In 1992, a consignment of around thirty thousand bath toys was lost from the Ever Laurel, a container ship bound from Hong Kong to Tacoma, Washington. During a storm in the North Pacific Ocean, several containers were washed overboard, including one bearing “Friendly Floatees”. These Chinese-made toys took the form of red beavers, green frogs, blue turtles, and yellow ducks, and when the container holding them broke open, the Floatees were free to travel the oceans.
Ten months after the spill, most of these bath toys arrived on the beaches near Sitka, Alaska, but not all of them shared this fate. A number spent the winter of 1992-93 frozen in the ice of the Bering Sea. Some floated back into the North Pacific, and yet others made their way through the Arctic Ocean to the North Atlantic. Oceanographers eagerly studied their unexpected trajectories, which revealed previously unknown information about ocean currents.
In his book Footsteps in the Dark, the American historian George Lipsitz uses this event to explore how cultural phenomena such as pop music also circulate via hidden currents, finding new life and new uses in different times and different places around the world.
He describes how KC and the Sunshine Band found their sound by combining influences from Pentecostal Christianity, doo-wop, Santería drumming and Bahamian “junkanoo” carnival music; how the infectious beat of Dion’s “The Wanderer” has its roots in the Italian tarantella; how a composition by George Clinton of Parliament owes its “operatic” quality to synagogue chanting which Clinton heard in childhood at a schoolfriend’s bar mitzvah.
Lipsitz also attends to the social uses of such music. Analysing the Isley Brothers number which gives his book its title, he considers it an account of 1970s Black American experiences which were neglected by journalists and historians:
“As far as we know, the Isley Brothers did not intend to be historians of these changes or even to create a historical record of them with their music. They never chose to present an empirical accounting of events organized in chronological order, nor did their songs speak directly about politics, laws, or leaders. The Isley Brothers did not do research in traditional archives filled with government documents, personal records, or diaries of famous people. Yet they displayed extraordinary familiarity with and knowledge of what we might call the alternative archives of history, the shared memories, experiences, and aspirations of ordinary people, whose perspectives rarely appear in formal historical archival collections.”
Lipsitz gives us the tools to look not only at the past, but also the future, through lenses we might have previously neglected: sifting pop culture for overlooked clues to social change, examining cultural movements to understand the hidden currents which drive them, and making meaning from the “Friendly Floatees” which have drifted away from the course prescribed by the dominant social, political, and economic order.
“My hope,” he writes, “is that reading popular music as history and interpreting history through popular music will help us to hear the footsteps in the dark, to see how history happens and why music matters.” I believe that Lipsitz’s book also has much to teach us about the way we look at the future. Read more