Written by Mark Greif
Art by Scott King
Where does rock come from? “Rock”: I mean the music that comes out of the sixties, the music that is hardened, toughened, accelerated, then complicated, softened, disassembled, in decades that followed. Begun again – pastiched, mashed up, mimicked, reduced and expanded once more – even up to the present moment.
“Rock”, here, is not the same as rock’n’roll, or rock and roll, whose origins lie in the 1940s and 1950s. Rock’n’roll came from the electrification of two previous popular musics: rhythm and blues, earlier known as “race” music (meaning African-American music), and country and western, known earlier as hillbilly music (meaning the music of poor rural whites, inheriting Scottish, Irish and English traditions, but already possessing a significant admixture of the music of African-American slaves and former slaves). It came, too, from the new possession by whites, recording music largely for teenagers, of black music, in a contest of appropriation and racial assertion, drawing together such figures of different character as Elvis and Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly – but not quite Muddy Waters or Ray Charles.
How strange that to become “rock”, it became in a sense more electrified, or re-electrified, louder and capable of distortion; with more instruments besides guitar now electrifying, too; became “white” in a different way, too, by a transit through England back to the United States. It made a transit, too, in America, through the “folk revival”, thus through leftist and antiracist politics, the university and a highbrow popular audience that otherwise only respected jazz. And then it lapsed back into a seemingly apolitical “children’s” music associated with a musical whitewashing. That is why folkies were so infuriated when Dylan, their kiddie hope, “went electric” at Newport in 1965, not because they disliked the sound of electric guitars (surely they would have had Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery records in their jazz collections).