So I wrote out a whole post focusing on the early years of rock and roll but I reread it twice (unusual for me) and decided I wasn’t happy with it. But along the way I did discover at least one new pertinent idea.
I could never really get behind the idea that Elvis stole his music from black people, for a couple of reasons. One, let’s be honest, Elvis was a terrible career strategist. He was not bright enough to do anything that devious. Two, rock and roll was brand new. That’s what this song is saying:
ROLL OVER BEETHOVEN! And also whatever other music people are listening to. Chuck Berry has something new.
This is important- rock and roll wasn’t something that you could steal because it wasn’t something that even existed yet. Plus there was a lot more back and forth between white and black musicians in this era than people usually assume. And the boundaries between musical styles were more fluid as well. For instance, Chuck Berry was a regular hill-billy and would have made a great country singer, if the country world had been ready for that at the time.
So to add to the list of things that make cultural appropriation controversial is the fact that said culture must have existed for a while. To go back to punk rock- punk had been around almost 20 years by the time I got interested in it. There were old fogeys around even then. There were scene elders. There were legends. Some of punk’s greatest names had died while most of us were still small children. So there needs to be time and a set of older people with the ability to say “don’t do that!”
Rock and roll in 1955 had no one like that. Maybe Muddy Waters could have said “you stole my sound” but any of the new rockers could have said, more or less correctly “we don’t really sound like you.”
Things get more interesting in the 1960s. People can complain that it’s not fair that Elvis was the trailblazer- the guy who opened up space for black rock and rollers to have hits. It’s not fair. It’s also not his fault. Blame America in the 1950s if you have to blame someone.
But by the 1960s rock and roll had hit hard times. It’s incredible to stop and think about the sheer amount of bad luck and bad decisions that hit the first class of rock and rollers. Let’s make a list!
Elvis– drafted by the army at the peak of his career. Came home to be managed very poorly by Colonel whathisname and stuck doing shitty movies* for the next decade. Had an incredible comeback in the late 60s before becoming addicted to drugs and dying in 1977.
Chuck Berry– went to jail for a year and a half near the peak of his career for statutory rape.
Little Richard– found God, never managed to reconcile that with his sexuality
Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and that other guy- died in a plane crash
Jerry Lee Lewis– drummed out of rock and roll for marrying his underage cousin.
Eddie Cochran– died in a car wreck
Gene Vincent– suffered serious injury in that same car wreck, died of alcohol abuse in 1971.
Did I miss anyone? I don’t think I did.
So by the early 1960 the originators were all either dead or facing some serious career setbacks. So the next group was going to be coming up with little or no connection to the past and maybe more importantly, half of them weren’t even American. Now we might have some real thieves to point fingers at!
*I actually kind of like Blue Hawaii