Nonsense in Public Places: Songs of Black Vocal Rhythm and Blues or Doo-Wop
This article argues that vocal rhythm and blues, or doo-wop, is impacted by race, class and location. Characterized by its nonsense syllables in a cappella songs, doo-wop is defined by its origins as public singing in urban neighborhoods. Goldblatt defines doo-wop as “a vocal-centric song genre” that featured nonsense phrases, often performed in black and Hispanic neighborhoods in urban areas (102). Doo-wop was a group activity incorporating various voices, not a solo genre. The nonsense phrases made the genre accessible. Doo-wop is often associated with “the corner,” which stands for “a public outdoor urban space” and “a metaphor extended to. . . spaces. . . democratically open to all” (103). As a result, singing in such public places was also linked to identity, especially for the people of color who engaged in singing doo-wop. The nonsense singing that characterizes doo-wop could be slow or fast, but it always revolved around the vocal foundation of the song. At the same time, the vocal style of individual groups varied, even when singing the same song. While the style seems to involve repetition, “the lyrics of doo-wop came as close as possible to being repetitious without repetition” (106). While Theodor Adorno argues that repetition creates similarly automatic responses from the audience, doo-wop precedes its recorded counterpart, thereby excluding it from the realm of mass art that Adorno critiques. Goldblatt argues that such repetition actually motivates audiences to participate through its repetitive nature. Doo-wop’s influence on rock and roll, and its evolution by the people of color who sang it, shows its significance as a musical form.