Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Gasior: Old Time Rock and Roll


John Gasior
Old Time Rock and Roll
Working the fields in the south of the United States during the period of slavery was brutal work. Working from before the sun came up until long past it had gone down was not uncommon during the era of slavery. A slave, who had hours of backbreaking labor ahead of him, had to find a way to pass the time. The result, slave songs, often told tales of the slave’s experiences and their hard life. Over time, these songs transitioned from slave group songs into twentieth century music, particularly the blues. This paper will focus on those slave songs, and their transition into the blues, rock and roll and their impact on the working class in America. This musical transition helped create artists that continue to be popularly celebrated today, including Ray Charles and Elvis Presley.

Through music, enslaved Africans and African Americans managed to preserve their cultural heritage and a semblance of unity. According to historian George Lipsitz, slave working songs “stressed the collective nature of slave labor while making tasks seem less onerous. Spirituals utilized hidden metaphors to preserve memories of past freedom in Africa and hopes for future liberation in America.”1Through music, slaves managed to resist a system of labor that deprived them of any pride in their work, a system that strictly controlled their time. To stop themselves from being simply involved in the epitome of capitalistic exploitation of labor (slavery), slaves created songs and music that gave passion and drive to their strenuous labor and controlled lifestyle. These slave songs helped the slaves to pass their time in the fields, as the summer sun slowly crossed the sky in the blistering south. These songs helped to set a work pace with a steady tempo and they helped to “synchronize dangerous tasks like wood chopping.”2 These songs also told the woes of these prosecuted and enslaved people too, as a group of people who had little to no control over their wellbeing. As Perkinson notes, “Lyrics about hard bosses, long sentences, loves lost, and spectacular crimes enabled slaves to pool their sorrow, revel in past exploits, and enigmatically mock their keepers.”3 These songs and their singing were the voice of this working class in American history, giving agency to this voice of the voiceless.
Even after the period of slavery ended, racism, exploitation and suppression of African Americans was a predominate theme. It certainly did not help that many white performers and song writers commonly stole black slave songs and themes and brandished them as their own. Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records, once said “he would make a fortune if he could find a white singer who sounded black.”4 Elvis Presley may be one of the most infamous examples of this. Elvis, the “king of rock and roll”, who was a cultural icon due to his performances and music in the 1950s and 1960s, owes his own fame to a black musician Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right”. Elvis was exactly what Sam Phillips was looking for. Elvis’ versions of “That’s All Right”, “Mystery Train” and “Hound Dog” were songs by black artists, which he ignored giving any credit to. Ray Charles, who never reached the level of stardom he would of if he was white, once said about Elvis “Ain’t no way they’d let anybody like us get on stage and do that but he could ‘cause he’s white.”5 Even Louis Jordan, a lesser known black artist once said “I lived in New York for twelve years and I’ve had white musicians hang around me twenty-four if I would let ‘em, hang around until they learned something from me.”6 This derivative of black music, which stemmed from slave songs into Elvis’ rock and roll gave the working class something to listen to that captured their problems.
A famous and popular song during the 1940s, “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” performed by Louis Jordan was a hit during the winter of 1946 into 1947.7 This song’s lyrics highlight the triumph and victory of the powerless over the powerful,(in the song a bandit manages to convince a farmer that only the “chickens” are in his henhouse) which helped make a strong social statement at the time.
Go back to the henhouse" gave a
little doggy knock and in his best chickenese said
"Is everything alright?"
I said there ain't nobody here but us chickens
There ain't nobody here at all
you're stompin' around and checkin' around
and kickin' up an awful fuss
we chickens tryin' to sleep, and you butt in
and hobble hobble hobble hobble it's a sin
8

This song could bring joy to the working class, showing the “little guy” winning. However, even a powerful song like this had ties to slavery and oppression of the working class. Slave songs, which commonly “told stories in which animals or lesser gods outwitted stronger opponents, never fully overcoming their own weaknesses, but employing deception and guile to win small victories.”9 Part of this song’s success could be attributed to its message and the response from the working class at the time. As “bureaucratic regimentation” became more prevalent in society, people looked for a way to be more autonomous.10
As African slave songs began their transition into the blues, the music of the working class was created. From the fields where the music was created, it was transported into industry, and listen to by former sharecropper and farm laborers, turned industrial workers. This style of music, combined with the white’s country music, became Rock and Roll. This music became the feature of the culture of working-class culture. As rock and roll songs, such as Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes” and Bill Haley’s “Rock around the Clock” gained notoriety, they also became anthems of the working class of America, as they asserted group solidarity as well as rejected respectability.11 The idea of going out and spending a week’s pay on Saturday night, drinking and listening to music appealed to many working class Americans, as a way to stray from their monotonous schedule Monday to Friday. While many of these songs didn’t call for revolution of the working class, they did give that same class a hope for a better life and a better future. Rock and roll contained a liberating concept, which became a resistance to capitalism and a spirit of independence with hopes for a bright future.12 While record companies did censor lyrics and try to create a wedge between artists and consumers, their efforts were in vain. They had to make money, and what sold was the music that working class people wanted to spend their limited excess money on. This music helped homogenized the working class, allowing people from diverse backgrounds to share a common experience, one that “centered around a working-class critique of American society.”13
As music changed from slaves songs to blues into rock and roll, there was one constant behind all of the music. These songs were the delight of the big working class of America at their respectable times. Slave songs by slaves when they were the working class in the South, blues by free repressed blacks working in industry and farms, and then rock and roll for all as the American culture homogenized. During this evolution of music, American society changed and the music always was quick behind, telling the story of the working class and their struggle in American society.

1 George Lipsitz, “Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s”(Chicago: University of Illinois Press,1994), 306

2 Robert Perkinosn, “Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire”(New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010), 212-213

3 Ibid, 212

4 George Lipsitz, “Rainbow at Minidght, 327

5 Ibid, 326

6 Ibid, 326

7 ibid 304

8 Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five, Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens, by Alex Kramer and Joan Whitney, 1946, Bourne Music, 23741 B

9 George Lipsitz, “Rainbow at Midnight”, 305

10 Ibid

11 Ibid, 328

12 Ibid, 329

13 Idib, 330

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