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Rock: Rowdy, Recalcitrant, and Revolutionary

David P. Szatmary earned a baccalaureate degree from Marquette University and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in American history from Rutgers University. He has taught at the University of Arizona as well as the University of Washington and is currently Vice Provost at the University of Washington Educational Outreach. With experience as a professor of history, experience as a chain music store manager, and experience as an educational entrepreneur, he published several historical works.

Over the past three hundred years, soul music has evolved , branched out, and captured the hearts of people all over the world. Starting off as a method used by African slaves to “retain continuity with their past”←2, soul music has spawned several popular music genres such as the blues, R&B, and rock n’ roll. David P. Szatmary’s Rockin’ in Time: A Social History of Rock and Roll offers a well written and in-depth analysis of the history of soul music—particularly rock n’ roll— as well as its connection to American business, economics, politics, and African American culture.

The rhythm and blues of artists like Muddy Waters and other urban blues artists served as the foundation for Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and most other rock-and-rollers. A subtle blend of African and European traditions, the blues “provided the necessary elements and inspiration”1← for the birth of rock and the success of artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard. The blues were an indigenous creation of black slaves who adapted their African American musical heritage to the American environment. African music involved calculated repetitions. Probably most important, the slaves, accustomed to dancing and singing to the beat of drums in Africa, emphasized rhythm over harmony. African Americans used these African musical traits in African-American religious ceremonies. Such African-inspired church music, later known as gospel, became the basis for the blues, which “applied the music to secular themes”←2. During and after World War I, many Southern African Americans brought the blues to Northern cities, especially Chicago, the end of the Illinois Central Railroad line, where the African-American population grew from 40,000 in 1910 to 234,000 twenty years later. The migrants to the Windy City included guitarist Tampa Red, pianist Eurreal Wilford (“Little Brother”) Montgomery, Big Bill Broonzy, and John Lee (“Sonny Boy”) Williamson. Chester (“Howlin’ Wolf”) Burnett established himself among the R&B crowd in Chicago with his “raw, electrified Delta blues”, rivaling Muddy Waters. ←8. Both Wolf and Waters belonged to a record company called Chess, who signed numerous other stars like Bo Diddley, Little Walter, and Rice Miller. Modern Records, owned by Saul and Jules Bihari of Los Angeles, gave Chess its stiffest competition in the search for R&B talent. The Biharis signed one of the most successful rhythm-and-blues artists, Riley “Blues Boy” King, as well as others like Elmore James and John Lee Hooker. After noticing the success that Chess and Modern had achieved with the electrified Delta blues, new record companies like Vee Jay Records, Imperial Records, KingRecords, and Aladdin Records appeared and brought their own talented singers to the R&B world. The white teens who bought R&B records favored a few showmen who delivered the most frenetic, hard-driving version of an already spirited rhythm and blues that became known as rock-and-roll. The popularity of rock-and-roll is attributed to the various social changes that occurred during the 1950s such as the introduction of the household television. White teenagers from poor Southern backgrounds, growing up in the border states where black and white cultures met to create a mixture of African-American-inspired rhythm and blues and country and western known as rockabilly. Most rockabillies never dreamed of such immense success as Elvis Presley had in his career. Elvis was influenced by the bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta such as Big Bill Broonzy, B. B. King, John Lee Hooker, and Chester (“Howlin’ Wolf”) Burnett. Many Adults criticized the Presley mania. Others held different opinions as Jack Mabley of the jazz magazine Downbeat did, “the fad of Elvis Presley is going to last much longer than the fad for swallowing goldfish.”←45. Fear of increasing juvenile delinquency underlay much of the backlash against Presley. Threatened by the power of youth banding together, which they identified with juvenile delinquency, adults many times linked rock-and-roll to teen violence. Teen riots increased the fear of rock-and-roll delinquents and prompted officials to bar promoters from holding rock concerts in civic buildings. Throughout the late 1950s and into the 1960s, Presley became more subdued and more popular. Presley, appealing to a wider audience, began to receive awards of all types. The famous star enjoyed a newfound wealth but would pay dearly for it with his privacy. He eventually retreated into himself and had an untimely death in 1977. Dick Clark and Don Kirshner, two young entrepreneurs, produced a new crop of idols and a fresh batch of songs for rock-starved teens. Rock-and-roll tragedies such as the death of Presley and Buddy Holly, another famous rockabilly singer, occurred amid booming economic conditions. Record sales in the United States skyrocketed from “$189 million in 1950 to nearly $600 million by the end of the decade”. <--54 Reflecting a postwar trend in U.S. business, the record industry expanded into the international market with rock-and-roll. Dick Clark, a marketing genius from upstate New York, delivered new stars to the increasing number of rock-and-rollers. The new host of Bandstand, a television show which showcased local high school students dancing to popular records, Clark became familiar with the commercial potential of the new music. Clark’s business savvy transformed a local telecast into a national phenomenon. Bandstand, built upon a solid advertising base by Clark, was nationally televised as American Bandstand, premiering on August 5, 1957, on sixty-seven stations coast to coast to more than 8 million viewers. Hordes of teenage girls responded to Clark’s brand of rock-and-roll, rushing home after school and feverishly tuning into the show. Clark and American Bandstand “brought a respectability to rock-and-roll that had not existed with the suggestive, greasy rockabillies”←60. Dick Clark launched the careers of Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Earnest Evans, and more young talents of the late fifties and sixties.

After World War II, California had advantages over most other states including an abundance of natural resources, including lumber, oil, boron minerals, mercury, thorium concentrates, and tungsten. These resources, especially a healthy economy and the sunny, balmy climate of the southern part of the state, drew throngs of migrants after the war. Many of the migrants looked for the mythical California of fun and prosperity that had been promulgated by the press. Surf music was born amid the California boom, reflecting and promoting the myth of the California wonderland. Surfing, the sport of Hawaiian kings, was introduced to California at the turn of the century. Surfers listened to their own music, which originated with Dick Dale and his Del-Tones. The Beach Boys brought surf music to national prominence, “smoothing the rough edges of the fuzzy, twanging surf instrumental”←70. The 1960’s also brought forth protest music. The foundation of 60’s protest music was laid at the turn of the century by the International Workers of the World. Woodie Guthrie was one of the most famous protest singers along with Pete Seeger. Folk music also reappeared around 1960, when the number of college students increased. These college-age youths searched for an alternative to the popular, romanticized hit singles of Don Kirshner’s songwriters who composed for the young teen market. The commercial folk boom ironically led to the rediscovery of traditional folk. Folk artists like Bob Dylan flourished during this time and inspired the creation of folk-rock. Groups became successful with the folk-rock formula of electrified renditions of Dylan songs sung in harmony. The folk-rock explosion, epitomized by the Byrds, “exhibited an influence from Across the Atlantic”←96. On February 9, 1964, Ed Sullivan showcased the Beatles, which were among the most popular bands of the century. As with most working-class youth, the Beatles initially wanted money and fame and they soon achieved their goal. On October 13,1963, the band gained national exposure when they performed at the London Palladium. Several English bands like the Beatles had great success in England and even greater success in America. English groups playing American electric blues formed a flank of the British invasion. The Rolling Stones would take Chicago blues to youths like themselves on both sides of the Atlantic. Members of the Rolling Stones “soon began to uncover the blues roots of rockabilly” ←116.

During the mid 1960’s, a new hybrid of rock-and-roll reflected and helped propagate the new culture named acid rock (after LSD). The social upheaval of hippiedom had its origins with the Beats, who had formulated a countercultural philosophy “based on tenets of Eastern religion”← 117. Many baby boomers grew up in educated middle-class homes. The counterculture had a short-lived peak, falling victim to its drug-based logic. By late 1967, acid rock and the counterculture it exemplified had been drawn into the competitive society it attacked. With the 1970’s came the soul music of artists like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. Other artists like Steview Wonder reinvigorated the sweet soul sound with jumping, harmonica-driven songs. The 70’s also brought classical rock to light. British musicians merged rock with classical music, sometimes adding “escapist, fantasy-laden lyrics to create a hybrid”←195. In addition to soul and classic rock, the 70’s revived a less country-based version of folk music that dealt with the loneliness of the single adult. With the next generation came punk rock like the Sex Pistols and Reggae, the music of the subjugated in Jamaica, which was championed by British punks dedicated to racial equality. By the 80’s, rock had influenced the birth of hip-hop. Hip-hop became the next leading genre of music and continues today. The 1980’s also brought heavy metal to popularity, with bands like Metallica and artists like Ozzy Osbourne. By the 1990’s, hip-hop had branched out and expanded. Gangsta rap led 90’s hiphop while rock evolved and remained popular.

Craig H. Russell of the California Polytechnic State University calls Szatmary’s book “one of the most admirable and well-written”← rock and roll books on the market. Among the book’s several features that impressed Russell are numerous black-and-white photographs, wide margins for note-taking and bold-face type chapter subheadings. He mentions that the writing style is “fluid, well-organized, and always engaging”← and likes how Szatmary lays a historical foundation for the topics he discusses. Additionally, Russell feels that the average college student would be inclined to continue reading this book simply because of the gripping chapter introductions. Russell is especially impressed with the section on Elvis Presley and other rockabilly stars, claiming that “Biography, economics, politics, and sociology are all masterfully intertwined”.←He also claims that the sixth chapter in the book is one of the most “perceptive yet concise” descriptions of how American youths’ flirtation with drugs, sexual liberation, and communal values spawned the psychedelic rock movement of the late 1960s. Russell then praises Szatmary’s overall success in accomplishing the goals he spells out in his preface which included helping the reader to understand rock by “habitually focusing on ideas, concepts, and issues”. Contrary to all this laudation, he points out Szatmary’s lack of discussion regarding the sound of the music mentioned in the book and the omission of the noteworthy Vietnam War. Szatmary fails to mention Native Americans and Hispanics as well. Overall, Russell felt the book’s virtues “far outweigh its few deficiencies”← and considers it one of the best books on rock music ever published.

David P. Szatmary’s Rockin’ in Time: a Social History of Rock and Roll provides a well-constructed, highly informative, and pleasurable guide through the history of rock. Szatmary’s organization makes for a fluid read because of its helpful subheadings and chronological structure—each chapter is ordered to cover different eras.  He writes with depth about his topics while using a sufficiently casual style to engage the reader. Szatmary not only mentions the superstars of history, but some lesser known artists like Jerry Lee Lewis as well. The book covers more than just a history of various music genres like the blues, rock, and hip-hop; it includes the effects this music had on society, economics, and politics. Szatmary’s use of photographs gives readers a concrete glimpse at the reality of the subjects mentioned in the book. Entertaining, flowing, and enlightening, Szatmary’s history of rock and roll is a reliable source for any rock fan.

Szatmary wrote this book with intent that it “be a social history of rock and roll”. As written in the preface, his purpose for writing the book was “[to] guide the reader through American history from roughly 1950-1986, using rock music as a prism through which the many-faceted American experience hopefully will become more apparent”. He successfully achieved his goal by writing ten organized chapters on most every aspect of rock-and-roll’s development and impact throughout American History.

Szatmary believes that rock and roll offered a new way for Americans to express their loves, troubles, and other emotional callings. As he explained throughout the book, rock and roll is a form of soul music like the blues, only with a different taste. He also emphasizes the impact that American politics and economics had on the genre, such as progressivism in the sixties and the rise of the entertainment business. Considering that Szatmary grew up in the fifties and sixties—when rock was beginning its massive rise in popularity—it must have had a large impact on his understanding and opinion of rock. His work as manager of a chain of music store also helped him realize his interest in music and gave him much of the musical knowledge he would need to combine with his history expertise to write this book. Szatmary wrote the book in 1987 when rock legends like Gene Simmons, Ozzy Osbourne, and Jon Bon Jovi rocked the stages with heavy metal, which is often associated with a style of masculinity, as opposed to the punk rock of the seventies which focused on political and anti-establishment themes. The 1980s brought forth many changes in the social, political and economic landscape of America. Identities became more fluid as access to other cultures increased and people took on multiple roles.

The United States is the birthplace of the blues and rock and roll, two popular and beloved music genres around the world. The descendents of African slaves are the founding fathers of blues, originating in the American south. Rock music was a wild branch of blues spawned by artists like Little Richard and gained huge popularity in the mid nineteen hundreds. Because of America’s cultural diversity, politics, and economics, numerous music genres were able to flourish and influence American society. Had there not been a civil rights movement, there would not have been a revival of folk music in America. American business paved the way for the huge financial success of the music industry and rock and roll. Soul music like rock and roll and the blues reflected and was heavily influenced by American values.

Aside from being wildly popular around the world, Rock and Roll influenced societies and economics. Rock had great influence on the rest of the world, inspiring the creation of rock subcultures and causing the success of foreign artists like the Beatles. The Rock industry led to a booming global music industry and eventually helped develop hip-hop, another influential and globally popular genre. Rock and roll continues to reflect our society and to adapt to societal changes.

Rockin’ in Time: a Social History of Rock and Roll extensively covers rock-and-roll’s history, along with its connection to American economics, politics, and society. This book offers an amusing yet educated read for rock fans or scholars alike.