Making Music as a Political Act: or how the Velvet Underground Influenced the Velvet Revolution


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A History of Musical Subversion

The story of the Plastic People of the Universe represents but a chapter (though a very important one) in a long history of how American music (and its Czech off-shoots) helped the Czechs resist their different totalitarian regimes. To name just one example, Josef Škvorecký, one of our best living novelists, currently residing in Toronto, describes in his autobiographical prose the beneficial role jazz played for his generation under the Nazi occupation. In the story Eine kleine Jazzmuzik, for instance he pictures vividly how his teenage band in the small North Bohemian town of Kostelec attempted to bypass strict regulations imposed by the authorities on any performed music. These regulations, adopted with the objective of “preserving a true Aryan musical expression,” were directed against “the jewish-bolshevik-plutocratic malaise of Negro jazz.” The long list of prohibited elements included e.g. a 20% limit on swing compositions, a maximum 10% limit on syncopated measures, no blues, no hot jazz, no drum breaks, no scat, no provocative standing up while improvising a solo, major keys were generally to be preferred to the “decadent and sad” minor keys, etc. etc. The main strategy in the Škvorecký band’s struggle with the local authorities was one of renaming: For the purpose of a forthcoming performance the band, originally called Paddy’s Dixielanders, adopted the name Unknown Bandits of Rhythm, and the composition called “By the Swimming Pool” disguised King Oliver’s “Riverside Blues,” “Tiger Rag” became “Our Bull has gone Wild” and “St. Louis Blues” became the “A Song from a Small Town in the Middle of Nowhere.”

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