An editorial in this morning’s paper once again raised the question of whether we need a politically correct version of Huckleberry Finn or not. The story led me to recall the origins of rock-and-roll – not that Mark Twain was a rocker, but because I’d recently viewed the first installment of Time-Life’s History of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Both Huckleberry Finn and rock-and-roll owe a vast debt of gratitude to African-American culture, and both bear the scars of prejudice. An unfortunate aspect of life is that few people willingly subject themselves to hard labor when they realize an easier lifestyle is available (thus, Brave New World). This has been true since civilization began. With the advent of the Sumerians we begin to read about the slavery of war-captives. Even today, dressed up in fancy clothes, slavery of various degrees continues to persist. The reprehensible treatment especially of Africans for slavery is a heritage that will not easily be overcome. And yet American culture owes much to its African components.
While already in the back of my head, this was once again brought to the front by the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Explodes” episode of the Time-Life series. Now, being a musically deficient individual, I claim nothing particularly insightful here – my wife and daughter are the musically accomplished ones in this household – rock clearly has its roots in the blues and gospel. In the documentary Little Richard explains how rock was often simply music of the black churches transposed to secular clubs. Xenophobic “white” culture of the 1950s felt threatened by this catchy music and sought to disarm it. Calling it “race music” producers had the more popular songs covered by white singers such as Pat Boone. (His cover of “Tutti-Frutti” always makes me smirk.) The real element at work here was the prejudice against the other.
As a youth I recall literally throwing my rock albums in the trash because of a Fundamentalist tract that declared in no uncertain terms that it was the “Devil’s music.” I’d bought those albums with my own hard-earned money, but sacrificed them to save my soul. Little did I know that “Devil” was a code word for “African” in this fundie literature. Otherwise, why was it alright when Pat Boone (of The Cross and the Switchblade fame) sang the same song? Mistrust runs very deeply in monotheistic religions. Even today many branches of Christianity inveigh against the horrors of rock without acknowledging that the music has its roots in the cry for liberation on the part of slaves, as expressed in Christian worship. Civilization will always insist on retaining its slaves. At the very least modern western culture should say “thank you” for the unrequited gift of the musical voice of the twentieth century.