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Unfettered Borders and Boundaries

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While few rock scholars would disagree with Greil Marcus’s assertion that “most of the first rock ’n’ roll styles were variations on black forms that had taken shape before the white audience moved in,” Chuck Berry’s first national rock ’n’ roll hit was a reworked country fiddle tune, “Ida Red,” which he renamed “Maybellene.” According to Berry’s pianist, Jimmy Johnson, a cosmetics article spotted in the studio inspired the new title—perhaps a Maybelline product—further implicating the role of commercial culture on rock ’n’ roll. For the record, Berry claims the title came “from a storybook of animals who bore names,” including a cow named Maybellene. An early rock ’n’ roll style, rockabilly was named in recognition of the close relationship between country music and rock ’n’ roll. Early rockabilly stars such as Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis transitioned easily to the country-and-western, or country, genre. Rock ’n’ roll’s inherent cross-cultural hybridity contributed to white parental fears of cultural miscegenation and the corruption of white middle-class youth. However, much of this anxiety was directed toward perceived increases in adolescent insubordination to parental authority, masking the racial undercurrents of their concerns.


Rock musicians in the mid-to-late 1960s performed their own sets of cross-cultural moves, merging a core set of idiomatic musical gestures that defined rock with other musical styles. Rock groups’ experiments with other musical genres and traditions radically altered the ways in which rock was conceived and discussed. Psychedelic groups integrated instruments from Asia and Africa for their “innerwordly” explorations, following their use by mainstream pop groups such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, while art-rock groups such as Soft Machine, Frank Zappa and the Mothers, Pink Floyd, and Gong were fusing avant-garde art music, rock, and free jazz aesthetics.


As I have mentioned, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a watermark recording that signaled rock musicians’ development of a musical aesthetic that, despite incorporating a wide variety of musical traditions, including South Asian, proved popular with mainstream rock audiences and rock critics. The increasing influence of non-Western music in George Harrison’s guitar work, in particular, familiarized Western pop music audiences with Indian music sensibilities. The music industry’s awareness of how diasporic communities, global-hopping “first world tourists” (even if only from their television sets and Martin Denny recordings), and an emergent sense of a “shrinking” planet (cf. the popularization of Marshall McLuhan’s conception of the “global village,” increased telecommunication systems, and the growing power of supranational financial and political organizations) formed a considerable new market while enabling new consumptive patterns unfettered by national boundaries, style or genre borders, and even language barriers. The music industry’s efforts to mark out this emerging market eased the financial concerns of musicians whose desires to explore non-Western and nonpopular music, including collaborations with non-Western musicians, were energized as well as enticing mainstream pop listeners to accept exotic soundings as music.


By 1967 a number of pop musicians were blurring the separation of high art and pop music with, on one hand, bands like the Doors singing Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)” on their eponymous 1967 debut recording and, on the other, the Nice performing renditions of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony no. 6 in B Minor. Later, in the 1970s, bands such as Sky, led by the classical guitarist John Williams, would merge jazz, rock, and classical music sensibilities.


In 1966 the Paul Butterfield Blues Band recorded East-West (Elektra), in which the title composition was a fusion of South Asian raga and African American blues distilled through a hard rock crucible. There is a live release culled from keyboardist Mark Naftalin’s own archival tapes of previously unreleased versions of the piece, which even more clearly reveals the band’s integrative musical sensibilities. The guitarist Sandy Bull incorporated non-Western instrumentation such as the oud in his recordings of the 1960s. His debut recording, Fantasias for Guitar & Banjo (Vanguard 1963), is prescient for many of the musical fusions that would become commonplace within a few years. A talented multi-instrumentalist, Bull performed on a wide variety of instruments (banjo, oud, guitar, mandolin, dulcimer), accompanied on some recordings by the jazz drummer Billy Higgins. His merging of Middle Eastern, blues, gospel, and various folk styles is an under-acknowledged early fusion-world recording that remains musically compelling today. I recognize there have been a number of composers in the European concert music tradition who had also been interested in non-Western music, from Béla Bartók’s ethnomusicological interest in the music of the Magyar to Henry Cowell’s interest in Indonesian gamelan, among others. However, I mean to draw attention to the ways in which musicians who were considered “popular” or “pop” began to draw on the music of non-Western traditions.


Yet rock musicians did not encounter the same resistance from rock critics and audiences as their jazz compatriots. This imbalance has much to do with rock’s racialization as a white musical idiom, which essentially left rock music “unmarked.” Rock’s whiteness figured the genre as a universal musical idiom that, as expressed in the acknowledgment by fans, critics, and musicians of rock’s inherent hybridity, was free to roam the world in search of beguiling sounds and musical practices that were denied music that was racialized as a black musical tradition (or Latina/o, or, indeed, any nonwhite cultural or ethnic group). Rock artists have been freer in their ability to appropriate other musical idioms, facing far less critical opprobrium in their musical mixtures than jazz or funk artists, for instance (while I recognize that there are constraints and restrictions to this maneuver, it is rock musicians’ freedom relative to jazz musicians that I wish to emphasize; furthermore, rock musicians, like jazz artists of an earlier time, had little to lose and everything to gain by striving for virtuoso status). This was undeniably part of rock’s attraction for Tony Williams, as we will see.


Peter Wicke argues that the emergence of rock ’n’ roll as a distinct genre occurred within a context of 1950s U.S. youth caught in the contradictions of, on one hand, an educational system bent on producing docile managers and obedient workers for the future and, on the other, a culture industry that promoted individualistic pleasure as a goal in itself. Wicke argues further that the “conservatism of country music on one hand and the rebellious energy of rhythm & blues on the other became the essence of rock ’n’ roll,” energizing the contradictions of these youths, who witnessed “prosperity and consumption as the essential conditions of a meaningful life, but no longer believing in such a life.” Rock ’n’ roll “reduced [this contradiction] to a musical formula, expressing both the noisy rebellion and the secret conformity” the youth of the time embodied.


Indeed, rock music steadily displaced other types of music from the “top of the pops,” partly as a result of a growing youth audience that had plenty of free time and discretionary income. This age group in the 1960s, made up of the so-called baby boomers, was not the first youth subculture identified by the music industry as a group of potential consumers. An earlier modern mass youth culture came into existence in the so-called jazz age of the 1920s, when an unprecedented number of young people had access to sizable amounts of disposable income and leisure time. The culture industries, accelerating a phenomenon begun during the imperial era, when global trade moved products from the colonized periphery to the cosmopolitan market center, increased the commodification of culture, turning artistic endeavors into products, including music. Even after the ebullient decade of the 1920s, the teenaged bobby soxers of the Depression-era 1930s were targeted by a popular culture industry that realized that the “continually new” was not only available in terms of products but of audiences, as well. There are, of course, significant differences between each teen subculture in terms of specific historical and cultural contexts, but the similarities between them—discretionary income, a commodified form of “teen rebellion,” identification with popular culture entertainers, and a desire to mark off a teenage space separate from parent culture and larger social constraints—signaled the growing centrality of popular music’s role in forming a recognizable youth identity. The music and mass communications industries interpellated teen audiences with increasing sophistication while contributing to the ways in which youth identity was constituted through consumerist culture.


By the late 1960s, however, rock musicians were reshaping popular music by expressing more than adolescent themes and obsessions in their music—a shift reflected in the increasing use of rock as opposed to rock ’n’ roll as a descriptive term for the music. Additionally, the change from rock ’n’ roll to rock foreshadowed the shift to identity-driven political movements as race, gender, and sexuality displaced the mass movements, such as those protesting the Vietnam War and the coalitional countercultural activities of the late 1960s, which no longer seemed to hold their explanatory or representative power. In fact, despite Nick Bromell’s keen observations of rock’s utopian sensibilities throughout the late 1960s in Tomorrow Never Knows, Bromell fails to recognize the economic inequalities that the racialization of genre enabled among groups of musicians, notwithstanding Hendrix and his white middle-class rock fans.


The changing relationship between racial politics and popular music can be lightly sketched by comparing the 1969 Woodstock festival and the 1972 Wattstax concert. Woodstock was celebrated as a utopian Garden, as Joni Mitchell’s song so famously described it, a paradise where Sly and the Family Stone, a funk-rock band in which black musicians and white shared duties across gender lines, embodied the countercultural values of racialized and gendered equality, and Hendrix’s diving glissandi and electric screams deconstructed the U.S. national anthem through distortion and feedback, reasserting the song as a countercultural sign. Three years later, Wattstax was a celebration of blackness, a point the filmmaker Mel Stuart emphasized in segments of commentary from ordinary black citizens and Richard Pryor placed between footage of the exclusively black musical acts, punctuated by Isaac Hayes in gold chains symbolizing black oppression in the festival finale. Stuart’s film forces us to notice the difference in audience participation for “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Lift Every Voice” at the music festival, underscoring the offstage commentators’ disappointment in the continued economic, social, and educational inequality between blacks and whites despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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