Musical Memes: A Bassline Travels

by Thomas Brett

In a recent (and fascinating) New York Times article on the resurgence of soul music among young and mostly white singers (“Can a Nerd Have Soul?“), we’re reintroduced to The Supremes’ 1960s Motown classic, “You Can’t Hurry Love.”

Propelling that uptempo hit is James Jamerson’s 8-note bass line (with a rhythm kinda like: 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2, 1, 1-2, 1-2).  As the article notes, Jamerson’s bassline got repackaged in the 1980s by Hall and Oats (“Maneater”):

and also by Katrina & The Waves (“Walking On Sunshine”):

and probably made appearances in a good many other songs too.

An up and coming white soul singer Meyer Hawthorne’s recent song “Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’” revisits Jamerson’s groove once again:

The Times writer Rob Hoerburger makes a point of noting that for the current generation of soul artists, a classic bassline pattern such as Jamerson’s is just part of a musical vocabulary to be learned, absorbed, and appropriated to propel their new songs:

“By the time Hawthorne caught up to those eight notes in “Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’,” a song from his album, “A Strange Arrangement,” though, they seemed to be just that: notes. They weren’t jacked up, minced, diced, reassembled, reduced, infused, technofied, processed, irony-dredged or in any other way commented upon. It was as if the last 20 or 30 or 40 years of pop music hadn’t happened.”

Hawthorne, like Hall and Oats, Katerina & The Waves, and countless others, was just claiming a musical meme for himself.

While I’m certainly no expert, there are all kinds of musical memes out there that form the building blocks of our favorite popular musics.  Chord progressions can be memes (I-V-VI-IV, etc.), a rhythm can be a meme (James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” comes to mind), a bassline like Jamerson’s Motown groove . . . the list goes on.  Musical memes anchor the music in terms of recognizable chunks of information.  In fact, there’s a good chance that a music has a better chance of being liked (by a community of fans) if appropriately appropriates the right musical memes.

And since I’m dancing around the issue without addressing it, I will: Is “soul” in music a kind of meme too?  Can it be learned like a chord progression can find a comfortable place through fingers on a guitar?  Can the essence of soul music, an African-American invention, travel outwards to other communities of musicians?  Whether we’re discussing soul music, jazz, middle eastern taksim, Indonesian gamelan music, or the polyrhythms of a West African drum ensemble, that’s an always open question: Can musical ways of being really travel?  Maybe.  But let’s also remember that sometimes musical memes can be the result of just really, really good, individual musicians who created distinct stuff. Check out this little profile of Jamerson below:

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