there with you on Phish.

  3. […] Younger J has recently defended reggae as a genre (although perhaps not as much as about his love for pedal steel)—he will defend it against […]

  4. […] Tough”, Toots and the Maytals. Nothing stretches time out like Reggae. I feel the space between seconds expanding. And Toots must too: he’s still performing as a […]

  5. […] enlighten you. Second, it’s clearly an attempt to fuse pop music with dubstep music, which I have railed against before. I am sorry, it sounds to me like big alien bugs on liquid L.S.D. making noises into mikes equipped […]

  6. […] extremely cool that Jimmy Cliff won the award even if I like Toots more. Cliff has been pushing for a come back for a while and certainly deserves it for all he […]

  7. […] these guys really more Ska than reggae? They seem like a poor Sublime imitator, or, better, a South Beach version of the ska-band from my homestate, The Rustic […]

  8. […] So I don’t think we can pull off the funky keyboard driven covers above and I don’t want to pull off the Doobie brothers. This is a dance tune here for our intensive purposes and it does work, but how many songs can we play that are the same type of blues progression. We need to write some dance tunes is the conclusion we came to and I think it’s the best suggestion in this regard so far. We also play a few songs that sound like this because lets face it, even rednecks love reggae. […]

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