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

Wednesday, January 19, 2005


I’m in over my head, trying to follow the various streams in the sea of song to their several sources; the currents carry me up and down; the waves pitch over my head and I don’t know what I’m doing. Ultimately it’s a fool's errand; the streams have so interblended over the centuries that untangling them is impossible -- who can untangle water? Just click my soggy heels three times and I’m back on dry land, but I see others swimming out here with me, and that makes me want to keep swimming.

Specifically, arguing over the roots of rock and roll, and whether the “blues + country” myth overstates the importance of country to the story.

The myth, I’ve been arguing, does indeed overstate the importance of country in the equation, since lots of styles associated with rock and roll have at most a marginal influence from country. But. I’ve been oversimplifying.

Last spring I read Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot by David Wondrich, a terrific book that argues that North American vernacular music gets its unique combination of backbeat (stomp) and syncopation (swerve) from separate sources. The stomp comes from Ireland; the swerve from Africa. Places like Cuba or Brazil, says Wondrich, where the European rhythmic influence isn’t nearly as pronounced, enjoy much more rhythmically complex popular music than our ragtime, gospel, blues, jazz, swing, country, rock, funk, or techno. And, says Wondrich, the Celtic influence is in all of that music.

For a long time I couldn’t understand the appeal of Irish instrumental music. (Which, by the way, didn’t adopt the guitar as a standard instrument until the 1950s.) But then I heard a recording of a solo fiddle tune recorded in the 1920s -- to quote Wondrich, it stomped. And it occurred to me -- this is dance music. Eastern European dance music is quite different; it can do its own stomp in what sounds like odd rhythms to our American ears. This Irish stomp has a backbeat, you can’t lose it.

On a related note, though I implied possible racist motivation in the theoretical promotion of country to one of two parent style-progenitors of rock and roll, I don’t believe that racism was an important motive at all. As I said, the promotion was more about a devotion to blue-collar class imagery (and an aversion to religion). Race is part of the picture, though, and I didn’t want to ignore it. Still, as Wondrich shows, race is always more complex than it appears, in music as anywhere else.

In the comments to Sunday night’s post on all this, esteemed critic and blogger Carl Wilson says that I’m downplaying country’s influence too much, since Elvis was the single biggest influence on ‘60s rock. In my response in the comments I said that while Elvis was a huge inspiration, nobody in the ‘60s really sounded like him. But I’ve been thinking further about it. And what I’ve been thinking about is “Hound Dog.”

Elvis’s fierce vocal and Scotty Moore’s ripping guitar solo have been justly celebrated; drummer D. J. Fontana hasn’t been praised as often as Moore, but Levon Helm singled him out as a monster. What hasn’t been as much discussed is the contribution of the Jordanaires, Elvis’s background singers. I assume it’s they who do the rhythmically hip handclaps, a pop usage that’s all over the Beatles’ early records and shows up in such unexpected places as Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl,” though almost always in simpler form. I don’t know whether any doo wop groups or gospel groups were doing the handclaps before then. Note: That’s a question: I don’t know. The Jordanaires were a gospel singing group; I’m guessing that “Hound Dog” is not the first time they clapped on record. Maybe the Beatles got the handclaps from another source, but why not from Elvis?

The Jordanaires also lay down a lush blanket of vocal harmony under Scotty Moore’s jagged guitar leads. Tough rock purists may think of the Jordanaires’ part here as too sugared, but lots of ‘60s and ‘70s rockers disagreed; I love the contrast between their parts and Moore’s. I don’t know whether choral backing to instrumental improvisation happened in earlier rock, pop, blues, or country. I’m guessing not, or at least not often, and that Elvis made it popular.

He wasn’t called the king for nothin’.

One more thing: I’ve been too hard on rock criticism. As my friend Jake has testified, critics usually do a good job of placing new music within usefully identifiable stylistic boundaries. My specific complaint against the "blues + country" myth has been addressed very beautifully by Dave Marsh in The Heart of Rock and Soul and Robert Palmer in Rock & Roll, an unruly history (which I'm still reading). Also in Hear that Long Snake Moan by Michael Ventura, which, by unusual circumstances, I read almost as soon as it came out in 1987, but that's another story.

UPDATE, January 19, 11:45 pm: Evidence regarding the roots of musical handclaps came to me through the airwaves today

I'm pretty sure I remember The Beatles -- Macca I think == talking about (though I can't recall the citiation) copying Dion and the Belmonts with their hand clapping -- those records are full of artful and carefully arranged hand clapping. Hand clapping being a natural part of a cappella doowop.

You can't ignore Dion as a big macher influence-wise (here in NYC he rivals E for the Throne).

Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?