Bob Dylan, AARP, Frank Sinatra, Dr. ML King, and Rock ‘n’ Roll

There is a somewhat long piece by Brent L. Smith on Medium, linked here. It starts from a quote from Dylan in that interview he did last year in the AARP magazine, in which he says that payola was a force that caused rock ‘n’ roll in the 50s to split into rock (white) and soul (black) music in the 60s.

Smith covers a lot of ground in support of this idea, including the rise of DJs, doo wop’s role in the cleaving, the historical role of the tavern in the American multiracial democracy (and the elite’s disdain for the tavern and the multiracial democracy), Norman Mailer’s essay about the rise of the white Negro, a nod to Chuck Berry as poet and guitar master, and, of course, Jimi Hendrix. Which leads Smith to some talk about the fourth wave of garage rock he says is going on now, linking to the LA magazine, Janky Smooth, at which he works.

One of the highlights are competing quotes from Frank Sinatra and Dr. Martin Luther King decrying rock ‘n’ roll, which make that music of the 50s sound really dangerous.

Smith’s writing is loose limbed, I couldn’t always figure out where the quotes came from, and some word choices are, um, interesting. Smith is a graduate of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, which perhaps literally explains some of that, but the ambition and breadth of his ideas and their connections with each other are nothing if not provocative. You will miss having a genuine soundtrack to listen along to while reading. Here it is.





6 thoughts on “Bob Dylan, AARP, Frank Sinatra, Dr. ML King, and Rock ‘n’ Roll

  1. I think you’re reading this wrong in part, Peter. It wasn’t payola that caused the split, it was the payola SCANDAL. And though the scandal tried, it failed to stop the rocknroll onslaught, which was unstoppable. For all the moralizing, pop music was far more revolutionary in the days when payola was upfront. (It never went away, to this day, but went more under the table.)

    I don’t know what caused the split into “white” and “black” music, but I know this: it didn’t exist until the 1970s. Up until the end of the 60s all that existed for most kids was the Top 40, which made no distinctions between black and white. Brent Smith acknowledges that Alan Freed was a champion of black acts, but so in his way was lilly-white Dick Clark and so was Cousin Brucie.

    I gotta go but one more thing: Italians were not then and are not even now considered acceptable to the WASP establishment. In my home town of Pelham, a WASP town from Day One, when the newly-prosperous Italians started moving in the WASPs fled to Greenwich, CT. The local WASP girls appalled their parents by going out with Italian guys. It was fun to watch. The WASPs have always been anti-Catholic – the last acceptable American prejudice. They hated Catholics at least as much as they hated Jews. Blacks weren’t even on their radar, indeed most were properly liberal in their attitudes, because those attitudes had no effect on their lives – until their daughters came home with Hendrix albums.

    There is more to be said on this topic. Good piece to bring it up but a bit superficial.

  2. I’m not sure I follow you on Payola. The split was the result of record companies pushing the white artists, rather than letting the best rise to the top organically. The SCANDAL was getting caught.

    I agree that Smith’s article doesn’t answer every question, nor necessarily ask all the right ones, but it does a good job of connecting disparate dots that make up a picture.

    As to black and white music in the 60s, whether they were one or two things, is a discussion we could have all night. There was certainly overlap, but there was also certainly different charts. At the top of the pop charts everybody played, but the binary Dylan describes in the article was a real thing.

    And what happened in the 70s, with the establishment of the Whites Only metal culture, and the broader Disco Sucks rock culture, also led to much more explicit mixing than I recall happening in the 60s.

  3. I speak from a child’s point of view. It was all one music to us, and I don’t think we were any different from other white kids. It certainly didn’t seem that way. Even country – I remember loving the song Flowers on the Wall when it came out, and being surprised that it was considered country music, which seems laughable now, but then I was 10 years old and that song was just another great song on WMCA. Often you couldn’t even tell who was black and who was white, but even when it was obvious it made no difference. It was good or it was bad. The separation came later, and it’s funny you mention disco because that was the only common black/white musical ground in the 70s although of course plenty of white people hated it. The radio stations were largely responsible for the split: in the early 70s “progressive” radio played Hendrix and Sly and Honorary White Person Richie Havens and that was about it. WBLS didn’t exist until the 70s. It was Billboard and Cash Box and Record World who kept separate charts for R&B and country music. If I’m oversimplifying, well, that’s what children do.

    No, no, no on payola. There is no doubt that Chess, Atlantic, Vee-Jay (the Beatles first American label!) and later Motown – black-oriented labels – were paying just as much as Columbia and Capitol and the white labels. Everybody wanted hit records and that’s the way the game was played. And I think it’s important to note that pop music was BETTER when the payola was blatant, and that after the scandals it is generally agreed that pop music took a nosedive, until The Beatles. That’s not entirely true but true enough. And by 1964 payola was back. I don’t know what it means but it should be noted.

  4. Peter, I didn’t have time to listen to your posts before. The Sun Ra is great and I never knew they played roots music, except for Dixieland so yeah it makes sense. I don’t suppose they did a whole album like this?

    I never could stand the Dead Kennedys. They had the odd hook but I don’t think they ever sustained one whole song.

    Bob Dylan hasn’t written a great song since Knockin on Heaven’s Door, and before that he hadn’t written a great song since The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest, which is a great song that for some reason no one talks about:

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