Frye ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Definitive Collection


Rolling Stones, “It’s only Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Top of the Pops, 1974 (It’s still the pre-video age, but this segment is famous for its production, even for a Top of the Pops feature)  Previous posts on Frye ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll here and here.

Here is a much more complete collection of Frye’s references to rock & roll.

Literature, as ordinarily conceived, is so small and specialized a part of one’s reading that we forget how much of our total verbal experience is untouched by it. For many a student in grade eight whose verbal experience is centred on television, The Lady of the Lake may be a pretty meaningless collection of words, something that those unaccountable adults, for whatever reasons of their own, think he should read. The way out of this is not to try to choose the kind of literature that can compete with the appeal of television—no such literature exists. But the teacher should understand that teaching literature means dealing with the total verbal experience of students. The points of contact between literary and subliterary experiences should be kept in mind; obviously the same forms of comedy and romance and irony that appear in literature also turn up in television drama or rock ballads. I am not saying that a teacher should be constantly pointing such resemblances out, only that they are occasionally useful. Far more important, however, is the fact that students are being steadily got at by a rival mythology determined to capture their imaginations for its own purposes, armed with far more skill, authority, and prestige than any teacher has. This is why I think students should be encouraged to become aware of the extent to which they are being conditioned by the mass media, as a central part of their literary training. Some of them have reacted with a general hatred and contempt for everything their society produces, but that, of course, is quite as dependent on conditioned reflex as anything it revolts against. Besides, it does not distinguish between genuine and false forms of social mythology. What is absurd about growing up absurd is adjustment mythology, not society itself. (On Teaching Literature, CW 7, 449)

Coming to point (crazy Oedipus) where we can’t afford supremacy of ideology any more: let’s have a war and smash that guy’s ideology.  Primary concerns must become primary.  (Leads directly to authority of poet, but not in this paper.)

Feeling that this is so led in sixties to revival of ecstatic metaphor: drugs, yoga, Zen, folk singers, rock music (Woodstock) would bring in a new conception of community.  Revitalized tribal culture in McLuhan. (CW 6, 599)

Twenty-five years ago, when I started expounding these views, I met with the most strenuous resistance from my students; today I have the feeling of battering down an open door.  The reasons for the change are of great significance.  In the last generation, we were all in the grip of a writing culture.  There could be no truth except truth of correspondence conveyed by simple & accurate description.  Their questions were loaded with value-assumptions: is it all just a myth, only a myth, nothing but a myth?  They had been educated the wrong way in literature, by educators who disliked & feared lit. & trained them first in “communication arts,” then circled cautiously over to prose, & ended by surveying poetry as Moses did the Promised Land, dividing it into allegorical themes or topics.  What poetry had been taught them had been metered gabble of the Longfellow-Whittier kind, on the theory that this would be the kind of poetry that would connect with their ordinary experience.  The result was that when they collided with genuine poetry in the university, with Yeats or Rimbaud, they did not think of such poetry as a direct, forceful, natural, even primitive form of utterance, but as something wilfully & perversely obscure & difficult.  Educators today seem to be as silly & ignorant as ever, but they can no longer cripple their victims to such an extent.  Young people educate themselves today, partly through films & television, media that are capable of great symbolic concentration, partly through listening to folk singers & rock & roll music which introduces them to what is, for all its obvious limitations, a more normal poetic idiom.  As a result mythical habits of thought seem natural to them. (CW 13, 73)

It is seldom that I risk a prediction about the future, but I did say, in a paper given in the fall of 1968, that while nothing seemed less likely then than a return to the introspection of the Eisenhower period, I was convinced that such a return was just around the corner. At the moment we appear to have turned such a corner: of course the mood may change again overnight, but it may be worth mentioning my reasons for making the statement. In the first place, technological developments during the last two decades have tended towards greater introversion. The passenger airplane is more introverted than the train, the high rise apartment more introverted than the bungalow suburb, the television set more introverted than the neighborhood movie, and so on. Similarly, much radical opposition to the social ethos has taken intensely introverted forms. The drug cults are an obvious example: rock music, which wraps up its listeners in a completely insulating cloak of noise, is another. But such things differ very little from the mood of society as a whole. A few years ago the magic word which explained everything that was going on was the word “subculture,” but I doubt if there really is such a thing as a subculture: everything the word describes has its equivalent in, or is taken up by, the rest of society.

Recently, the Canadian Radio and Television Commission, with which I have a connection, has been trying to impose standards of Canadian content on broadcasters. I expected many broadcasters to be opposed to these regulations: what surprised me much more was the howl of protest from so many viewers, many of whom said, very explicitly, that it was part of the inalienable and God given birthright of every free born Canadian to listen to all the American programmes he could get his hands on. A broadcaster made a remark at a recent hearing which seemed to me to throw some light on this. The viewer, he said, is an addict. He keeps twisting the dial until he gets his fix: then he’s happy. There is much more to be said about viewers than this, but it is true that for many people television constitutes a socially acceptable form of drug culture. Similarly in other areas. The newspapers express a good deal of indignation about Rochdale, but I should imagine that most of the conditions complained of there—the litter, the drugs, the sexual promiscuity, the petty delinquencies—could be duplicated in a good many university residences, male or female. What has happened, I think, is a considerable decline in the capacity for community living. Perhaps the hippies will be bellwethers here, as they have been before. A few years ago it was they who led the cult of doing one’s own thing, but now they are turning increasingly to communes and social settlements, rather like the Utopian projects of the nineteenth century. (CW 11, 291–2)

Harron: The Dionysian festivals were religions of nature in Greece. When the young people gathered at Woodstock for the rock concerts, there was the same kind of thing. They would stay all day to listen to their gods play music. Is there a connection?

Frye: Yes, there’s a very strong connection. Woodstock was the most obviously Dionysiac phenomenon that there’s been in modern society for a long time. Just as you have some religions that proceed entirely with revivals, so you have political movements that proceed entirely in terms of rallies. There isn’t really all that much difference between a revival and a rally. Woodstock, I think, was a rather pathetic illusion that somehow or other you could, again, break through the crust of history and get into a different way of existence altogether by a kind of emotional release. Then of course you had that horrible business afterwards with the motorcycle people.

Harron: Altamont, the other festival?

Frye: Altamont, yes.

Harron: Was that a ritual killing?

Frye: Yes, it’s the other side of Dionysus. The bacchantes in Greece used to go into emotional ecstasies and tear up goats, but sometimes they didn’t stop with goats. You get Dionysiac movements in Nazi Germany as well. They’re not all peaceful. (CW 24, 383)

The ideology of the secular Christmas, in its present form, is a Victoria‑and‑Albert German Romantic affair, reflecting the culture of Dickens novels, of large parent‑centred families, of the penny‑postage reform, of the wedding marches of Mendelssohn and Wagner. And while of course all ideology in advertising points to something that no longer exists, if it ever did, there may now be too great a gap with the culture of the anti-novel, the bellowing of rock music, and the disintegration of both the family and the postal service. In a society where the reuniting of a big happy family is the starting point of neurosis rather than of festivity, perhaps an extensive restructuring of Christmas ideology may be necessary if it is to survive. (CW 4, 302)

In the 1960s a resistance movement against the mass culture of (mainly) television grew up in the United States, and the magic word that explained everything that was then going on in this area was the word “subculture.” But a subculture, whether its interest was in rock or drugs or meditation, showed a strong tendency to become mass news, featured on television networks or being reflected in fashion advertising. In other words these subcultures seemed to be really specialized forms of mass culture. Perhaps genuine culture is also the genuine form of subculture. No matter how complex the technical means of communication, the elements communicated are still words, tones, and images, the same elements that have been around since the earliest stone age. And I feel there is hope that the genuine article will continue, quietly but persistently and increasingly, to filter through the new technology. (CW 12, 562)

Today it is hard to dodge the fact that any form of intensified ideology is pernicious if it leads to another excuse for war or for exploiting either other men or nature.  In the late sixties a state of mind developed that we might characterize as a feeling that the old subject‑object consciousness, in which the individual is merely one of a social aggregate, had to give way to a new and heightened form of consciousness.  Hence many forms of ecstatic metaphor reappeared.  Certain drugs seemed to bring about something close to a sense of identity with one’s surroundings; teachers of yoga and Zen forms of concentration became immensely popular; folk singers and rock music festivals seemed to symbolize a new conception of comradeship.  It was a period of neoprimitivism, of renewed identity through ecstatic music or contemplation of a visual focus. (CW 18, 354–5)

In the cultural history of Canada, painting was the first of the arts to come to maturity, and it formed a very important aspect of the exploring and settling of the country.  Perhaps a world-wide metamorphosis of the visual arts indicates the coming of a new age in man’s attitude to the globe he inhabits.

A corresponding metamorphosis of the verbal arts would probably come later, though some elements of it can already be glimpsed.  In the Western tradition literature seems to have run through a cycle beginning with myth and romance and ending with an ironic realism which disintegrates into various forms of paradox, such as the theatre of the absurd.  In our day we see many signs of the cycle being repeated: the retelling of the great myths, the reshaping of romance formulas in a science fiction setting, the revival of a primitive relation to a listening audience in rock and ballad singing.  But nothing repeats exactly in history, and in any case the end of a cycle does not compel us to repeat the same cycle, but gives us a chance to transfer to another level. (CW 18, 407)

One occasionally sees, even in contemporary newspapers, the suggestion that in thinking of the turmoils of Eastern Europe today one should not overlook the direct influence of American jazz and rock.  In any case, there’s always a certain amount of mystery about music.  We never know quite what’s going on in it.  Perhaps it’s partly to that that it owes its therapeutic reputation. (CW 18, 470)

The direct response to a verbal kinetic stimulus persists into adult life, and is, of course, what makes the propaganda of totalitarian states effective for their own people. Such response is not an inability to distinguish rhetorical from factual statement, but a will to unite them. Even though a Communist, for example, understands the difference between what is said and the political necessity of saying it, he has been conditioned to associate rhetoric and fact when they are produced in a certain area of authority, not to separate them. In the democracies we are not trained in this way, but we are continually being persuaded to fall into the habit, by pressure groups trying to establish the same kind of authority, and by certain types of entertainment in which the kinetic stimulus is erotic. I recently saw a documentary movie of the rock-and-roll singer Paul Anka. The reporter pried one of the squealing little sexballs out of the audience and asked her what she found so ecstatic about listening to Anka. She said, still in a daze: “He’s so sincere.” The will to unite rhetorical and direct address is very clear here. (CW 27, 160)

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3 thoughts on “Frye ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Definitive Collection

  1. David Wilson

    thanks for this, I didn’t find what I am looking for (based on a memory of Frye saying something about the Rolling Stones in the context of their being stuck at a boyish stage) but what I did find is thought provoking, I will go now and see if this is really a going concern 🙂

    be well.


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