By Graham Peterson
Jim Morrison ain’t the final word on Rock ’n’ Roll history, but he’s a good start. In the clip below, Jim opens up a can of forgotten, but not rotten, Rock ’n’ Roll history — its white roots.
The view that Rock ‘n’ Roll was ripped off from black Rhythm & Blues is, more or less, the predominant view. It is not an uncontested view, as the Wikipedia admits. But if you grew up on the left, or around musicians and heads, you probably learned that Rock ’n’ Roll is blood money from yet another Great American Swindle. Jim agrees; of course Rock ‘n’ Roll evolved out of The Blues. But it also evolved out of early Country music, out of Bluegrass and Folk — white genres.
It’s an important point, not because white power, but because the white details of Rock ‘n’ Roll history got left on the shelf for a bad theory. Theory is a flashlight that tells you where the goods are. Unfortunately, critical theory has bad batteries and a narrow beam.
Without belaboring Horkheimer et al., the idea in critical theory is that culture fits a metaphor of exploitation, of theft. Culture is just another expression of colonial imperialism. Cultures get invaded and assimilated into a homogenous mass. It follows from this vision that black music got co-opted and assimilated into white music, in order to keep blacks down. That’s cultural appropriation. But, like Jim says, some of the main ingredients in Rock ‘n’ Roll were imported from Europe, through whites. Critical theory has no quarter for these folks.
The Europeans who brought bluegrass and folk to the United States were Scotch-Irish immigrants who settled across Appalachia. At the time, Scotland and Ireland were backwaters that had a reputation for the clan, the bar fight, and the broken accent. When they emigrated to get away from British exclusion, they brought instruments. And some fantastic music. You can hear those traditional Scotch-Irish influence still reverberating in modern Bluegrass, Folk, and Country — it’s uncanny. Fiddles. 6/8 time signatures. Twangs and bent notes. Line dancing. Poetry about poverty and misfortune.
Scotch-Irish Americans in Appalachia have always been, and unfortunately still are, largely poor. They didn’t get into singin’ about broke down Ford trucks by exploiting anyone — just like blacks didn’t get into singin’ about the blues by exploiting anyone. So, naturally, because Appalachian whites and blacks shared the same fate — and often the same holler — they mixed cultures. Then came Rock ’n’ Roll. And when kids from nice white suburbs started buying it, a few poor whites and blacks got their American Dream.
No doubt, the social exclusion of the ’50s and ’60s had its routine influence on Rock ’n’ Roll. The critical theoretic swindle story has some merit. Black musicians, who played the same tunes as whites, were not allowed to play the same stages. Black artists got squeezed out of radio rotations by racist DJs. And so on. But Bo Diddly was no slouch. Him and a range of other blacks made it big. The racism in Rock ’n’ Roll history is arguably a sideshow to the main stage, where blacks and whites were mixing to everyone’s benefit.
Cultures have always sampled and remixed from each other’s stuff. Take for instance the remixes that came out of Celtic Western Europe in the 2nd century BC. Archeological digs have revealed that the Celts imported art from Greece (that’s a long trip!), and that they eventually made their own Greek inspired art. Here again the power and exploitation thesis fails.
The Celts were poor. The Greeks were rich. The Celts were a fledgling, diffuse band of tribes. The Greeks were a militarily and culturally superior collection of city states. Despite their differences in power, it was the poor Celts who adopted the rich Greek’s art. They traded artifacts and traditions peacefully, and to their mutual betterment.
Cultural mixing is as old as dirt, or rather, as old as trade. It happened across powers when timid Celts met well stocked Greeks in Europe. It happened across races when dirt poor immigrants met dirt poor blacks in Appalachia. And it happened across classes when poor Rock ’n’ Roll musicians played for rich city slickers across America.
We need to think harder about where cultures come from. Cultural appropriation, the swindle story, definitely is and can be a way that upper class people reproduce their status. But even more often, the borrowing, imitating, trading, and selling of cultures has been a way people make and expand their communities, peacefully. It’s a beautiful thing, and we should, while remembering some sad missteps, celebrate cultural trade as a testament of a liberal society.
Rock n’ Roll ain’t a black or white thing. It’s a black and white thing.