Popular song in America, part 10: The rock revolution

Tin Pan Alley songs appealed to a predominantly urban, white, affluent, and musically literate segment of the population. They remained unknown to much of the rest of the country, including most blacks and rural whites, who had their own music, learned and passed down orally.

The advent of the recording industry and radio gave this music a wider reach within their respective niches. Consequently, when Billboard began to document record sales, it kept three charts, one for “popular music,” (Tin Pan Alley songs), one for Country-Western, and one for black music, labeled at various times Harlem Hit Parade, Race Records, Rhythm and Blues, or Soul Music.

Tin Pan Alley music had evolved smoothly from English pleasure garden songs of the eighteenth century by assimilating other influences. It featured the smooth, cultured singing, written arrangements, rich instrumental backgrounds, and imaginative harmonies befitting most of those influences.

Country music traditionally featured a thin, nasal singing style accompanied by fiddles and banjos, perhaps to a degree left over from the old minstrel shows, perhaps reminiscent of descendants of English colonists who had never heard the urban pleasure garden sounds.

As early as the 1920s, some people found country songs an attractive alternative to Tin Pan Alley songs, but not the traditional ways of performing them. They listened instead to the trained voices of John Jacob Niles and Burl Ives.

At about the same time, Southern blacks developed an amalgam of blues, jazz, and traditional spirituals in both secular and gospel flavors. Its singers often had raw, raspy voices that likewise did not resemble “pop music” performance practice. As blacks began to migrate north in large numbers, black performers began to establish themselves in northern cities, where they found some white people attracted to their music.

Initially it never occurred to anyone that music for any one of these audiences would have any widespread appeal to either of the others, but by 1953, “Crying in the Chapel” by the Orioles made it to number 1 on the R&B chart and also to number 11 on the pop chart. Over the next few years, three songs by Elvis Presley and one by the Everly Brothers topped all three charts.

The revolution arrived in full  force when “Rock around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets topped the pop chart in July 1955, held that position for eight weeks, and became the year’s best-selling record.  Haley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis dominated the development of a new style called “rock ‘n’ roll.”

Significantly, this group included both whites and blacks, coinciding with the drive toward racial integration that gathered steam at about the same time. Their vocal styles and the instruments they chose for background came from various traditional black and white rural musics. The overall sound, much more intense than any previous popular music, was percussive and loud

Rock ‘n’ roll greatly appealed to youth, but not all all to older people brought up on the Tin Pan Alley style. To them, the new performers no longer sang. They rasped, shouted, snarled, rasped, whined, and basically made an ugly noise rather than music.

The youth responded to this new music with the same excitement with which the previous generation had greeted Frank Sinatra, but there was one critical difference: the parents of Sinatra’s young fans also liked his music. Parents of young rock fans not only disliked the new style, but disapproved of it on moral grounds. Instead of singing respectably about love, the new performers were overtly sexual, both in their texts and stage deportment. The black roots of the new music troubled parents who resisted the drive toward racial integration.

No one in the country was more dismayed than the music industry. It had made room for musically illiterate song writers (that is, those who could not read or write musical notation) for generations, but someone always had to write the music down for publication as sheet music.

The new music, dependent on oral, not written traditions, did  not require the step of notating it. The new singers simply learned songs by hearing them in either live or recorded performances, then went straight to the recording studio. Their fans likewise had no need to buy sheet music. That development devastated the  publishing industry. The recording industry had its own problems. A few companies had always dominated the popular music market, but these new performers, not headquartered in New York, recorded for other labels.

The music industry expressed strong opposition to the new style. The recording industry tried to remake it in its own image by issuing new records of the Country-Western  or Rhythm and Blues hits using established singers like Tony Bennett and Patti Page and younger ones like Pat Boone and Frankie Avalon. These new recordings specifically appealed to the traditional popular audience with their polished arrangements, lush instrumental backgrounds, and the performers’ non-threatening, clean-cut looks.

For a while, the ploy appeared to succeed. These “covers” coexisted with more standard Tin Pan Alley fare at the top of the pop chart for several years on either side of 1960. Even Presley and other rock pioneers began to soften their style.

Therefore, no one was prepared for the impact of the Beatles. They used the early sounds of rock ‘n’ roll as a starting point and began to write their own songs. By the time their fame reached the United States, they were about the only ones performing authentic rock. The so-called British invasion followed, with other groups likewise offering a version of American music that American performers had all but abandoned.

A resurgent rock style took off from there among American singers, with additional stylistic elements added from almost everywhere in the country except New York. Harry Belafonte built a very successful career based on the traditional music of the Caribbean. The Kingston Trio; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Bob Dylan; and Joan Baez all continued the folk music revival that had started before the Second World War.

Dylan, by the way, did not attempt the polished sound of most folk singers. He based his vocal technique on the nasal and rasping sound of anonymous country singers–and the sound of the terminally ill Woodie Guthrie, who by the time Dylan heard him could no longer sing as he did in his prime. Dylan and Baez, like the Beatles and others, eventually started singing mainly their own compositions rather than traditional folk songs.

New sounds came from California and Detroit. The first successful California group, the Beach Boys, featured songs about surfing, fast cars, women, and suburbia. Others, such as Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, came out of San Francisco’s hippie scene. Detroit produced first northern, urban, black, sound, with Diana Ross and the Supremes among the most successful of many groups and singers recording for the Motown label.

Eventually, everyone put aside acoustic instruments. With electric guitars and keyboards and sophisticated sound systems, music became almost incessantly loud. I remember feeling some amazement at hearing one Peter, Paul, and Mary song that included singing one phrase softer than the rest.

Just as the earliest rock hits coincided with the beginning of the civil rights movement, the new rock style coincided with the beginnings of widespread protests over the Vietnam war, the growth of the drug culture, and general rebellion against the “establishment.” No protest rally was complete without marijuana and at least one rock band.

As all of the various roots of the new rock blended together into the more sophisticated sound of the 1960s, it began to take on themes and emotions never before associated with popular music, from a generalized anger to a drug-induced cloud. It began to push the envelope on the fringes of respectability.

Rock represents the first absolute rejection of the immediate past in the history of American popular music. Previously, music was marketed to adults, which may explain the long continuity and the fact that much of the music of one generation remained popular in the next. Rock music was always for youth.

I have heard rock fans of my generation confess that it took years for them to realize that their parents really liked Tin Pan Alley songs and swing band music, and that they didn’t play it simply to annoy their offspring. I heard a man a generation younger than I admit that Elvis Presley was, to him, the boring old stuff his parents listened to. He figured that meant Presley was classical music!

Some younger folks express disapproval that the Rolling Stones still perform rock on the grounds that they’re too old for it. What other music are they supposed to play?  After a certain age, must they put down their guitars and perhaps start playing string quartets on violins?

I end this series where many surveys of popular music begin, with the confession that from the first time I heard heard rock, in about 4th grade, I disliked it.

Clearly, popular music continues to evolve, as it always has. Rap music evokes some of the same complaints that early rock music did, but it has far more in common with rock than early rock had with Tin Pan Alley music. However popular music develops in the future, it will likely have some kind of rock flavor for at least another couple of generations.


Popular song in America, part 10: The rock revolution — 1 Comment

  1. This is interesting to me. I've always felt like the only person who listened to music not to evince tribal membership but simply because I liked the sound of it. I grew up with classical music and opera (in a very working-class Italian family) and so never got to internalize the attitude that it was snob music for the elites. The white non-Italians with more money that I ran into hated it, so I never felt that it was "elite" music.

    But when I encountered rock for the first time, it was the high point of the radio-play friendly stuff that the art rockers had started doing after they got over themselves :-) so it was melodic and virtuosic at the same time … and usually had a good high tenor in front. It was the best of classical and opera at the same time: great, precise musicians and big-voiced belters.

    Lots to think about in your post, thanks …

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