Before Elvis - The Prehistory of Rock'n'Roll by Larry Birnbaum
Autor: Richard Constantinidi
Etichete: Before Elvis The Prehistory Of Rocknroll, Big Joe Turner, Bill Halley, Blues, Boogie-woogie, Country Music, Cow Cow Davenport, Cow-cow Blues, Doo-wop, Elvis Presley, Good Rockin Tonight, Hokum, Jump Blues, Larry Birnbaum, Little Richard, Pete Johnson, Rhythm And Blues, Roll Em Pete, Rowman & Littlefield Publishing, Scarecrow Press, Swing, Wynonie Harris
The Prehistory of Rock'n'Roll
by Larry Birnbaum
Scarecrow Press/Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2013
How do you write a review for a book that is so well documented for a topic so general? The author, born to parents from Austria but raised in New York City, has written about music for publications such as Downbeat, Spin, Pulse and the Village Voice for the past 35 years and was editor for, among others, the world music magazine Global Rhythm and for the new-music magazine Ear.
The purpose of this book is to prove, beyond any doubt, that rock'n'roll evolved out of the vibrant black jazz scene of the 1930's, and not from country and blues as we have been led to believe by the mass media and music industry for the past half a century.
Byte. (p. 235, last paragraph)
By the early 1950's, if not sooner, country artists were recording in an idiom recognizable as rockabilly or rock'n'roll, terms that would not be used to categorize the music until a few years later. While rock'n'roll was first performed by black artists under the rubric of rhythm-and-blues, early white rock'n'roll was not simply a countrified version of R&B but an inventive adaptation that incorporated hillbilly-boogie innovations such as the transfer of the boogie-woogie bass line to the treble register. Swept up in the wave of youthful enthusiasm that accompanied rock'n'roll's breakthrough into the popular mainstream, Bill Halley and Elvis Presley were hailed as musical pioneers, but they were following a well-worn stylistic path.
The first rock song?
Roll 'Em Pete. Pete Johnson (1938)
Byte. (p.112, paragraph 1)
Predating Good Rockin' Tonight by nearly ten years, Roll 'Em Pete may well be regarded as the first rock'n'roll record, Although earlier songs contain elements of rock'n'roll, Roll 'Em Pete is a full-fledged rocker in all but instrumentation - similar in melody and structure to Big Joe Turner's 1950's hits … but faster and more intense. Johnson's bass line is a simple Chuck Berry-like chug, and his furious right-hand embellishments anticipate Berry's entire guitar style. Some of Turner's verses are the stuff that rock is made of, such as the opening, "I've got a gal, lives up on the hill / Well this woman tried to quit me, Lord, but I love her still."
Good Rockin' Tonight. Wynonie Harris (1948)
Modestly, Larry Birnbaum signs off at the very end, stating: The definitive study of rock music has yet to be written… although (t)his study contains 36 pages just to cite all the worded sources for Before Elvis - The Prehistory of Rock'n'Roll, covering a time frame of recorded music from the 1890's to the 1950's with references for American pioneer and African slave music from the 18th century up to the present (2012) for artists active during the 30's and 40's that are still with us - and current popular acts inspired by rhythms from the past.
Byte. (p.87, paragraph 3)
No one imagines that the twelve bar structure of the blues originated in Africa - in his book In Griot Time: An American Guitarist in Mali, Banning Eyre describes how even highly accomplished and versatile Malian musicians struggle to follow blues chord changes - but in its use of blues-like notes and scales, some African music sounds amazingly similar to the blues. Even so, the Mali-to-Mississippi theory of blues origins is problematic, to say the least.
Larry Birnbaum's life work is an awe-inspiring journey from wax cylinder recordings, negro work songs and african slave spirituals through to early 20th century shellac records and music that has not been transferred onto the modern CD format. The author has done more than just listen to music in his spare time or review albums for his job, going back in time to find exact sources for parts of phrases, lyrics and song structures, instrumental rhythms and beats and harmony development for popular hits, both influential for current trends and forgotten.
Byte. (p.47, paragraph 4)
The Weary Blues published separately by H. Alf Kelly in 1916 is not the same tune as the traditional jazz classic of that title published in 1915 by Artie Matthews, nor is Ship Wreck Blues the same tune as the Shipwrecked Blues, recorded by Clara Smith in 1931. Neither Ship Wreck Blues nor String Beans Blues seems to have been published outside of A Bunch of Blues.
…and then the author goes on to explain the origins of String Beans Blues ...
Larry Birnbaum puts a strong emphasis on the history of songs that have been quintessential for what is widely considered the rock revolution of the 20th Century.
Byte. (p. 57, paragraph 1, a conclusion)
As for Cow-Cow Blues, it's the impetus that set the entire sequence of musical events in motion. The strands of ragtime, blues and boogie-woogie that found their way into Cow Cow Blues date back still further, to the late nineteenth century at least, but there the trail goes cold, and documentation gives way to speculation.
Cow Cow Blues. Cow Cow Davenport (1928)
I liked how Larry Birnbaum managed to turn from one artist biography to the next during the course of the book, although it took me about a quarter of the book to understand the author's style of writing and get into the swing of things. Having recently finished the book, I can hardly wait to read it again and make a better sense of artists and songs presented at the beginning, that Birnbaum puts an accent on further in the novel. It is quite interesting how the author manages to basically turn a history book into a story with a plot. Following the Chapters through the decades, the artists and the genres might be boring for those used to encyclopedic dictionaries, such as the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock (1993) or The Guiness Who's Who of… a wide range of musical genres (1994)… but every page has its purpose in explaining the development of American music through the first half of the 20th century.
Byte. (p. 190, last paragraph)
I must point out, writes the folklorist Norm Cohen, that hillbilly music had important antecedents other than traditional Anglo-Irish-American folk music - namely the commercial musical traditions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: minstrel shows, vaudeville, ragtime, blues, jazz, Tin Pan Alley, sentimental balladry, and hymnody and gospel music, both black and white.
Byte. (p. 191, first paragraph)
The country music historian Bill C. Malone notes that the square dance caller's: do-si-do came from the French dance instructor's dos-a-dos and that the first southern hymnal was published entirely in German. He adds that some popular ballads and fiddle tunes were brought to the United States by professional British entertainers after the American Revolution and that "by the end of the eighteenth century … puppet shows, circuses, animal acts, medicine shows, equestrian shows, and … formal dramatic and musical concert troupes traveled from town to town along the Atlantic seaboard".
Apart from the popular artists and bands of yesteryear that are still promoted today through genre-specific oldies music compilations or cover songs, Larry Birnbaum offers us a huge X-Ray of a full catalogue of unsung heroes, buried by the history written from an angle that has everyone believing that rock'n'roll music developed strictly from blues and country music.
The author digs into hokum, swing, rhythm and blues, boogie-woogie, doo-wop and jump blues, among many other genres, to uncover the true roots of rock'n'roll.
Going through the book, we understand that rhythm and blues turned into rock'n'roll quite a while before white kids got into it, and when they did, the black music took a turn for soul, that further developed into disco and rap, while the commercial rock music, although diluted, basically by the record labels, experimented its' way into a few more rebel peaks, represented by psychedelic music in the '60's, punk music in the 70's, heavy metal in the 80's and grunge in the 90's.
Another of the authors controversial conclusions is that if Elvis Presley was a deep down pop-country ballad man made to sing up-beat songs by the team managing his brand, no one had greater impact on the sound of rock'n'roll than Little Richard.
A downside to the book is the rush in the end, getting through too many artists and side genres much too fast, for the dense rate of information supplied to the reader during the first three quarters of the book… the artists and genres treated in this manner were however not decisive for the Rock foundation, but rather additional layers of elements that added to the diversity of beats that kept rock'n'roll from turning into a passing fad.
By 2014 standards, if you get through this one, you don't need to read another book on the subject - and I'm sure that as years go by, chances will get smaller for anyone else to do a better job on the subject, unless all of the recorded music of the first half of the 20th century will be available on iTunes...
A must for all those who want to understand the 20th century music phenomenon, a must for those who want to learn more about the rock music roots and for those audiophiles who want to have a well-documented viewpoint on how all those jazz cats fit into the larger scheme of things, Before Elvis - The Prehistory of Rock'n'Roll by Larry Birnbaum is a work of art and, I believe, possibly the definitive study of jazz, rhythm and blues and rock music consumers, collectors and producers are looking for.
by RiCo, for CZB.ro
Here's one for the road...
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