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How rock became white (part 1)

The complications of cultural appropriation

In the first of a three-part series, Geoff Bailey, looks at the racial politics surrounding the birth of rock and roll, their implications for our understanding of racism today, and how they inform a critique of the concept of cultural appropriation. Future installments will look at the Motown and the British Invasion, and the rise of "Classic Rock."

Part 1: And they crowned the white man king…

Of the many images associated with the birth of rock and roll, one of the most famous is of a Black man playing a guitar: the legendary Chuck Berry duck-walking across a California stage. Alongside Berry, other African American pioneers including Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Ray Charles, came to define the birth of this new genre. Yet less than 15 years later, Jimmy Hendrix would stand out as the exception that proves the rule—in the words of one prominent obituary, “a black man in the alien world of rock.”1 As music critic Stereo Williams has written: “Music that at one point in the 1950s seemed to herald the deterioration of racial boundaries, gender norms and cultural segregation had, by the 1970s, become re-defined as a white-dominated, male-dominated, multi-million dollar industry.”

Chuck Berry in 1964 playing Santa Monica, CA.

I should note up front that the story of how female artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Maybelle, or Ruth Brown, as well as the gender-bending, mid-1950s drag performances of Little Richard, were written out of the history books could fill another article all together. But in this series, I’m going to focus mainly on the racial dynamics of rock and roll and take up the gender dynamics in a future article.

It isn’t only in the complexion of the genre that you find inequality. By the beginning of the 1970s, rock and roll had made a generation of white men unfathomably famous and rich by playing music that had largely originated within the Black community, while thousands of Black artists had lived and died, been cheated and stolen from, and then largely forgotten. Towering artists of rock and roll’s early years like Big Joe Turner, Big Mama Thornton, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Lloyd Price, LaVerne Baker, as well as later Black rockers, like Shuggie Otis, Buddy Miles, Authur Lee, or Eddie Hazel, who didn’t fit the mold of what critics increasingly thought rock should look and sound like, slowly faded from the story.

The goal of this article, in addition to perhaps uncovering some brilliant and overlooked music, is to explain how and why this happened, and in the process, I hope, look at some of the limitations of what has become the default framework for understanding this process: cultural appropriation.

Because the story of how rock and roll came to be seen as a white genre isn’t just about music. Our understanding of how racism works its way through popular culture is part of a fuller understanding of how racism functions in contemporary capitalism, and shapes how socialists understand fundamental questions of the struggle for Black Liberation: What role does racism continue to play in the 21st century? Who benefits and why? At which targets should we focus our movements for change? And where should we draw the lines between enemy and ally?

And this history is also important because debates about representation and justice in popular culture can become struggles in their own right as we saw with #oscarssowhite or the infuriating, sometimes brilliant, genre-busting shootout over Lil Naz X’s “Old Town Road”.

Emma Goldman once said, “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be in your revolution.” We should also care about what we’re dancing to.

Paradise by the dashboard light

Rock and roll was the product of two momentous post-war developments. The first was a migration up the Mississippi for millions of African Americans traveling from mostly rural Southern counties to large urban centers in the North and West. Although they still faced oppression and horrific racial violence in their adopted cities, they were more free to travel and their disposable income grew. One result was that in the clubs along Beale Street in Memphis, or in the Ville neighborhood in St. Louis, or throughout Chicago’s South Side, African-American music and theater flourished.

The second development was the coming of age of the largest youth generation in U.S. history, growing up amidst the technological advance and relative plenty of the postwar boom. For a record industry that had been struggling since the end of WWII, this was a massive new market with money to spend. The legendary producer for Atlantic Records, Jerry Wexler, later put it: “[A] picture was beginning to emerge: Kids, especially kids down South, were taking the newly invented transistor radio to the beach.” They were growing up in the age of consumer commodity production with easy access to portable radios and cars. It’s no coincidence that one of the songs that can credibly lay claim to being the first rock and roll record, Ike Turner’s 1951 single “Rocket 88”, was a modernist ode to cruising for girls with the radio turned up in a brand new Oldsmobile with its “V-8 motor and… modern design.” Rock and roll was the first style of popular music “that specifically addressed and was tailored to teenagers.”

But this younger generation was also more willing to balk at the cultural conformity that dominated the Cold War era and had a decidedly more ambiguous view of segregation than their parents.2 The audience for rock and roll was made up of largely working class kids, initially in the South, for whom segregation was a fact of life, but whose daily life was beginning to chafe against the rigid barriers of Jim Crow. More than one rock and roll artist could tell the story of a segregated show that descended into a segregationist’s worst nightmare when Black and white kids literally pulled down the color line as they sprinted for the dance floor.

A segregated concert circa 1957.

A musical tide was building along the very path taken by the Great Migration: Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Willie Dixon in Chicago, Chuck Berry in St. Louis, Big Joe Turner in Kansas City, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley in Memphis, Fats Domino in New Orleans, Little Richard in Atlanta, and Ike Turner seemingly everywhere.

Once the floodgates opened, beginning in the South between 1951 and 1956 and then exploding nationally with the breakout success of Presley, Lewis, Berry and Little Richard in 1956, every independent producer was on the lookout for local talent to record. And with the low production costs of 7-inch 45s, which had been introduced in 1949, singles were churned out in massive numbers, reversing a steep decline in record sales that had continued unabated since 1947. Rock and roll surged across the country; Memphis was where the dam broke.

Memphis was the point of convergence for the upper Delta, the Tennessee plains, and the eastern Ozarks, a crossroads for Black and white farmers, laborers, truckers, and artists alike, or as Gareth Murphy describes it: “a cultural fault line, exactly where the redneck and Afro-American continental plates were precariously interlocked.”3 And the epicenter of this fault line ended up being at the corner of Union Avenue and Marshall in a small, single story brick building with a sign out front that read: Memphis Recording Service.

The two sides of Sun

The post-war technological innovations that made possible teenage beach parties had also made recording equipment smaller, more portable, and much cheaper. After the war, more than four hundred small recording outfits and record labels had sprung up, recording local musicians who were almost always still working day jobs in the fields, on the docks, or driving trucks. The Memphis Recording Service, which would soon become legendary as Sun Studio, was founded in 1950 by Sam Phillips, with a loan of $1,000 from a friend and co-worker.

In many ways, Phillips had a similar background to the audience Wexler described above. He had grown up poor and white in northwest Alabama. As a kid he’d worked the fields on his family farm alongside Black laborers who taught him a love of music and a basic respect for working people regardless of the color line.

His personal beliefs about segregation were intertwined with his love of music. “There were two types of downtrodden people back then,” he said. “There were the Black field hands and the white sharecroppers. It was impossible in those days not to hear and grow to love all the music of oppression and the music that uplifted people.” Music, he believed, was a common ground which could challenge the apartheid system of Jim Crow.

But there was another side to Phillips that is often downplayed: he wanted to make money. When he went out selling his early R&B records, shop owners and radio stations alike would refuse records by Black artists complaining that those records were corrupting the Southern youth. Phillips might not agree with them, but dealing with racists was the reality of doing business under Jim Crow, and doing business meant finding a record that they would buy.

Phillips was a businessman, not a radical, and he was quick to understand that to compete with the majors he needed white artists. His assistant at Sun Records, Marion Keisker, remembers Phillips saying: ”if I could find a white boy who could sing like a black man I’d make a million dollars.”

Then in August 1953, a local truck driver named Elvis Presley walked into Sun Studios and asked if he could cut a record.

Black songs, white voices

Over the next few months, Presley cut a number of singles, but Phillips remained unimpressed until the very end of a session in July, 1954, when Elvis grabbed a guitar and began goofing around to an old blues hit called “That’s All Right,” originally written and sung by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. Phillips heard him, had the band start again, and pressed record. This was the sound he had been looking for.

Phillips paired “That’s All Right” on the B-side with an old country standard by Bill Monroe, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Together they captured what would become Elvis’s early style of rock and roll. They took an uptempo blues song, rev’ed the tempo up even further and sang it with a country flair, then took an old country song and sang it like an uptempo blues.

I’ll return to Elvis’s complicated relationship with race later in this series. For the moment, I’ll simply note that Elvis has been criticized, unfairly I think, like many other white artists of the time, for building his early success off the covers of songs originally performed by Black artists. But it’s important to try to separate out the inevitable cross-pollination that was an integral part of the early rock and roll scene from the unequal benefits that later accrued to white musicians.

Early rock and roll grew out of a diverse, multiracial music scene, with artists who played a wide range of styles and incorporated a dizzying array of musical influences. Take, for example, Mississippi-born Johnny Temple, a well-known Chicago blues singer, who recorded sixty-two blues tracks between 1935 and 1949. But when he played live, Johnny was just as likely to be heard performing polkas and Italian wedding songs, because his audience often consisted of local Italian-American mobsters.4 For most artists thought of today as “blues artists,” a typical performance would include gospel numbers, old country or hillbilly tunes, ragtime, and more.5 Because prior to the 1960s, most blues, country, and R&B artists made their living from live performance, not recordings, and they built set lists by any means necessary to get the crowd to move (and more importantly, contribute to the tip jar). It was out of this milieu that rock and roll was born.

Most of the early rock and roll performers knew, or at least knew of, one another. They grabbed licks, melodies, even whole songs, reworking them in their own styles. Chuck Berry took material from the honky-tonk and swing bands that dominated the St. Louis music scene. Long before he was famous, Elvis was a regular at the Black clubs along Beale Street, often smuggled backstage by Ike Turner. And Bo Diddley was combining African and Caribbean drumming patterns with Gene Autry’s “singing cowboy” into his signature “freight train beat.” Musicians were constantly on the lookout for new sounds to incorporate into their arsenal and Black and white artists’ work constantly overlapped and influenced one another.

Little Richard circa 1971.

The record-buying audience was also growing more integrated. Prior to 1963, the Billboard records sales charts were effectively segregated. Black artists, with the exception of a handful of stars like Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole, were relegated to the Race Records charts (renamed the R&B charts in 1949). But in just one measure of the degree of cross-over during the early years of rock and roll, in May of 1956, five singles, Little Richards’ “Long Tall Sally”, Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes”, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”, Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel”, and the Platters’ “(You’ve Got) The Magic Touch”, appeared on both the Billboard Pop and R&B charts, with two (Presley and Perkins) also appearing at #1 and #2 on the country charts.

But while the scene was somewhat integrated, the obstacles to success for Black artists were much, much higher. Ike Turner captured the obvious contradiction: “[Back then] everybody, in some way, was influenced by somebody… But it was easier for them, because they were white.” Black artists found themselves confronting forces with far more power than they had.

When it came to recording, most artists, even Elvis at this early point in his career, had less control over the material they recorded, which was usually selected by producers or the labels themselves. Producers looking for new material to satiate local disc jockeys released covers at an astonishing rate. Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” was covered nearly twenty times in 1956 alone.

Occasionally this process of constantly re-recording covers worked to the benefit of Black artists, as when Fats Domino recorded his first number one hit in 1956, “Blueberry Hill”, originally written in 1940 by Vincent Rose, Larry Stock, and Al Lewis, and previously recorded by the likes of Gene Autry, Glenn Miller, and Louis Armstrong. Or when Chuck Berry reworked the country hit “Ida Red” (made famous by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys) into his first hit for Chess Records in 1956, “Maybellene.”

But generally, producers bought material on the cheap from the largely Black, but lesser-known, R&B charts and re-recorded it with white artists for a largely white pop audience. Black artists, even those who were pioneers in the early rock and roll scene, were relegated to smaller, independent R&B labels. Never one to mince words, Little Richard, who had left RCA Victor after they failed to promote his first singles and spent years recording for smaller labels like Peacock and Specialty, made short work of the system at the time: “They didn’t want me to be in the white guys’ way. I felt I was pushed into a rhythm and blues corner to keep out of rockers’ way, because that’s where the money is.”

Shut out of the major labels, Black artists were denied access to a wealth of material support that was available to white artists who made the transition to the majors. Access to major label capital meant well-established distribution channels, marketing, guaranteed radio play, all the things that were essential to sell in the volumes necessary to crack the pop charts. Of the early Black rock and rollers I’ve discussed so far, only Ray Charles would parlay his success into a major label contract, but even then he had to contend with segregated distribution, radio play and sales charts, and on the road racism, segregation, and police harassment and brutality.

Corporate hound dogs

If Elvis has become the poster child for the idea of cultural appropriation, his cover of Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” has become the song that seems to epitomize it. Released in 1956, Elvis’s “Hound Dog” sold more than 3 million copies and topped 5 Billboard charts, while Thornton’s hit never made the pop charts, and Thornton never saw more than a single check for $500. But a quick look at the song’s history shows that there is a lot more going on than, to paraphrase the words of Greil Marcus, “a man stealing the blues.”6

To begin with, the racial politics of “Hound Dog” are complicated, not in the way of the early Southern rock and roll scene, but because the song was a commodity product of the modern blues industry. It was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, two white, Jewish professional songwriters. It was recorded and distributed by Peacock Records, one of the many mid-sized independent R&B labels, which was owned by Don Robey, a half-Black, half-Jewish nightclub owner from Houston with a notorious reputation for cheating artists and physical violence.

Big Mama Thornton in concert.

The song was recorded under a contract that was typical of the time. Robey and Thornton’s manager, Johnny Otis, sourced the music, although Thornton, unlike many less-established artists had ultimate right of refusal. Thornton was paid a flat fee for the recording and received only performance credit. Leiber and Stoller, while receiving writing credits, never saw any royalties and claim that the $1,200 check that Robey paid them bounced. Robey, as he often did, also inserted himself as a writer in the copyright application to capture a portion of the royalties. In fact, it was common for label owners to add themselves or friends—and especially DJs—to writing credits as a way of kicking back profits to themselves and their colleagues.

The record sold an estimated 750,000 copies, the profits from which went back to Robey. Over the next two years it was covered ten times along with dozens of “answer records” by white and Black artists alike before Elvis recorded his version, based on a cover by Las Vegas novelty act Freddy Bell and the Bellboys.

Finally, to add insult to injury, when Elvis’s new label, RCA Victor, bought the rights to “Hound Dog” so that Elvis could record it, the money all went to Robey, who owned the publishing rights. Leiber and Stoller finally got royalty checks from their writing credits. Thornton, who had only been paid for her performance, got nothing.

“Hound Dog” may be an extreme example, but the contract it was recorded under was fairly standard for its day. It demonstrates that, as in other industries, the individuals who owned the means of production and distribution were the ones who were able to set terms favorable to themselves. “Until I started running in this music business,” remembered the great blues singer Big Bill Broonzy, “I had never lived around no people that would kill they own brother, like, for a lousy dollar.” As rock and roll became more established, the power to shape the genre was increasingly concentrated in the hands of a smaller and smaller number of mostly white men.

Assembly line pop

The initial wave of rock and roll was actually relatively brief, lasting from 1956, when Elvis, Fats Domino, and Little Richard, all burst onto the Billboard pop charts, to 1958, when Elvis was drafted into the Army and Little Richard became a born-again Christian, renouncing rock and roll.

But in the intervening years, the music industry had found a template it hoped to replicate in industrial fashion. It churned out hundreds of one-hit wonders, Elvis clones, teen idols, and interchangeable “girl bands” in a vertically-integrated production system, epitomized by the Brill Building in New York. Songwriter Carole King described the setup there:

Every day we squeezed into our respective cubby holes with just enough room for a piano, a bench, and maybe a chair for the lyricist if you were lucky. You’d sit there and write and you could hear someone in the next cubby hole composing a song exactly like yours. The pressure in the Brill Building was really terrific—because Donny (Kirshner, owner of Aldon Music, the largest publisher in the building) would play one songwriter against another. He’d say: “We need a new smash hit”—and we’d all go back and write a song and the next day we’d each audition for Bobby Vee’s producer.

Writers would then grab a group of singers under contract, go upstairs and cut a demo, then travel downstairs to meet with publishers, distributors, and radio station programmers.

This was repeatable, corporate music designed to be easily marketable and easily sellable. So it’s not surprising that the racial dynamics of rock and roll shifted dramatically in this period as well, becoming whiter and less transgressive. Although the pop charts would never return to their lily-white, pre-1956 days, the years between 1958 and 1964 were dominated by unthreatening teen idols like Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka, Bobby Darin, and Frankie Avalon.

But it didn’t work. The entire industry again stagnated. While record sales had exploded from $213 million in 1953 to $603 million in 1959, by 1963 they had risen anemically to just under $700 million. Rock and roll had passed through the first in a number of cycles of rebellion, commodification, expansion, and stagnation.

Welcome to the machine

The journey from Chuck Berry and Little Richard to Paul Anka and Frankie Avalon feels painfully familiar: an unruly, rebellious, multiracial art form was quickly repackaged as safer, whiter, and ultimately less ambitious. Meanwhile, the people who most benefited financially were largely white men. It’s a journey that’s been travelled so many times—from Duke Ellington to Benny Goodman, Robert Johnson to Eric Clapton, Grandmaster Flash to Macklemore—it starts to feel inescapable.

This feeling of inevitable co-optation forms the foundation of the framework of cultural appropriation, the idea that there is a predetermined tendency for Black culture to be usurped by white society that is inherent in the very interaction with white people. As Helen Kolawole wrote on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Elvis’s death: “White people always seek [Black music] out, dilute it and eventually claim it as their own. From Pat Boone’s Tutti Frutti to current boyband sensations N Sync and Blue.”

It’s a short step to argue that white artists should “stay in their lane,” that they do not have the right to play certain kinds of music. Music critic, Ralph J. Gleason, once wrote dismissively, omitting the tradition of Black women blues singers: “[The blues] is black man’s music, and whites diminish it at best or steal it at worst. In any case they have no moral right to use it.”

But we’ve seen that rock and roll—like jazz, the blues, or country music before it—began precisely in a collision of music forms, some associated strongly with Black artists and African-American musical traditions, and others associated with white artists.

This isn’t to suggest that performers are necessarily immune from criticism. It’s possible to use the form of a style of music to denigrate its source (as in minstrelsy) or to borrow only the most superficial elements, trading in on pre-existing popularity while obscuring its origins, a charge often levelled with more merit against someone like Pat Boone. But artists like Elvis or Johnny Cash or, as we’ll see, the Beatles and Rolling Stones, were deeply invested in the traditions they borrowed from, just as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, or Sister Rosetta Tharpe were. And together they fused those traditions into something more than the sum of their parts, what music critic, Chris Richards, describes as: “[borrowing] elements [that] become an essential, integrated part of a new, previously unheard thing.”

As cultural critic Lauren Michael Jackson has written, we need a different starting point: “Leading discussions about appropriation have been limited to debates about freedom and choice, when everyone should be talking about power.” What we should be discussing are the unequal relationships that exist that accrue benefits to some in that process over others.

In his essay, “Why is everyone always stealing Black music,” cultural critic Wesley Morris tries to extend a more precise metaphor of theft by equating it with other historical dispossessions:

In the history of problematic appropriation in America, we could start with the land and crops commandeered from Native peoples along with the mass expropriation of the labor of the enslaved. The tradition lives on. The things black people make with their hands and minds, for pay and for the hell of it, are exploited by companies and individuals who offer next to nothing in return.

But extending the idea of expropriation or dispossession to a musical style means claiming ownership of that music on behalf of a specific people. This idea is a return of racial essentialism in another form that we’ll return to in parts two and three of this series when we look at the way notions of authenticity boxed many Black artists out of the world of rock and roll.

For the moment, I’ll just note that this line of argument means accepting some very basic ideas of neoliberalism—that culture is something that can be classified as property to be owned, bought, and sold. As the Ghanaian cultural theorist, Kwame Anthony Appiah, writes: “The metaphor [of appropriation] suggests that a person of one culture is taking something that belongs to people of another culture, and effectively endorses the imperial regime of intellectual property.”

This is not to say that there isn’t a degree of shared historical experience of and resistance to oppression that connects the work of Black artists throughout modern history. But that is one important thread that runs through a constantly evolving art form. It is, as the Jamaican Marxist theorist Stuart Hall, described identity: “a never-completed process of becoming—a process of shifting identifications, rather than a singular, complete, finished state of being.”

To be clear, as we’ve seen, property crimes were very much a part of the history of rock and roll. Outright theft did take place when Black artists were cheated out of publishing or writing credits and thereby denied future royalties, when they were forced into segregated markets, denied equal radio play, and effectively banned from representation making it impossible to collect on royalties that did exist. There are a litany of crimes, not to mention racist violence, that have been perpetrated against Black performers. But the broad process of how rock and roll came to be understood as a white genre isn’t well explained by the framework of cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation essentializes ideas of race in popular culture, draws the lines of enemy and ally in the wrong places, and often ends up directing righteous anger disproportionately against the people who have the least power to shape popular culture (performers and listeners), while ignoring, or at least obscuring, the role of those who have the most.

A more fruitful way of thinking about this process, I think, is that the commodification of culture is, like everything else under capitalism, racialized. Driven by competition for new material, the entertainment industry is always under pressure to find new art forms, almost always as the grafted hybrids of existing forms styled in new ways to speak to a new audience living in a new moment in history.

This fusion is often far more diverse than is usually recognized by historians. You can track rock and roll back to the convergence of jump blues, gospel, jazz, rhythm and blues, and country. Trace the blues back and you get African antecedents to be sure, but also Spanish rhythms via Texas and New Orleans and Scottish folk music via Appalachian farmers and miners.

Once a new genre is established, capitalist firms are under pressure to commodify it and expand its sales to the widest audience in order to generate the highest profit. This pressure affects all companies big and small, though the pressure increases as firms are consolidated into larger and larger units. As Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler described it from inside the machine:

Just as it is with literature, where Faulkner remains on the library shelves while Jacqueline Susann hits the charts, it’s the same with records. Each company must do its best to fill the pulsating needs of mediocrity in order to maximize its potential for success. We might as well be selling hubcaps.

That pressure to consistently reach the widest audience means expanding in ways that offer the least resistance. In industries where the product is a cultural and intellectual product, that means expanding in ways that accommodate the existing ideas of society. As rock and roll grew and became more established that meant an unspoken (though not always unspoken) assumption within the industry that it was easier to sell well-mannered, politically agnostic, white artists than the multiracial, rebellious upstarts of the 1950s who had preceded them. Performing acts were then selected, signed, and promoted who fit this image.

But in the early years of rock and roll, these two dynamics: the need for a stagnating industry to discover a new and dynamic product; and the drive to then commodify that product in a way that was both repeatable at scale, and therefore, conformed to the existing ideas of society, were still relatively evenly matched. And in the mid-sixties, at a moment of intense political and cultural upheaval, that left room for a new wave to crash over and rock the industry.

Next: A change is gonna come — Motown, the British Invasion, and the birth of Soul

  1. Quoted in Jack Hamilton, Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 214.↩︎
  2. Michael T. Betrand, Race, Rock, and Elvis (Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2005).↩︎
  3. Garreth Murphy, Cowboys and Indies: An Epic History of the Record Industry (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2015), 85.↩︎
  4. Peter Narváez, “The Influences of Hispanic Music Cultures on African-American Blues Musicians,” Black Music Research Journal Vol. 22, Supplement: Best of BMRJ (2002), 176.↩︎
  5. Narváez, 177.↩︎
  6. Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music (New York: Plume, 2015), 144.↩︎

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Geoff Bailey View All

Geoff is a director and independent socialist based in Brooklyn, NY. He is the author of "How Rock Became White: the limits of cultural appropriation," “Accumulation by Dispossession: A Critical Assessment,” and “Visualizing Revolution: Revisiting Sergei Eisenstein.”