Charles Hamm (1925-2011)

A personal tribute by Philip Tagg

Charles Hamm, founder member of IASPM and distinguished music scholar, died on 16 October 2011. He will be sorely missed.

I was delighted when, in 1981, Charles agreed to deliver a paper at the first IASPM international conference in Amsterdam. And what a paper it was! If only we’d paid more attention to what was really popular on TV — The Osmonds and Sousa marches rather than to what was #1 in the charts (Kim Carnes) or particularly cool among rockologists— we “could easily have predicted the outcome of last fall’s presidential election”, he argued, “and anticipated other recent events in the United States signalling a massive swing to the right, politically and socially” (Hamm, 1982: 13).

Charles Hamm was dedicated to treating the music of the popular majority on an equal footing with that of other groups. That was no easy position for a music scholar to adopt in the 1960s and 1970s. His seminal book Yesterdays – Popular Song in America (1979) exhibits a depth of musical and social experience that jumps out of each page. It’s a book I could not have done without when teaching Popular Music History. In my view it’s a milestone in popular music studies because it’s rigorously researched, thoroughly musical, cross-disciplinary and salutarily devoid of intellectual or artistic canonisation.

It was great, back in the early 1980s, to meet someone older in my own line of business, someone who already had a distinguished track record of taking popular music seriously. Musicologists of my generation had very few such role models: I had Wilfred Mellers, Jan Ling (my mentor in Göteborg) and Charles Hamm who, incidentally, once told me he’d had to write a thesis about Guillaume Dufay when he would’ve preferred to study Glenn Miller. Twenty years his younger, I’d been encouraged (by Jan Ling) to do a PhD in popular music (Tagg 1979) and to set up IASPM. In fact, one of the most encouraging things about the early days of IASPM was Charles’ unmistakeable enthusiasm for the existence and development of the association: his presence and involvement as a respected older colleague who seemed to have come out of the cold into a community of like-minded individuals gave me the confidence to believe that founding the association might not have been such a bad idea after all.

During the 1980s Charles was deeply involved in IASPM. He was ideal as the association’s first chairperson —observant, patient and efficient. He graciously tolerated the occasionally rather radicalist rhetoric of some members, wisely interpreting such opinion in terms of the sort of youthful enthusiasm that goes with any innovative challenge to an undemocratic epistemological status quo. He may have been a soft-spoken, mild-mannered man but he was also a keen and sharp listener whose criticism was always well-reasoned and constructive. He always seemed genuinely interested in, and paid careful attention to, what younger researchers presented at the IASPM events he so regularly attended. His support and involvement in the association was key to its development throughout the 1980s.

Like my friend Gerard Kempers (1948-2005), another key figure in IASPM’s history, Charles, it seemed to me, became disenchanted with the association’s drift towards the sort of postmodernising orthodoxy that was all the rage in the late 1980s and early 1990s (see Tagg & Clarida, 2003: 66-88). Despite that fallow period in IASPM’s history, Charles continued, thank goodness, to produce useful and important texts about popular music (see references). He was after all a musician and composer who genuinely, and with considerable success, sought to understand how all the sounds we call musical actually relate to the individuals and society producing and using them. Indeed, his obervations about The Osmonds, Sousa and Reagan back in 1981 are painfully relevant today in the wake of the financial greed, arrogance and capitalist fundamentalism that devastates the lives and welfare of the 99%. I’m not saying that Charles would actually be on the barricades occupying Wall Street if he were with us today (although I wouldn’t put it past him!), but he was, as a truly enlightened US-citizen, acutely aware of how the democratic constitution of his country was being hijacked to make way for the mayhem that has blighted the lives of most of us. Whether or not he would have have expressed the issue in those terms (I don’t think he would!), Charles truly tried to understand how music was part of such processes. We need more people like him.

I deeply regret his passing and the fact that I was never really able to tell him how much he contributed to making this world a better place, how much I truly appreciate all his efforts to take music studies out of the epistemic dark ages into the democratic light of the popular majority. I owe him a great big ‘thank you’.


Original source with references