Who stole the Rollin’ Stone: An excerpt

Edward Azlant is a film academic, screenwriter, rock photographer (“Immortal Otis Redding”), and record producer (Lenny Bruce). He’s written for publications from Rolling Stone (second issue) to FrontPage. He has now written a long column — we’re teasing it with the excerpt below — on the “Ideology of Rock.” Mr. Azlant is looking for a home for it. If you edit a publication or site and are interested in the column, please contact Mr. Azlant ([email protected]). Below is an excerpt of his “Ideology and rock: Who stole the Rollin’ Stone?”

There’s a game going around divining the ideology of rock and roll songs, the soundtrack of post-WWII pop culture. In a recent issue of National Review John J. Miller lists his 50 top conservative rock songs of all time. For Miller, to be conservative the lyrics must convey an idea or sentiment such as “skepticism of government or support for traditional values.”

Besides begging the routine taxonomic questions of rock criticism (soul and country rock are neglected), it’s a lighthearted whimsy. Miller regards “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who as an oath for disillusioned revolutionaries, “Taxman” by The Beatles as anti-taxation, and “Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones as an anatomy of moral relativism, The Screwtape Letters of rock.

It’s the whimsy of this enterprise that’s troubling, characteristic of much conservative cultural criticism, like nice kids walking the mall for evidence of Hayek or Friedman or C. S. Lewis, hoping
their reason and civility will be noted and reciprocated. Rather, this is a topic that invites swearing and kicking. Rock and roll lyrics may stray anywhere, but they are everywhere soaked in adolescent rebellion and the quest for identity. The bigger question is: where does all this come from, what are the roots of rock and roll and how did it develop?

Simply put, rock and roll derives from the blues, from the Delta through Chicago; from gospel, through R&B; and from hillbilly music through country and western. The various contributions of the key figures and precise mixes of these elements constitute the enormous library of rock history, but there is little dispute that these are the basic ingredients.

Equally simple, by any measure these ingredients are all deeply rooted, traditional folk materials. Gospel is spiritual music; soul means the presence of belief and inspiration. To listen to The Soul Stirrers or the Dixie Hummingbirds, who would contribute basic elements and lead singers to R&B, is to listen to black fundamentalist Christian music. Country music is but a couple heartbeats from the old Celtic lyric and instrumental traditions that were preserved in America’s back country. To listen to C&W music is to listen to the Scots-Irish mountain music the Carter Family and Jimmy Rogers reworked and recorded. The Blues, while evolving from field hollers and work songs and containing the pain of servitude, derives much of its furious beauty through the tangled duplicities, angry melodramas, and tragic endings of the ancient war between men and women, much of it in the voice of underclass males. To hear the blues is to learn what Memphis Minnie did “Down in the Alley,” why Stagerlee shot Billy.

On the other hand, there is little in rock’s early ancestry to support a “progressive” sensibility, hardly a sliver of grand historical perspective, little mention of a benevolent natural world, nary a social heaven on earth.

How does all this get so turned around, appropriated? This is not an easy question. Start by considering some key emblems of this appropriation. In 1948 Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield), first recorded by lefty Alan Lomax in 1941 scouring the South for authentic American folk music, by then in Chicago, his guitar electrified, recorded his version of the Delta Blues song “Rollin’ Stone.” It is a brilliant, muscular turn defining the authentic identity of the blues man as womanizer, vagabond, rounder, drifter after train smoke. The irresistible energy of the blues played with electric guitar was at the heart of rock’s evolution.

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