An Archaeology of Rock & Roll

Who invented rock and roll?

No one, of course; popular styles are probably never really invented, even by the most innovative and ingenious of cultural icons. When we study popular culture, it’s often a good idea to turn away from “great musicians” and questions of “who influenced whom” (questions that call to mind all those intense posters chronicling popular music as though it were a gigantic family tree). For this exercise, turn instead toward more material questions like “how did broadcast media change?” and “what were audiences likely to seek?” In particular, what might radio listeners and record buyers have considered necessary expressions, and necessary representations, in their lives? Popular music, in this sense, is an expression that belongs just as much to an audience as it does to an artist.

I’ve named this exercise “An Archeology of Rock & Roll” with tongue-in-cheek: if we’re more interested in the materials of music history, than in its great legendary minds, could great moments in rock and roll be like musical objects, discovered in a layered archeological dig?

In lecture, we discovered that lots of popular music starts out as community music: the music of a locale, or a subculture, and later transforms itself to new purposes and meanings in the ears of a larger public.

  1. This was true of boogie woogie, which, in the early 1930s, was an obscure dance style, named after a euphemism for sex, and favored by poor and mostly urban black communities in St. Louis and Kansas City. Musicians of color often seemed more innocuous, or clown-like, in popular representations of the style—which demonstrates how white audiences’ representations of Black Americans served a different (i.e. racist) cultural function.
  2. It was also true of the Delta minstrel or “blues” style, which was a rich and old folk tradition among working-class black songwriters across the American South in the 1910s and 1920s, reflecting those communities’ place in a changing economic and political world. When the style was “internationalized,” it came to represent everything from rural authenticity in Scotland, to anti-colonial fervor in Ethiopia.
  3. When popular “Country & Western Music” was born on 1930s “border radio” stations, it cultivated a specific audience of depression-era white listeners, who were looking for a sense of identity in “rugged individuals”, and in myths of the American cowboy. In the 1950s and 1960s, the style reached an even broader audience who saw their 1930s predecessors as evidence of something stable in the face of vast technological change.

After World War II, all three styles were increasingly marketed to broader audiences, more and more remote from whatever sense of identity was originally found in them. And as these styles became popular commodities, the very make-up of American society was changing. Rock and Roll is, in some way, the product of all these processes rolled into one.

The two brief reading assignments for this week (12-20 pp each) will provide you with different perspectives on this history; they will help us learn a little more about what might be the musical and historical origins of “Rock and Roll.” As you’re reading, you may want to make reference to the listening examples assigned for this week.

[If prompted, use the username “mus150p” and the password “blues2pop.” SOMETIMES these files have trouble playing via the artstream server. That should not be an obstacle to your completion of the assignment — simply search for the song on YouTube and analyze any complete recording of the song that you find there.]

1. Three brief excerpts on musicians in the Chicago blues tradition-

Johnson, Maria V. 2007. Just pp. 51-57 of “Black Women Electric Guitarists and Authenticity in the Blues.” In Black Women and Music: More Than the Blues. Edited by Eileen Hayes and Linda Williams. Chicago: University of Illinois. <—6 pages total

Read together: Santoro, Gene. 2004. “Chess Records” [Ch. 10 (2 pages!) of Highway 61 Revisited. New York: Oxford University Press.]; which gives context and preview for pp. 140-148 of Cohodas, Nadine. 2000. “2120 South Michigan” [Just focus on those middle 8 pages of this pdf, which is Ch. 10 of Spinning Blues into Gold. New York: St. Martin’s Press.] <—10 pages total

2. A little background on the popularization of ‘Country & Western’ Music:

Wilgus, D. K. 1970. pp 162-174 of “Country-Western Music and the Urban Hillbilly.” [The most relevant passage begins “The subsequent history of hillbilly music…” (162), and ends with a paragraph about Hank Williams’ death (174).] In The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 83, No. 328. 


Part 1, due Friday, January 10. Written submission: Transcribe the melody [just one instance of the complete form], fundamental bass, and label chords for a track from one of the first 4 tracks in “Mid-Western Blues Diaspora,” the first 5 of “Boogie Woogie and Jump Blues,” or the first 4 of “Country & Western and Rockabilly,” in this week’s listening. Your analysis should include: A. a lyric sheet marked w/ phrase structure letters, to be demonstrated in class on Wednesday 1/8.

Part 2, due Monday, January 13. Prepared discussion (2 paragraphs): Using your analysis and the readings as support, and making reference to one additional song, explain how a particular artist or songwriter played a crucial role in the discovery and invention of Rock and Roll.