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Jelly Roll Morton and Tipper Gore

March 24, 2014

I had a chance to pick up a new sealed copy of the CD version of the Jelly Roll Morton interviews and performances recorded in Alan Lomax in 1938 for the Library of Congress at a terrific price ($20).  As a web page on the Library of Congress brags, this release won two Grammy awards.  That web page tells a little about the history of recording the set:

In his essay [in the liner notes, jazz scholar and folklorist John] Szwed explains that BBC journalist and broadcaster Alistair Cooke told [Library of Congress audio archivist Alan] Lomax to seek out [Jelly Roll] Morton at the Music Box, a U Street nightclub in Washington, D.C., where the jazz legend occasionally played piano and regaled local devotees with tales of his glory days. There Morton would also expound on the history of jazz, which he claimed to have invented in 1902 and which, he said, few musicians born outside of New Orleans played well.

"He was thoroughly prepared," Alan Lomax said of Morton. "He’d thought about the whole thing. And we had a few minutes’ conversation and I knew I had a winner, and I had my own plot and I knew he had his plot and I ran up the stairs [of the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium] to Harold Spivacke [then head of the Library’s Music Division and Lomax’s boss], and I said, ‘Harold, I want to have a guarantee of a hundred discs—we’re going to do the history of New Orleans jazz!’"

Lomax’s subsequent conversations with Morton, made from the stage of the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium, produced the original 1938 recordings, which, indeed, amount to the first oral history of jazz.

More than 25 years ago, I had read a book that was edited from the transcripts of these sessions, so I knew that they were often bawdy (for example,Morton began playing piano at a brothel when he was 14; his adopted stage name includes a profane slang term).  Nonetheless, I was still surprised to find a parental advisory sticker on the cover of the  box set.   (An actual walk through New Orlean’s French Quarter is a far more jarring experience than listening to Morton’s jazz.)

Gore

PA

I gave the matter due thought and consideration, and after meditating on it for several minutes, finally decided that I could go ahead and make the purchase without calling up my mother and father and asking permission.

Now the story of how this sticker came to be included on record music has been recounted many times before, but involves Tipper Gore and several other high-profile Washington politician wives who, under the name Parents Music Resource Center (but universally called the “Washington Wives”) decided to lobby Congress to mandate a rating system similar to the system used by the Motion Picture Association of America to rate movies.  (The MPAA system is theoretically optional, but is a de facto requirement for almost all commercial movie releases).   As part of a compromise, the  Recording Industry Association of America agreed to place this mark on recordings that may have inappropriate content for youth, although there is no particular standard on when recordings get this particular mark.  The label is called a “Tipper Sticker.”   A number of retailers (notably Walmart) do not carry recordings marked with a Tipper Sticker in their retail stores.

Interestingly, I own several recordings of readings of the Bible in original languages and in translation, and although there is certainly ample adult content in that work, I do not recall seeing a Tipper Sticker on any of those recordings.  Even more confusingly, I have yet to see a Tipper Sticker on any of the several opera recordings that I own, although those are far more profane than anything Jelly Roll Morton said. 

I do not believe that the availability of Morton recordings represents any particular threat to moral fiber of our youth – I have yet to hear of gangs of wayward young people gathering to listen to jazz recordings from the 1930s.  Certainly, as a contemporary popular force, a certain tasteless dance by Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke (that seemingly every adolescent in America has seen) appears to still be more prominent in the public imagination.

At the end of the day, putting a Tipper Sticker on the Morton recordings appears just a meaningless gesture; except perhaps, as a blog devoted to Morton says, the kids won’t be finding out about Jelly Roll Morton at Walmart anytime soon.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 24, 2014 6:42 pm

    It’s voluntary, in fact as well as in word, isn’t it? Walmart doesn’t control the sales of music, in the way that movie theaters control movie distribution, or newsstands used to control the sale of comics. There’s no official board to certify albums, either. I’m surprised that the Library of Congress chose to mark the album that way.

  2. March 24, 2014 7:01 pm

    Absolutely correct, Nina. Indeed, one could argue that Walmart is one of the least important music distribution venues.

    I don’t know exactly the decision process that led to this particular box set receiving the Tipper Sticker, but I can speculate: This particular album (and the entire series of Lomax recordings) is marketed by the Library of Congress through Rounder Records. In 2005, when the box set was produced, Rounder was an independent label but was distributed by Universal Music Group. I’m guessing someone at Universal thought this was a good idea (and, in a way, it is a clever bit of marketing.)

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