Luc Sante is always worth reading, and in the July 17 NYRB he has a particularly good review of Arthur Kempton’s Boogaloo. Now, the word “boogaloo” to me vaguely recalls a dance craze of the mid-’60s, but apparently it is used more generally to refer to African-American popular music (since it’s not in my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate or the AHD, I’m deprived of lexicographical backup). Sante says:

The boogaloo is, or was, one of the thousand dances the land was full of in the 1960s, enumerated in inventory songs such as James Brown’s “There Was a Time” and the Isley Brothers’ “Nobody But Me”: the skate, the swim, the pony, the monkey, the camelwalk, the shing-a-ling. Arthur Kempton notes that it made its debut as the title of a million-selling but faintly remembered 1965 release by the Chicago duo Tom and Jerrio, a song that launched two major catch phrases of the era, “sock it to me” and “let it all hang out.” The boogaloo outlasted many of its competitor dances, or at least its name did, even making the transition into Spanglish as bugalú.
Somewhere along the line, perhaps around the time most people forgot its steps, the name metamorphosed into a sweeping term that could encompass almost all of African-American popular music, or at least everything that has arisen since World War II. The names of styles, which embody novelty, date more quickly than the substance they describe. “Soul” now sounds antique; “R&B” can be applied to the works of Wynonie Harris in the late 1940s, or to those of Mary J. Blige fifty years later, but not much in between. But because “boogaloo” is a term transmitted more often orally than in writing, it has enjoyed an immunity to the flux of fashion.

So my question is, are any of you familiar with the term in this wider sense, and if so, how would you delimit it? Does it really apply to anything since WWII? (I’m particularly hoping to hear from Avante Populi, a learned connoisseur of these matters.)

Excursus on punctuation. In the course of the review, I was brought up short by this: “His third subject, Berry Gordy Jr., was a good-enough songwriter early in his career to have staked a claim to artistry…” I don’t know whether Sante or a hamhanded copy editor is responsible for that hyphen, but it’s so very wrong that it exemplifies the importance of proper punctuation. It’s not just that it’s unnecessary; there are, as anyone who has had to make such decisions knows, many places where a hyphen can be included or omitted with equal justification (although you then have to make the same decision every time you run into a parallel case). No, this hyphen is actively evil, because it implies a construction that turns out to be illusory, so that you then have to go back and reevaluate what you’ve already read. Normally, “good enough” implies a following preposition or conjunction: “good enough to eat,” “good enough for government work,” “good enough that no revision was needed.” But on occasion it’s used by itself, with the implication “[just] good enough [to get by, to serve the purpose, to pass the time].” How was the play? Oh… good enough. (Nichevo sebe, they say in Russian.) And if you were to use this attributively, you might use a hyphen to tell the reader not to expect that preposition or conjunction: I saw a good-enough play at the Barrymore last night. So when I started reading the sentence, that’s how I interpreted it: Gordy was a good-enough songwriter [but that wasn’t his real strength]. Then I reached “to have staked a claim to artistry” and realized that the phrase was used positively, not in that deprecatory “just-good-enough” way, and not only did I have to go back and reread, I’ve had to take up my time and yours with this wordy divagation. Bad, bad hyphen! Into the hell box with you!


  1. I assumed that Kempton made up this usage of the word because there wasn’t really a word whose meaning contained all the types of music he wanted to imply by it, and because this word sounded good and isn’t used anymore.

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