Rock and Roll (and Jazz, and Country) is Here to Stay
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
The seductive and soothing power of music can be traced to ancient Greek myth and philosophy. Odysseus’ crew has a devil of time resisting the deadly songs of the Sirens, and Plato, recognizing the intoxicating force of the lyrics of Homer’s songs, banned lyric from the republic. Of course, in the 1980s, Tipper Gore, like Plato, recognized that music exerted a powerful force on young minds and tried to ban it from the American republic (or at least label it for safe consumption). In the late twentieth century, presidential candidates, perhaps in a bid to showcase their hipness, chose familiar rock songs—Bill Clinton chose Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow),” and until the band sued him for using the song without their permission, George W. Bush used Orleans’ “Still the One” to celebrate his second term in office. Musicians and listeners recognize the power of music to bring people together, to soothe their souls, to excite their emotions and passions, and to help them forget their troubles.
In the late 1940s in America, jazz and the Big Band sound helped bring Americans together to celebrate America’s victory in World War II and to revel in the prosperity of the post-war society. Phonographs and radios were alive with the sounds of Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, and Charlie Parker, and men and women poured into the jazz clubs popping up in major cities. The endless noodlings of jazz musicians and their swinging happy-go-lucky sounds matched the swinging and optimistic mood of the country. At the same time that jazz was flourishing, country music became increasingly popular thanks to radio shows like the various Barn Dance shows that filled the airwaves from Chicago to Louisiana and later the Grand Ole Opry. The listening audiences for these kinds of music usually reflected the cultural divide of post-war America, with most northern urban dwellers grooving to jazz and most rural southerners tapping their toes to the sounds of the fiddles, banjos, and guitars of Roy Acuff, Uncle Dave Macon, and laughing at Minnie Pearl.
By the late 1950s, jazz had reached its zenith and was making a steady decline. The post-war prosperity that had elevated jazz had also done it in. The advent of television robbed jazz clubs of their audiences, and such clubs closed their doors all over the country. The audience for country music also began to shrink, for—with a few notable exceptions such as the Grand Ole Opry—the old radio shows that had drawn avid and loyal listeners died off. Into the void left by jazz and country arrived a gutsy new kind of music that blended jazz, country, blues, and gospel to explore everything from spousal abuse (Phil Spector’s original title for “And Then He Kissed Me” was “And Then He Hit Me”), forbidden sex (“Wake Up, Little Suzie”), magnificent sex (“Rock Around the Clock” isn’t all about dancing), love (“Blue Moon”), challenges to authority (“Leader of the Pack”), and death (“The Last Kiss”). Rock and roll was here to stay, giving teenagers whose parents were listening to the staid rhythms of jazz, the unbearable nasal twang of country, or the slow and torturous movements of long-hair classical music a voice and a music of their own.
By the time the Beatles hit American shores in 1964, spearheading the British invasion and making the way for the Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits and the Dave Clark Five, music had become a way of bringing people from diverse backgrounds together. Folk music, which had been thriving in various venues since the late 1950s, emerged to add its gloriously rich voices to the ever-growing musical chorus of the early 1960s. In addition to the new sounds that these kinds of music were making, both folk songs and rock music contained messages addressed to the political, social, and cultural concerns of the 1960s. Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn” (later recorded by The Byrds), and Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child” are only a few examples of songs that not only encouraged the questioning of authority but also gave voice to the momentous changes taking place in society in the early Sixties.
For one brief moment in 1969, at Woodstock, it felt as if music was the primal force that could change the world. The wailing guitars of Jimi Hendrix and Alvin Lee, ringing harmonies of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, the rousing “F-I-S-H” cheer led by Country Joe MacDonald and the Fish, and the haunting jams of a young band from San Francisco, the Grateful Dead, drew together thousands of strangers as one in love and harmony. The music that had been bringing people together for a generation drew them together for three days of peace and love, and songs recorded in its aftermath—Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” and Mountain’s “For Yasgur’s Farm”—recall the powerful hope of that singular moment in music history while at the same time mourning that such a moment would never come again.
After Woodstock, music was never the same. Rock music splintered and fell off into hundreds of different directions; Miles Davis and Nat Adderly pioneered space jazz; country music became rock music in disguise, and some rock music became country music in disguise; rhythm and blues bore a new generation of urban musicians who rapped out their protests against authority in hip-hop; a new form of music called electronica combined dance music with synthesizers and tape loops to create ambient noise; and, John Cage and others introduced silence into classical music. Yet, millions still listen to whatever kind of music turns them on and continue to claim that music changes their lives. What makes music such a powerful force, and how can we use its energy to understand our own humanity?
Books about music flood the shelves just as albums and CDs continue to flood the bins in the remaining local music stores. Biographies of musicians and bands, academic examinations of certain kinds of music, music histories, and explorations of religion and music and philosophy and music all testify to the desire to learn more about the mysteries of music.
Of all jazz musicians, Mile Davis was one of the most innovative and memorable. He began his career as a sideman with the legendary Charlie Parker but quickly developed into a forceful presence in his own right. His haunting album Kind of Blue and his fierce Bitches Brew took jazz in new directions in the respective periods in which they were recorded. In his thoughtful new book, Miles Davis: Miles Smiles, and the Invention of Post Bop, Boston University music professor Jeremy Yudkin reconsiders one of Davis’s lesser known albums, Miles of Smiles, and argues that it constitutes a new direction for Davis as well as the mark of Davis’ creation of the style of post-bop music. In The Miles Davis Reader: Interviews and Features from DOWNBEAT Magazine, Frank Alkyer, the publisher of DownBeat usefully gathers an exhaustive collection of the magazine’s interviews and features with Davis to chronicle his growth as a musician. Todd Bryant Weeks offers a stunning portrait of a little remembered jazz trumpeter in Luck’s In My Corner: The Life and Music of Hot Lips Page. Finally, there has always been a deep relationship between jazz and literature. Ralph Ellison famously used jazz rhythms in his novel Invisible Man as well as chronicling the power of jazz in his essays. In Ask Me Now: Conversations on Jazz & Literature, saxophonist and English professor Sascha Feinstein gathers a stunning variety of musicians, poets, and novelists to discuss the engaging interactions between jazz and literature.
By all counts, books on rock music and country music far outnumber books on any other musical genre. Perhaps it is because of the rise of the new country music, or the interest in traditional country music fostered by movies like O, Brother, Where Art Thou? and artists like the Dixie Chicks and Alison Kraus that country music books are plentiful these days. In 2002, when the owners of WSM, the country’s most historic country radio station, threatened to change its format from country music to sports radio, millions of listeners protested the change and drove the owners to back down. For years, country music had been considered to be the most commercially pure, but this event enabled many to peer behind that legend. In her powerful social history, The Selling Sound: The Rise of the Country Music Industry, Diane Pecknold examines the evolution of country music as an industry. Country music found its first audiences on the radio as various “barn dances” introduced audiences to country musicians. Such programs were extremely popular in the 1940s and 1950s, but were soon displaced by the Opry and rock and roll. In one of the newest additions to the University of Illinois’ excellent Music in American Life series, The Hayloft Gang: The Story of the National Barn Dance, editor Chad Berry gathers essays by several scholars that examine the history of barn dance radio, the paradox of country music in a major urban center (National Barn Dance was broadcast on WSL in Chicago), and the notion of authenticity in presenting country music. Out of the roots of country music has grown a music often called alt-country that embraces musicians and bands as diverse as Lucinda Williams, Wilco, and the Old 97s. Listeners often refer to alt-country as Americana music, and music journalist Amanda Petrusich wonders what a truly American music sounds like. In It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the American Music, a book that is part music criticism and part travelogue, she sets off on a road trip through Memphis, Nashville, and Lexington, among other places, in search of the contours of American music.
Country music is as famous for the stories of its singers and pickers as it is for its music. Perhaps no country musician was larger-than-life than Johnny Cash. His rough living and various addictions has been well chronicled in biographies and in his own autobiography. According to Rodney Clapp, Cash was a bundle of contradictions. In his Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction: Christianity and the Soul of a Nation, Clapp argues that Cash exemplifies such American contradictions as holiness and hedonism, lonesomeness and community, and tradition and progress. Emmylou Harris once called the late singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt the ghost of Hank Williams, with a twist. Van Zandt’s reach is long, influencing everyone from Harris to Neil Young to Steve Earle. John Kruth’s authorized biography, To Live’s to Fly: The Ballad of the Late, Great Townes Van Zandt, contains interviews with fellow songwriters such Guy Clark and John Prine as it captures the humor, hijinks, and heartbreak of the author of such well-known songs as “Pancho and Lefty,” and “If I Needed You.” Yet, like Hank Williams, Van Zandt’s life and music cannot be confined to a single volume. Musician Robert Earl Hardy chronicles Van Zandt’s life from his early years as a wandering folk singer and explores Van Zandt’s brilliant and beautiful songs in-depth in A Deeper Blue: The Life and Music of Townes Van Zandt. Bobby Braddock, who wrote the country standards “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “She Stopped Loving Him Today,” humorously captures his coming of age in pre-Disney central Florida in the rollicking Down in Orburndale: A Songwriter’s Youth in Old Florida. Finally, renowned Southern writer Frye Galliard explores the enduring power of Southern rock and country music in his portraits of the Allman Brothers, Phil Walden and the Capricorn label, Emmylou Harris, and Marshall Crenshaw in his With Music and Justice for All: Some Southerners and Their Passions.
Country music is as memorable for its personalities as it is for its music. The late Porter Wagoner’s suit earned him the nickname “the Liberace of country music,” and Dolly Parton’s bouffant hairstyles continue to grace her rhinestone-clad body. Photographer Henry Horrenstein captures all the glitter, grit, and graceful beauty of country music stars from Porter and Dolly, Waylon Jennings, a young Hank Williams, Jr. and Loretta Lynn to Wilma Lee and Stony Cooper, Hazel Dickens, and Little Jimmie Dickens in his beautiful book of photos, Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music, 1972-1981. In Nashville’s Lower Broad: The Street That Music Made, with a foreword by Lucinda Williams, documentary photographer Bill Rouda captures the most famous stretch of road in Nashville, Tennessee, chronicling the haunts and honky-tonks of Lower Broadway where many of today’s most famous stars got their starts.
As rock stars start to age, the fascination with their pasts provides fodder for shelf after shelf of books. Eric Clapton’s autobiography competes for space with his girlfriend’s, Patti Boyd, memoir of the same period. Sometimes the songs just aren’t enough and listeners crave the stories behind the music. In the early 1970s, Black Sabbath took rock music to a new level, one that would be imitated by countless followers. The heavy metal of their first two albums, Black Sabbath and Paranoid, gave rise to an entire generation of bands. Their third album, Master of Reality, is the subject of one of the latest additions to Continuum’s brilliantly conceived 33 1/3 series of little books about important record albums. John Darnielle, who plays guitar for the Mountain Goats, creates a memorable character in Roger Painter, a young adult locked in a psychiatric treatment center in southern California in 1985, who hears the album and craves more and more Black Sabbath. One of the most memorable rock albums of all time, of course, is Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. The drumbeat that kicks off one of the album’s most famous songs, “Like a Rolling Stone,” signaled a new Dylan sound, more rock than folk. Colin Irwin explores every nook and cranny of the recording of this album in Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited.
One of the many musicians who joined Dylan during George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh was Ravi Shankar. Shankar’s immense influence continues today, and he tells his side of the story and the story of his life in My Music, My Life with a foreword by Philip Glass and introduction by Yehudi Menuhin. It’s hard to believe that they’ve been around for forty years, but Crosby, Stills, and Nash, who famously remarked at Woodstock how scatologically scared they were to be playing before all those people for the first time, have created some of the most beautiful harmonies and memorable music of all time, from “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” to “Teach Your Children.” CSN expert Dave Zimmer traces the band’s evolution from the early days up right up until their Living With War tour in Crosby, Stills & Nash: The Biography, with a new foreword by David Crosby. Once Neil Young joined CSN from Buffalo Springfield, everything changed. Young brought a harder edge to the band and penned some of the songs that put them on the charts, including “Helpless” and “Ohio.” Nigel Williamson’s Journey Through the Past: the Stories behind the Classic Songs of Neil Young is a kind of fan’s note to Young but it is also one of the most detailed and thorough explorations of the Young canon now available. Novelist Michael Bracewell traces the development of Roxy Music, one of the more recognized pop art and glam rock bands of the early Seventies in his Re-Make/Re-Model: Becoming Roxy Music. Finally, from “She Loves You” to “Girl With Faraway Eyes” to “Tupelo Honey,” many rock songs take love as their theme. Rock songs, though, are as much about death as they are about love, argues Graeme Thomson in his brilliant I Shot a Man in Reno: A History of Death by Murder, Suicide, Fire, Flood, Drugs, Disease, and General Misadventure, as Related in Popular Song, which includes interviews with Mick Jagger and Nick Cave.
When Lester Bangs died in 1982, rock writing and criticism died with him. The glossy covers of today’s Rolling Stone announce some mediocre set of articles about politics, movies, television, and other cultural happenings. Bangs, along with several others, helped provide aesthetic criteria for a newly emerging music genre. Music critic Robert Christgau, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, attempts to restore faith in music criticism in his Best Music Writing 2007, a collection of top-notch music critics from Sasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker to Ann Powers of the Los Angeles Times ranging over topics as diverse as Barbara Streisand, Mecca Normal, and cocaine rap.
Music will always be an integral part of society, helping people learn how to love, to work together, and to comfort one another in times of distress. There will always be books that attempt to understand this music and the people who make it.
Books mentioned in this column:
Miles Davis: Miles Smiles, and the Invention of Post Bop (Indiana University Press, 2007)
The Miles Davis Reader: Interviews and Features from DOWNBEAT Magazine (Hal Leonard, 2007)
Luck’s In My Corner: The Life and Music of Hot Lips Page (Routledge, 2008)
Ask Me Now: Conversations on Jazz & Literature (Indiana University Press, 2007)
The Selling Sound: The Rise of the Country Music Industry (Duke University Press, 2007)
The Hayloft Gang: The Story of the National Barn Dance (University of Illinois Press, 2008)
It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the American Music (Faber and Faber, 2008)
Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction: Christianity and the Soul of a Nation (Westminister John Knox Press, 2008)
To Live’s to Fly: The Ballad of the Late, Great Townes Van Zandt (Da Capo Press, 2008)
A Deeper Blue: The Life and Music of Townes Van Zandt (University of North Texas Press, 2008)
Down in Orburndale: A Songwriter’s Youth in Old Florida (Louisiana State University Press, 2007)
With Music and Justice for All: Some Southerners and Their Passions (Vanderbilt University Press, 2008)
Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music, 1972-1981 (Chronicle Books, 2003)
Nashville’s Lower Broad: The Street That Music Made (Smithsonian Books, 2004)
Black Sabbath: Master of Reality (Continuum, 2008)
Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (Billboard Books, 2006)
My Music, My Life (Manadala Publishing, 2006)
Crosby, Stills & Nash: The Biography (Da Capo, 2008)
Journey Through the Past: the Stories behind the Classic Songs of Neil Young (Backbeat Books, 2003)
Re-Make/Re-Model: Becoming Roxy Music (Da Capo, 2008)
I Shot a Man in Reno: A History of Death by Murder, Suicide, Fire, Flood, Drugs, Disease, and General Misadventure, as Related in Popular Song (Continuum, 2008)
Best Music Writing 2007 (Da Capo Press, 2007)
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Contact Henry.