Tag Archives: Rock n’ Roll

From Cynthia Ann Parker to Don McLean

29 Sep

Last week, the students in History of American Music discussed All Shook Up: How Rock n’ Roll Changed America, a book by Glenn Altschuler about the early days of Rock n’ Roll. It was a great discussion about music, society and all kinds of stuff. We even threw a little religion in there. I guided as they talked, but I was also thinking about a book that several of those students read for another class.

Last year, I taught Expansion of the United States and had them read The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, a book by Glenn Frankel about the difficulties caused by the mixing of history and myth. On the surface, this book has nothing to do with the other one. However, there is one connection that ties them together, and it is not the fact that both writers are named Glenn. It is a chain of events that links a tragic episode in the American West to a tragic episode in Rock n’ Roll.

On May 19, 1836, Cynthia Ann Parker was abducted from her home by a Comanche raiding party. Her family had settled on the Texas frontier and faced the dangers of that decision. Her uncle searched for her but, after several years, gave up. Cynthia Ann grew to adulthood as a Comanche and raised a family. Years later, she was recaptured and brought back to the Parker family. She never recovered from being ripped twice from the world that she knew.Cynthia Ann Parker

In 1954, a novel by Alan Le May was published. It was called The Searchers and told the story of a man on an epic search to find his abducted niece. Although he studied many abductions, Le May’s story is similar to the Parker saga. However, the book ends differently than real life. The uncle does not give up. Instead, he is killed by a Comanche woman.Alan Lemay

In 1956, John Ford and his stock company traveled to Monument Valley make The Searchers, a film based on the book. John Wayne starred as the uncle looking for his abducted niece, played by Natalie Wood. It is considered by many to be the greatest of all Westerns and Wayne’s best performance. The audience does not know what will happen when he finds her, but, in the end, he takes her home.images-5

On February 25, 1957, Buddy Holly, a Texan, recorded “That’ll Be the Day“, a song inspired by Wayne’s catchphrase in The Searchers. The song reached Number One and was the first song recorded by The Quarrymen, who are better known as The Beatles. On January 23, 1959, Holly died in a plane crash with Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson.Buddy Holly

On March 14, 1971, Don McLean debuted a new song at a concert in Philadelphia. “American Pie” is believed to be about the changing musical and cultural landscape of the 1960s. It begins with “the day the music died”, which most people think is a reference to Holly’s plane crash. After all, “them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye singing this’ll be the day that I die.”Don McLean

Yeah, that is where my mind went. I connected two books from two different classes. It probably looks weird, but there are some things that cannot be denied. One of those is a direct historical line from Cynthia Ann Parker to Don McLean.

 

 

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I Went Down to the Crossroad

15 Mar

I just returned from an excursion to Tunica, Mississippi with my parents. I gambled and lost. I ate a lot of food. I did not find any prostitutes. However, the highlight of the trip was a drive south on Highway 61 to Clarksdale, Mississippi, a town that I have been wanting to visit for a long time.

I only knew a couple of things about Clarksdale. It is one of the places that claims to be home to the crossroad where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil in return for being a great Blues guitarist. The junction of Highway 61 and Highway 49 is marked by a sign commemorating the spot.Clarksdale 5

As I got out to take a picture, I wondered if this was the real crossroad. Then, I wondered why I was wondering about a place that claims to be the location of an event that is more myth than fact.

No matter what happened at what crossroad, Clarksdale has built itself as the center of the Blues universe because of that legend. It hosts music festivals and is home to our next destination, the Delta Blues Museum.Clarksdale 1

This is a cool museum with all kinds of interesting artifacts. It is also where I learned that there is more to the town’s legacy than a legend at a highway crossing. It is the birthplace of Sam Cooke, John Lee Hooker and Ike Turner, who is famous for being the abusive husband of Tina Turner. Before that, he was known as the piano player on “Rocket 88“, which is considered by many to be the first Rock n’ Roll recording.

People who lived in Clarksdale include the aforementioned Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and W.C. Handy.

At the museum, I picked up a town map that marked all of the historic locations. That is when I found out that a couple of other famous people lived in Clarksdale.

Charlie Conerly, a hometown hero, was quarterback for the New York Giants throughout the 1950s. However, the biggest surprise was discovering that Tennessee Williams lived there as a child when his grandfather was assigned to a local parish.

The town is not that large, and it did not take long to find the historic markers. We started with the marker for W.C. Handy, known as “Father of the Blues.” The museum claims that is more to good marketing than actual influence.Clarksdale 2

Next, we drove across downtown to the Tennessee Williams Park, which sits around the corner from his grandfather’s church.Clarksdale 3

This is where I learned that Williams got some of his characters from people he knew in Clarksdale. Down the street sits the Cutrer Mansion, the home of Blanche Cutrer and her husband. It seems to me that there is a character in one of his plays named Blanche.

After taking a drive past the palatial homes in this neighborhood, we went back across town to the other thing I knew about Clarksdale. It is home to Ground Zero Blues Club, owned by Morgan Freeman.Clarksdale 4

Here are my parents in front of the Ground Zero sign.Clarksdale 6

The club served lunch during the day, but we were disappointed. It was not that great. However, the waitress did a good job. My mom asked a lot of questions about Morgan Freeman, and I am sure that they were questions that the waitress has heard many times. He lives in Mississippi when he is not filming and comes by quite often. In fact, he has an apartment upstairs. He is humble but, as the waitress described, “smells like money.” I reckon that was her way of saying that he tries to hide his success, but everyone knows he is rich and famous.

We finished our meal and drove past the famous crossroad on our way out of town. However, that is when I started thinking about the place we had just seen and how it may have looked back in the old days. I started by wondering how the crossroad looked back then. If Robert Johnson made his way to this place, then was it a dirt crossing in the middle of cotton fields like I have always imagined? Or, was it a group of shacks on the outskirts of town where people lived and survived?

Whatever it looked like, I imagine that it was completely different from the neighborhood Tennessee Williams and Blanche Cutrer lived in. That was the home of the landed gentry who owned the cotton fields surrounding the town and the businesses within the town.

Clarksdale’s downtown, which can be walked across easily, is an interesting place. Although the buildings are now old and worn, they are signs that Clarksdale was once a thriving place. The buildings are multi-storied and must have been grand in their day. There are facades of banks and other lucrative businesses. There is no doubt that this was once a place of money.

However, that money flowed to one side of town. The other side of town, literally the other side of the tracks, was where those who left the fields of sharecropping to make their way, congregated and lived. This is where the Blues could be heard, and small African-American owned businesses could be found.

The two sides of town were within walking distance but were worlds apart. Downtown must have been the intersection. I could see people like Brick, Maggie the Cat and Big Daddy walking the streets and talking about “those people” when they saw them across the street. In the real world, “those people” were Sam Cooke, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Robert Johnson.

I wonder what the landed gentry would think about the modern version of their town. While their houses remain, they are not why people travel to Clarksdale. People come to Clarksdale because of the music that was made on the other side of the tracks. People come to Clarksdale because of the music that was inspired by the conditions that people on the other side of the tracks found themselves in. People come to Clarksdale to celebrate their accomplishments and not the accomplishments of the ones who thought they would be remembered.

By the way, the richest man in town is an African-American who “smells like money.”

As we drove out of town, I wondered what the landed gentry would think about that.

Elvis Presley and the Perpetuation of a Myth

3 Dec

The other day, I mentioned that there was a semi-serious post floating in my brain. Today, I am going to get it out of there. A couple of weeks ago The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily newspaper, printed an article about an activist who was going to be speaking in the area.

In the article, readers learned that the activist had a great deal of respect for Dolly Parton because of the singer’s work to improve the lives of children and others. They also learned that she had no respect for Elvis Presley, who she saw as someone who could have done more for his times and his community.Elvis Gate

That’s fine. We all have opinions about what people should and should not be doing. Many feel that the famous have a responsibility of using that fame for the betterment of the world. Dolly does a lot, and Elvis probably didn’t do enough. However, the writer continued with her disdain for Elvis by saying that he was racist. Her proof was that he had once said, “The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.”

When I read it, something in the back of my mind said that it wasn’t right. I couldn’t explain what was nagging at me, but I just didn’t think that was an accurate quote. That’s when I hit Google and was directed to Snopes. According the them, Elvis never made that statement and referenced Michael Bertrand as the historian who discovered where this urban legend began.

That’s when I knew where that nagging feeling was coming from. Dr. Bertrand teaches at Tennessee State University and spoke to the History Club at our university. He and I had a great conversation about the early years of Rock n’ Roll, but this information came from his presentation to the group. He tracked the origin of this tale to a magazine article in which an anonymous person on the street said that someone told them that Elvis had said that. Through the years, many people have heard it and taken it as fact.

Why am I writing about a long dead singer being misquoted in a newspaper? Because the newspaper and the activist being interviewed should know better. (Note: While working on this post, I discovered that the quote was taken out of the original article, and a follow-up article admitted to the falsehood of the quote.) It is one thing for misinformation to circulate, but people who are trained to research and write shouldn’t go with something they think might be true.

I am also writing about it because historians have to deal with this kind of misinformation all of the time. Surely, you have heard that Catherine the Great died while having sex with a horse. It’s not true, but everyone thinks it is. You have also heard that George Washington could not tell a lie. That probably made his espionage efforts during the Revolutionary War hard to manage. That’s despite being one of the best parts of his strategy.

It is hard to get to the reality of history. It is especially hard when people have misinformation about it already in their minds. All of this is made worse when a reputable newspaper interviews a reputable activist, and they spread the misinformation further.

She is probably correct. Elvis could have done more during his life to make the world better. Instead, he fell into a life of extravagance and drugs. There are many lessons to be learned from the Elvis story but adding wrong information only makes those lessons harder to learn.

Take the Test of Rock

2 Apr

A few posts ago, I wrote about a class that I am teaching called United States History: 1941 to the Present and how I am spending some time on the history of Rock n’ Roll. We talked about the beginnings of the genre when we covered the 1950s, but the students received most of their information from Rock: Music, Culture and Business, a book that I thought would be interesting.Rock Book

I wrote about the test that I was going to give them, and Dying Note, who you guys should check out, wanted to take the test, as well. So, here it is. Take the test, and see how well you know the history of Rock. However, I should explain something on the front end. All of the questions came from the book, which was divided into twelve chapters. Simply, I asked two questions from each chapter and added one other to make twenty-five. After all, twenty-five question is easier to calculate than twenty-four.

With that being said, feel free to take the Test of Rock.

1. What was Napster?

2. Kurt Cobain was lead singer for what group?

A. Green Day

B. Hootie & the Blowfish

C. Nirvana

D. Pearl Jam

3. What band, led by Ozzy Osbourne, is generally considered to be the first real metal group?

A. Black Sabbath

B. Juda Priest

C. Led Zeppelin

D. Metallica

4. Debuting in 1981, how did MTV change the way the music industry operated?

5. Reggae was:

A. associated with the Rastafarian movement, which was inspired by the work of Marcus Garvey.

B. named from a slang term meaning “everyday stuff”.

C. the first musical style in the Rock era to originate in the Third World.

D. All of the Above

6. Which did novelist Thomas Wolfe call “the Me Decade”?

A. 1960s

B. 1970s

C. 1980s

D. 1990s

7. Who was known as the “Godfather of Soul”?

A. James Brown

B. Marvin Gaye

C. Isaac Hayes

D. Otis Redding

8. Name two bands that were part of the “British Invasion”.

9. What made Motown different from other production companies?

A. It was headquartered in Montgomery, Alabama, far from Los Angeles, center of the 1960s music scene.

B. It was owned by white entrepreneurs and produced music for African-American audiences.

C. It was under African-American control and produced music not directed primarily at African-American audiences.

D. Both A and C

10. What did the Boogie-Woogie piano style spring from?

11. What is a cover version?

12. What was payola?

13. Which of the following had a pre-Rock n’ Roll hit with “Love and Marriage”?

A. Nat “King” Cole

B. Perry Como

C. Frank Sinatra

D. Hank Williams

14. Alan Freed:

A. first used the term “Rock n’ Roll” for commercial purposes.

B. promoted concert tours featuring African-American artists who played for racially mixed audiences.

C. was arrested for anarchy and incitement to riot when a fight broke out at one of his concerts.

D. All of the Above

15. Which early Rock n’ Roll piano player was known as “The Killer”?

A. Fats Domino

B. Buddy Holly

C. Jerry Lee Lewis

D. Little Richard

16. What band personified the “California Sound” with songs about surfing and became the best-selling American group of the 1960s?

17. In a few sentences, what is the importance of Bob Dylan in the history of American music?

18. What was the counterculture of the 1960s?

19. Name two bands that fit in the “Southern Rock” genre.

20. The term “Disco” is derived from:

A. “compact disc”, which replaced 8-Track tapes in the 1970s.

B. “discotheque”, which was a European term for a dance club.

C. “record disc”, which could hold lengthy songs that intricate dance moves could be coordinated to.

D. None of the Above

21. Who recorded Thriller, the top-selling album in history?

22. What Hip-Hop group popularized the term “rapper” with the song Rapper’s Delight?

A. Beastie Boys

B. Public Enemy

C. Run-D.M.C.

D. Sugarhill Gang

23. What is digital sampling?

24. What is MP3?

25. At this time, who is your favorite artist?

The Test of Rock

26 Mar

This semester, I am teaching United States: 1941 to the Present, and we cover the stuff that you would probably expect – presidents, the Cold War, the hot wars, Civil Rights, space. Heck, you name it, and we talk about it. However, I decided to mix in something else this semester as a prelude to something that I would like to do in the future. Amidst all of the topics of the 20th Century, we are interweaving Rock n’ Roll.

That’s right. I am the Jack Black of our university. I think that’s pretty good for someone who can only play the radio.

As we made our way through the 1950s, we went over the beginnings of Rock n’ Roll and some of the people who got it started. We haven’t talked much about it since, but the students have been reading a book, Rock: Music, Culture and Business, that covers the genre through seven decades. Tomorrow, they get to take a test. The Test of Rock.

Joan Jett - The Crush of my High School Existence

Joan Jett – The Crush of my High School Existence

It has been tougher to make out than I thought it would be. There’s just too much stuff that I want to put in the test. Each time I turn a page I find something else that would make a great question. In case the students are reading this, I won’t write about the questions I came up with. Just know that it could have been the biggest test that I have ever made.

Part of this inspiration comes from this past Friday night when I saw Eric Clapton in concert.

Slow Hand

Slow Hand

I have seen him before and written about that in “Listeria – Guitar Gods Edition“. This show was better than that show. Wait, this performance was better than that performance. The last show was better because I was on the 20th row. This time I had to watch the screens to get a good view.

Anyway, Clapton was at the top of his game. He played songs that everyone wanted to hear along with Blues numbers. He also played a pre-Rock song called “Good Night, Irene” that is covered in the book that the class is reading. The bad part about the concert? He didn’t play “Layla“, which disappointed everyone, and he didn’t play “Badge” which disappointed me.

So, it seems that I have surrounded myself with Rock music, and there is nothing wrong with that. I wonder if there will be a question about Eric Clapton on the test.