A lady once told me that I had a past life — that I lived through traditional folk, the creation of blues music, and the wild beginnings of rock ‘n roll and surf, straight into late 1960s, when I died, to be reborn in the early 1990s. “That’s why you connect so much with it. That’s why you know all about it. You were actually there.”
I said, “Nah, I just spend a lot of time on the internet.”
When I find a song that I like, I look up the artist. I read about who influenced that artist. I look up the influence’s influences. I look up the influence’s influence’s influences. Some like to call this investigation an exploration of the musical “timeline,” but that offers up a rigid visual — a straight line, with notched points in history heading either backward or forward. In my head, music looks more like a massive strike of lightning or a really old tree or your grandmother’s vericose veins. It’s multi-directional, and the connections are essentially infinite. *hits blunt again* Music is like, really expansive, you know?
Although now, I do this research because I find it fun and necessary and I like knowing a lot about the stuff I’m into, I didn’t start looking into the deep backgrounds of my favorite genres because of curiosity.
I did it to prove someone on the internet wrong.
I don’t remember who said it, or why, or when, or where, but I do remember the sentiment: “White people created rock ‘n roll.” They cited Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley as definitive proof that rock had white roots. I cracked my knuckles and went to work.
I suppose, in a backward way, the dude was right about one thing: Rock ‘n roll would not exist without blues. Blues would not exist without slavery and racial inequality. Slavery and racial inequality would not exist without white people. If that’s the way you justify the belief that rock ‘n roll was birthed by The White Man, well, then shit, I can’t really argue with that logic. But maybe you shouldn’t be proud of it.
Don’t get me wrong — Elvis, Jerry Lee lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and the barrage of artists who laid claim to Sun Records in the early 1950s played a huge role in the popularization of rock ‘n roll. There’s no doubt that Sun was a force to be reckoned with, in terms of musical innovation and production. But to say that these musicians “invented” rock ‘n roll is a bit misleading. Actually, it’s just wrong.
When you look at the history of a genre, it’s unfair to look at the first artist on a major label who released a sound similar to that genre. You gotta go back a little bit further to see where they were extrapolating their sound from. And in my opinion, rock ‘n roll first starting baring its teeth through a black, queer woman named Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Like many musicians in the late 30s and early 40s, Tharpe had to live a double life: There was spiritual Tharpe, a renowned gospel singer who performed traditional songs of lightness with the church choir. And then there was secular Tharpe, who sang her own brand of “hot gospel” at random nightclubs — always in the dark of the night.
Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash have all cited her as a major influence. A pioneer, even. Why doesn’t she get more attention?
Check this jam, “Rock Daniel.” Specifically, check her little guitar solo at 1:05. And her voice in the last 30 seconds or so? Dang, this girl wails! This song was released around 1940 — twelve years before Sun Records was even founded.
She pissed off a lot of church-goers to bring you the beginnings of your favorite genre.
So did Bunker Hill. David Walker was another musician who walked the line separating the sacred from the secular, except that when Walker’s gospel choir group, The Mighty Clouds of Joy, learned about the songs he was recording under the name Bunker Hill, he got kicked out of the band. Specifically, the few songs he recorded with Ray Vernon — the brother of legendary surf guitarist Link Wray. This song, played with Link Wray & The Raymen, was way too salacious for the Holy House.
To be fair, when this song was released in 1962, rock ‘n roll had already been a thing for a while. But this song, again performed with the Raymen, could be the starting point of punk.
I know a few who think that “Demolicion” by Peruvian band Los Saicos was the birth of punk, but… I dunno, man. “The Girl Can’t Dance” is so gnarly. I think it’s gnarlier than Demolicion. And it came out three years earlier!
And you know “House of the Rising Sun,” the iconic song made famous by The Animals in 1964? It’s been covered by just about every rock ‘n roll band since (I could seriously write an entire post just about covers of that song), but the earliest known recording came from Tom Clarence Ashley in 1933. But Ashley said he learned the song from his grandfather, Enoch, so… it’s a lot older than 1933. And it’s sure as fuck older than 1964.
And then there’s the Cool Grandpa of folk music, Mississippi John Hurt. In 1928, a 30-something year old MJ Hurt won a fiddle contest in which the prize was a chance to record with Okeh records in Memphis. There, he recorded 13 songs, including “Avalon Blues.” Soon after the recordings, the stock market crashed, Okeh disappeared, and so did Hurt — he went back to working as a sharecropper.
It wasn’t until almost 40 years later that an archival musicologist was able to track him down, using the lyrics to “Avalon Blues” as a map leading to Avalon, Mississippi. The musicologist, Tom Hoskins, convinced Hurt to travel with him and start playing some folk festivals, including the legendary Newport Folk Festival in 1963. After that performance, Hurt’s popularity surged, particularly within the community of early 60s folk singers.
So, listen up hippies — you can thank Mississippi John Hurt for providing the fodder for all your frickin’ Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia covers.
Maybe you’re a modern hippie, the kind who was super into the folk resurgence of 2008. Maybe you really dig acts like The Tallest Man on Earth (who’s actually, like, 5’5″). Unsurprisingly, The Tallest Man on Earth draws heavily upon older folk influences like Bob Dylan (who drew heavily from MJ Hurt), Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger.
He even traces it back a little farther; when his album, “Shallow Grave” came out, I remember listening to the song “I Won’t Be Found” and noticing a little easter egg reference to the 1928 song, “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” by Bascom Lamar Lunsford.
Listen to these lyrics, specifically when he talks about being “just like a lizard in the spring” and “just like a mole deep in the ground.”
Now, listen to this. 80 years earlier.
If you wanna get specific, Lunsford said that he learned this song from one of his neighbors in North Carolina in 1901, so you can tack another 27 years onto that bad boy.
The point of all this isn’t just to spew some trivia. It’s to illustrate that, even if your favorite band released their first album in 2014, there’s a long, long musical lineage that leads up to that individual album. To every album. Ever. There’s always some connection to be made, some influence to look into, and some musical connect-the-dots to play.
Next time you get into a rut of “related artists” that you’ve heard already, or you’re just bored of listening to things released in 2010, try doing some influence-sleuthin’. You may end up really impressing a lady who will subsequently tell you all about your past life as a washtub-player in a 1930s Appalachian folk band.
Maggie Spear is a good-for-nothin’ 22-year-old with an obsessive personality and a deliberately non-obsessive lifestyle. If you wanna send her some cool music and talk about things that you can’t talk about with anyone else, shoot her an email at maggiemariespear at gmail.com. Twitter is too much work.
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