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

By Elijah Wald | Go to book overview

5
CAKE EATERS AND HOOCH DRINKERS

If the ragtime era already seemed old-fashioned in 1919, the 1920s have remained a lively source of pop culture into the twenty-first century. Flappers, speakeasies, and gangsters; Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, and Rudolph Valentino; Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Bessie Smith are still familiar touchstones. But the more we think we know about a time, the harder it can be to see it clearly. As someone once said, history may repeat itself, but historians repeat other historians. Certain stories and images get recycled ad infinitum, and alternative stories and images are ignored or disappear entirely as witnesses die and papers are thrown away.

The musical history of the Jazz Age has been complicated by the fact that “jazz” came to mean something very different in later years. The musicians who have been the focus of most jazz scholarship, with their records widely reissued and celebrated as pioneering masterpieces, were not the most popular or typical artists of that era but the ones who captured the imagination of later fans. Race had a lot to do with that. As jazz became defined by many historians as an essentially AfricanAmerican art form, the Jazz Age was recalled as a blossoming of black culture. The Harlem Renaissance writers and artists, the pioneering dancers, and the amazing generation of hot black soloists and blues singers have deservedly been hailed for transforming American culture. In the process, white stars like Ted Lewis, Ben Bernie, Vincent Lopez, and Paul Whiteman have faded from the picture or been held up as examples of the era’s racism and wrongheadedness.

My own tastes were formed a half century after the 1920s and tend to match those of the mainstream jazz historians. So I was surprised when I started listening to Whiteman’s records—not because I found them more exciting than Armstrong’s or Duke Ellington’s but because I had to confront the fact that I didn’t know a damn

-60-

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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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