Rock Eras: Interpretations of Music and Society, 1954-1984

Rock Eras: Interpretations of Music and Society, 1954-1984

Rock Eras: Interpretations of Music and Society, 1954-1984

Rock Eras: Interpretations of Music and Society, 1954-1984


From 1954 to 1984, the media made rock n’ roll an international language. In this era of rapidly changing technology, styles and culture changed dramatically, too. In the 1950s, wild-eyed Southern boys burst into national consciousness on 45 rpm records, and then 1960s British rockers made the transition from 45s to LPs. By the 1970s, rockers were competing with television, and soon MTV made obsolete the music-only formats that had first popularized rock n’ roll. Paper is temporarily out of stock, Cloth (0-87972-368-8) is available at the paper price until further notice.


While working on this book, I have thought of it as a piece of music because it has themes and variations, recurring motifs, and maybe even rhythm. Yet, for most of my life I have written about subjects which have nothing to do with music at all, so my love of rock 'n' roll may need some explanation. The thing is, it all started down home.

I was born on April 16, 1940, in Florence, Alabama, birthplace of W.C. Handy and Sam Phillips, and a neighbor of the future home of Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals. In 1943, my family moved to Tupelo, Mississippi, which was about five miles from East Tupelo, where Elvis Presley was going to Lawhon Elementary School. Tupelo is named for a gum tree, as in the title of Van Morrison's "Tupelo Honey," and is mentioned in Bobby Gentry's "Ode to Billy Joe." (Tupelo is north of Meridian, the birthplace of Jimmy Rodgers and Steve Forbert. Although Tupelo is in the hill country about 70 or 80 miles from the delta, one great blues singer, Howlin' Wolf, lived briefly in Tupelo, and another one, Mississippi John Hurt, recorded a song called "Tupelo Blues." When I was little, I played with Tammy Wynette, who is my second cousin. At least my father tells me that I played with her; I don't remember her at all. I do remember, though, that I saw Elvis in concert at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show when he came back to Tupelo in the fall of 1956.

I have a direct connection to Elvis and the rise of rockabilly in Memphis through my cousin Charles Underwood (I do remember him—he once showed me a leather guitar cover he had made for Elvis). Charles Wrote "Ubangi Stomp," which was a hit for Warren Smith on Sun Records in 1956. In 1962, after he moved to Hollywood, he engineered Bobby Pickett's "Monster Mash" and Herb Alpert's "The Lonely Bull."

So, I have some personal connections with popular music in America. The title of Bill Malone's fine book Southern Music, American Music stresses the point that much of American popular music comes from the South—whether it be the early minstrel shows, jazz, gospel, blues, bluegrass, country and western, or rock 'n' roll. And many of the important innovators in those styles came from Mississippi.

But, like my cousin Charles, I didn't stay in the South. Although I had other places to go and other things to do, my love of music stayed with me. By now, I've had enough time to clarify to myself what I believe about music, and what I don't believe. It seems helpful to state those beliefs at the outset.

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