Devil's Music, Holy Rollers and Hillbillies by James A. Cosby

Devil's Music, Holy Rollers and Hillbillies

How America Gave Birth to Rock and Roll
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A debut book explores rock ’n’ roll’s origins in a broad historical and societal context.

When it comes to rock’s beginnings, most music books and encyclopedia entries focus on 1950s pioneers like Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry—and perhaps mention such early influencers of the genre as jazz musicians. But Cosby posits that rock’s origins can be traced to two pivotal moments in American history. First, he links the genre to 18th-century slavery in the South and how that informed the music and lyrics of African-American spirituals, “characterized by a certain physicality, such as handclaps and foot stomping.” That spawned the blues, one of rock’s vital ingredients. The author discusses how that genre represented a form of freedom for African-American musicians to express “the deepest” emotions in a racist society. Other genres such as jazz, rhythm and blues, and country-western are referenced as being crucial to rock’s development. The second key moment, according to Cosby, was the climate of ’50s America. While a prosperous decade for the nation, it also represented a malaise in which conformity ruled, with no outlet for articulating rebellion. Thus, rock provided a welcome expression of anti-establishment sentiments for the youth culture through the music of such practitioners as Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard. In addition, Cosby examines the role of religion, especially the Pentecostal faith and how the fervor of its services mirrors today’s rock concerts. The rest of the book falls into familiar territory with its summaries of seminal rock musicians from the ’50s and early ’60s as well as behind-the-scenes men. But it’s the first sections on the early African-American experience and the ’50s that deliver the most enlightening examination of the rock revolution. Still, in just 210 pages, excluding endnotes and index, Cosby manages to pack in a lot of useful, thoughtful, and engaging information throughout the work. Toward the end, he deftly sums up the genre’s importance: “Rock music and its attendant attitude and culture provided direction and language for youth looking for alternatives to the norms and institutions of their parents....Rock did not necessarily have all of the answers, but it was absolutely necessary.” Thankfully, rock has fulfilled that role for 60 years, as it continues to reinvent itself.

While not a definitive history of rock, this book nevertheless provides an illuminating and intriguing look at how the genre became a cultural touchstone.

Pub Date: May 23rd, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-4766-6229-9
Page count: 264pp
Publisher: McFarland Press
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 2016


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