A dean of rock journalism delivers the first volume of a magnum opus on a subject that never ceases to fascinate.
When does the rock ’n’ roll genre properly begin? Clearly well before Elvis Presley took the stage. By Fresh Air correspondent Ward’s account, it began in the 1920s, its outlines traced in the parallel development of blues, ragtime, swing, and country. In that genealogy, players such as Ernest Tubb and Bob Wills become ancestors just as surely as are Wynonie Harris and Big Joe Turner, while the blues and vaudeville join hands to produce phenomena such as Mamie Smith and Blind Lemon Jefferson. All contribute to an authentically American idiom. Ward (Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero, 2016, etc.) complicates the story by weaving in notes on the sometimes-uneasy meeting of races that the genres forced. In that exchange, Johnny Ray, “a gay white singer who wore hearing aids and broke down crying during his act,” became an unlikely R&B hero, and white kids flocked to “race” record shops to find the originals pilfered by clean-scrubbed collegiate quartets in the mold of Pat Boone. So it was with the canonical “Earth Angel.” Even though the original, by the Penguins, was “primitive and seemingly uncopyable,” a white group inauspiciously named the Crew-Cuts turned in—in one of Ward’s favorite words—an “anodyne” version of the song that sold reasonably well but never won over jukebox-crowding teenagers. Turning the back pages of history to look at the likes of Johnny Horton and Etta James and turning up plenty of surprises and fresh insights as he does, the author ends this installment on more or less familiar ground with the rise of the British Invasion, which would take an increasingly denatured American rock onto new ground—and provides the author a springboard for the next volume.
A spry study that should inspire listening with newly informed ears to old tunes, from “Bulldozer Blues” to “Teenager in Love” and beyond.