When it comes to Generation Y and the ‘Millennial’ experience, the youth of today have a tough ride. Having drawn the short straw thanks to economic depression, climate change and the implications of the ‘baby boomer’ culture, insult is added to injury when older generations brand us as ‘shallow’, ‘social media obsessed’ and even worse ‘lazy’. It is little wonder then, that some young folk feel displaced in the modern world. Perhaps even as though they were born too late. Understandable perhaps, but is glamourising a bygone era more a symptom of delusion that escapism?
These nostalgic youths are not alone however: the 2008 documentary Time Warp Wives showcased modern women who lived and breathed as though they were in another era. Nostalgic for an era they never knew, these women almost seemed blind to the seemingly obvious problems of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. “There are drugs and guns and gangs everywhere nowadays,” one says, forgetting the violent teddy boys, mods vs. rockers violence and criminals who would only operate during the blackouts and blitz of World War Two. Is this young obsession with all things vintage an indication of a hankering for another age, or simply an appreciation of older fashions and styles in the comfort of a modern, liberal era? Features speaks to two young vintage lovers in Leeds about what time warp living means to them.
Beth Graves is a trainee hairdresser based in Leeds. She has been a lover of vintage homeware and fashion since her teens.
I started dressing in a 1950’s style when I was 16. Before this I was into the boho, 1970’s style before it really came into popularity. When I dressed like that I got bullied though, people would say I had a ‘grandma’s style’. To go with the boho style, I used to have long hippie hair, but then I cut it all off. I was bad with curling tongs so looked up different ways to curl my hair. I ended up perfecting the Marilyn Monroe style. I figured that if I had the hair, I might as well have the style too, if I dressed like a 1950’s pin-up, people couldn’t call me ‘grandma’ anymore.
Essentially, I wanted to be different. I didn’t want to wear what other people my age were wearing. I wanted to move away from following fashion trends. Putting on red lipstick and winged eyeliner is much simpler than learning how to contour. Within a few years I went from band t-shirts to pencil skirts and blouses, and I’ve never looked back.
Predominantly, Alfred Hitchcock films are a great style inspiration to me. I love my Elvis films too, GI Blues is my favourite. When it comes to icons of that era, I love Rita Hayworth, Diana Dawes, Brigitte Bardot, and of course Marilyn! As for men, Steve McQueen is my favourite male actor of the 1950’s and 60’s. You don’t get blonde smoldering men like that anymore.
As for being nostalgic for an era I never knew, I like the aesthetic of the era more than the era itself. There was rampant sexism and racism at that time. Saying that, if I had a time machine I would like to see what it was like. It’s to do with the lifestyle too, I wouldn’t live like a 1950’s housewife now, I want to live a modern life with a 1950’s aesthetic. There were more jobs available back then though, I remember my grandma saying that an advert for a shop girl would be gone within an hour. My grandma also bought her first house aged 21 for around £1,000. We just don’t have that level of opportunity now.
In terms of vintage, there is so much style to choose from now. My Dad said “When I was in the ’60s I wouldn’t dress like I was from the ’30s” – but now we have 100 years of great styles to choose from, everything today is based off the look of another era.
For Leeds folk wanting to shop for vintage clothes, I would recommend St. Gemma’s Hospice vintage fair, and as for shop the Corn Exchange is great. Manchester and Sheffield are better for shops, but Leeds does have some decent vintage fairs. I also like collectibles, like records. But I really want a typewriter.
Martyn Roper provides guitar, bass and vocals in the band Leeds City Stompers and is also part of two piece Washboard Resonators. Both bands aim to capture the prohibition-era jazz and earlier ragtime sounds.
Around the age of 14 or 15, I was really into rock (Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Beatles etc) and these artists always mentioned the same names of people from the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s a being their inspirations. These were people like Leadbelly, Django Reinhardt, Robert Johnson, Jimmie Rodgers, Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith.
I started buying the odd CD with these names on and very quickly they consumed me. I loved how raw and emotional these artists were but also the atmosphere those old scratchy recordings evoked and the fact I was listening to people I knew were long dead. It all seemed rather gothic and exciting!
This opened me up to so much classic jazz, blues, ragtime, swing, country, folk, calypso, cajun, zydeco, shanties, string bands, hokum, jug bands, banjo orchestras, parlour songs, funeral jazz, marching bands, and other fascinating genres. Which weirdly as you follow through brings you back to really modern music in a full circle.
As for artists of that era, Louis Armstrong is key. Don’t think of him as the guy who did string laden cheesy stuff in the 1960’s as an old man. In the 1920’s he was a leading jazz innovator when jazz was the most modern and ‘rock & roll’ thing ever in music. With his ‘Hot Five’ and ‘Hot Seven’ recordings he literally changed music and the world. If you like these early Louis recordings then listen to Jelly Roll Morton, Baby Dodds and Bessie Smith (for whom Louis played on occasion). His work in the 1950’s with some of the old guys he’d played with in the 1920s and 30s is stunning too.
Robert Johnson is probably the most important ‘vintage’ musician especially as a stepping stone backwards for people just developing an interest. He was a blues guitarist who recorded 29 songs in 1936/7 and despite not selling many records while alive he ended up influencing the rock movement (and therefore counter culture) of the 1960s. That guitar rhythm you hear on nearly all rock & roll, rolling stones and lots of punk recordings (think ’No Particular Place to Go’ by Chuck Berry) is directly from him and his adoption of a piano shuffle rhythm for guitar.
Most rural or ‘delta blues’ is hard driving music and often hard to understand vocally. Johnson has all the energy of that form but his songs are sung clearly (he loved a jazz guitarist and singer called Lonnie Johnson who had perfect diction) and are nearest to a modern persons idea of what a songwriter is, with the emotional honesty that comes with it. This makes it accessible to newbies.. you can the go back and listen to Skip James, Charlie Patton, Blind Blake, Son House and Bukka White for the real deep cuts when Johnson has eaed you in!
Johnson is famous too for having claimed to have ‘sold his soul to the devil’ at a crossroads at midnight in return for his virtuoso guitar skills which is great marketing and actually an idea he borrowed off an earlier blues star, that was in turn borrowed from an Ola African myth and is not at all true. He died aged 27 after being poisoned by a jealous husband after an extramarital affair and is therefore a member of the rock and roll ’27 Club’ of Jimi Hendrix, Janet Joplin, Kurt Cobain et al who died aged 27 after living fast and dying young.
Louis Armstrong bezoekt Amsterdam
*29 oktober 1955
Leadbelly is the nearest to the old pre recorded music tradition of what was termed a ‘songster’. So before people were labelled blues or jazz or hip hop or grindcore or whatever marketable style was needed by record companies most singers and musicians knew a vast repertoire and serviced their communities as needed. Leadbelly was reputed to know 500+ songs and would sing tunes from really any style albeit in his own way. So as a working musician if say booked on a Sunday at a church picnic gathering he’d play gospel and church songs, but on a Friday night in a juke joint he’d play blues, tin pan alley and jazz tunes (the pop music of its day). As such his 1949 live record (done just six months before he died) is a great opening into many styles of ‘old’ music such as folk, country, waltz’s, children songs, stories, scottish dance tunes, blues, ragtime etc. He explains the songs and their context and even makes up songs to suit all the while being a master performer and being really really funny too.
I particularly like his life story; he was imprisoned for trying to shoot a man and so wrote a song for the prison governor praising god and asking for forgiveness which got him paroled early and pardoned. He was then imprisoned again soon after for stabbing another man and again got paroled early with a pardon. This was after he was ‘discovered’ by the american library of congress funded folk music collector Alan Lomax who got congress to get him out of jail so he could use Leadbelly to educate Americans in their musical history. With Lomax Leadbelly toured the USA and Europe, made records, moved to New York to eventually play Carnegie Hall and even made it onto the cover of Time magazine in the 1930’s.
It helps to understand the history of this music and therefore tread through (and around) certain aspects of it with sensitivity, especially in terms of song choice and the material directly liked to slavery or racist stereotypes. However, it’s a common misconception that blues = African slave songs. A Venn diagram of African music, sea shanties, classical, British folk, Hawaiian folk, Swiss yodeling, pop, vaudeville, field hollers, church songs, work songs etc all have a meeting point in the middle that makes up blues. The first official release with ‘blues’ in the title was sheet music by the already successful composer WC Handy around 1910 and the first ‘blues’ records were made by successful and wealthy vaudevillian women singing slightly funny songs in minor keys about things not going their way and their men being useless.
By reading a lot of musical and political histories you realise that there’s also a huge amount of european influence as well as african in the music as well as cohabitation of both cultures in certain parts of the USA post the 1865 civil war which really shocked me. the Alan Lomax book ’The Land Where The Blues Began’ and then the Elijah Wald book ‘Escaping The Delta’ both shattered my preconceptions about this music and how interlinked and borrowed from lots of genres and traditions this stuff is.
An example of this is ragtime which is what jazz developed out of. Ragtime grew out of a craze in the USA around the 1870’s for marching band tunes and brass bands especially German and British marching tunes (later John Philip Sousa became the american king of Marches). Some African Americans started to alter the timing of the tunes while keeping the marching bass part the same. This syncopated the music (made it more more bouncy and rhythmical) and so made a new genre (literally ‘ragged time’ so not playing the melody straight like classical music but more African). By the 1890’s African Americans like Scott Joplin had wrote huge ragtime ‘hits’, were living extravagant lifestyles and were then writing ragtime operas to sort of take the music back into the classical music world where it came from (and they loved) to give it a sort of legitimacy away from the bar and speakeasy. Its a fascinating cultural mix of African and European traditions forming something very new and you could say ‘American’ as like now it is such a diverse melting pot of people and traditions.
Most of the material I personally play and write is ragtime derived guitar music based on the hokum craze that came in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Blind Boy Fuller and Tampa Red are the kings of this musical genre. Hokum was a fun and happy often major key jazz/dance music of its day that sang about drinking too much, having fun and used tongue in cheek and often risqué and ribald lyrics to sneak central human themes of love, lust and sex onto record. That suits me and where I come from as a person just fine. You really must sing about things that resonate emotionally so for me there’s no singing about life on the chain gang or growing up in Jim Crow Mississippi as that would just be insulting and fake.
If I had a time machine, I’d stay in the Ragtime era for a few hours I guess just to get the vibes. I’d hate to stay back in those days for a long time though. If there was a time machine I’d actually rather walk around my native Huddersfield or Leeds for a few hours in the 1940’s or 50’s and see how it all changed. I really love the modern world and all it entails like the internet with the ability to hear all music ever made from home, book gigs anywhere easily, cheap air flights to the Mediterranean and also the NHS and the fact that children don’t suffer with tuberculosis and rickets while working as chimney sweeps.
I love the images it makes in my mind when I listen to this music and just the feeling it evokes. That stimulation has always been key. I also like that it’s my absolute passion and that it’s shareable with other people and that it takes you into the most amazing places and situations. From the ball room of London’s finest hotel to being spat at by people on the street all in the space of a few days. I used to work boring day jobs and now every day is different and interesting and I can’t tell you how much I love this lifestyle and I owe all that to the music and the excellent people I work with and have worked with in the past.
It seems that young vintage lovers are not longing for another era to return, but are appreciating the good parts of times gone by in the context of our modern society. In an age when Generation Y is criticised for being shallow or social media obsessed, and now that it is confirmed that climate change is irreversible, it is little wonder that the young want to prove their elders wrong and bring some hope to the modern world.
You can find the Leeds City Stompers and The Washboard Resonators on Facebook and Twitter.