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

By Elijah Wald | Go to book overview

3
EVERYBODY’S DOIN’ IT

In the second decade of the twentieth century, the only music that seemed to matter was dance music. “Dance-Mad Denizens of the Metropolis Keep on the Whirl from Luncheon to Breakfast Time” cried a headline in the New York Times.1 Ragtime syncopation vied with the rhythms of Brazil, Cuba, and Argentina; songwriters rushed out tunes to fit the latest steps; and restaurateurs cleared away tables to make room for hectic fox-trotters and lithe aficionados of the tango. This trend owed as much to shifting demographics as it did to innovations in music or dance, and the zeitgeist can be glimpsed in the contrasting stories of the era’s key figures in each art: Irving Berlin and the dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle. Berlin and the Castles conquered Broadway together in 1914 with a musical revue called Watch Your Step, but they got there by very different routes, and their stories exemplify two of the dominant myths of what would soon be known as the Jazz Age.

Berlin, originally named Israel Baline, was born in Russia in 1888 and arrived in New York with his parents at age five. His father, a Jewish cantor, died when “Izzy” was thirteen, and soon the boy was living on his own on the Lower East Side, singing for tips in saloons. He learned the fine points of this trade by acting as lead boy for a singer named Blind Sol, just as many rural blues singers got their start by leading blind black buskers. Like them, Berlin never learned to read music and picked up his skills through the oral tradition, lending credibility to the many early writers who referred to his compositions as folk songs. But rather than wandering the dusty roads of the rural South, he was in the middle of America’s most active commercial music scene, where songs were a product to be knocked together on an assembly line and rushed out in bulk. Berlin got his first taste of that process as a song plugger for Harry Von Tilzer, the man who, according to one story, gave Tin Pan Alley its

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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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