Thursday, March 4, 2010

Volume Five: Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On - Honky-Tonk, Rockabilly, Rhythm and Blues

92. Hank Williams: Ramblin’ Man
(Hank Williams) 1951

93. Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys: Blue Moon of Kentucky
(Bill Monroe) 1947

94. Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys: Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms
(Charlie Monroe) 1951

95. Red Foley: Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy
(Harry Stone-Jack Stapp) 1950

96. Kitty Wells: It Wasn’t Got That Made Honky Tonk Angels
(J. D. Miller) 1952

97. Lonnie Donegan: Rock Island Line
(Huddie Ledbetter) 1954

98. Tennessee Ernie Ford: Sixteen Tons
(Merle Travis) 1955

99. Roy Hall: Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On
(Dave Williams-Sunny David) 1954

100. Bill Haley and his Comets: (We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock
(Jimmy DeKnight-Max Freedman) 1954

101. Elvis Presley: Reconsider Baby
(Lowell Fulsom) 1960

102. Buddy Holly: Rave On
(Sonny West-Bill Tilghman-Norman Petty) 1958

103. Chuck Berry: Sweet Little Sixteen
(Chuck Berry) 1958

104. Bo Diddley: Hey! Bo Diddley
(Ellas McDaniel) 1957

105. The Johnny Burnette Trio: Honey Hush
(Big Joe Turner) 1956

106. The Johnny Otis Show: Willie and the Hand Jive
(Johnny Otis) 1958

107. Carl Perkins: Blue Suede Shoes
(Carl Perkins) 1955

108. Jerry Lee Lewis: High School Confidential
(Jerry Lee Lewis-Ron Hargrave) 1958

109. Little Richard: Tutti Frutti
(Richard Penniman-Dorothy LaBostrie) 1955

110. Paul Peek, featuring Esquerita: Sweet Skinny Jenny
(Paul Peek) 1958

111. Larry Williams: Bony Moronie
(Larry Williams) 1957

112. Hasil Adkins: Chicken Walk
(Hasil Adkins) 1962

113. Eddie Cochran: Summertime Blues
(Eddie Cochran-Jerry Capehart) 1958

114. Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps: Be-Bop-a-Lula
(Gene Vincent-Donald Graves-Bill Davis) 1956

115. Screamin' Jay Hawkins: I Put a Spell on You
(Screamin' Jay Hawkins) 1956

116. Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks: Southern Love
(Ronnie Hawkins-Jacqueline Magill-Levon Helm) 1960

117. Ruth Brown: Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean
(Johnny Wallace-Herbert J. Lance) 1953

118. Chuck Willis: C.C. Rider
(Traditional, Arr. Chuck Willis) 1957

119. Lloyd Price: Stagger Lee
(Traditional-Harold Logan-Lloyd Price) 1959

120. Fats Domino: Blue Monday
(Fats Domino-Dave Bartholomew) 1956

121. Clarence 'Frogman' Henry: Ain’t Got No Home
(Clarence "Frogman" Henry) 1956


“Rock 'n' roll smells phony and false. It is sung, played and written, for the most part, by cretinous goons. And, by means of its almost imbecilic reiteration, and sly, lewd and in plain fact, dirty lyrics ... it manages to be the martial music of every side-burned delinquent on the face of the earth.”

--- Frank Sinatra

The music of the nineteen fifties looms large in our popular imagination: the clips of Elvis on camera and his pelvis slightly off camera and Buddy Holly and the Crickets bounding through “Peggy Sue” on that slightly distorted Ed Sullivan kinescope, the candied silliness of American Graffiti and original Happy Days jukebox playing “Rock Around the Clock.” The effect of such pop-cultural oversaturation has been to launch fifties rock and roll into the no man’s land of free-floating-signifiers, memories of a past constructed by film and television, divorced from their original cultural significance. That is to say: to contemporary ears, it’s often difficult to hear what’s so great about Elvis.

The crossovers taking place in post-war popular music, between rhythm and blues, gospel, country, and swing, and the pop charts gave birth, so the story goes, inevitably, to rock and roll. The hegemonic narrative of “rock” has so permeated our contemporary understanding of popular music and, particularly, of rock’s relationship to American identity, that it becomes, after a certain point, difficult to separate “rock” from “popular music.” Indeed, during my mis-spent youth of the eighties, I’m not sure I (and millions like me) could have adequately separated the two. From this point on, rock becomes the focal point of popular music and we follow the ways in which it became that focal point.

Along with the increasing popularity of black musics, especially rhythm and blues, one of the key factors in that development was the splintering, commercialization, and general “toughening-up” of country and western music. Hank Williams became a model of self-contained singer-songwriter-guitarist, who scored country chart hits that became, when slightly urbanized by producers such as Mitch Miller, pop hits for Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine, Jo Stafford, and other pop singers in the early fifties. His influence both as songwriter and as ur-rock cultural icon (living recklessly, dying young, balancing the spiritual and the carnal) is still pervasive; indeed, it is somewhat difficult to imagine Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, much less entire schools of country music, without him.

The toughened-up jukebox country music termed ‘honky tonk’ of Williams, Kitty Wells, and Red Foley provided a nice counter-part to the rapidly developing form of bluegrass. Bluegrass, as practiced by Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs was more rural, more communal, and more focused on instrumental virtuosity than honky tonk. And, like honky tonk, proved invaluable as an influence on what became rock and roll: lengthy, showboating solos, and double-time instrumental passages between vocal passages would eventually become a major feature of big-time rock and roll. When Dolly Parton, in 2002, recorded a bluegrass version of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”, she underlined this connection that too few performers or listeners make.

While r&b and country were becoming increasingly popular (and those genre’s biggest hits were being covered by more sedate, more white performers on the pop charts), the tradition of jazz singing and the Great American Songbook were suffering on the pop charts. Without demonizing Mitch (“Sing Along with Mitch”) Miller too much, it should be noted that Miller, as producer and A&R man, aggressively encouraged his roster at Columbia Records to record repetitive, simplistic, and, often soulless, novelty records in pursuit of the pop charts. Sinatra recorded, under duress, “Mama Will Bark”, a duet (trio?) with Scandinavian actress Dagmar and a barking dog, and superlative jazz interpreter Rosemary Clooney recorded playwright William Saroyan and Ross (The Chipmunks) Bagdasarian’s “Come-on-a-My House”, a pop hit she despised. The gradual dumbing down of the American pop charts with novelties and watered-down versions of rhythm-and-blues and country records drew attention to the growing gulf between the worlds of pop and the semi-popular created by swing’s mutation into bop.

From this void comes the popular explosion of rock and roll. Tennessee Ernie Ford’s 1955 “Sixteen Tons” anticipated this explosion, with its catchy blues-based melody and crisp production, while Scottish Lonnie Donegan’s fusion of traditional jazz and Lead Belly-inspired folk on his cover of the latter’s “Rock Island Line” inspired the Beatles and their (English) generation to start playing rhythmic folk music.

Despite its continued overusage to signify the nineteen fifties, Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” still sounds startlingly modern and exciting while less-well-remembered tracks like Roy Hall’s original version of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” (later, of course, covered by Jerry Lee Lewis) and Johnny Burnette’s cataclysmic “Honey Hush” anticipated the loud and loose rock of the Yardbirds, the Kinks, and the Animals ten years later. Elvis Presley, still recognizable to nearly all Americans more than thirty years after his death by the two syllables Evv-Iss was, in addition to an overexposed icon, an affecting blues singer (as heard on “Reconsider Baby”, backed by an all-star Nashville band including Hank Garland, Boots Randolph, and Floyd Cramer).

What is perhaps most striking about the major figures of the early period of rock and roll is their eccentricity; the press of the time perceived many of them as actually dangerous and much of the scholarship written about the era suggests that this fear is rooted in racism, trepidation at the undeniably black influences of the music. Racism certainly played some part in this trepidation, but it could be argued that a fear of the “Old Weird America” was also in play. In an era in which the Weavers became subject to blacklisting following the McCarthy witchhunts, the socialist and progressive histories of folk music, and the self-identification of r&b and country as the music of the rural, the uneducated, and the disenfranchised (both black and white), it’s not difficult to see how Elvis’s blatant sexuality, Jerry Lee Lewis’s piano bashing, Chuck Berry’s exuberant celebrations of teenage nirvana, and Little Richard’s cross-racial-cross-sexual musical calls-to-arms would be seen as unnerving and, perhaps, threatening. This is not even to address more marginal figures like Esquerita, something of a more chaotic, more gender-bending version of Richard, or Hasil Adkins, with his overdriven, frantic odes to chickens and hot dogs, or Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, whose stage coffin and snakes predate Alice Cooper by at least fifteen years and Ozzy Osbourne by still more. Uniquely American eccentricities reminiscent of the Harry Smith Anthology, heard in twenties recordings of Blind Willie Johnson and Jimmie Rodgers, Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke were making it, sometimes surreptitiously, onto the pop charts. And the guardians of American virtue were actually scared.

The eccentricity and the joyfulness of the music of the period harkens back to the music of the twenties; there is an unpretentious soulfulness to the best of it that prompted a revolution as r&b and country became, when cross-pollinated into rock and roll, the predominant musics of America. Frank Sinatra called the early rock and rollers “goons” and Nat King Cole sang “Mr. Cole Won’t Rock & Roll”, but the proverbial seeds had been proverbially sewn. As the unlamented Danny and the Juniors once said, roughly, “Rock and roll [was] here to stay.”


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Volume Four: This Land Is Your Land – Folk Singers, Country Singers, Gospel, and Blues

67. Woody Guthrie: This Land Is Your Land
(Woody Guthrie) 1944

68. Big Bill Broonzy: Baby, Please Don’t Go
(Big Joe Williams) 1952

69. Cisco Houston: Dark as a Dungeon
(Merle Travis) 1959

70. Josh White: Good Morning Blues
(Traditional, Arr. Josh White) 1956

71. Roy Acuff: Great Speckled Bird
(Guy Smith) 1936

72. Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys: San Antonio Rose
(Bob Wills) 1940

73. Al Dexter and his Troopers: Pistol Packin’ Mama
(Al Dexter) 1943

74. The Weavers and Gordon Jenkins: Goodnight Irene
(Traditional-Huddie Ledbetter-John A. Lomax) 1950

75. Mahalia Jackson: Move On Up a Little Higher
(W. Herbert Brewster-Arr. Mahalia Jackson) 1954

76. The Soul Stirrers, featuring Sam Cooke: Jesus Gave Me Water
(Lucie E. Campbell) 1951

77. Al Hibbler: Danny Boy
(Frederick Edward Weatherly) 1950

78. Charles Brown: Merry Christmas, Baby
(Lou Baxter-Johnny Moore) 1956

79. Louis Jordan and his Tympani Five: Choo Choo Ch’Boogie
(Denver Darling-Vaughan Horton-Milt Gabler) 1946

80. Stick McGhee: Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee
(Sticks McGhee-J. Mayo Williams) 1949

81. Professor Longhair and his New Orleans Boys: Mardi Gras in New Orleans
(Roy Byrd) 1949

82. T-Bone Walker: Shufflin' the Blues
(T Bone Walker) 1956

83. Muddy Waters: Rollin’ Stone
(McKinley Morganfield) 1950

84. Howlin' Wolf: Sittin’ on Top of the World
(Chester Burnett) 1957

85. Little Walter: Juke
(Walter Jacobs) 1952

86. Elmore James: Dust My Broom
(Elmore James) 1951

87. Jimmy Reed: I Ain’t Got You
(Clarence Carter) 1960

88. LaVern Baker: Soul on Fire
(LaVern Baker-Ahmet Ertegun-Jerry Wexler) 1953

89. The Clovers: One Mint Julep
(Rudy Toombs) 1951

90. Big Joe Turner: Shake, Rattle and Roll
(Charles E. Calhoun) 1954

91. Big Mama Thornton: Hound Dog
(Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller) 1953


"For me, jazz, R&B, jump swing, Chicago blues, country blues, early hillbilly music, and honky tonk all stem from the same source."

- Duke Robillard

Every ten to fifteen years in the rock era, there is a heavily-promoted and marketed “folk revival” and a new crop of acoustic-guitar wielding confessional or topical songwriters seems to magically appear as a reaction to “commercial” pop music. Similar, although less heavily-promoted, revivals of “old school” rhythm and blues or hip hop or of pre-free jazz or of “classic” country music appear and inevitably prompt the question, “What is being ‘revived’?” and, more importantly, “Why is [insert “authentic” genre] in need of reviving?”

Some answers to these questions lie in the marketing and packaging of the non-swing / non-bop music of the forties and early fifties. As pop records began to, for the first time since the Depression, be a truly big business in the post-war environment that saw the introduction of the long-playing 33 1/3 album and the 45 rpm single, magnetic tape recording, and overdubbing, the recording industry began to change the way it labeled, promoted, and charted “non-pop” records. From this point onward, genre classification, always a point of contention for listeners (cf. the dispute over calling jazz of the teens and twenties “Dixieland” or “Traditional Jazz”), becomes much more difficult as generic lines are crossed and pop records freely mix old and new, black and white influences.

In 1948, Jerry Wexler coined the term rhythm and blues to describe what had previously been marketed and charted as race records. The term “Race records”, which sounds as if it had been imposed by racist record marketers had actually been applied within the black community of the twenties when the term “the race” was used in the black press to suggest and instill black pride. Rhythm and blues replaced the limiting name with a descriptive one, in much the same way that several years earlier, country and western replaced hillbilly as the preferred generic term for rural white music.

While thousands of artists released r&b, blues, gospel, country and western, and folk records, the real money and the real sense of having arrived lay then, as now, with success on the Billboard pop charts, the stepping stone to success in films (and, later, on television), successful gigs at places like Carnegie Hall and the Copacabana, essentially, to success with affluent white audiences. Out of this model came twin notions, on their face opposed in their aims. One was the idea of ‘crossing over’ – moving from rural venues, the Chitlin Circuit, country dances to those larger, whiter concert halls and supper clubs – from the r&b or c&w charts to the pop charts, while the other was the notion of ‘maintaining authenticity’ – playing to smaller, more devoted, more knowledgeable audiences in order to maintain artistic integrity while forsaking big money and fame. This split was readily apparent in the constructed identity of bop musicians, whose music frequently was off-putting to casual listeners, but the oppositional identities constructed by the perception of popular success as either “crossing over” or “selling out” continues to lie at the heart of our perceptions of popular music, and to this notion of revivals and authenticity.

Adding to the constructed notion that pop success is the opposite of “the authentic”, was the availability of archival recordings. Due to the technological innovations of the lp record and of magnetic tape recording (which meant easy duplication and re-release, at low cost, of earlier records), there were, for the first time, available on record “historic” performances. We take for granted the availability, in the digital age, of the entire canon of popular music: Louis Armstrong and Bukka White and Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby are just a click away, but popular music was, before the introduction of the lp, a largely disposable art form. The biggest hits and the best reviewed classical performances would be kept in–print or reissued, but most early jazz, blues, and country records were, by the late forties, rare or impossible to find. Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, released on lp in 1952, contained selections dubbed from Smith’s personal collection of folk, blues, gospel, and country 78s originally issued between 1927 and 1932, and set the standard both for archival reissue of non-classical music and for this idea of an authenticity that has somehow been ‘lost’ and thus can be ‘revived’. The Anthology would become necessary listening for musicians in the folk, blues, and country revivals throughout the rock era, and the idea that it reflected a purer, more real, more authentic vision of America than that found in commercially successful records continues to survive.

Harry Smith’s anthologizing can be seen as an outgrowth of the populist, leftist folk-music of the thirties and forties. With a melody based on the Carter Family’s “Little Darlin’, Pal of Mine” and lyrics written as a response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” became the folk music anthem and exemplifies his status as “the father of us all” for countless American folk revivals. Big Bill Broonzy, Josh White, Cisco Houston, and the Weavers were all part of the circle of musicians with whom Guthrie associated. Socially-conscious and politically-oriented, they advanced the notion of folk (and blues) as “true” representations of American identity. Broonzy, who began recording in the twenties and performed at the legendary Spirituals to Swing Concert in 1939 (in the late Robert Johnson’s stead) was perhaps the first blues performer to be “rediscovered” by white urban artists. The Weavers were certainly the first folkies to crossover to huge popular success, with their cover of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene”. Omitting some of the more inflammatory lyrics (the line about morphine is gone) and softened by the strings and chorus of sometime-Sinatra-arranger Gordon Jenkins, “Goodnight Irene” became a #1 pop hit in 1950, billed initially to “Gordon Jenkins and his Orchestra with the Weavers” – surely a testament to the wary relationship between the pop record business and the Greenwich Village lefty folk scene.

While folk music was being ever-so-carefully packaged, country music was undergoing its own reinvention. Roy Acuff’s 1935 recording of the country gospel song “The Great Speckled Bird” could easily be labeled “folk” or “gospel”, but it was marketed as “hillbilly”. What became known in the mid-forties as “country and western”, was already a blurring of several genres as Al Dexter and Bob Wills injected swing elements (particulary horns) into bluegrass-derived chord progressions. An even more startling reinvention, though, was happening in the gospel genre (itself largely, then and now, a separate world from popular musics). Sam Cooke, as lead singer of The Soul Stirrers, and Mahalia Jackson, who would be signed to the industry giant Columbia Records in 1954, were producing rhythm and blues records in all but name: soulful singing over insistent blues-derived beats. Cooke would crossover singing pop songs; Jackson selling gospel records to non-gospel listeners, together paving the way for Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, and generations of gospel singers to make the transition to secular audiences.

This intensely transitional period also saw the perfecting of several other styles that strongly influenced what would become known as rock and roll. The fathers of Electric or Chicago blues, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf – remain pervasive influences in blues-based rock (and the hard rock that grew out of it). By fusing loud electric guitar riffs, amplified harmonica, and a rhythm section of drums and elecric bass, with or without piano, they effectively invented the classic rock line-up. Elmore James and T-Bone Walker (as well as B.B. King and Buddy Guy) perfected the blues guitar-hero model, and the independent label Atlantic Records helped to foster a union of Louis Jordan-inspired jump blues (itself a fusion of blues and swing, heavily influenced by Cab Calloway), Chicago-styled blues, and gospel into a pop-directed r&b of the sort performed by LaVern Baker, Stick McGhee, and the Clovers. The desire to cross over to pop success and ready availability of countless pop, jazz, folk, r&b, c&w, and gospel records leads to a level of cross-pollination of styles unknown to American popular music thus far. And, of course, this leads to the birth of rock and roll.