history of American pop music from the dawn of recording through the
1960s, which turns up new stories and provides a fresh outlook on old
ones by looking at what people were listening to and dancing to over
the years, rather than focusing on the usual histories of jazz and rock.
corrections and emmendations.
Related article by Elijah on the evolution from live to recorded music,
from the British Financial
"the most accurate and least spun history of American popular music I've ever read."
"I couldn't put it down. It nailed me to the wall, not bad for a grand
sweeping in-depth exploration of American music with not one mention
of myself. Wald's book is suave, soulful, ebullient and will blow out
"If you're looking, as Wald's subtitle has it, for 'an alternative
history of American music'...you've found it.... Wald is a meticulous
researcher, a graceful writer and a committed contrarian...an impressive
--Peter Keepnews, The New
York Times Book Review
"Wald explores... 80 years of popular music, from the earliest
days of recorded sound, deftly navigating the evolving complexities
of American race relations and the social and economic upheavals of
the last century. It's a tour de force."
--Jon Dennis, The Guardian
"As an alternative, corrective history of American music ... Wald's
book is invaluable. It forces us to see that only by studying the good
with the bad—and by seeing that the good and bad can't be pulled
apart—can we truly grasp the greatness of our cultural legacy."
--Malcolm Jones, Newsweek
"the most challenging, and head-clearing history of American popular
music to be published in decades."
--Jeff Simon, The Buffalo
News (Editor's Choice)
"a sophisticated, scintillating and subversive survey....
--Glenn C. Altschuler, Tulsa
"A bracing, inclusive look at the dramatic transformation in
the way music was produced and listened to during the 20th century....
One of those rare books that aims to upend received wisdom and actually
"Some of the smartest historiography I've ever read. The examples and
turns of phrase sometimes make me laugh out loud, and nearly every page
overturns another out-moded assumption. Elijah Wald just calls it like
he sees it and transforms everything as a result."
--Susan McClary, MacArthur
Fellow and author of Conventional
Wisdom: The Content of Musical Form and
Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality.
How the Beatles
Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll is a history of American popular
music stripped of the familiar clichés of jazz and rock history.
Tracing the evolution of popular music through developing tastes,
trends and technologies, rather than applying modern standards and
genre categories, it gives a fuller, more balanced look at the broad
variety of styles that captured listeners over the course of the
Wald goes back to original sources—recordings, period
articles, memoirs and interviews—in an attempt to understand how music
was heard and experienced over the years. He pays particular attention
to the world of working musicians and ordinary listeners rather than to
stars and specialists, looking at the evolution of jazz as dance music
and of rock 'n' roll in terms of the teenage girls who made up the bulk
of its early audience. There are plenty of famous names—Duke Ellington,
Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, the Beatles—but they are
placed alongside figures like Paul Whiteman, Guy Lombardo, Mitch
Miller, Jo Stafford, Ricky Nelson and the Shirelles, who in some cases
were far more popular and more accurately represent the mainstream of
As the title suggests, this is not a hesitant or stolidly
academic history, but neither is it heedlessly provocative. Wald’s
intention was to explore the past with an open mind, asking some new
questions and answering them as honestly and accurately as possible,
and to make sense of times and people who often seem very foreign,
though they are our own parents and grandparents. He has also tried to
make that journey amusing and interesting, whatever we may think of
ballroom orchestras, bobby-soxers, pop balladeers or British invaders.
Chapters and musical examples:
1. Amateurs and
2. The Ragtime Life
The arrival of phonograph recording began an evolution from music made
by amateurs in their homes to music bought from professional
performers. John Philip Sousa led the country's most popular concert band, and helped make
ragtime a national craze with pieces like "At a Georgia Camp Meeting,"
recorded in 1902. (Visit Internet Archive for a full Sousa program.) (Or watch Elijah Wald play a guitar arrangement of "At
a Georgia Camp Meeting.")
"When I played with the Tuxedo Brass Band I felt just as proud
as though I had been hired by John Philip Sousa..." -- Louis Armstrong
|3. Everybody's Doin'
In the teens, the U.S.was caught up
in the first big craze for social dancing. This chapter looks at the
arrival of the turkey trot, grizzly bear and, most famously, the fox
trot. We visit Irving Berlin, the singing waiter, the ballroom dance
masters Vernon and Irene Castle, and social reformers across the
country who feared that young women were on the road "From Dance Hall
to White Slavery."
Hear James Reese Europe's Society Orchestra play their famous "Castle Walk," recorded under Vernon Castle's
supervision in 1914, and see a recreation of the dance that went with it.
4. Alexander’s Got a Jazz Band Now
5. Cake Eaters and Hooch Drinkers
arrived in the late teens, in rowdy performances like the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's "Livery Stable Blues," and was hailed as a new form of ragtime in songs like
Harris's "When I Hear that Jazz Band Play."
So what was jazz, at first? And what was the music of the "jazz age"
of the 1920s? We've all heard of bootleggers, speakeasies and flappers,
but how did Prohibition affect the music business? These chapters
attempt to sort out the realities behind some of America's most potent
cultural myths. (See Elijah Wald talk about and play "Sheik of Araby")
6. The King of Jazz
"Paul Whiteman was known as the King of Jazz, and no one as yet has
come near carrying that title with more certainty and dignity." -- Duke
Paul Whiteman led the most popular and influential orchestra
of the 1920s. Hiring some of the period's finest musicians and
arrangers, who mixed classical techniques with jazz rhythms and
melodies, he started out making huge hits like 1920's "Whispering," then created the decade's equivalent
of Sgt Pepper when he comissioned George Gershwin to write A Rhapsody in Blue (this is the original 1924
version with Gershwin on piano). In the phrase of the time, he "made a
lady out of jazz," changing it from a music of small, hot improvising
bands into a style arranged for formal dance orchestras and concert
7. The Record, the Song and the Radio
Records were growing in popularity throughout the teens
and early twenties, but songs rather than specific recordings remained
the basic currency of popular music. The arrival of radio, followed by
the crash of the stock market, further altered the balance, providing a
national entertainment medium that arrived for free over the airwaves.
Live bands were no longer needed for every party, but could be heard
for thousands of miles thanks to remote broadcasts. Listen to episodes
of the Brunswick
Brevities and the A&P Gypsies from 1929.
8. Sons of Whiteman
9. Swing that Music
Whiteman's success helped to spawn a wave of large-scale
dance orchestras, from the "sweet bands" of Guy Lombardo ("You're Driving Me Crazy") and Leo Reisman ("Puttin' on the Ritz," with the Ellington band's
Bubber Miley providing the Harlem flavor) to African-American trendsetters like
Fletcher Henderson ("Whiteman Stomp," a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of the
Whiteman style) and Ellington ("Black
and Tan Fantasy," with its Lombardoesque second strain). By the
mid-1930s, Benny Goodman helped push this style in the Henderson
direction ("King Porter Stomp"), and Tommy Dorsey ("I'm
Getting Sentimental Over You") and Glenn Miller ("String
of Pearls") blended this hotter style with the mellow
orchestrations of the sweet bands for the classic big band sound.
(Check out live Goodman and Dorsey broadcasts
from the 1930s, and more swing and dance band recordings at jazz-on-line.com.)
10. Technology and Its Discontents
By the early 1940s, jukeboxes were replacing live performers in clubs,
records were replacing them on radio, and a lot of musicians were wondering how they were going to make a living.
These worries came to a head with the American Federation of Musicians'
recording ban, which prevented any American musicians from recording
for over a year, and played a vital role in decentralizing the music
business. (Researchers might be interested in my timeline of
music-related labor disputes.)
11. Walking Floors and Jumpin’ Jive
Thanks to jukeboxes, amplification and the mass population
shifts of World War II, the big bands began to face competition from
styles of music that urban marketers had thought would only attract
ethnic or fringe audiences. "Hep Hillbillies Make Music Biz Talk
Turkey," read the Billboard headline, next to a picture of
Pee Wee King, a Polish accordionist from Milwaukee. That blend of
hep, cowboy and immigrant appeals was picked up by everyone from the
Texan singer Al Dexter (on the accordion and trumpet-backed "Pistol
Packin' Mama") to Bing Crosby (doing a honky-tonk "Walking the Floor Over You" with his brother Bob's
orchestra), "Two Gun" Louis Jordan (who can be seen doing a
cowboy-suited proto-rap, "Look Out!"), and the ever-perky Andrews Sisters
(who slap each other five as they sing "Gimme Some Skin").
12. Selling the American Ballad
Both jazz and rock historians have tended to
treat the pop scene between the end of the big band era and the arrival
of rock 'n' roll as a musical wasteland, but to a great extent this was
the era that shaped the modern pop record and recording star. Mitch
Miller led a trend of studio-oriented producers who matched singers
with songs and instrumentation the way Hollywood producers cast movies.
And the music was a much more interesting mix than is usually
acknowledged--for instance, Miller's combination of Hank Williams's
songwriting with big band singers Jo Stafford and Frankie Laine
and the outer-space steel guitar of Speedy West on "Tonight We're Setting the Woods
on Fire". (If this track doesn't play, try opening it in a new window. It's worth the trouble.)
13. Rock the Joint
As television took over from radio as America's national broadcast
medium, local stations began producing more of their own programs,
relying more on records and targeting audiences television wasn't
serving. Rhythm and blues shows attracted not only the African American
audiences that were their principle market, but also white teenagers
like Philadelphia's Charlie Gracie (in photo at right), who was
inspired by seeing a local country band led by Bill Haley, made his
debut on Paul Whiteman's TV Teen Club, then became one of the
early rock 'n' roll hitmakers.Check out Gracie on the Ed Sullivan show, and Haley getting
the hepcats on the floor and baffling the music business honchos with "See You Later, Alligator."
14. Big Records for Adults
The 1950s are often described as the decade when
teenagers took over popular music, but in economic terms the big news
was albums overtaking singles--which to a great extent meant the
triumph of music targeted at adults. Broadway cast albums, mood music,
the jazz of Dave Brubeck, the classical stylings of Van Cliburn, and
two dedicated masters of two very different kinds of song: Harry
Belafonte and Frank Sinatra. (See Belafonte's early performance of Jamaica Farewell, and Sinatra trading eights with Peggy Lee on "Nice Work if You Can Get It.")
15. Teen Idyll
Television created a new kind of pop star--someone who rather than
being a faraway, super-talented figure was a regular teenager. Ricky
Nelson grew up in America's living rooms, and when he picked
up a guitar he instantly became the biggest rock 'n' roll star aside
from--of course--Elvis, with performances like 1959's "It's Late." Dick Clark's American Bandstand
created stars as quickly as it created dance steps, including a trumpet
prodigy named Frankie Avalon who was reborn as an slim Elvis clone
singing "Teacher's Pet" in Jamboree,
a film Clark co-produced.
16. Twisting Girls Change the World
In the early 1960s, a wave of non-touch dances led by the twist changed American
dancing forever--and gave gospel and Latin rhythms a new prominence on
the pop charts with bands like Joey Dee's racially mixed Starliters
drawing dancers of all ages to their shows at the Peppermint Lounge, and Chubby Checker
and Dee Dee Sharp demonstrating how to groove with gospel harmonies in
their duet of "Slow Twistin'." Girl
groups like the Shirelles brought female singers to the forefront with
songs ranging from theCrystals' ebullient "Da Doo Ron Ron" to Lesley Gore's explicitly
feminist "You Don't Own Me."
17. Say You Want a Revolution…
The British Invasion that began with the Beatles' record-setting
American debut on the Ed Sullivan Show not
only transformed rock 'n' roll but in some ways marked the end of pop
music as it had existed for the previous seventy years. For a taste of
how things sounded in mid-invasion, check out an hour of Top 40 radio from
Scottsdale Arizona in the summer of 1964, complete with an interview
with the leader of the Beatle Boosters Fan Club as they circulate their
petition to bring the Beatles to Arizona. (There is a lot more amazing
radio from this period at the reelradio archive.)