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

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

she knows a place where the music is fine and the lights are always low

history of an error

In his review last October of Peter Guralnick’s biography of Sam Cooke, Robert Christgau said that while Guralnick’s earlier writing “implied an informed version of the old blues-and-country-had-a-baby theory of rock and roll,” the Cooke bio gave him “little choice but to emphasize rock and roll's more recently recognized gospel roots.

A more accurate account would have said, “rock and roll’s recently remembered gospel roots,” because earlier accounts of the music included gospel in the story, but Christgaus generation buried that part of the story.

In 1956, the unknown and anonymous RCA liner note writer for Elvis’s second album (which has the difficult-to-google title Elvis) included these observations about Elvis’s roots:

There has never been a great difference between rhythm and gospel songs except, of course, for the lyrical content; in fact, the latter are far more rhythmic where staging is concerned. It is essentially the fervour, the animation and boundless spirit of gospel singing that Presley admires, and which has been absorbed into his own dynamic performances. . . . Presley favours beat and ballad singers alike, . . . -- which leads to this possible answer for the ‘Why?’ of his unprecedented appeal: Elvis Presley, by combining the four fields (country, gospel, rhythm and pop) into perfect unity, is unique in music annals and experience.

(Quoted in The Penguin Book of Rock & Roll Writing.)
RCA wasn’t the only early cultural arbiter to recognize gospel’s centrality in rock and roll’s story. Jazz critic Martin Williams, writing about rock and roll for Downbeat magazine in October 1965 (collected in his book Jazz Masters in Transition 1957 - 1969), said,

It should be fairly common knowledge by now that the first stylistic forebear of rock ’n’ roll was Negro rhythm and blues and that the second was a secularized version of Negro gospel music.
Williams makes this observation while discussing Petula Clark’s smash hit “Downtown,” a song that owes nothing to country, little to blues, a fair amount to (non-rocking) pop, and its rhythm to girl group and soul and, ultimately, gospel. If you prefer not to think of Petula Clark as a rock and roll singer, substitute Martha Reeves or the Ronettes. And once you start talking about Motown and Phil Spector, you’re talking about the Beatles too.

Christgau is wrong to call the recognition of gospel as central to rock’s story “recent.” It is, however, recently remembered, because for more than 30 years, the myth was, “blues had a baby,” or, “blues and country had a baby and they named it rock and roll.” I haven’t traced who first came up with the formulation, but Rolling Stone magazine was an early promulgator, Creem followed not too far behind, and prominent writers implied it heavily, like Guralnick and Greil Marcus, who in his hugely influential 1975 book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock and Roll Music profiles 4 rock acts and two “Ancestors” -- one blues and one country.

The 1970 book The Rock Story: The Names, the Faces, the Sound that Turned On a Generation by Rolling Stone Editor Jerry Hopkins begins with the one-paragraph sentence, “The roots are in blues and country.” (The book never grabbed me, but it is notable for devoting one of its 14 chapters to the notorious groupies the Plaster Casters.)

Six years later, the blues-&-country-had-a-baby myth was so well established that writers apologized for repeating it. “Rock Revolution, From Elvis To Elton -- The Story Of Rock And Roll, By The Editors Of CREEM Magazine” 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.”

Martin Williams’s jazz criticism posits that the key to understanding jazz history is to listen to the rhythms first; that rhythmic changes lead stylistic changes. Williams was my first critical love (Nik Cohn was my 2nd, and Greil Marcus my 3rd), and rhythmcentrism still has value for considering American music history and feeling stylistic boundaries.

From a rhythm perspective, gospel is central to the rock story. By the mid-’40s, the acoustic guitar-piano-bass-drums quartet that Sister Rosetta Tharpe led was playing shuffle rock beats. Far more than blues, gospel influenced the beats of soul and girl group. Martin Williams and that unknown RCA Records staffwriter had it right: “In fact,” said the latter, gospel is “far more rhythmic” than blues.

(A whole sidelight I’m not going to go into right now: how a lot of the rhythmic funkiness of gospel and soul came from jazz players, from (again) Sister Rosetta Tharpe and her band to Motown and James Jamerson.)

To exclude gospel and pop from the story of rock is to deny basic musical experience. The blues and country gave birth to rock and roll -- what does country have to do with Little Richard? Or doo-wop? Or Phil Spector? Or the Beach Boys? Or Stax Records? Or metal? Learning the myths and then applying them to experience -- one of them has to give way.

I can only speculate as to the myth-makers’ motivations. I don’t think it’s coincidental that blues and country are both blue-collar genres: the myth-makers promoted a blue collar chic that still holds strong in rock imagery today. Robert Christgau, in his review of Guralnick’s Cooke bio, says this: “blues implies an outlaw ethos while gospel carries with it images of sustained social responsibility.” This makes sense -- and with unflattering implications for the myth-makers.

One of corollary myths of rock-mythography tells how the ’50s were dull, apolitical, and conformist. Try telling that to the veterans of the Civil Rights movement. Gospel was central to the Civil Rights movement. By eliminating gospel from the story of rock, the myth-makers cut rock off from real political roots in favor of “outlaw” rebel imagery that is politically Nowheresville. Christgau’s words resonate -- the move towards blues imagery eschews the imagery of “social responsibility.” (Of course this is an oversimplified myth as well -- plenty of people have always loved blues and gospel both.) And what is politics without social responsibility?

Dick Cheney may have something to say to that question.

Christgau observes that “blues-versus-gospel” has become a “contentious issue” in rock history, and he regrets that Guralnick missed his “opportunity to concoct a unified field theory.”

Christgau needn’t regret. Elvis embodied the unified field theory, taking in pop as well as gospel, blues, and country (as the Beatles did later), and RCA Records spelled the theory out on the back of his second album. It probably doesn’t matter why the late-’60s and ’70s rock writers turned away from the theory. But it’s always been there, and it feels right.

p.s. I have blogged about most of this before, but I wanted to gather my thoughts because of the current rock-pop discussion. In the middle of writing this post, a friend phoned and I told him I was beating my dead horses
“on my flog.” My slip of the tongue made me laugh out loud.

"Elvis embodied the unified field theory"

That is so concise and beautiful, like the Bing quote about Satchmo, "...the beginning and end of American music."



Ray Charles is another master of the unified field. I'm sure there are others.
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