Ska, Wikipedia, and Memory

Back in high school, in the mid-nineties, I had a real fascination with ska. The third wave of ska had hit the Midwest hard around 1994, which coincided nicely with my friends starting to have cars.

My friend Max and I would sit in his car during lunch, listening to his mix tapes of eighties Specials records, sixties Jamaican ska, and contemporary local bands that played punk-influenced ska-core. On weekends we went to all ages shows in weird little ad hoc venues, in fraternal lodges and parks and people’s basements. The places where music scenes are made when a majority of the fans are under eighteen.

Dance the skaFast forward a year. I was now in college. I was living in rural Western Massachusetts, which meant a lot less going to shows, but I was alright with that because, other than the Allstonians, I thought all the bands out of the Boston ska scene sucked. Operation Ivy were still my favorite band, even if I’d been a little disappointed by the last Rancid album. I had a twenty page paper to write for my History of Jazz class. The professor had been open to talking about the impact of jazz on R&B and other popular forms, and said I could write my term paper on the history of ska. I was psyched.

Except.

When I started to do my research, I discovered that there was very, very little written on the topic, especially very little written by anyone who could be considered a legitimate scholarly source. This was 1995 or 1996, and I don’t think I’d ever even heard of a scholarly database. In a fit of desperation, I fired up my computer’s modem and dialed the college’s server computer, Plato. Once connected to Plato, I was able to telnet to the world wide web.

I’m pretty sure that this was the first time it had even occurred to me to do research on the web. The Internet was a place for hobbies, extracurricular stuff. Fansites and emails and ASCII art. That’s all I knew of the Internet.

But I hoped that maybe, just maybe, one of those ska fansites might help me find a lead on some sort of source. I was getting desperate.

It turned out to be a fortuitous thing, though. On one ska fansite, I learned that one of the guys from Moon Ska Records, my absolute favorite ska lable, had actually done a Masters thesis on the evolution of ska. (I’m pretty sure it was Robert “Bucket” Hingley of the Toasters, but almost fifteen years later, I’m just not sure.) He’d even done oral histories with members of the Skatalites and other seminal bands. I arranged a phone interview with him and bought a device that let me record the interview on a boombox. He was awesome and friendly, recommending books and repeating stories he’d heard when he was doing the oral histories. It was a great discussion, and a great resource for my paper.

My roommate at the time had a five-disc CD changer. As I was writing the paper, I loaded it up with ska CDs, to get myself in the proper mood. I had the changer set to shuffle from track to track. I hadn’t changed one disc, however, which was a Louis Jordan CD I’d recently purchased. As one sixties ska piece ended, the CD player switched over to a track on the Louis Jordan CD. I wish I could say I remembered which one. But whichever song it was, I suddenly heard the same sychopation, the accented off-beat that came to define ska, and then rocksteady and reggae after it.

Louis JordanI could hardly believe my ears. This was, to me at the moment, like finding the ur-text of ska. All the sources that I had found agreed that fifties R&B from the States had found their way to Jamaica via both radio and US servicemen who would come through, leading some music dealers create a sideline going up to Florida, purchasing singles, and importing them to Jamaica. But all of the sources were tight-lipped about specifics. What were people listening to? Which musicians would have been more influential or popular? Nobody really said.

But now I had an answer: Louis Jordan. My discussion of the ska-like qualities of two different songs of this Jordan compilation CD became a page of my paper, and the most truly original material in it.

Fast forward again, this time about ten years later. I’m back in school, working on a PhD in History. One of the first assignments in my Digital History class is to make an addition or alteration to a Wikipedia page.

Now, I’d been using Wikipedia for a while, by that point. And I’d always had a rule for myself to make alterations whenever I saw inaccuracies. However, coming across an inaccurate statement and fixing it is far easier than coming up with something that’s not already thoroughly documented on Wikipedia.

On top of that, so many of my interests, so many of the things that I knew a lot about– comics, Simpsons episodes, music– were things that millions of fans had encyclopedic knowledge of, knowledge that had already been absorbed by the hive-mind of Wikipedia.

I wasn’t in the mood to do research just for a Wikipedia edit that I would be doing primarily to prove that I knew how to do Wikipedia edits. But then, scouring my brain for something that I might know a lot about but others might not, I remembered my ska paper from college. And I remembered all the fundamental misunderstandings I’d encountered of the music from other fans back when it was big– particularly one argument with a kid who swore up and down that ska was a fusion of polka and reggae.

So I went to the ska page, and added a bunch of edits of things that came to mind while reading the article. And then, almost as an afterthought, I thought of my observation about Louis Jordan, and added that— something that I was pretty sure was technically a violation of Wikipedia’s ban on original research. The rest of the stuff I’d added, I knew could be backed up with outside sources. The connection to Louis Jordan was just something I’d noticed.

Over the last three years, I’ve checked up on Wikipedia’s ska page from time to time. I guess there’s a sense of stewardship, but also just out of perverse curiosity at whether my edits have stood the test of time. For the most part, they have. Most of what I wrote has stayed on the page over three years. Which surprises me. And I always note with a little glee that nobody’s called me out on the Louis Jordan reference.

The other day, though– Wikipedia managed to thoroughly shock me. Not only is my Louis Jordan reference not flagged as original research– it turns out I’m not the only person who made the connection! Looking at the most current version, you’ll see that some sharp-eyed Wikipedian has added a footnote.

Wayne Chen, in his 1998 book Reggae Routes: The Story of Jamaican Music, quotes an interview with Alton Ellis, wherein Ellis confirms that musicians emulating American jump blues– and Jordan specifically– became some of the same musicians that would come to create ska. The Wikipedia footnote even links to the page that the mention is made, over on Google Books.

It’s kind of amazing, having an observation I made in 1995 or 1996 be backed up by a 1998 book in 2009. It’s one of the really fun things about the internet– it allows us to sort of crowdsource memory. Connections can be made in this organic fashion, and we can illuminate stranger’s memories for them. The addition of that footnote actually pushed me through a nostalgic little journey, and made me dig up a couple of my old ska CDs that I haven’t listened to in ten years.

Whoever made that Wikipedia edit, thanks for the memories.