It’s a truism that technology can (and should) liberate. The history of rock music demonstrates this axiom quite well, as shown in Ed Ward’s new book “The History of Rock and Roll, Volume One –1920 to 1963” (Flatiron Books, 390 pages, $35). Beginning with folk music and what was called race music, first recorded on phonographic discs in the 1920s, to the birth of the radio and the electric guitar, through the electrifying of the blues, to jukeboxes, early TV broadcasts, and Hollywood films, the book is packed with info about the personalities that created rock and roll, and the technologies that made the genre possible.
Decades ago, long before techno-pop artists adopted popular music forms, filling stadiums with shows featuring banks of electronics, laser lights and towers of amplified speakers, a rip-roaring night on the town may have consisted of heading down the road to hear a simple unamplified guitar, banjo or fiddle accompanied by a vocalist. Folk, country and western, blues, gospel, rhythm and blues, pop and rock all come into play, across the decades in Ward’s detail-rich book. It’s a page turner, ideally next to your computer, smartphone or tablet (YouTube has pretty much all the tracks he mentions), so you can follow along while listening. All the characters that transformed a diverse array of genres into the world’s (arguably) most influential music genre are presented, and Ward doesn’t disappoint those who prefer their music history served with a side dish of gossip (Colonel Parker was an illegal immigrant, Chuck Berry went to jail for violating the Mann Act, John Lennon was a popper of pep pills, etc.). Oh My!
Decades ago, long before techno-pop artists adopted popular music forms, filling stadiums with shows featuring banks of electronics, laser lights and towers of amplified speakers, a rip-roaring night on the town may have consisted of heading down the road to hear a simple unamplified guitar, banjo or fiddle accompanied by a vocalist.
As the resident rock and roll historian for NPR’s Fresh Air, Ward’s encyclopedic knowledge serves him well here, and offers up more than mere gossip. Along the way he covers the clubs, the rise of the labels, the record stores, the DJs, the managers, and the stars they created, along with Billboard stats of hundreds of songs making it convenient to listen as you read. There’s an emphasis on the United States, with a few chapters devoted to Britain, which reacted to this uniquely American creation in a variety of interesting ways.
It starts with the music presented in traveling medicine shows, which allowed new sounds to spread from town to town, and eventually, when radio caught on, it spread even faster. When things really start to take off in the ’50s, the book goes deeply into vocal groups, the beginning of Motown, pop groups and rock groups, as well as the role of the electric guitar, mentioning the Fender Stratocaster at least four times (Fullerton shout out!) as well as continuing to follow the second and third careers of those who started out in the ’30s and ’40s. Lots of background info here, along with the wonderful songs that are still staples on oldies stations today (and many others that should be).
Ward’s book ends in January of 1964, just as the Beatles are set to take the United States by storm. Ward spends more than 50 pages on the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and a good number of pages to the beginning of Elvis’ career as well, but only after setting up these pop/rock phenomena in the context of the decades of blues, gospel, and folk artists and others who started it all. Highly recommended.