We Could Be So Good Together: Rock and Roll and American Fiction

By Dalrymple, Terry; Wegner, John | Nebula, June 2007 | Go to article overview

We Could Be So Good Together: Rock and Roll and American Fiction


Dalrymple, Terry, Wegner, John, Nebula


One of Sherman Alexie's best short stories is titled "Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play 'The Star Spangled Banner' at Woodstock." In it, Alexie explores the contemporary Native American's search for cultural identity and the ways in which American popular culture impacts that search. Beyond Alexie's specific thematic concerns, the story also drives home at least two other important American truths: rock and roll saturates American popular culture and, thus, influences the making of American fiction, even Native American fiction, literature we would not normally associate with rock and roll. However, unlike jazz and the blues, critics have largely overlooked rock's influence on American fiction, even though, as Alexie shows, the rhythm of rock and roll pervades the American psyche to such a degree that it can't help but influence the production of its literary counterparts. Jim Morrison, poet, singer, and character in the increasingly fictionalized melodrama of his life and death, sings with the Doors, "We could be so good together / Ya, we could, I know we could," and he offers to "Tell you 'bout the world that we'll invent" ("We Could Be So Good Together"). Rock and fiction can be good together, too, because their enterprises are similar: Both invent lies in order to invite listeners and readers on an expedition to the truth of human experience.

Although the phrase "rock and roll" and its variants had for years carried sexual connotations in blues and rhythm-and-blues tunes, when Alan Freed applied the term to the new sound of the early 1950s, only he, the artists he played, and a few avid fans caught on. According to Irwin Stambler in the revised edition of The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock, and Soul, Freed was the first disc jockey to use the term regularly (242). Though Freed had an avid following, neither the term nor the music was immediately embraced nationally. In fact, according to Songfacts, a huge database of rock trivia, when Sonny Dae and His Knights released "Rock Around the Clock" in 1954, the reference was so esoteric the record flopped. Even the record company did not know how to describe the song and on the label called it a "novelty foxtrot."

Bill Haley and the Comets released the song as a B-side that same year, but it made no waves until its re-release by the Comets in 1955. By 1957, though, Chuck Berry's hit "Rock and Roll Music" claimed it was the only music to dance to, and by 1958 Danny and the Juniors asserted that rock and roll was here to stay. They were right, and their proclamation has been repeated or echoed for nearly fifty years. "Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay" became an anthem for Sha-Na-Na, and its sentiment echoes in Neil Young's "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)." The likes of The Beatles and The Beach Boys covered "Rock and Roll Music." Peter, Paul, and Mary dug rock and roll music, Bob Seger liked old time rock and roll music, and the Arrows, Joan Jett, and Britney Spears all loved rock and roll and wanted another dime in the jukebox. Neil Young encouraged listeners to "keep on rockin' in the free world." Starship even went so far as claiming to have built a city on rock and roll. Exaggerated (and shallow) as that claim may be, it helps highlight an incontrovertible fact: since the days of Alan Freed, rock and roll has become a monolithic building block for American culture, not just in the cities but, as John Mellencamp clarifies in "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.," in the small towns, too.

Simply put: Rock and roll extends to all fields of American culture. We live in an age when every honky-tonk country band across the nation plays "Joy to the World," "Sweet Home Alabama," and "Old Time Rock and Roll"; Chet Atkins collaborates with Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler (Neck and Neck); country music--no, American music--icon Willie Nelson records tunes with Aerosmith, Kid Rock, Keith Richards, Joe Walsh, Eric Clapton, ZZ Top, and a host of others. …

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