LINK: How Rock ‘n’ Roll Became White

screenshot-2016-10-06-11-47-38The rock writer Jack Hamilton is publishing a book called Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination. It’s an academic work, but a part of it is excerpted at Slate today and it’s well worth the slow start and long read.

Hamilton’s thesis is that the Stones were so adept at embracing and mirroring the black music they loved, that they eventually came to represent a new white authenticity that was embraced by white blues and metal bands that knew little or nothing about the Stones’ roots.

You can read the excerpt here.

I’m not sure what this means in the book’s larger picture, it is an excerpt of course, but without looking at the argument’s validity as regards the whole history of rock ‘n’ roll, this little slice of story feels kind of genuine. Like, yeah, that may be true, though he have maybe set up something of a straw man argument, too. Still feels like useful analysis.

But Hamilton draws in a lot of historical sources to tell this story, and it’s fascinating to read quotes in the black newspapers of 1964 praising the Stones, while the mainstream white press rips them down. And his description of the musical opening of Gimme Shelter is exact and thrilling, like the music itself.

It’s curious that the Margo Jefferson quote from earlier in the piece comes from 1973, which was also a germination point for Death, who we posted about here last week. It’s possible that this book will shed some light on the way rock ‘n’ roll evolved musically and as a business in a racial context.

Then, if you have time, Chuck Klosterman tries to figure out who the one figure from rock ‘n’ roll will be remembered 100 years from now, the way we think of marching band music as John Phillips Sousa and ragtime as Scott Joplin.

12 thoughts on “LINK: How Rock ‘n’ Roll Became White

  1. So what is he saying? Every assertion is hedged. A few points:

    1. Rocknroll, blues and jazz are not “black music.” They are all blends of black and white elements.

    2. The driving force behind the re-segregation of the music was “progressive,” “free form” FM radio, a point I have made before but goes unmentioned at least in this excerpt.

    3. It was black people who rejected the blues in the 60’s, a reality that was bitterly commented on at the time and since by many black blues artists. To call white interest and devotion – love – “exploitation” is a very cheap shot and no more true than to call BB King playing colleges “pandering.”

  2. I went looking for our earlier discussions about this but couldn’t find them before I wrote this up.

    He says rock and roll is a mixture of black and white elements. He says no music is racially segregated.

    I think what you’re saying about progressive free-form radio speaks to the point he’s making about the Stones. This is his conclusion:

    “Instead of resounding as challengers to rock’s hardening racial orthodoxy and increasingly overwhelming whiteness, the Rolling Stones were gradually recast as the original, the real, and—finally, and most ironically—the Establishment. As rock continued into the 1970s an endless litany of bands made the musical violence pioneered by the Stones during this period of relentless racial boundary-crossing into just another marker of white male hegemony; this violence often served no political purpose and little imaginative purpose either. It simply became another way of being white, which was one thing that, for better and worse, the Rolling Stones were never interested in being.”

    This feeling was certainly part of the punk scene that rejected the blues as a source for the music, resisting all kinds of swing and melody in favor of propulsion and rigidity. And reflected in that radio station greatest rock songs list he cites.

    I’m not sure where you got the idea of “exploitation” from. And the only reference to B.B. King in the piece is about Tina Turner and him opening for the Stones on tour.

  3. Like the Oscars:

    100 Years From Now,

    WILL BE – Jimi Hendrix,

    SHOULD BE – Hank Turbonegro. (Multi-racial too!)

  4. I’m speaking generally, of accusations that have been tossed around by others for decades. Hamilton mentions the ideas but doesn’t really endorse or refute them.

    I don’t know what violence he’s talking about. Disco Demolition Night? How many died? Surely not Altamont, where I might add that “black teenager” Meredith Hunter HAD PULLED A GUN. He wasn’t “murdered” at all.

  5. No doubt some punks rejected black musics (plural) as influences but most did not, far from it. Maybe the Ramones, but then Do You Wanna Dance was an R&B song, so was Let’s Dance, and really what the Ramones were doing was the only thing they COULD do. He mentions the Lester Bangs piece, which was almost total bullshit: that’s not what the people I knew were like. Again, far from it. We listened to black music all the time, and for example the jukeboxes at Max’s and CB’s had lots of black music in various styles. Hip hop was mostly welcomed there, while the rest of the world was laughing at it I might add.

    • Just reread the Bangs piece. Mostly it’s an exploration of a tendency in the scene to use offensive language in a kind of politically uncorrect or lame punky transgressive way, and a reminder from Ivan Julian that words hurt. As always, Bangs works it out as he bangs out the words on his typewriter, or at least that’s how it feels.

      We listened to more Motown and Otis than spiky punk bands, and New York is different.

      In that passage he’s talking about the genuine musical reference to the violence in the antecedents to Gimme Shelter and Sympathy for the Devil. The source violence of slavery and oppression and striving for freedom and life in hard times that the Stones tapped into and channelled. He’s saying the Stones looked for it out of love and respect, but by the time is was passed to the next listeners, those white kids blowing up the disco records in Chicago, they saw it as an example of the Stones being authentic.

  6. in general i would steer clear from this discussion, but the fact that white music co-opts and profitizes african american everything is hardly news. shake, rattle, and roll, and good golly miss molly were hardly white in their roots, nor were the blues, nor was rap or hip-hop. those were forms that clearly formed out of the african american community just like slack music evolved from guitars being left behind by explorers in hawaii which led to the development of the uke and even the tuning of that instrument. we are not quite so good at creative origins as we are ripping off arts and exploiting for profit. and, well, brian jones might have loved the blues, but he was no more black than michael jackson could have been white. the sad and obvious thing is we are all human beings, and that is all that matters.

  7. So what got me interested here is that Hamilton isn’t talking about appropriation or exploitation or pandering. He’s talking about the way the music is cross fertilized and the way it matriculates through the big culture and the sub cultures. The way different styles are perceived, enjoyed, fetishized and transformed.

    Lawr is right, we’re all human beings, but human beings talk about shit all the time. I posted the link because I liked the description of Gimme Shelter, but I also liked the way Hamilton talked about the way the Stones’ love of blues and R&B was turned into rock ‘n’ roll music that is loved by mostly white people who look to the Stones as kind of the birthplace of rock.

    I don’t know if it’s true, but it feels like there is something there that’s interesting even if it’s wrong and it was progressive radio that caused the split. But maybe the two are related.

  8. Well, you I believe it is true that all art, in fact all the aspects of culture/society trickle off and influence one another, and music, going back as far as the origins of string quartets and troubadours both takes and gives cues to other arts. Nothing new there, and i guess might be interesting to track.

    I just get irritated at Pat Boone co-opting Little Richard, or Vanilla Ice ripping Dr. Dre, or Rare Earth pretending they can be the funk brothers, not to mention the white producers who exploited black artists by forcing ownership songwriting and publishing rights away from actual said creative artists pisses me off.

    Not right in a land where money means everything, unfortunately.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.