'Easy Riders, Rolling Stones' Explores the Migratory Nature of Music in America
Scanlan's work explores an expansive subject without losing too much time or focus to detours and alternate routes.
Easy Riders, Rolling Stones: On the Road in America, From Delta Blues to 70s RockPublisher: Reverb
Length: 248 pages
Author: John Scanlan
UK Release Date: 2015-09-14
US Release Date: 2015-11-15
Given the sprawling expanse of America and its wildly disparate mixes of cultures and traditions, it can be easy to romanticize the very American notion of life on the open road. A country founded on the idea of mobility and expansion, American music carries with it the same basic premise. American music carries with it no clearly defined place of origin and is rather a wild amalgamation of countless people bringing bits and pieces of their cultural heritage to what has ultimately become a miasmatic stew of styles, each tangentially related to the next.
This broad range of styles and the sheer size of the country has long been seen as a point of fascination for those on the outside looking in, so to speak. While the early years of recorded sound found a handful of people (namely the Lomaxes) traveling the country to capture the vast array of sounds and styles from firsthand sources who either helped establish the form itself or shepherd it into the 20th Century. By traveling the country, these early ethnomusicologists helped preserve for future generations a wide range of performers and styles, many of which originated in the deep South on plantations, in the remote mountains of Appalachia and, perhaps most influentially, the Mississippi Delta.
It is here that John Scanlan’s Easy Riders, Rolling Stones begins his exploration of the journey of American music from the Delta northwards and, eventually, across the Atlantic to a host of young blues enthusiasts who would in turn make their way back to the American shores and present these decidedly aboriginal forms within a vastly altered aural context. Yet while the sound of these electric performers differed greatly from those of the original acoustic practitioners, they remained grounded in the same thematic territory, largely based on the notion of artistic and personal freedom and an insatiable urge to hit the open road.
By doing so, the music managed to migrate and assimilate with a host of regional styles to create variations from the subtle to the diversely sublime. Given the vast expanse he seeks to cover in this basic thesis, Scanlan finds himself, as with any great road trip, exploring a handful of detours and side trips. While some lead to little more than dead ends or less than satisfying outcomes, they all help shape the overarching narrative inherent within the music, one reliant on the freedom of travel and exploration both interpersonally and within the broader physical world.
Moving up from the Delta, Scanlan attempts to follow the music's progression and expansion once loosed on the wider world. Freed from its more focused area of origin, it becomes something of a Pandora's box, becoming increasingly difficult to thoroughly track the changes and evolution of a previously concentrated music.
Throughout, however, the overriding theme is the need to travel, to move beyond the confines of home in order to find one's self and move beyond what has been previously known. In this, Scanlan takes on a literal and figurative stance as the music begins to branch out through a host of varied practitioners, each with their own take and desire to travel beyond what has been done, and what is known. It's a somewhat scattershot approach, but given the sprawling expanse of the subject matter, he simply can't cover everything and instead opts for some of the more obvious stops along the open road of pop music history while still managing to find a handful of intriguing detours along the way.
From the expected tales of Leadbelly, Robert Johnson and Charley Patton, Scanlan brings into sharper focus what may well have been the minimal impact these performers may have had in period, their legacy of influence the result of their recorded output as embraced by future generations. Among these were those most closely associated with the early ‘60s British blues boom that eventually sparked a cultural revolution within the world of rock music that saw the form getting bigger, louder and, ultimately, more commercially viable. Moving quickly from the early years of the blues and its assorted mythology, Scanlan draws a direct through line to those ‘60s and ‘70s artists (from Alexis Korner to Led Zeppelin to Humble Pie to the Doors and nearly everyone in between) who drew inspiration from these ancient performers from distant shores and the crackling sides they cut before vanishing into obscurity.
It's in their resurrection and embrace by musicians several generations and an ocean removed that Scanlan returns to American shores, finding these latter-day blues rock practitioners taking in the sprawling expanse of the continental United States. Traveling many of the same highways and byways of generations past, these bands sought to discover the intangible qualities of the music that initially inspired both their art and desire to travel beyond the confines of their known world. Scanlan does a fine job of drawing these parallels and showing the reverence primarily British musicians had for American blues artists often largely ignored within their own time and country.
Acting as musical tourists of sorts, these traveling performers helped bring the music to the general public in a manner reminiscent of the genre’s earliest practitioners, those who sought the open road and helped spread the gospel of the blues. Similarly, these ‘60s and ‘70s tours helped further the music’s literal and figurative expansion. Unlike previous generations, however, these artists were able to reap the financial rewards of a life on the road, performing for massive crowds night after night, releasing live documents of their performances for public consumption and generally embracing the freedom afforded by the open road. In this, countless artists found inspiration and a desire to create that, while often rooted in decidedly financially motivated origins, helped bring about a massive sea change within popular music, one that continues to resonate to this day.
Despite the vast nature of his subject matter, Scanlan manages a concise, well-structured and presented picture of the music’s evolution, placing it within a social and cultural context that owes as much to history as those with a reverence for the past and its preservation. Touching on the heavy hitters and lesser known performers in equal measure, Scanlan paints a holistic picture that serves as a sampler platter of sorts for a variety of artists, offering an inroad to those who may seem somewhat inaccessible.
With his clear, sharp prose and decidedly British and openly reverential take on his subject matter, he presents a well-argued thesis and exploration of some 75 years of popular music rooted in the American South and eventually filtered through a British lens and back into a relevant form years after its initial appearance. No easy task, but one Scanlan manages with aplomb.
Unlike the thematically similar On Highway 61 by Dennis McNally, Scanlan retains a sharp focus that never strays from the work’s expressed thesis. In this, he succeeds in creating a compelling trip across the country and through time, all the while adhering to the well-defined thematic through line of travel and the freedom afforded by a life on the open road. In this, Easy Riders, Rolling Stones proves a fascinating look at a bygone era from an outside perspective.