Sunday, 15 November 2009

The Seventh Stream: The Emergence of Rocknroll in American Popular Music

By Philip H. Ennis

Philip Ennis presents a major social and cultural study of the origins and evolution of "rocknroll." With masterful command of general trends and telling details, he describes the artistic, economic, and political context that nurtured this radically new popular music. This "seventh stream," which drew from existing forms of pop music, began as a youth movement of rebellion and remains a worldwide banner of youth in search of alternatives. "Rocknroll" emerged, he shows persuasively, from the successive meeting and melding of the other six "streams"--pop, black pop, country pop, jazz, folk, and gospel. He chronicles how these were shaped by struggles over musical property rights, and by the new technologies of radio and phonograph record. The most decisive clash was between the New York based music publishers and the radio broadcasters. Their decades long contest resulted in many cultural changes. The basic unit shifted from sheet music to the phonograph record. The radio disc jockey in small, independent radio stations became the new focal point for all the popular musics. New venues, audiences, and talent appeared throughout the nation. The appearance of "rocknroll" marked a significant cultural moment, argues Ennis. This "seventh stream" was part of an explosive efflorescence in all the American arts after World War II. Its early stars--Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley--built a pantheon of performers with deep roots in all the other streams.


For Dylan, the incompatible elements of art, commerce, and politics in the folk-rock antagonism were resolved almost instantly in 1964. He couldn't get over the fact that the Beatles had eight of the top ten songs. The following views, reported by Anthony Scaduto, state both Phil Ochs' and Bob Dylan's stance at this crucial moment.

[Ochs:] I thought then that there was no end to what he [Dylan] could do now. I thought that he could become Elvis Presley on that level. Essentially he could physically represent rural America, all of America and put out fifteen gold records in a row. . . . My feeling at that time was that he did want that. . . . What happened then was the Beatles got in the way. Dylan wrote the lyrics, and the Beatles captured the mass music.
[Dylan to Ochs:] The stuff you're writing is bullshit, because politics is bullshit. It's all unreal. The only thing that's real is inside you. Your feelings. Just look at the world you're writing about and you'll see you're wasting your time. The world is, well . . . it's just absurd.

The bitchy tone of these words is probably not characterological. The interpersonal style of that Village club scene, set by the manners of the various scene-makers, ranged from southern-spiced barbs and New York brusqueness, through the normal show business character assassination, to black confrontational rhetoric. Whatever the motivation, Dylan and Ochs were responding to severe pressures. The folk stream was being devoured by the pop stream. Everyone in both camps was highly nervous about choosing the terms of the meal. Few could maintain a completely graceful composure under the stress, when hundreds of thousands of dollars were at stake in every record and a real shot at the big time was in the offing. The battleground was mainly over the integrity of the performer, his choice of songs, his inclusion of profanity, and issues of dress and manners. The rules of the game played by the pop stream were not the same as in the folk stream. Art, commerce, and politics had different meanings, were given different priorities. Dylan was clear, again according to Scaduto, on where he wanted to be. It was with the kids, and they were wise to the futility of student protest.


Emblematic of this moment of dissolution and the courage of some parts of the rock life to fight it, and fight in the same terms that had spawned rocknroll in the first place, was the action of Phil Ochs, one of the veteran folk singers of the early 1960s New York Village scene. He had been a stalwart and cheerfully unyielding singer-songwriter at the political end of the rock stream, a friendly antagonist of Dylan, but committed to the fusion of music and politics. After nearly two years of recovering from the defeats of 1968 at the Chicago National Democratic Convention, he returned to Carnegie Hall for a solo concert. John S. Wilson, senior jazz critic of the New York Times, reviewed the event. Its reprinting here in full is merited, I think, not only because of the drama of the evening but because it illuminates rock's pause period more fully than any other (fig. 12-3).

Ochs' personal musical development, from Elvis to the Kingston Trio and then to politics, was probably the route taken by millions. His plea to acknowledge and continue the journey may have succeeded that magical evening in Carnegie Hall. The gold lamé suit (see figure 12-4), also worn by Elvis, certainly was a shocker. It didn't work anywhere else, though, and it worked for him only partially and painfully. After several years of touring and a benefit concert in 1974 for victims of the Chilean junta with Dylan, he committed suicide in 1976.

No comments: