Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Can We Please Blame Ringo? (or, Who Killed Rock 'N' Roll, Why an' what's the reason for?) [book review]

"Not us," says the angry crowd,
Whose screams filled the arena loud.
"It's too bad he died that night
But we just like to see a fight.
We didn't mean for him t' meet his death,
We just meant to see some sweat,
There ain't nothing wrong in that.
It wasn't us that made him fall.
No, you can't blame us at all."

Who killed Davey Moore,
Why an' what's the reason for?

"Who Killed Davey Moore?" by Bob Dylan
Copyright ©1964; renewed 1992 Special Rider Music

I read Elijah Wald's new book during the fall, but am only now getting around to writing a few words about a book that I highly recommend. It was one of the more interesting "big picture" music-related books that I have read in recent years and it is good follow up to Mr. Wald's previous book, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues that I also highly recommend. Both of these books consider subjects far more expansive than the titles imply. Other than being known for misleading book titles, Elijah Wald should also be known as a source of some of the more provocative commentary on the trajectory of, and trends in, 20th century American music.

In his current book, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music, he does a decent job of building a case (really several different cases) about why and how the river of American music flowed in certain channels over the course of the century. While he doesn't really get around to his explanation for how the Beatles might be a culprit in the racial Balkanization of current American music and therefore the destruction of Rock 'N' Roll until the very end of the book, the preceding chapters provide some interesting takes on all sorts of things related to the century's popular music.

Much of the book is a compelling, critical essay that incorporates recent scholarship on popular music and Wald's reconception of various influential forces (economic, social, the state, and technology in particular) and how they conditioned the music of the 1900s. From his discussions of these specific factors (the Depression, recording and transmission technologies, the World Wars, Prohibition, gender, migration patterns, geography, urbanization, industrialization, the pathologies of field recordists and amateur musicologists, etc.), we gain a fair bit of insight into developments over the course of the decades that got us to where we are today--in a world of Rock 'N' Roll being nearly solely the domain of white people in the wake of the splintering off of R&B and the rapid rise of what would become hip-hop. He demonstrates how the split is a relatively recent phenomenon and points his fingers at the various culprits (individual and societal) responsible for Rock's fragmentation in the recent generations (and the "forced categorization" of different types of music earlier in the century).

A final matter-this book is also a pleasure to read because Wald is a great writer. One might not dig his unconventional take on American music, but his well-sourced and clearly-written book should be read by any music fan that has an eye toward the long view of the role of popular music in American society. Highly recommended.

Read out the Jams, Mofo!

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