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Preface | Summary | Project History | Cantometrics| Choreometrics | Parlametrics | Urban Strain | Other Studies | Teaching Tools | Global Jukebox | Library of Congress Collection | Publications | Acknowledgements THE URBAN STRAIN Download the .pdf Since the era of his interviews with Jelly Roll Morton and his survey of play lists on the jukeboxes of Mississippi country dance halls in the late 1930s to early forties, Alan Lomax had been eagerly following the progress of American popular music. Cantometrics and Choreometrics research offered new tools and vocabularies for its investigation. Lomax was skeptical of the ideal of the single creative genius and sought patterns of global influence on popular music. "The dynamic character of musical style is particularly in evidence in moments of cultural contact or acculturation," he noted in 1961. "[Thus] style theory is particularly useful in the analysis of hybrid musical forms." In the mid-1980s he decided to apply these techniques to twentieth-century pop song and dance. With jazz composer Roswell Rudd and dance analyst Forrestine Paulay, he examined the rapid proliferation of novel popular styles and related them to ancient traditions of song and dance. The project was called "A Cross-Cultural Interpretation of American Urban Performance Styles: The Urban Strain," "urban strain" denoting the music and dance styles emerging from the Tin Pan Alleys of North America.

The study was drawn from a sample of 321 songs and 100 dances. It employed the Cantometrics and Choreometrics variables and accounted for personnel and orchestration. An expanded coding system was developed which could describe such novel musical effects as blue notes, syncopation, shadowing, and breaks, and new varieties of vocal and orchestral tone — for example "playful," "strict temperament," "speaking quality like Louis' [Armstrong]," "Sprechstimme," "talking," "screaming," "imitating singers," "imitating animal or environmental sounds," "electronic effects," etc. Various statistical methods were applied to the sample. Similarity wave analysis, for example, could rank all the performances in the Urban Strain sample in order of most-to-least similarity to a performance by a single artist, and also compare them to the most similar performances in the Cantometrics and Choreometrics samples.

Most listeners are at least subliminally aware of the blending of African and European traditions in American popular music. Like much else the entertainment industry, the pop charts were racially segregated until the late 1950s. The Urban Strain study demonstrated, however, that cultural exchange between blacks and whites had been active and intense since at least the beginning of the century. With its capacity to differentiate traits and varieties of performance style, it analyses could precisely identify the elements and tendencies of this continuing interchange. Moreover, it bore out the proverbial notion of the decade as a watershed in popular culture, finding that certain kinds of musical crossovers and specific innovations in music and dance did indeed characterize each decade of the century.

Although the Urban Strain study focused on African American and "white" (meaning mainly Western and Central European-derived) music, the same approach could be fruitfully applied to other musical interactions and influences in popular music. Some that come to mind are English vaudeville, Central European choral/orchestral music, Eastern European klezmer, Neapolitan song, and various styles and eras of Latino music.

The insights of the research team as they discussed and analyzed performances by Josephine Baker, the Maguire Sisters, Billy Holiday, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, and others were recorded on tape and can be heard on the Discussions, Interviews, and Lectures catalog on this website. The Urban Strain was meant to be published on the Global Jukebox. Its dataset and coding system will be made available.

Other Studies: Phonotactics, Instruments & Orchestration, Minutage, Folk Song Texts, Leadership, Work & Song, Evolutionary Taxonomy IN PROGRESS

Please do not cite or distribute without permission of author. This is work in progress.