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Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's BĂȘte Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, January 16, 2005

DEFENDING THE THESIS PROPOSAL

A friend forwarded a link to my post on the myth that blues + country = rock and roll, to a subscription e-mail list of serious roots music fans, critics, and scholars. The gathered professors of roots music -- including contributors to the leading roots music mag, No Depression, and one of the authors of a book on "Country Music's 500 Greatest Singles" -- raised the following valid objections to my oversimplified reaction to the oversimplified blues-country equation.

My posts falsely implied that (black) blues and gospel musicians weren't listening to (white) country and (white and black) pop musicians. Not my intention to imply that, but I can see how someone could think I meant to.

More specifically, people pointed out that I was wrong say that country didn't have any discernable influence on Fats Domino. They cited country songs in his repertoire, which is interesting and considerable but in itself inconclusive evidence -- Tony Bennett and Louis Armstrong recorded Hank Williams songs too, and I wouldn't say that their musical styles were notably influenced by country. But then I found 2 quotes in Robert Palmer's book "Rock & Roll, an unruly history." First, Fats Domino scored more '50s hits than any other rocker besides Elvis. Second, his bandleader, record producer, and co-songwriter, Dave Bartholomew, "believes an important element in Fats Domino's broad appeal was that while he played boogie woogie and blues, he sang more like a country and western artist." This is conclusive evidence.

Carl Wilson answered my original question -- how did the "blues + country" myth represent an improvement in understanding? Easy, said Carl -- it was replacing an even more simplistic myth that "the blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll." Good point; still, more nuanced versions of the story were in circulation at the time people started pushing the blues + country myth.

Glad to get the feedback. And exciting (if sometimes embarrassingly humbling) to get schooled!

I have at hand two sources for the blues + country myth. "The Rock Story, The Names, The Faces, The Sound That Turned On A Generation," By Rolling Stone Editor Jerry Hopkins, from 1970 begins with this sentence: "The roots are in blues and country."

The doubly-datedly titled "Rock Revolution, From Elvis To Elton -- The Story Of Rock And Roll," By The Editors Of CREEM Magazine, from 1976, begins with these sentences: "The origins of rock 'n' roll have been repeated so often it sounds like a litany. Black blues and white country music were the basis of rock 'n' roll."

So by 1976 the myth was well established. The origin of the myth is unknown to me, but "Rolling Stone" magazine was involved in its dissemination, if not its creation.

Reading past their openings, both books make it clear that they are going to include gospel in the story, but only as a subset of "blues." Many people subscribe to the notion; I think it muddles understanding. While influence has gone both ways, and both fields of music share roots in 19th century African American spirituals, gospel has always had rhythms, solo vocal styles, duo vocal styles, group vocal styles, and typical instrumentation recognizably distinct from those of the blues. For example, piano plus organ is rare in blues, but not in gospel, or in rock and soul. The interweaving piano, organ, and electric guitar on Sister Rosetta Tharpe's magnificent 1956 album "Gospel Train" influened Bob Dylan's studio band of 1965 as much as it did the mid '60s music of Aretha Franklin.

And sometimes when I lather myself up about all this I'm in danger of forgetting that the nub of it all is to -- listen to the music!


Comments:
Mostly clear, but I think you're still leaving Elvis awfully far off to the side here, John, by marginalizing him as "rockabilly" which you claim "had the least influence" among rock's early styles. My argument for country's role could be boiled down to "Elvis = single biggest 1950s rock figure" and single biggest influence on white sixties rockers. I'd agree Elvis gets overrated at the expense of Ray Charles or Fats Domino (both of them country influenced) or Chuck Berry (also country influenced) or whomever you want to mention, but he's still That Guy. And Elvis, I hope you'll agree, was country-influenced big time.
 
Elvis synthesized blues, pop, country, and gospel, not just blues and country. His range and versatility and power as a singer haven't really been done justice. None of the '60s guys really sound anything like him.

Elvis's late '60s Memphis comeback records are actually _more_ influential, to my ears -- Clapton's and Lennon's and so on's large-ensemble '70s boogie rock sounds more like "Elvis In Memphis" than any of their '60s records sound like Elvis in the '50s.

Reading Robert Palmer's "Rock & Roll, an unruly history" right now; he argues compellingly that what defines rock as rock, and what makes it ROCK (as a verb), comes from African American and African musical practices. So I'm not the only one thinking country's influence is overstated. (I also think the myth overstates the influence of the blues.) If you agree that the myth understates the influence of gospel, pop, swing, and Cuban music on rock and roll, doesn't it stand to reason that it therefore is overstating the influence of the other streams in the ocean of song? But the nature of streams, as you know, when they're all flowing together, it's kind of silly to pretend they don't all influence each other. Guitar came to America from Europe, not Africa. (From Spain, via the Caribbean, from what I've read, and it makes sense. Guitar much more important in Spanish music than in Northern Euro music.)

But to get back to Elvis, of course he's country. And blues, and gospel, and pop. And if anything, as a singer, he's under-rated. (Been listening to the first 2 RCA albums the last couple days -- incredible.) Obviously a huge inspiration to all the rockers, especially the Beatles, who inherited from him more than from anybody else a stylistic breadth that their contemporaries couldn't touch. Not just country, though that's part of the story, for sure, a beautiful part of the story.
 
Taking this further (and taking a step back at the same time), I think you could say Rockabilly is rightly a variant of Country rather than proto rock. Elvis go his start on the Louisiana Hayride, and though I don't have the chart data at hand, he probably charted nearly as many songs on the Country charts as the Pop charts. His career from the late sixties on was, if not totally stylistically so then functionally so, that of a country artist. Of E's Sun Records fellow alums, the notables end up on the country side career-wise. Rockabilly fizzles in rock (with some notable exceptions) as the songwriting bands come up in the sixties, but its still very strong in country.

Not to diminish the King in any way of course. Those years from Heartbreak Hotel to going into the Army were huge and loom large over what was to come for sure.

Jay
 
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