How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music

By Elijah Wald | Go to book overview

2
THE RAGTIME LIFE

John H. Hand and his musicians play “Lohengrin” and “Siegfried” selections at Lincoln
Park for the delectation of the crowd which assembles there one evening each week to
listen, and Park Commissioner Dunton says that it is a mistake. He declares that the young
girl on the diamond frame [bicycle], and the people on tandems, who have been spinning
down the Sheridan Road, as well as those who visit Lincoln Park in their carriages, want “rag
time” music.

“ CHICAGO’S IDEA OF MUSIC,” NEW YORK TIMES, AUGUST 28, 1898

In the mid-1700s, a French immigrant to rural New York State wrote back to the old country describing the music he now enjoyed: “If we have not the gorgeous balls, the harmonious concerts, the shrill horn of Europe, yet we dilate our hearts as well with the simple Negro fiddle.”1 It was the first of many similar effusions. European Americans have thrilled to the playing of African-American musicians for hundreds of years, and if the simple fiddle has evolved into the digital mixing board, much in the relationship of musicians and consumers has remained the same. “Black music for white people,” to take a phrase from the cover of a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins album, has not always dominated the pop charts, but it has accounted for each of the principal evolutions of the American pop mainstream in the modern era: ragtime, jazz, swing, rock, and hip-hop—and I could throw in R&B and disco as well, but let’s stick to basics for a moment.

Ragtime was the first pop genre, in the sense that we have understood pop genres ever since. Before that, there were popular styles of presentation and popular dances, but not what we now would call genres. Minstrel music was noted for its banjos, bones, and tambourines and for some songs with syncopated rhythms, but also for sentimental melodies like “Old Folks at Home” and, in later years, for a range of styles that could even include opera singers like Sissieretta Jones, the “Black Patti” (a stage name that capitalized on the success of the Italian diva Adelina Patti). What distinguished minstrelsy was the blackface makeup and comic stage business more than any particular music, which is why the form was able to survive through a hundred years of shifting musical styles. The waltz, which in the early 1900s was often compared to ragtime as a once-scandalous dance craze, was only a dance, or more accurately a time signature: Anything in three-quarter time

-25-

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How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Amateurs and Executants 13
  • 2 - The Ragtime Life 25
  • 3 - Everybody’s Doin’ It 36
  • 4 - Alexander’s Got a Jazz Band Now 49
  • 5 - Cake Eaters and Hooch Drinkers 60
  • 6 - The King of Jazz 71
  • 7 - The Record, the Song, and the Radio 84
  • 8 - Sons of Whiteman 97
  • 9 - Swing That Music 111
  • 10 - Technology and Its DisContents 126
  • 11 - Walking Floors and Jumpin’ Jive 138
  • 12 - Selling the American Ballad 150
  • 13 - Rock the Joint 166
  • 14 - Big Records for Adults 184
  • 15 - Teen Idyll 199
  • 16 - Twisting Girls Change the World 213
  • 17 - Say You Want a Revolution… 230
  • Epilogue - The Rock Blot and the Disco Diagram 248
  • Notes 255
  • Bibliography 281
  • Index 291
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