Syllabus: Music in the United States: The American Rock Music Canon since 1955

After an eight-year absence, I am back in the classroom as a Contributing Faculty Member in the Department of Music at Dickinson College. This spring I am teaching the course Music in the United States: The American Rock Music Canon since 1955. I decided to organize this course around the notion that since the 60+ years when rock ‘n’ roll emerged as the dominant form of popular music a series of patterns define the most common stories about the genre.

 

Rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry is one of the many canonical artists my students read about in the seminar.

Rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry is one of the many canonical artists my students read about in the seminar.

Typically this means the following:

 1955-59: Known as the Golden Age of rock ‘n’ roll when pioneers like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and the Crickets, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, and Jerry Lee Lewis establish the sonic and cultural blueprint for rock ‘n’ roll.

1959-63: The era signifies the decline of rock ‘r’ roll’s initial vitality with the emergence of ersatz rock ‘n’ rollers (e.g., teen idols, American Bandstand) and more producer driven pop (e.g., girl groups)

1963-65: Some glimmers of hope emerge including Motown, Surf Music, The Beatles and the “British Invasion,” and folk-rock

1965-69: The mid to late 1960s era parallels significant shifts happening within the social sphere signified by soul music, acid/psychedelic rock, and art rock.

1970s: Pop music reaches a new eclecticism.  The prominence of singer-songwriters (e.g., Elton John, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell) and soft rock (e.g., Bread, The Carpenters) signifies a cultural “cooling” and a turn toward introspection; black pop expands into jazz fusion, funk and lush new territory (e.g., Quiet Storm, Philly Soul); mainstream rock (e.g., Led Zeppelin, Foreigner, Fleetwood Mac) grows more elaborate and commercially robust; bubbling from the urban underground come glam, punk, disco, which dominates the last few years of the decade, and the rumblings of a new urban dance culture called hip-hop.

Singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell represented a renewed interest in softer, introspective popular music in the 1970s.

Singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell represented a renewed interest in softer, introspective popular music in the 1970s.

1980s: MTV reinvigorates the promotional potential of pop, providing a platform for new wave, British synth-pop and the model for video pop exemplified by Michael Jackson’s triumph with Thriller. Record labels also take a strategic multimedia approach linking movies and soundtracks (e.g., Flashdance, Footloose). The combination of these and an increasingly deregulated economy foster a pop boom. Mainstream pop stars regularly generate multiplatinum sales a trend encompassing everyone from rockers such as Springsteen to video pop divas like Madonna and Whitney Houston to funksters like Prince. Youth oriented styles stimulate innovations including college rock, post-punk music, hip-hop, and New Jack swing.

MTV provided a major platform for British synthesizer pop bands such as the Human League in the early to mid 1980s.

MTV provided a major platform for British synthesizer pop bands such as the Human League in the early to mid 1980s.

1990s: Digital sales technology reveals country music and adult contemporary music as the most popular music in the country, and related acts like Garth Brooks and Mariah Carey dominate commercially. As these more traditional forms thrive, hip-hop and alternative rock become the lingua franca of a new generation of listeners.

2000-09: Musically, the angst laden nature of the 1990s surrenders to teen pop, boy bands, and a new generation of pop divas aiming for a young audience. New hybrids like rap metal emerge, and old ideas with a new twist, such as American Idol’s popular take on the talent show genre define much of the decade. The biggest industrial shift is the rise of MP3 technology and social media. Both make it easier for emerging artists to gain mass exposure without record companies, decentralize record stores as the primary sources of music for consumers, and shift sales dominance from physical albums to single downloads.

2010-present: The digitization of pop has also created an increasingly fragmented musical landscape devoid of a dominant style. Few acts have cross-generational appeal. Diva pop, afro-futurist R&B, EDM and teen pop compete for attention, though certain voices, including Adele, Beyoncé, Justin Bieber, Kendrick Lamar, Bruno Mars, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, and Kanye West have developed strong personae and established a commercial foothold. The story continues unfolding.

Hip-hop artists Kendrick Lamar is one of the most popular and acclaimed voices in popualr music of the 2010s.

Hip-hop artists Kendrick Lamar is one of the most popular and acclaimed voices in popualr music of the 2010s.

****************************************************************************

Buried within these generic narrative patterns are a host of overlooked artists, subgenres, movements, and innovations that challenge conventional wisdom. The ultimate aim for the course is for students to learn rock’s canonical narrative so they can challenge and deconstruct it in an informed, scholarly way. The continuity between pre-rock music genres, the influences of music originating outside of the United States, the strategies artists adapt to survive commercially, and other topics are rarely included in popular rock histories. By association, certain genres ranging from bossa nova to cabaret music to holiday music rarely figure into these stories though all three genres persist.

Holiday albums have been perennially popular in the post-1955 rock era, but rarely factor into the mainstream story of contemporary popular music.

Holiday albums have been perennially popular in the post-1955 rock era, but rarely factor into the mainstream story of contemporary popular music.

Mainstream rock history can be very ethnocentric in detailing the music of the 1960s. Where does the Brazilian style bossa nova fit?

Mainstream rock history can be very ethnocentric in detailing the music of the 1960s. Where does the Brazilian style bossa nova fit?

Rock era crooners such as Barbra Streisand, who has roots in "non-rock" fields like cabaret and musical theater, still record and tour successfully. How has mainstream rock hisotry addressed the continuity of these musicla stlyes?

Rock era crooners such as Barbra Streisand, who has roots in "non-rock" fields like cabaret and musical theater, still record and tour successfully. How has mainstream rock hisotry addressed the continuity of these musicla stlyes?

 

I am excited to share the readings on my syllabus for the spring 2018 semester. I have structured the class in two parts. Part One, functions as a literature review. Students either lead group presentations focused on readings from canonical texts, or they select readings from a “reader’s choice” menu. These readings complement, counter, challenge, and and/or complicate the themes from the canonical readings. In Part Two, students will focus on an overlooked or underdeveloped part of the rock story and develop final projects that illuminate these missing or overlooked pieces so we can expand the story and appreciate how multiple stories constitute post-1955 popular music.  I hope you enjoy the readings; I am excited to refine the course in future semesters and welcome suggestions for future readings!

Books (Required):

Flowers in the Dustbin: The rise of rock and roll, 1947-1977, James Miller

Rockin in Time (8th edition), David Szatmary

Rockin’ Out: Popular Music in the USA (6th edition), Rebee Garofalo and Steve Waksman

 

Reader’s Choice Reading Menu (Articles, chapters, and /or essays posted on Moodle)

Students have required readings from the books listed above and will also select readings from a reader’s choice “menu” of reading options drawn from the following:

Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture (1999), Bruce Horner and Thomas Swiss, editors

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music (2009), Elijah Wald

Great Pretenders: My Strange Love Affair with ‘50s Pop Music, Karen Schoemer

The Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader: Histories and Debates (2005), David Brackett, editor

It’s  Too Late to Stop Now: A Rock and Roll Journal (1972), Jon Landau

All Shook Up: How Rock and Roll Changed America (2003), Glenn Altschuler

Sexing the Groove (1997), Sheila Whiteley, editor

The Latin Beat: The Rhythms and Roots of Latin Music from Bossa Nova to Salsa and Beyond (2003), Ed Morales

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Story of Pop music from Bill Haley to Beyonce (2013), Bob Stanley

Love for Sale: Popular Music in America (2016), David Hajdu

Rock and Roll: An Unruly History (1995), Robert Palmer

Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination (2016), Jack Hamilton

The Essential Ellen Willis (2014), Nona Willis, Aronowitz, editor

The Rock History Reader [1st ed.] (2006), Theo Cateforis, editor

Any Old Way You Choose It: Rock and Other Pop Music, 1967-1973 (1973), Robert Christgau

Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music (2011), Nona Willis, Aronowitz, editor

What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture (1999), Mark Anthony Neal

The Sound of the City: The rise of rock and roll (multiple editions), Charlie Gillett

Right to Rock: the Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race (2004), Maureen Mahon

World Music: The Basics (2004), Richard Nidel

Understanding Popular Music Culture [3rd ed.] (2008), Roy Shuker

American Popular Music (2006), Larry Starr and Christopher Waterman

Check It, While You Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop culture, and the Public Sphere (2004), Gwendolyn D. Pough

Home Girls Make Some Noise: Hip Hop Feminism Anthology (2007), Gwendolyn D. Pough, Elaine Richardson, Aisha Durham, and Rachel Raimist, editors

The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (2015), Jessica Hopper

Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black & White, Body and Soul in American Music, (2017), Ann Powers

Popular Music in Theory (1996), Keith Negus

Part One: Exposes students to the canonical contours of post-1950s pop music from rock ‘n’ roll to hip-hop, which are typically organized by genre.

 

Unit 1: Mid 1950s-1964

January 22: Welcomes & Introductions

 

January 24

What is the “Rock Era?”

ALL: Rodman, 35-45, Key Terms in Popular Music [Moodle]

ALL: Wald, 1-12, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll [Moodle]

 

In-class workshop: Précis peer review session

 

January 26

Rock ‘n’ Roll’s “Golden Age”

Group 1: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 4: Crossing Cultures: The Eruption of Rock ‘n’ Roll, 81-123

Group 2: Miller, Chapter 1, 80-94

Group 3: Szatmary, Chapter 1: The Blues, Rock-and-Roll, and Racism, 1-27

 

Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least two):

“Chapter 11: Producers Answer Back,” Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, 44-49 [Moodle]

“Chapter 20: Langston Hughes Responds,” Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, 80-82 [Moodle]

“Chapter 21: From Rhythm and Blues to Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, 82-88 [Moodle]

Landau, “Introduction,” It’s Too Late to Stop Now, 13-18 [Moodle]

 

In-class workshop: Thesis writing

 

January 29

Rock ‘n’ Roll’s “Golden Age”

Group 4: Miller, Chapter 2, 97-128

Group 4: Miller, Chapter 3, 129-137

 

Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Altschuler, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man: Rock ‘n’ Roll and Race,” All Shook Up, 35-66 [Moodle]

Sanjek, “Can a Fujiyama Mama Be the Female Elvis?” Sexing the Groove, 137-167 [Moodle]

Morales, “Ch. 9: The Hidden History of Latinos and Latin Influence in Rock and Hip-Hop,” The Latin Beat, 275-301 [Moodle]

 

In-class workshop: Integrating evidence

 

Unit 2: Teen pop, girl groups, and Motown

January 31

Group 1: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 5: The Empire Strikes Back: The Reaction to Rock ‘n’ Roll, 124-48

Group 2: Miller, 138-56

Group 3: Szatmary, Chapter 3: The Teen Market: From Bandstand to Girl Groups, 55-69

 

Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Altschuler, “The Day the Music Died: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Lull and Revival,” All Shook Up, 161-184 [Moodle]

Schoemer, “Introduction,” Great Pretenders, 1-21 [Moodle]

Stanley, Chapter 9: The Trouble with Boys: The Brill Building and Girl Groups, Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, 65-73 [Moodle]

 

February 2

Group 4: Szatmary, Chapter 8: Motown: The Sound of Integration, 135-46

Group 4: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 6 (excerpt): The Civil Rights Movement and Popular Music: “Girl Groups, Male Producers, and Brill Building Pop”; “Motown: The Integration of Pop” 150-163

 

Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Landau, “Motown: The First Yen Years,” It’s Too Late to Stop Now, 143-150 [Moodle]

Wald, “Twisting Girls Change the World,” How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll, 213-229 [Moodle]

 

Unit 3: Mid to late 1960s

February 5

British invasion

Group 1: Miller, Chapter 4, 177-217

Group 2: Szatmary, Chapter 6: The British Invasion of America, 102-20

Group 3: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 6 (excerpt): “The British Invasion Occupies the Pop Charts,” 163-68

 

February 7

Folk-rock

Group 4: Miller, 217-31

Szatmary, Chapter 5: The New Frontier, 80-101

Group 4: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 6 (excerpt): “Breaking the Sounds of Silence: New Voices in the Music,” 169-71

 

Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Palmer, “Chapter 4: A Rolling Stone,” Rock & Roll: An Unruly History, 99-111 [Moodle]

 

February 9

Soul

Group 1: Szatmary, Chapter 10: Fire from the Streets, 170-85

Group 2: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 6 (excerpt): “Black (Music) is Beautiful” 171-75 and “Latino Rock ‘n’ Roll,” 175.

 

Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Palmer, “Chapter 3: R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” Rock & Roll: An Unruly History, 79-97 [Moodle]

Hamilton, Chapter 4: Being Good Isn’t Always Easy, Just Around Midnight, 169-212 [Moodle]

“Chapter 36: Aretha Franklin Meets the Mainstream,” Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, 164-170 [Moodle]

 

February 12

Acid rock & the Counterculture

Group 3: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 6 (excerpt): “Rock and Revolution: The Counterculture,” 181-96

Group 4:  Szatmary, Chapter 9: Acid Rock, 147-69

 

Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Landau, “The Death of Janis Joplin,” It’s Too Late to Stop Now, 210-213 [Moodle]

Miller, Chapter 5, 260-70

Willis, “Janis Joplin,” The Essential Ellen Willis, 59-63 [Moodle]

 

February 14

Art Rock

ALL: Please select two of these three selections from Garofalo, Landau, and/or Brackett and be prepared to discuss them in class.

 

Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 7 (excerpt): “Creativity and Commerce: Rock as Art,” 203-11

Landau, “Rock and Art,” It’s Too Late to Stop Now, 129-134 [Moodle]

Brackett, Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, Chapter 48: The Aesthetics of Rock (all three pieces below must be read and count as one selection):

·         Williams, “Get Off of My Cloud,” 216-218 [Moodle]

·         Goldstein, “Pop Eye: Evaluating Media,” 218-220 [Moodle]

·         Willis, “Musical Events—Records: Rock, Etc.” 221-223 [Moodle]

 

 

Unit 4: The 1970s

February 16:

Soft(er) Rock

Group 1: Szatmary, Chapter 13: Escaping into the Seventies, 214-25

Group 1: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 7 (excerpt): “Singer/Songwriters, Soft Rock, and More,” 218-224

 

Corporate rock/Album-Oriented Rock (AOR)

Christgau essay on Classic Rock: https://www.robertchristgau.com/xg/music/60s-det.php

 

Heavy metal, blues-rock, psychedelia, etc.

Group 2: Szatmary, Chapter 11: Guitar Heroes and Heavy Metal, 186-205

Group 2: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 7 (excerpt): “Mad with Power: Heavy Metal,” 234-42

 

Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least TWO):

Hiwatt, “Chapter 23: Cock Rock: Men Always Seem to End up On Top,” The Rock History Reader, 125-129 [Moodle]

Christgau, “Trying to Understand the Eagles,” Any Old Way You Choose It, 265-269 [Moodle]

Stanley, “Chapter 20: Pop Gets Sophisticated Soft Rock,” Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, 178-189,

 [Moodle]

Stanley, “Chapter 45: American Rock (Ooh Yeah),” Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!,400-408,

 [Moodle]

Willis, “Randy Newman,” Out of the Vinyl Deeps, 104-106 [Moodle]

Willis, “Women’s Music,” Out of the Vinyl Deeps, 142-145 [Moodle]

Brackett, Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, “Chapter 60: Jazz Fusion,” 290-298 [Moodle]

 

February 19

Glam Rock

Group 3: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 7 (excerpt): “All that Glitters Does Not Sell Gold,” 242-46

Group 3: Szatmary, Chapter 14: The Era of Excess, 226-45

 

Soft-Soul/Quiet Storm

Group 4: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 7 (excerpt): “Sweeter Soul Music,” 211-18

Group 4: Neal, Chapter 5: Postindustrial Soul, What the Music Said, 125-29 [Moodle]

 

Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least two):

Christgau, “Bette Midler: The Art of Compassion,” Any Old Way You Choose It, 294-299 [Moodle]

Stanley, “Chapter 28: The Sound of Philadelphia: Soft Soul,” Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! 250-259,

 [Moodle]

Willis, “Bowie’s Limitations,” Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, 38-41 [Moodle]

Willis, “Believing Bette Midler, Mostly,” Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, 93-95 [Moodle]

 

 

February 21

Funk and Disco

Group 1: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 8 (excerpt): “Disco: The Rhythm without the Blues,” 271-84

Group 1: Neal, Chapter 4: Soul for Real, What the Music Said, 112-24 [Moodle]

 

Punk

Group 2: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 8 (excerpt): “Punk: Rock as (White) Noise,” 250-71

Group 2: Szatmary, Chapter 15: Punk Rock and the New Generation, 246-71

 

Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Kopkind, “The Dialectic of Disco,” Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, 298-308, [Moodle]

Hajdu, “Chapter 10: Punk Versus Disco: Who Needs Love?” Love for Sale, 171-184 [Moodle]

 

 

February 23

Rock’s Epitaph?

Group 3: Gillett, “End of a Revolution,” (339-42) and “Goodnight America,” (401-411) The Sound of the City, 1970 and 1984 [Moodle]

Group 3: Landau, “The Cooling of America,” It’s Too Late to Stop Now, 213-216 [Moodle]

Group 4: Miller, Chapter 5, 270-277, 285-294

Group 4: Miller-Chapter 6: “Rock and Roll Future 10/75,” “Anarchy in the U. K. 12/2/76,” “My Way 8/16/77,” Epilogue: “No Future”

 

February 26

Class Visit from the DIVA Jazz Orchestra! (Website: http://divajazz.com/)

Discussion: Women in the performing arts and music

 

Unit 5: 1980s & 1990s

February 28

MTV era pop

Group 1: Garofalo, Chapter 9: Are We the World? Music Videos, Superstars, and Mega-Events, 285-316

Group 2: Szatmary, Chapter 17: I Want My MTV, 279-94

 

Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Mahon, “Chapter 1: Reclaiming the Right to Rock,” Right to Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Politics of Race, 1-32 [Moodle]

Nidel, “Introduction,” World Music: The Basics, 1-3 [Moodle]

Shuker, “U Got the Look: Film television and MTV,” Understanding Popular Music Culture, 147-159 [Moodle]

Stanley, “Just a King in Mirrors: Michael Jackson,”( 409-414) and “Highs in the Mid-Eighties: Prince and Madonna,” (415-422) Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! [Moodle]

Starr and Waterman, “Globalization and the Rise of World Music,” American Popular Music, 307-313 [Moodle]

 

 

March 2

Hip-hop

Group 3: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 10 (excerpt): “Hip Hop, Don’t Stop,” 333-46

Group 4: Szatmary, Chapter 23: The Hip-Hop Nation, 350-71

 

MENU (Choose at least one):

Hajdu, “Chapter 12: Hip-Hop: Beats Want to Be Free,” Love for Sale, 197-209 [Moodle]

Pough, “Bringing the Wreck: Theorizing Race, Rap, Gender, and the Public Sphere,” Check it While You Wreck It, 15-40 [Moodle]

Powers, Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, Chapter 93: R&B Divas Go Retro, 494-498 [Moodle]

Starr and Waterman, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” excerpt American Popular Music, 270-289 [Moodle]

Worsley, “Loving Hip-Hop When It Denies Your Humanity,” Home Girls Make Some Noise, 274-299 [Moodle]

 

March 5

Modern rock/alternative music

Group 1: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 11 (excerpt): “From Indie Scenes to Alternative Nation,” 370-80

Group 2: Szatmary, Chapter 21: The Generation X Blues, 322-41

 

Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Cateforis and Humphreys, “Constructing Communities and Identities: Riot Grrrl in New York City,” Musics of Multicultural America, 317-42 [Moodle]

France, 1996, “Chapter 51: Feminism Amplified,” The Rock History Reader, 295-302 [Moodle]

Hopper, “Nevermind Already: Nirvana’s 20th Anniversary Boxset,” The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, 143-145 [Moodle]

Starr and Waterman, “Alternate Currents,” American Popular Music, 291-300 [Moodle]

 

 

Unit 6: 2000-2010s

March 7

2000s

Group 1: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 11 (excerpt): “Country into Pop”; “The Latin Boom and Beyond”; “Black Music at the Base,” 381-406

Group 2: Stanley, “Chapter 59: A Vision of Love: R&B,” Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! 536-546 [Moodle]

Group 3: Szatmary, Chapter 22: Post-Grunge Party, 342-49

 

Reader’s Choice: Please read one of the readings listed above.

 

March 9

2000s and Beyond

Group 1: Garofalo, Chapter 12: Changing Channels: Music and Media in the New Millennium, 417-64

 

Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Brooks, “Amy Winehouse and the (Black) Art of Appropriation,” September 28, 2008, The Nation: https://www.thenation.com/article/amy-winehouse-and-black-art-appropriation/

Hajdu, “Chapter 13: Digitization: The Immaterial World,” Love for Sale, 212-235 [Moodle]

Hopper, “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t,” The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, 15-20 [Moodle] 

Sanneh, “Chapter 59: The Rock Against Rockism,” The Rock History Reader, 351-354 [Moodle]

Powers, “All the Single Cyborgs,” 312-326, and “Epilogue,” 343-349, Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black & White, Body and Soul in American Music [Moodle]

 

COPYRIGHT © 2018 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

More than a novelty: Black girls "rock" too!

Free association time: Several months ago First Lady Michelle Obama was “scolded” for presenting at the Black Girls Rock Awards. This was apparently viewed by a few reactionaries as exclusionary though it was a nod to the organization Black Girls Rock Inc. a “youth empowerment and mentoring organization established to promote the arts for young women of color.” Founded in 2006 by Beverly Bond it exists for a reason: in a society that tends to operate in racist and sexist ways black women are often unheralded hence the necessity of outlets that acknowledge their status and provide genuine visibility. The coverage of Mrs. Obama’s presence sparked a musical thought in me: “Black Girls Rock, Too.”

                                                                                            Image of Tina Turner performing. Copyright   ©   tinaturnerblog.com.

                                                                                            Image of Tina Turner performing. Copyright © tinaturnerblog.com.

In the context of popular music contemporary listeners tend to associate rock ‘n’ roll and rock with white men like Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Roy Orbison, and Buddy Holly. Though black proto-rock ‘n’ rollers like Wynonie Harris, and pioneers like Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Little Richard are commonly understood as musical architects of rock ‘n’ roll the racial politics of the 1950s restricted their commercial exposure and recognition compared to white counterparts. This was eventually rectified (i.e. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions) but tellingly they are not referred to as the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

 The story for women in rock ‘n’ roll is also complicated. Pioneers like the eclectic pre-rock singer Ella Mae Morse and the rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson only scored a few hits and never quite became stars. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that women like Janis Joplin and Grace Slick expanded the popular imagination to begin including women as legitimate rock performers. Since then Stevie Nicks, Debbie Harry, Joan Jett, Pat Benatar, Chrissie Hynde and younger performers like Alanis Morisette have gained iconicity. Missing from this list for the most part are black women. Tina Turner, whose dynamic performances and raspy vocals led many to regard her as the “Queen of Rock,” is probably the only black female singer who immediately comes to mind in the rock pantheon. She also occupies an important place in R&B and pop as well; in terms of rock though although she seemingly stands alone among black performers. 

A closer look reveals a more diverse roster of performers of rock. Most recently the Alabama Shakes, fronted by the biracial singer and guitarist Brittany Howard, topped the albums charts with Sound & Color. I was aware of the Shakes’s 2013 debut but what caught me recently was Howard’s impassioned rendition of “Don’t Wanna Fight” on Saturday Night Live (aired February 28, 2015). She sang with a stirring mix of power, control, and vulnerability modulating the song’s dynamics with impressive precision.  Her performance impressed me and reminded me of the ways the music industry tends to narrowcast black female singers. 

                                                                         Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard. Copyright   ©   Getty Images.

                                                                         Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard. Copyright © Getty Images.

The first female performer to win a Grammy Award for rock singing was Donna Summer whose victory for “Hot Stuff” proved she was more than a Disco Queen or an R&B singer. She was nominated again in this category for “Cold Love” (1981) and “Protection” (1982). In other words rock music was as integral to her sound as other more stereotypically “black” musical influences. Many people may be unaware that in 1981 Summer was working on a double album that showcased a different sound for her. The album featured rock songs, new wave tunes, dance pop and ballads. Her record company doubted its commercial viability and she hurriedly record and released 1982’s Donna Summer. In 1996 the unreleased album, called I’m a Rainbow was released and it showcased Summer on everything from “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” to songs that fit comfortably into the rock and new wave of the early ‘80s including “Leave Me Alone,” “Highway Runner,” “Melanie,” and “Romeo.”  Had she released the album circa 1981/82 it may have opened doors for other women-of-color to rock especially given her popularity at the time.

                     Donna Summer rocks out! Copyright  ©   Mario Anzuoni/Reuters.

                     Donna Summer rocks out! Copyright© Mario Anzuoni/Reuters.

Alongside Turner, Summer, and Howard several other black females are part of the rock continuum, and their recordings are easy to find. From the 1930s to the early 1950s country blues singer-songwriter Memphis Minnie pioneered the singer-composer-performer archetype rock ‘n’ rollers adapted in the mid-1950s. She wrote much of her material wasn’t afraid to sing about sexuality (“Me and My Chaffeur Blues,” “In My Girlish Days”) in playful but discernible terms. Rory Block, Maria Muldaur, Bonnie Raitt, Phoebe Snow, and Lucinda Williams are indebted to her and have covered her material. About a decade later the guitar slinger Sister Rosetta Tharpe broke with gospel tradition inflecting traditional songs with touches of the blues that generated considerable controversy. Her legacy has shaped the technique and repertoire of folk, gospel, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll and jazz performers including Odetta, Bob Dylan, and Little Richard. Before Etta James gained crossover fame with “At Last” she sang some of the slyest and most buoyant tunes of the mid-1950s including “Roll with Me Henry” and “Tough Lover.” While the music industry steered many black singers primarily toward R&B, funk and disco in the ‘70s, from the ‘80s onward performers as disparate as Joan Armatrading, LaBelle singer Nona Hendryx, Tracy Chapman, Toshi Reagon, Me’shell N’degeocello, and Dionne Farris have all flexed their rock chops on record throughout their careers. 

Country blues pioneer Memphis Minnie. Copyright   ©  1993 Delta Haze Corporation. 

Country blues pioneer Memphis Minnie. Copyright ©1993 Delta Haze Corporation. 

The racial rock deficit grew to the point that black male and female musicians responded in the mid-1980s by founding of the Black Rock Coalition in New York.  The group’s website defines its mission as supporting the “development, exposure, and acceptance of Black alternative music.” The idea that rock ‘n’ roll, a genre that drew heavily from gospel, the blues, and jump blues, and its offshoots, are now viewed as “alternative” music for black performers is perversely ironic. Since the mid-1950s performers as diverse as Rick James, Prince, Living Colour, Fishbone, Lenny Kravitz, Terence Trent D’Arby (now called Sananda Maitreya), and more recently Raphael Saadiq and Gary Clark Jr., have asserted enough of a black male presence in rock that it is slightly (only slightly) less novel for audiences to associate black men with rock.

In the mid-1990s Darius Rucker stood out as the black lead singer of the otherwise white pop/rock group Hootie & the Blowfish, and he has remained a virtual outlier in his recent solo career as a success country performer. Rucker’s successes in these incarnations did not exactly motivate record companies to seek more diversity in rock and country; he remains a musically conventional but socially unique performer. One hopes that Brittany Howard is not a novelty, but yet one of many women of color with the chops and industry support to make a living performing in a rock vein. Until the culture recognizes the historical roles of black musicians in shaping the rock tradition and until record labels acknowledge the commercial viability of women of color in rock organizations like the Black Rock Coalition and Black Girls Rock Inc. remain vital resources for their literal and symbolic encouragement for musicians of many stripes to rock.

  COPYRIGHT © 2015 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Revelations in Memphis: New encounters with Ol’ Time religious music

I recently traveled to Memphis, Tennessee one of America’s most musically significant cities. From W.C. Handy’s blues to the clubs on Beale Street to the pioneering labels Sun Records, Stax Records, and Hi Records, Memphis is a touchstone in the development of classic blues, proto-rock ‘n’ roll, and the “Southern soul” branch of R&B. Memphis is pivotal in the musical legacies of Al Green, B. B. King, Ann Peebles, Elvis Presley, Otis Redding, Dusty Springfield, and Carla Thomas among other notable artists.

The exterior of the historic Sun Records. Photo by Vincent L. Stephens.

The exterior of the historic Sun Records. Photo by Vincent L. Stephens.

An under recognized part of Memphis’s music heritage are the gospel sounds emanating from its nearly 2000 (mostly Protestant) places of worship. Though Tennessee is obviously part of the “Bible Belt” surveying a variety of sources revealed  more specific information on the high percentages of Tennesseans who identify as “very religious,” the state’s high concentration of megachurches (large Protestant congregations with 2000+ regular attendees ), and the high numbers of churches per capita. Both Memphis and its home state are among the more religiously oriented locales in the country.

My recent visit was my third trip to Memphis in four years as I travel professionally with a group of students studying the Civil Rights movement and Southern culture annually during spring break. Among our many stops is a trip to the Sunday worship service at Monumental Baptist Church, an inclusive church known as the “Friendly church on the Parkway.” Monumental is also famous for the long tenure of their pastor (now pastor emeritus) Reverend Samuel “Billy” Kyles. Kyles is a theologian and community activist who was one of the last people to interact with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. prior to his assassination in 1968. As a pastor and organizer Reverend Kyles has contributed to the fight for social justice well into the present. As the students and I perused the impressive walls of photos in his office featuring figures like Dr. King, Nelson Mandela, Harry Belafonte, Bill Clinton, and various other notables, one could see a continuum of social justice history unfolding before them in an abbreviated form.

Monumental is a predominantly black church characterized by “the preacher, the music, and the frenzy” W.E.B. DuBois described in 1903’s classic The Souls of Black Folk. It is the music that I turn to here. Though I have identified as a humanist-ethicist for years I was raised in a Christian household. For the first few years of my life my parents were Seventh-Day Adventists, and then they converted to Protestantism, particularly the Baptist tradition. As a child I found church boring and repetitive except for the music. Though most choirs are composed of untrained singers a lack of formal “classical” training differs greatly from a lack of skill.

Historic photo of Reverend Samuel "Billy" Kyles, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other luminaries featured in Rev. Kyles's office at Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis. Photo by Vincent L. Stephens.

Historic photo of Reverend Samuel "Billy" Kyles, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other luminaries featured in Rev. Kyles's office at Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis. Photo by Vincent L. Stephens.

Black Protestant churches are the source of training for many of our greatest singers (i.e. Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin) and the root of many signature techniques in popular music (i.e. melisma, call-and-response vocal arrangements). As a wonderful exhibit in the freshly renovated National Civil Rights Museum illustrates, churches were as much community centers as they were centers of worship for African-Americans who relied on churches, benevolent societies, and fraternal organizations to sustain themselves during and beyond Jim Crow era discrimination and apartheid.

As such many African-Americans, regardless of denomination, have some level of relationship to religious institutions. To return to my story, I recall having many positive developmental experiences in the churches of my childhood such as being a Cub Scout, and learning about religious history. But, as I developed more intellectually and politically during adolescence I began questioning many aspects of Christianity, as practiced in the Baptist context, ranging from attitudes about reproductive rights to negative characterizations of sexual and gender diversity. After being essentially forced to attend church as a teenager I was relieved by the spiritual autonomy offered in college; no more obligatory Sundays. Like many college students I adapted a “spiritual not religious” stance typical of college students. I still clung to the emotional safety of the Protestant belief structure and the amorphous beauty of “faith” but wrestled with its implications as practiced by many preachers and their followers.

Looking back, my stance was a rejection of childhood teachings and a subtler rebellion against social expectations. After all, I grew in up in a city where it was normal for people to ask you “And what is your church home?” without blinking. Gradually, as I matured into early adulthood I shifted from a reactionary approach to a more informed and deliberate embrace of an ethically based humanism with room for the intangibles of life. These beliefs surfaced the first time I attended Monumental’s service in 2012 when my co-chaperone and I reviewed the agenda of previous trips. We both viewed this stop with some antipathy. I was particularly concerned that a “fire and brimstone” approach would alienate students, and that I was compromising my beliefs by regressing to the naturalized “authority” of church, which was off-putting mentally.

Realizing there was no coffee shop or alternative spot to hang out at during the service before we arrived, I decided to approach the service open heartedly. Having not attended church formally in years I was surprised at the familiarity, and humbled by the warm and welcoming congregation. Reverend Kyles’s sermon was a stirring parable about authenticity. Building up to his sermon were numerous rituals (i.e. Bible recitations, announcements, tithes and offerings) including the highlight: multiple choral performances. Though I can’t recall the exact songs from 2012 the soloists (female and male) were dynamic, bending notes purposefully, and the choir exemplified the antiphonal (call and response) tradition with its perfect timing, led ably by the musical director and band. This tradition continued during my visit in 2013 and 2015.

The interesting musical quandary this evoked for me is the odd emotional placement of the formal and performative qualities of spiritual music in our lives. Though the Christian philosophy intrinsic to gospel music differs from my chosen life philosophy I enjoy much of the music. When a student once remarked “That’s the best music I’ve ever heard in my life! Do they sing like that every Sunday?” I remember nodding my head and saying “Yes. And sometimes on Wednesdays too!”

Surveying my personal musical collection I have a surprisingly large number of gospel albums for a humanist including Aretha Franklin’s classic 1972 album Amazing Grace, collections by gospel legends Mahalia Jackson and Marion Williams, and more recent recordings by jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin, country singer Ronnie Milsap, and a group of female singers paying tribute to the great Rosetta Tharpe. Gospel repertoire also routinely informs the discographies of many of my favorite singers including Maria Muldaur and Aaron Neville. The best gospel, like any genre, often transcends its original context and appeals to the senses of listeners purely as music.

Understanding the innovations of classic blues composer W.C. Handy, master musician B.B. King, and other Memphis music legends is incomplete without understanding the ways gospel has factored into the musical foundations of so many benchmark performers with Memphis roots. Various Memphis museums including the Civil Rights Museum, the Rock and Soul Museum, and Stax acknowledge the gospel roots of R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, and soul. But I fear that audiences view its impact in cursory fashion as a mere ingredient in a stew. My most recent Memphis trip reminded me of the raw appeal of traditional melodic gospel music and its inescapable influence on the shape of 20th and 21st century “pop” music across genre. Like many “former believers” I have an abject relationship to Christianity. The music, more than anything, ties me to the tradition, and that’s not such a bad thing.

 

COPYRIGHT © 2015 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.