Monday, December 12, 2011
December 12, 2011: Cross-Culture 1: It’s Not Only Rock and Roll
[To follow up and complement last week’s posts on how our understanding of historical periods and communities looks very different through a cross-cultural lens, this week I’ll focus on five seminal moments in American popular culture for which the same is true. This is the first in that series.]
[Also: In response to a couple of reader comments, I’m going to be trying out a new style for this week’s posts, one with mostly shorter paragraphs for potentially less difficult online reading. If it works—and feel free to weigh in!—I’ll try to utilize it for at least some of my posts going forward.]
The origins of rock and roll in America are significantly more cross-cultural, and most crucially more multi-directional in their influences, than our dominant narratives of it recognize.
To be sure, it’s virtually a truism that early white rock pioneers like Elvis learned—often, the narrative goes, stole—many of their most popular songs and sounds from black artists; rapper Eminem’s self-definition (from the song “Without Me”) as “the worst thing since Elvis Presley / To do black music so selfishly / And use it to get myself wealthy” exemplifies the widespread acceptance of this narrative. And there’s no doubt that one of the moments that most explicitly established Elvis as a pop cultural force, his 1956 performance of “Hound Dog” on the Milton Berle Show, fits this narrative very fully: the song had originally been recorded by blues artist Big Mama Thornton in 1952, yet it was Elvis’s cover, accompanied by his controversial pelvic gyrations on the show, that catapulted both the song and Presley into the big time.
That’s already a sort of cross-cultural influence, of course, although a mostly one-sided and thus less than ideally communal one. But the specific details of “Hound Dog” reveal a much more complicated and (to my mind) inspiring cross-cultural origin: the song was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, a Jewish-American songwriting team that also produced some of the decade’s biggest hits for African American artists, including The Coasters’ 1958 #1 record “Yakety Yak,” Wilbert Harrison’s 1959 #1 “Kansas City,” and Ben E. King’s 1960 #1 “Stand By Me” (which King co-wrote). By any measure, Leiber and Stoller’s songs, as sung by these African American artists, helped establish rock and roll as a central cultural presence—and in their mentoring of a young (also Jewish-American) Phil Spector, they likewise directly contributed to rock’s expanding success over the subsequent decades.
There were of course many other late 1950s artists and moments that likewise contributed to the explosion of rock and roll, and I would similarly stress the multi- and often cross-cultural aspects of the period: from African American pioneers such as Little Richard (who came out of the Southern gospel tradition), Chuck Berry (who grew up playing the Missouri blues), and Bo Diddley (a Chicago bluesman) to the three artists killed in the tragic 1959 plane crash (Mexican American teen sensation Ritchie Valens and Texans Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper), from the Detroit “singing cowboy” Bill Haley (most famously of The Comets) to the Louisiana rockabilly of Jerry Lee Lewis, these early rockers came out of every region and tradition and profoundly influenced both each other’s work and the history of American music and culture.
Rock and roll has often been called a genuinely American form of music, and I would most certainly agree: its cross-cultural origins exemplify the best of our national community and conversations. Another cross-cultural moment tomorrow!
PS. Any rock and roll origin points, songs, or artists you’d highlight?