The Complicated Story of Race and Rock 'n' Roll in the '60s

by Michael Curtis Nelson

14 September 2016

In Just Around Midnight, Jack Hamilton explains what happened over the course of the '60s that turned rock 'n' roll white.
 
cover art

Just around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination

Jack Hamilton

(Harvard University Press)
US: Sep 2016

As anyone who still listens to broadcast radio knows, oldies stations offer an integrated playlist of mostly R&B, soul, pop, and rock hits from the ‘60s, while classic rock stations select from a largely white rotation of artists from the ‘70s and later, leavened by the occasional Jimi Hendrix song. Why? In Just around Midnight, Jack Hamilton explains what happened over the course of the ‘60s that turned rock ‘n’ roll white.

The subject of race and rock has been debated ever since rock journalism emerged in the ‘60s, and Hamilton interrogates the most enduring commonplaces the conversation has generated: that white rock musicians’ borrowings from black musical traditions amount to minstrelsy or blackface, and that, partly in reaction to cultural appropriation, black musical artists in America self-segregated as the ‘60s progressed.

Just around Midnight presents an alternative version of this history. In the shadow of racism, black and white artists shared an approach towards tradition and self-expression that favored innovation and improvisation, and influence and admiration among musicians of both races was mutual and ongoing. Hamilton chooses some provocative pairings to make his point. Sam Cooke and Bob Dylan are rarely mentioned in the same breath, but their careers exhibit a racial double standard with respect to notions of creativity and artistic integrity.

As we all know, when Dylan left folk behind to create a new, electric sound epitomized in “Like a Rolling Stone”, he moved beyond influence to chart a unique course of self-expression that pushed rock into the realm of art, and out of the teen-focused tradition of rhythm-and-blues-tinged popular music. Cooke, in the years between his departure from The Soul Stirrers, the gospel group he fronted in the ‘50s, and his murder in 1964, forged an artistic identity and musical style just as deliberate and idiosyncratic as Dylan’s.

Dylan, along with the Beatles, gets credit for founding serious rock ‘n’ roll. Cooke is widely considered the originator of soul. Yet Cooke was thought by many to be a sellout for abandoning gospel for pop, and praised for returning to that tradition with his influential “A Change is Gonna Come”, released shortly before his death. The difference in how Dylan and Cooke have been viewed illustrates the tendency to see black musicians as conduits for collective blues, folk, or gospel traditions, and white musicians as individual agents consciously choosing how to engage or ignore musical genres and influences.

Contested ideas of authenticity and integrity also freight the musical and cultural definitions of soul. Assessing the work of Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, and Dusty Springfield, Hamilton explores charges of musical appropriation leveled at Joplin, as well as Franklin’s cultivation of her status as Queen of Soul, in order to present a complex musical and cultural landscape in which all three artists deliberately shaped their art and careers.

The Beatles’ admiration and emulation of Motown artists is well-known. Hamilton shows that it continued throughout the ‘60s and that the regard was mutual. He frames his discussion with explications of the Beatles’ versions of Motown hits, arranged for live performance when they were still largely a cover band, and Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye’s renditions of Beatle songs (“We Can Work It Out” and “Yesterday”, respectively), recorded at the close of the decade as both men were breaking free from the rigid artistic control of Motown head, Berry Gordy.

Hamilton argues that far from leaving behind the black American music that inspired them, the Beatles continued to be influenced by R&B. In particular, he makes a strong case for how Paul McCartney’s bass playing evolved as he incorporated features he heard from Motown’s house bassist James Jamerson. For Hamilton, Revolver—traditionally seen as the Beatles’ Dylan-like movement toward “serious” rock—is “a cutting-edge R & B album”.

In his discussion of Jimi Hendrix, the lone black superstar in the rock pantheon, Hamilton navigates the racially charged language with which the guitarist was discussed in his lifetime, as well as Hendrix’s own alternately utopian and dystopian view of his art and the world. Hendrix attempted to chart a course for his music that transcended race and genre, but the presence of violent imagery and its enactment in riffs that imitate weapons—and the practice of smashing or setting fire to his instrument—mark the impossibility of achieving that goal.

The reception of guitarist Carlos Santana shows how the rock press struggled to fit the first Latino rock star since Ritchie Valens into the binary discourse of black and white that defined writing about rock, and how writers deployed in less coherent ways the stereotypes about tradition and performance typically applied to black artists.

An exploration of the Rolling Stones and rock’s relation to violence ably pulls together a thread present throughout the book: that white artists and their fans distilled a pose of violent hypermasculinity from the black music they listened to and played—in concert with a media willing to transfer to white rock musicians and fans stereotypic fears and anxieties associated with black culture. By the ‘70s, this persona had been so abstracted from its racial origins that all that remained was an expectation that serious rock acts needed to project a bad boy (and in rare cases, bad girl) image.

So who’s to blame? Hamilton points to the flourishing new profession of rock journalism. Well-meaning writers like Lester Bangs wanted to give credit to black artists that he felt had been exploited by whites. But assuming that black music and black musicians had been assimilated and left behind is a problematic assertion that makes it hard to see historically black genres as living, evolving forms.

This blinkered view made the current black practitioners of various kinds of rock ‘n’ roll, and their continuing influence on white artists, invisible. Rock journalists thus helped perpetuate the state of affairs they lamented.

That’s something to think about next time you hear Sam Cooke’s “What a Wonderful World”.

Just around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination

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