After hearing about America’s fascination with Latin rhythms last week, specifically with mambo and hip-hop, the America’s Music lecture series moved on to focus on the genre of rock and popular music of the mid-60s. Moving from rhythm & blues to rock n’ roll—from the emergence of the “coffee shop culture” in Greenwich Village with Bob Dylan into the electric world of Jimi Hendrix and The Who—it quickly became apparent that the genre of “rock” encompasses an overwhelming number of musical ideas and experiments.
Visiting Assistant Professor of Music Erica Scheinberg opened the lecture with the year 1954, when rock began gaining attention from audiences, particularly young teenagers who enjoyed the rhythm & blues and its mixture of country, blues and rock sounds. Scheinberg played Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” which exemplified the rhythms and not-so-subtle sexual references teenagers enjoyed as a rebellion against older listeners and parents.
The name “rock n’ roll” was termed from the lyrics of R&B, first alluding to sex but then becoming associated more with a style of dancing. Artists from this post-R&B style included Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Willy Mae “Big Mama” Thornton; and in many cases, like with Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” new renditions and covers were made of these tunes and spread through the growth of radio.
The film portion of the evening presented “The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll: Episode 6, Plugging In,” which focused on the later period of singers and songwriters involved in the Greenwich Village scene, including Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills & Nash, The Mamas & the Papas and Richie Havens. This moment in music history was part of a blues revival, bringing back folk songs and traditions unique to American culture. As opposed to the teen-based marketing scheme for early “rock,” this coffee shop culture aimed to move away from entertainment and focus more seriously on music and lyrics, such as with Dylan’s political activism through his poetic texts.
Another step forward moved popular music out of New York’s Greenwich Village and to the West Coast and Los Angeles. That step, or leap, forward occurred at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, when Bob Dylan “plugged in” and went electric. Dylan was met with gasps, boos and complete shock as he put the acoustic guitar down and brought the loudest volume the folk festival had ever seen. Bands with electric sounds began to appear, such as the Beach Boys, whose “Pet Sounds” showed how albums were becoming works of art and venues of serious musical ideas and lyrics.
One of the film’s final scenes included the ultimate battle between The Who and Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, with each attempting to outdo the other by demolishing instruments in what the narrator described as a “violent rape” by The Who’s Pete Townshend and an “erotic sacrifice” by Hendrix. This incident somewhat encompassed the music environment in the 60s and 70s, experimenting and pushing boundaries further than anyone ever had.
The focus on rock in America’s Music highlighted how individuals greatly influenced the path of popular of music and inspired a cultural revolution that continues to resonate with audiences today. Looking at what was happening in America and apart from the Beatles reminded audiences of both the musical and cultural traditions that continually inspire and shape us today.