What is hip? A way of moving? A way of dressing? A way of listening and speaking? A way of thinking? Well, a lot of people might say the answer is the same one that Louis Armstrong supposedly gave when he was asked what jazz is: “Man, if you have to ask, you’ll never know.” On this edition of Night Lights, we’ll investigate the question with musicologist Phil Ford, whose recent book Dig: Sound And Music In Hip Culture explores the highways and byways of the 20th-century American underground, and its eventual assimilation into the cultural mainstream.
Ford traces the origins of hip back to African-American street culture of the 1930s and musician Mezz Mezzrow’s 1946 autobiography Really The Blues. He follows its subterranean passage up into the nascent Beat culture of the late 1940s and the jazz scene of the 1950s, and its absorption into the bright psychedelic light of the 1960s. He also examines the concept of practice, embodied in the life of composer John Benson Brooks, and the guiding jazz principle of improvisation. “In a way,” Ford says, “what this book really is about is an attempt to think of human life in improvisational terms.”
“To Dig Or Not To Dig” features music from Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Lennie Tristano, and others, spoken-word performances by Jack Kerouac and Ken Nordine, and selections from obscure musical hipster tracts such as Fred Katz’s “Zen” and John Benson Brooks’ pioneering sample-collage Avant Slant. Ford provides commentary along the way, decoding and illuminating the language and gestures of hip.