When did popular music become popular? There were folk songs that people knew that were passed down from generation to generation, and there were the music hall songs from the Nineteenth Century known and sung in urban and industrial communities up and down the country. But popular music, that which cuts across geography and class and even age, seems to have come with the advent of the radio and the record player.
Donovan was played on the radio this evening. I have never bought a Donovan record, never been at a Donovan concert, I could not name more than a couple of his songs, but his voice was instantly recognizable. He belonged to a time when popular music fulfilled its name, when tunes would be heard in homes throughout the land, when an appearance on one of the two television channels would guarantee an audience of millions and where a seven inch single might sell hundreds of thousands of copies.
The song played this evening was Catch the Wind, a ballad lament of a love that has been lost, but the concluding line of the refrain might be used to express a wider sense of loss.
In the chilly hours and minutes
Of uncertainty, I want to be
In the warm hold of your loving mind
To feel you all around me
And to take your hand, along the sand
Ah, but I may as well try and catch the wind.
The fragmentation of society brought by postmodern worldviews and electronic media has brought the loss of opportunity for the creation of music that is truly popular. To try to create a song that would capture an audience as broad as that enjoyed by Donovan and his 1960s contemporaries would be as futile as an attempt to catch the wind. Who is there who would listen?
Popular music of the sort that would be played by diverse people in diverse venues is disappearing. How long has it survived? A century, perhaps a century and a half if the music hall songs are to be included.
In fifty years’ time, it seems unlikely that many people will play much music from the present era for the simple reason that little of the music commands a wide enough audience to be remembered. It is not that there is not good music, nor that the artists are not as talented as in former times, just that everyone now listens to their own playlists.
Catching the wind would be a simpler proposition than the defragmentation of our culture.