Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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B.E.: A Dozen Moments in the Prehistory of Rock and Roll

book cover


Simply by inventing (or--here we go--cribbing from the Moors) not love but l'amour, love as a concept, the troubadours of Provence laid one of the foundations of rock and roll, which whatever its socially significant pretensions has always had a thing for male-and-female. They were neither effete aesthetes--this was a rough world were all men were warriors and rape was one of the commonplaces that the myth of courtly love glossed over--nor the lute-strumming adventurers you dimly imagine. The itinerant singer-songwriters of the Middle Ages were called jongleurs--all-round entertainers whose etymology honors another of their skills, juggling. Jongleurs played marketplaces, fairs, the hostelries that catered to pilgrims and such, and, when they could get in, castles. Troubadours lived in castles--court poets in an era when "lyric" poetry was still sung to musical accompaniment, they were the highbrows of the secular world, upwardly mobile if not nobility themselves. Considered blasphemous by the religiopolitical powers that were, troubadourism was pretty much wiped out in the Albigensian crusade of the 13th century. So as our symbolic rock and roller we'll select Guilhem Figueira, an embattled hero of the movement's decline who "was not the man to frequent barons and respectable folk, but he was much at home with ribalds, whores, and tavern-haunters"--or so says his vida, an unauthorized bio that was as accurate as a press release. Is "In the fires of hell, Rome, you've chosen to dwell" close enough to Metallica for you?


"There is without doubt, no people on the earth more naturally affected to the sound of musicke than these people; which the principall persons do hold as an ornament of their state, so as when wee come to see them, their musicke will seldome be wanting," claimed Captain Richard Jobson, describing a visit he made to Gambia starting in 1620, the year after a Dutch man-of-war sold North America's first black slaves to British colonists in Jamestown. Africa's music had varied and evolved in uncounted strains and permutations for thousands of years, but this first published account in English is a benchmark, for what is rock and roll but African music as understood and controlled by white people? The intensity of African vocal technique, loud and harsh and keening by European standards, was frequently noted in the numerous reports to come, as was, needless to say, the "multitude of drums in various sizes." Less remarked were the underlying melodic similarities between African song and Scotch-Irish folk music, which would help Brits get into this exotic stuff. Soon Africans who could play an instrument fetched premium prices on the open market. By 1676, the governor of Cape Town owned his own slave orchestra.


The Viennese were dancing fools--during the city's three-day pre-Lenten Fasching celebration of 1832, when its population was 400,000, 772 balls attracted 200,000 citizens. After all, this was their heritage. Vienna had produced what remains to this day the greatest revolution in the history of social dancing--the waltz. Just like most of the court dances invented since the 15th century, the waltz was bred from peasant stock. But unlike any court dance, it required couples to embrace each other, and once they went that far, a lot of them went further. Already invading France and England by 1790, danced in seized monasteries by sans-culotte revolutionaries, the waltz was a scandal well before the European powers divvied up Napoleon's empire at the 1815 Congress of Vienna, where the Prince de Ligne went down in history by quipping: "Le Congrès ne marche pas--il danse." But after the Congress it became a full-fledged vogue. Once the assembled dignitaries had brought their good times home, both social dancing and popular music were permanently linked to a frankly carnal vision of courtship.


Musical miscegenation is an old story in America, where shocked reports of white teenagers dancing to black fiddlers go back to the 1690's. But though black musicians were common enough in a certain class of bar, even the freemen among them remained strictly local celebrities. Traveling white performers, on the other hand, found that to "imitate" blacks on stage guaranteed yucks. By 1832, when Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice went nationwide with "Jim Crow," a song-and-dance routine he claimed to have stolen from a crippled black stablehand, burnt cork was a staple of American showbiz. But it was not until 1843 that four musicians dubbing themselves the Virginia Minstrels formalized blackface into a full evening's diversion--minstrelsy. Playing banjo, tambourine, "bones" (castanets), and fiddle--the specialty of leader and chief composer Dan Emmett, whose "Dixie" was later appropriated as the unofficial Confederate national anthem--the Virginia Minstrels and their hordes of imitators probably sounded something like the earliest recorded "hillbilly" music of the 1920's, only longer on sentimental ballads and parlor polish. Rendered more genteel by the addition of small pit bands and more businesslike by a burgeoning songwriting industry, the minstrel show was America's dominant popular entertainment for most of the 19th century. Though eventually a few actual African-Americans got into the act, it remains a pungent reminder that black people and what white people make of them are two very different things.


Stephen Collins Foster became the toast of his middle-class Pittsburgh neighborhood by performing "Jim Crow" and "Zip Coon" in amateur theatricals in 1835, when he was nine. The extent of his exposure to African-American culture is debatable, but minstrelsy he knew. A typical quasibohemian dreamer, he wasn't rebellious enough to turn minstrel himself. But as his tunes began to bring in some money, he saw a way out of his bookkeeping job. In 1849 he persuaded Firth, Pond & Co., a major New York music firm whose interests went far beyond minstrelsy, to pay him royalties at a time when songs were invariably sold outright for sums that didn't support the performers, conductors, music teachers, and dilettantes who wrote them. Thus he became America's first fulltime professional songwriter, and also the first master of its polyglot musical heritage--Irish ballads and Italian opera as well as African tinge. Foster was never altogether comfortable with his so-called "Ethiopian songs" ("Swanee River," "Camptown Races," "My Old Kentucky Home"), and after he moved to New York in 1853 he concentrated on parlor ballads--since they were more artistic, he figured they'd have a longer shelf life. But only "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair" and "Old Dog Tray" were major successes, and before long the spendthrift songsmith was reduced to writing songs for hire like a common hack. As a nonperforming composer, Foster presaged the Tin Pan Alley rock and roll overthrew. He also presaged almost everything else in American pop. He died a Bowery alcoholic at 37.


The phonograph that Thomas Edison invented in 1877 was conceived as a dictaphone and didn't work very well. Only after others developed the floating stylus and covered the cylinder Edison recorded on with wax instead of tinfoil did he merchandise his machine, with his chief target the U.S. Congress, where he believed it would soon render secretaries obsolete. Fortunately, the fate of the phonograph was in the hands of Edison's thirty regional franchisees, all of whom would have lost their shirts pursuing what Edison pumped as "the legitimate side of their business." And somewhere out there somebody came up with a money-making bastard--a coin-in-the-slot protojukebox into which rubes, children, and men about town would insert a nickel to hear tunes by Foster and John Philip Sousa. So before there was really a record business, freelance entrepreneurs with their ears in the air had given the record business a shot in the arm, which is also the story of rock and roll. And let us not forget another independent, rival inventor-entrepreneur Emile Berliner, who in 1887 patented a gramophone that recorded on discs instead of cylinders, an idea whose time soon came. Berliner always knew he was in the home entertainment business, and record collectors owe him their gratitude. Just exactly how would you store 500 long-playing cylinders in a studio apartment?


Vernon Castle was an English comedian with an engineering degree, Irene Foote the daughter of a physician and the granddaughter of P.T. Barnum's press agent. They married in 1911 and in 1912 lucked into a job dancing at a fashionable Paris cabaret. By this time, the turkey trot, the grizzly bear, the bunny hug, and other barroom-cum-barnyard terpsichore had made inroads in high society, and though the Castles' versions of these "nigger dances," to borrow a phrase Irene was tossing about several years later, were "considerably toned down," they created a sensation. Soon they were back in New York making up steps, first and most prominently the Castle walk, in collaboration with black composer Ford Dabney and black composer-conductor James Reese Europe. It was the waltz all over again--Western civilization going dance-mad from the top. Though slightly less stringent standards of decorum soon replaced the discarded six-inch distance between partners, a barrier had been breached. Song publishers were convinced that hits had to have a good beat, and though many a tearjerker broke the rule, the parlor ballad was finally on its way out.


Well before abolition, the French-Spanish port city of New Orleans spawned a unique music colored by the African dances of Congo Square, and eventually the city's nonstop party generated the greatest musician of the 20th century. But like Muddy Waters and his Delta progeny two decades later, he didn't make his mark until after he took the train up to Chicago. Louis Armstrong invented the improvised solo. His gravelly, sardonic vocal excursions cut singing loose from cornball beauty and bullshit text; his high-handed fun with pop trash prefigured postmodernist recontextualization. And though he's more closely associated with the subcategories "jazz" and "pop," rock would be unimaginable without solos or gravel or high-handed popwise fun. The year I've chosen is when he started recording as a leader, but you might want to check out the Lonnie Johnson guitar solo on 1927's "I'm Not Rough"--sounds for all the world like r&b fixing to cross over. You could also give a listen to "Saints." Or "Hello Dolly."


As long ago as 2000 B.C., when Babylonian lute players were depicted as shepherds rather than priests, the guitar was conceived as a people's instrument. Its 17th-century vogue was associated with dance music, its 19th-century vogue with romantic melody. In America, where guitars were often homemade--a cigar box, a board, and some baling wire would do--the first electric model was developed in the '20s by country guitarist Lloyd Loar, who couldn't sell it. By 1931 Rickenbacker was manufacturing an electrified Hawaiian version, followed quickly by a so-called "Spanish" guitar, which introduced the electromagnetic pickup. T-Bone Walker is generally credited with introducing such a guitar to blues. The first known recording is "Good Morning Blues," cut in 1938 by Count Basie sideman Eddie Durham, and it was Durham fan Charlie Christian who turned the electric guitar into a phenomenon after he joined Benny Goodman in 1939. But all of these retained the lute's acoustic resonator--its hollow body. Lifelong tinkerer Les Paul had another idea. Sometime around 1938 he fitted a railroad tie with steel strings and a pickup: "You could go out to eat and come back and the note would still be sounding. It didn't sound like a banjo or a mandolin, but like a guitar, an electric guitar. That was the sound I was after." It took another decade for Leo Fender to start manufacturing such an item, and soon the solid-body electric came to dominate pop, bestowing on a single barely trained player the aural power of a symphony orchestra. Les Paul went on to invent multitrack recording.


ASCAP--the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers--was Tin Pan Alley's guild, collecting license fees from all manner of musical venues and promoters. It constructed favorable deals for the most powerful Broadway and Hollywood firms, treating more folkish genres with something closely akin to contempt. And though initially it resisted radio, by 1939 it earned two-thirds of its income there and was sure it could up its rates. After all, where else were broadcasters going to get the music they'd created an addiction to? But radio elected to stand and fight, chartering BMI--Broadcast Music, Inc.--to license all the songwriters ASCAP shortchanged. At first BMI concentrated on rearranging uncopyrighted songs, Stephen Foster's among them, but by the end of 1940 it had corraled the catalogues of disgruntled Tin Pan Alley oldtimer Edward B. Marks and ace talent scout Ralph Peer. Peer was credited with coining the terms "race" and "hillbilly" music for what we now call blues and country, and was the first to record both Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. His Peer International not only controlled many country and blues copyrights, but had invested heavily in Latin American music, as had Marks. So when on January 1, 1941 the broadcasters let their ASCAP contract expire, radio was positioned to boost a bunch of hicks, greasers, and Negroes, many of whom couldn't even read music--and who were about to destroy the pop power brokers' monopoly forever.


Like Edison's phonograph, radio was first conceived as a business tool--a talking telegraph. But even in the early ham days, when would-be broadcasters would first distribute crystal sets to their neighbors, some had more poetic ideas--a San Jose buff was airing live and recorded music as early as 1909. By 1926, when there were already Tin Pan Alley songsmiths who limited their melodies to the five notes early receivers could handle, David Sarnoff, who'd first proposed a "radio music box" in 1916, had assembled the NBC network. Much of the networks' allure, however, lay in the access they afforded to swank (and costly) metropolitan entertainment as it happened--stars live in your living room, big bands playing big hotels. Only in 1941, when the federal government--which back in 1922 had allotted the choicest frequencies to operators who promised not to broadcast records--moved to break the power of the networks, was the stage set for the small local stations whose need for cheap programming would soon transform disc jockeys into tastemaking local celebrities. And in those days, local celebrities played local music--including all the insurgent folk-pop BMI had had the luck or vision to exploit.


Bing Crosby was no Armstrong or Sinatra, but again and again he had the right idea at the right time. Linking up John McCormack and Al Jolson with the informal phrasing of the jazz artists he idolized was the least of it--his real genius was a lazy man's instinct for the gadget. Singers "crooned" throughout the '20s, and megaphone-toting Rudy Vallee was the first pop heartthrob. But it was Crosby who mastered vocal amplification by developing a style appropriate to the microphones that defined radio and recording studios--who learned to create an illusion of conversational intimacy by pretending that the mike just happened to be there when he lifted his baritone in song. Soon the floodgates were opened to a host of singers who hadn't gone through the painful rituals whereby a few lucky, hard-working individuals train their freakishly exceptional "beautiful" voices to carry in a concert hall. And eventually the Groaner hit upon an even more democratic technological angle. Frustrated by the sound quality of his half-improvised radio shows, which had to be patched together from 78-rpm master discs so they could be scheduled through four time zones, he became the first entertainer--unless Adolf Hitler counts--to exploit the fidelity and editability of the magnetic tape an enterprising Army officer had purloined from the Nazis. Musical "authenticity" would never be the same. Crosby also had a radical attitude toward the invention that made rock and roll a billion-dollar business: he used to cut an LP in nine hours. He scored well over 300 hits even though he didn't give a paid concert between 1933 and 1976. But the rock and roll that couldn't have happened without him did him in--after 1955, his pop play was limited primarily to "White Christmas."

Details, 1992