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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Hey Fnarf, I Got That Rock and Roll Book

posted by on March 20 at 21:35 PM

I haven’t finished reading the James Madison book yet, but I already got another volume from that Oxford University Press American history series.

This book is called: All Shook Up. How Rock ‘N’ Roll Changed America.

When I posted about the series last week, and mentioned this title, Fnarf had this to say:

I’ll be interested to see where they peg “the birth of Rock and Roll”. Most of the established histories have it wrong, missing out on a whole world of R&B shouters who crossed the rock and roll line long before that. Ideally, such a book wouldn’t mention Elvis until the last chapter. Elvis was more of a Dean Martin impersonator, anyways.

Well, just glanced at the first chapter (Louis Jordan and “Jump Blues” kick off the discussion of the music itself), but Fnarf should dig this graph:

Before it was supplanted by by rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues provided a dress rehearsal on a smaller stage for the agitation that reached [mainstream America] in the second half of the decade. After WWII, the industry substituted rhythm and blues for the harsher-sounding ‘race records’ as the term for recordings by black artists that were not gospel or jazz. But R&B also emerged as a distinctive musical genre, drawing on the rich musical traditions of African Americans, including the blues’ narratives, turbulent emotions, and the jubilation, steady beat, hand clapping, and call and response of gospel. Its vocalsits shouted, growled, or falsettoed over guitars and pianos, bass drums stressing a 2-4 beat…

Although, Fnarf wont dig this. Elvis is on the cover.
And yeah, I agree that’s a drag. Back when I was a total depressed weirdo—around the same time those Elvis stamps came out—I’d write the word ‘racist’ over them when I used them to mail letters.

RSS icon Comments


When do they peg the death of Rock n Roll? When I imagine the American Idol kids singing backup for Modest Mouse?

Posted by Built Ford Tough | March 20, 2007 9:55 PM

"People, dont you understand
The child needs a helping hand
Or he'll grow to be an angry young man some day
Take a look at you and me,
Are we too blind to see,
Do we simply turn our heads
And look the other way"

Elvis, In the Ghetto

This is hate speech?

Posted by Zander | March 20, 2007 10:06 PM

From Wikipedia:

Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, who had already recorded blues artists such as Howlin' Wolf, James Cotton, B.B. King, Little Milton, and Junior Parker [7], was looking for "a white man with a Negro sound and the Negro feel," with whom he "could make a billion dollars," because he thought black blues and boogie-woogie music might become tremendously popular among white people if presented in the right way.[21] The Sun Records producer felt that a black rhythm and blues act stood little chance at the time of gaining the broad exposure needed to achieve large-scale commercial success."[22]

Posted by strange rock and roller | March 20, 2007 10:55 PM

Josh, were you inspired to write "racist" on Elvis stamps because of what you knew about Elvis, or because Public Enemy called him that?

Is anyone keeping tabs on how many times Fnarf gets mentioned on the Slog main page? I think it's been a dozen times so far. Whatever it is, I'm sure it's some kind of record worthy of, I dunno, a party thrown in his favor.

Posted by Matt from Denver | March 20, 2007 11:23 PM

Josh=my new boyfriend
I forget, are you gay? Anyway, even if you are, will you be my boyfriend?

I love you for writing racist over the Elvis stamps.

Posted by Papayas | March 20, 2007 11:24 PM

Yeah, I'm kinda feeling like Fnarf is the favorite. And what happened to Gomez? Does he still comment here?

I didn't know that PE had a song about Elvis being racist. My dad used to tell me how racist Elvis was. My dad also disliked the Beatles for "stealing Black people's music." With the Beatles he was resentful that they got credit for a sound that they did not create, but with Elvis it was hate.

Posted by Papayas | March 20, 2007 11:34 PM

Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Mother fuck him and John Wayne
Cause I'm black and I'm proud
I'm ready and hyped plus I'm amped
Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps

--Fight the Power, Public Enemy, 1990

Play this over Rosie Perez poppin' and lockin' in the opening credits of Do the Right Thing and you've really got something.

Posted by Anthony Hecht | March 21, 2007 12:41 AM

I have a really good playlist on my iPod called "Pre-Elvis Rock." The songs in it go as far back as the mid-40s, maybe earlier (I forget). Want some mp3s? You might also like , the website that gave me the idea to put the playlist together.

Posted by litlnemo | March 21, 2007 12:56 AM

If you want to judge sound and where it comes from, it is not souly one race. If you listen to the so called 24 beat that originates as well back to Asia. Or pehaps ancient Persia. Arabic or Indian drum and strings were creating that soulful vibe long before some black man from southern america got it. If Elvis or rockabilly
like Johny burnette were influenced so what. So were African Americans. Music is not supposed to be recognized, it just is what it is. Listen to some greek or Italian music and you see the influence of Arabic. Arabic also influenced flamenco and the spanish brought that to the Americas and voala
you have the cross over of many sounds from South American Indians to mexico today mariachi. 2/4 beat can be found there to. So alls you got to see from this is that its anybodies guess where they got that funky rythm from in the south, and I'm figuring that the white man and the blackman at the same time got their dance music soul , jazz , rock fusion vibe from the middle east. The blacks were just funkier cause they kept the middle eastern, asian beat, and the whites lamed it up with their two steppin oompa oompa sound roots from Germany to England thats rooted with classical and that old timey piana in the Saloons of Tombstone. (I can't stand Irish jigs, give me greek music instead.)

Posted by Beatnik | March 21, 2007 2:59 AM

If you listen to old time rockabilly and surf rock you hear more of the middle eastern influence than anything. If you listen to the blues guitar that to originates from the sounds from Asia. That twang has Greecean and Italian roots as well.
Persia again. So anything from America is not original except the way we started playing with it to make it sound like something new. White and black people have that ability to do that at the same time. So I don't buy the rock originated from the blacks idea. I buy that it originated because blacks had found some cool music sounds to play and whitey wanted to hem it up.

Posted by Beatnik | March 21, 2007 3:09 AM

Hey pallies, like what could be cooler then to be compared to Dino? Elvis loved Dino, and dubbed him the King of Cool. Elvis said, "I may be the King of Rock and Roll, but you (Dino) are the King of Cool." Never was, never will be anyone as cool as the King of Cool. Oh, to return to the days when Dino walked the earth.

Posted by dino martin peters | March 21, 2007 6:35 AM

Apparently Chuck D has "a great deal of respect for Elvis" now.

Posted by Gabriel | March 21, 2007 7:14 AM

Quote here.

Posted by Gabriel | March 21, 2007 7:16 AM

Just picked it up at the library yesterday, but haven't had a chance to open it. Good thing it's history or I'd have to cry "Spoiler!"

Posted by amazonmidwife | March 21, 2007 8:16 AM

I'm not sure where Beatnik is getting that "Persia" business; the only Middle Eastern influence on rockabilly is belly-dancing scenes in toga movies.

But it's true that the sources of American music are richer and more varied than the bog-standard, what I call the "Rolling Stone version" of history, allows. For instance, one usually unacknowledged source for some of the "ancient" blues folkloric tunes that Alan Lomax collected on people's front porches was...Tin Pan Alley. As a musical bigot Lomax didn't actually know anything about his own musical traditions, preferring a mythic creation of his own imagination to reality.

The paragraph (please, not "graph", that's wrong; the journo slang is "graf", and it's horrible) is good as far as it goes, but doesn't include any of the white, or should I say "white" sources, that came in via country music's predecessors. In a country with as convoluted and damaged racial history as ours, it's not surprising that separating the two threads is difficult, nor that there is a rich critical tradition of pretending that the two threads are not commingled from Day One. Reality is ten times stranger than any version that features Sam Phillips front and center.

Rock history owes something to the sounds that Bob Wills "stole" from the blues, and from Norteño music as well (large areas of country are almost as Mexican-Spanish as it is white; the guitar for example). The Blues that whites stole from blacks was, in part, "stolen" from whites in the first place. Back in minstrelsy days whites wore blackface, but blacks wore blackface too. Some early rock ideas go back a thousand years; some don't go back at all. It's all very complicated.

As for Elvis, I don't hate him or think he's a "racist"; I just hate the central role he plays in the mythology of a type of music he really had very little to do with. He only played rock'n'roll for a few years, and it was thrust upon him. Dean Martin, his idol, is by far the more interesting artist.

Anyone who could be upset that the Beatles "stole" black music and got rich off it doesn't know what they're thinking about. The Beatles did listen carefully to the Race records that came off the ships in Liverpool, and imitated them, but they brought a whole other world of musical heritage, English and Irish, to the party, and what they came up with was utterly new. There are thousands of other, crappier, English beat groups that never grew beyond mimicking R&B, most of which is embarrassing beyond words today. The Rolling Stones, for example, took YEARS to develop beyond dull blues plodding and find their voice. Many others never did. English blues -- what a concept! But "theft" -- all music is theft, always has been.

That Hoy Hoy website is great, and is the source for a lot of my ideas. Also very important is the work of Nick Tosches, particularly the mind-blowing Where Dead Voices Gather, which is on one level about Emmett Miller, the crazy late-minstrelsy singer from whom Hank Williams ripped off his sound, but is more about following musical threads back further -- sometimes hundreds of years further -- than you would ever imagine when you started pulling them. His earlier Unsung Heroes of Rock and Roll is pretty germane to this discussion as well.

The only true original in music is Louis Armstrong. Everything else is stolen from somewhere.

Posted by Fnarf | March 21, 2007 9:04 AM

God, I cannot stand Louis Armstrong records.
Or Bob Wills.

Give me: Ruth Etting, Russ Columbo, Gene Austin for some good 1920s scratchy ghost pop.

Posted by Josh Feit | March 21, 2007 9:10 AM

Psst Fnarf - Dean Martin may have been a hero to the Pelvis, but for the big grand blowhard love songs Elvis loved it was vocalist Roy Hamilton that Elvis often copped, er, channeled. Check Hamilton out, it'! Creepy even.

Posted by nipper | March 21, 2007 9:56 AM

The trouble with music history is that it's convoluted by too many opinions and too much confusion, this is why God invented Records! Fortunately, we don't dance with words.

Posted by come again? | March 21, 2007 10:31 AM

Mexican music - Norteño specifically - has Maximillian and Germany (a la Poland) to thank for the central waltz beat along with the brass. Umm, pa-pa, Umm pa-pa. Mix that with a heavy dose of Irish influence and to a not super lesser extent British folk music in all Souther US music - enter the two-step. The changing of the border between US / Mexico is the only thing that makes "Border" music have a siginifciantly different sound on either side

It basically comes down to this: All music from the US to Argentina and out and around into the Caribbean are fusions of differing measurements of colonizing country + native population + (origin of) black slaves. Throw in subsequent infusions of "cheap labor" from Asia in some places as well.

Posted by Lloyd Clydesdale | March 21, 2007 10:49 AM

Okay, I understand that Elvis was a white singer who sounded black, and Sam Phillips thought that a white guy with a black sound could make him a "Billion Dollars [to be read like Dr. Evil]". I also understand how that can make people resentful and pissed, but does that really make Elvis a racist? An opportunist? Sure. An asshole? Maybe (probably). I still haven't seen anything that would peg Elvis personally as a racist.

Posted by gillsans | March 21, 2007 11:25 AM


I don't think Elvis is a racist. I don't know much about Elvis. My guess, judging from his music, is that he was the opposite of racist.

There is something about his deity status (then and now) that fits into American racism, though.

However, like I said in my post, I wrote "racist" on those Elvis stamps when I was a "depressed weirdo" ... which is short hand for the fact that I was a little crazy.

Posted by Josh Feit | March 21, 2007 11:40 AM

Hating Louis Armstrong is like hating the sun.

Clearly, Josh is still a "total depressed weirdo."

Posted by David Schmader | March 21, 2007 12:00 PM

"Elvis" nowadays doesn't refer to an actual singer who made actual records; it refers to a iconic figure of Americana, specifically American whiteness, and this figure is loaded with every good characteristic of white people that white Elvis fans can imagine, whether they're real or not (mostly not; "iconic pillhead" is not what most Elvis-impersonator fans are thinking of). As such, he's part of the boomer fifties Holy Trinity: Elvis, Marilyn and James Dean.

Church services are held at Johnny Rocket's and similarly fake-o fifties "rockin'" theme restaurants.

Josh, if you think "scratchy ghost pop" is all the 20s have to offer, you're missing out. Many pre-electric records have more power, presence and life in them than top records today.

And if you don't like Louis Armstrong, you're missing the birth of jazz singing, the greatest American art form; Louis not only invented it, he performed possibly the greatest act of artistic creation in the process. What Armstrong did when he opened his mouth is akin to someone locked in a basement dungeon opening the front door to sunlight for the first time. Listen again, really. Listen to "I'm Not Rough" and feel the texture of his voice.

If you don't like Bob Wills, you're missing the birth of rock guitar: Junior Barnard playing fuzz in the thirties (basically coeval wiyth Charlie Christian over in "jazz", though the distinction between the two musics is mostly artificial; the Texas Playboys were a fantastic jazz band, the best white jazz band ever. And you're missing the Norteño injection as well -- Wills played fiddle in mixed-race Mexican bands before forming the Playboys. Not "liking" this is like not liking the south wall of your house. The songs are fucking killer as well. And the harmonies!

Lloyd Clydesdale is right, but he's only got two-thirds of the story: the "colonizing country", musically speaking, was not a monolithic entity but as various a tradition as the musics they "conquered". From Childe ballads in Appalachia, Irish songs, Jewish songs, Italian opera, music hall all the way to Tin Pan Alley, "white" music covers a lot of ground -- very little of it having to do with the colonial power that shared its skin color (or not, depending on who you ask; the Irish and the Jews weren't "white" until the twentieth century). These lines are much fuzzier than some people think: some of those slave field hollers might very well have originated with a piece of sheet music intended for a white parlor. Everything goes both ways. And "mediated" musical traditions are much older than people think; it's only the lack of records before the 1890s that conceal earlier traditions. Check out some of the CDs from Archaeophone for some surprises (though the music can be tough going for Modest Mouse-acclimated ears). There's one of black vocal groups going back 120 years that's an eye-opener.

Neither Elvis nor Sam Phillips (a great, great record producer, that's all) had any idea what happened to them, even long afterwards.

Posted by Fnarf | March 21, 2007 12:22 PM

Elvis had a black son-in-law.

Posted by DOUG. | March 21, 2007 12:27 PM

Fnarf, I take your point. European ("colonizing") countries brought not only Formal with a big F musical traditions that stretch back to the Renaissance period, but also the instruments themselves that were used to play them. Your Whitey-ized immigrants (via famine, war) brought along their well-established, less-than-hi-falutin' Euro traditions too, which bubbled up into, most visibly to us here, the US musical culture from the mid-1800's onwards.

Look at the effects of Colonization in the Americas however you like, but in the realm of music that's where the races/traditions (and the branches of such) have most willingly blended into so many mind-blowing iterations. Also where the intrepid often dared to cross lines to mix and to be mixed. The peoples of these places were, after all, sharing/forebearing place, culture and time concurrently.

To see how the multiplicity of musical genres and still-evolving contemporary traditions are so interwoven or ping-ponging (Jamaica back and forth with the US over the last 70 years as an example), I find it pretty amazing that the stereotype is so readily consumed that 'Elvis is a racist'. I'm always like: "The little kid who grew up listening to the Memphis Blues?"

Posted by Lloyd Clydesdale | March 21, 2007 1:51 PM

At least white people invented Prog Rock!

Posted by elswinger | March 21, 2007 4:40 PM

Lloyd Fnarf great comment posts. This kind of discussion I wish was mainstream on those VH1 and MTV music history specials. It could really teach a lot of young people and get rid of music stereo types, distorted history and racism floating around in music circles.

Posted by Beatnik | March 21, 2007 10:25 PM

The Elvis being racist is about the quote where he supposedly said that the only thing a black woman/black man/nigger was good for was to shine his shoes. It isn't random that Black people don't like Elvis. Jet did some research on it many years ago, and it seems like Elvis never said it.

It does get frustrating to see a white person become rich/famous for doing what black people have been doing for a while. It is not to say that Elvis wasn't talented, but just to say that if he had been Black he wouldn't have been "Elvis."

Posted by Papayas | March 21, 2007 11:21 PM

These days he would have though.
And thats a good thing.

Posted by Beatnik | March 22, 2007 10:16 AM

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