Monday, July 13, 2009

The Birth of Rock and Roll - Not Quite So Black and White

A new book by Elijah Wald sports the instant-get-you-up-in-arms title How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’N’ Roll. An online Kansas City Star review (7/11/09) by James Brinfield ( asserts that the book "traces the strands of intermingling influences of black and white cultures upon popular music filtered through the marketplace." Brinfield says that "Wald's insights destroy one myth after another," most notably that "popular music was race-based." How the Beatles destroyed rock, as explained through Brinfield's interpretation of the book, appears to be a marketing issue. That is, the Beatles began to push their work as albums and the predominantly white critics began to accept that as the new direction for rock music.

It is not my intent to refute Wald's premise that the Beatles destroyed rock music. I'm sure I can bash that rant out in a blog after actually reading the book. For now, I am compelled to address the nagging question of "Daddy, where does rock and roll come from?" The Cliff Notes version of the birth of rock and roll purports that white and black music were mutually exclusive entities, growing, if you will, in separate gardens divided by a fence. It was only when whippersnappers like Elvis hopped the wall, stole some R&B goodies, and replanted them in the white garden that the masses gobbled them up.

Such an account gives a handful of artists too much credit for discovering what was already there and overlooks those who planted the original crop. Of course, musical genres are also not so tidy as to fit nicely into garden plots with R&B over here, country over there, and so on. Elvis didn't become the King of Rock and Roll because he did anything new or even because he was the best at doing it - his mix of crops simply was the best marketed.

My guess is that Wald doesn't hold the Beatles responsible for the destruction of rock and roll any more than Elvis should be crowned the undisputed father of the same genre. Wald's book needed a provocative title that would attract the widest possible audience, hopefully generating controversy for those focused only on the condensed version of the tale. The beginning - or end - of rock and roll just isn't that black and white.

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