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Monday, May 02, 2011

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

The Seventh Stream:
The Emergence of Rocknroll in American Popular Music
by Philip H. Ennis
Wesleyan University Press
p.  1992

    A note on vocabulary- Ennis uses the term "Rocknroll" to refer to the formative period of "rock and roll."  He distinguishes rocknroll from the later period of "rock."  Basically, rocknroll is what happened before 1965 and "rock" happened afterwards.  It's not a usage that has caught on in any significant way since the publication of this book in 1992, and perhaps that is unfortunate, because I, for one, happen to agree that "everything changed" in the mid 1960s, and that the changes weren't for the better.

  Eninis' main thesis is that rocknroll was the synthesis of the six pre-existing "streams" of American popular music:  Pop (Tin Pan Alley/Brill Building), Black Pop, Country Pop, Gospel, Jazz and Folk.  In the first section of The Seventh Stream, Ennis focuses on the "assembly" of the six distinct streams against the back drop of technological change between 1900 and 1940.  His insightful, distinct division of American Popular Music into six "streams" is paired with a turgid, obvious recitation of the pre-World War II struggle between the publishing industry and the broadcasting industry.  To his credit, Ennis does clearly demonstrate how this struggle influenced the development of the "six streams"  (In a nutshell, the rise of radio favored Black Pop and Country Pop at the expense of Traditional Pop.)

  The lasting contribution that Ennis makes to "rock history" comes in his tour-de-force of a second section, where he describes the emergence of rocknroll in the post World War II period.  Perhaps his most important insight is the manner in which he describes the reflective relationship between Charts and the Record Labels who sought to profit from that information.  The concept linking the two is the "crossover" i.e. a song that appeared simultaneously on two or more of the three major post War charts: Pop, Country & Rhythm and Blues.  Ennis makes the case that it was the goal of the actors in the period immediately preceding the emergence of rocknroll to CREATE a sound that would "chart" on all three charts at the same time.
  This was certainly the goal of Bill Haley, whose "Rock Around the Clock" was the first rock "hit" in 1955.  Haley, a long time musical journeyman, had been tinkering with different stylistic combinations in a concentrated attempt to "cross-over" BEFORE he recorded rock around the clock.  This was also the case for the man who would embody the emergence of rocknroll: Elvis Presley.  Before Elvis arrived, Sam Phillips was LOOKING for someone LIKE Elvis- a white guy who could sing like a black guy.  It's an analysis that very much gibes with my own reading of the same books that Ennis relied on.  In this analysis, the technological changes that preceded rocknroll's emergence (the 45)) were a necessary but not sufficient condition for the emergence.  Rather, it was the effort of specific individuals to "solve the problem" of cross-over appeal, as based on their analysis of the Billboard/Cashbox charts.  This effort was largely undertaken by the independent effort of small scale record label owners- not- repeat- not- by the major labels of the time.
    Like other books about rock that were published prior to the mp3 revolution, Ennis' section covering the mid 60s to the "present" suffers from the absence of the internet. Certainly, one is reminded of the "End of History" type books that accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall and failed to anticipate the rise of Islamic radicalism.
     One theme that emerges from the Seventh Stream is the way in which dominant streams become creatively "exhausted" and then look to outside influences from less popular streams.  Ennis also tips his cap to the importance of demographics- it's hard to divorce the emergence of rocknroll from the post World War II "baby boom" and concomitant rise of "Youth Culture."  All in all, the Seventh Stream is easily the BEST book I've ever read on the roots of rocknroll.  It's a must read, especially for young musicians or would be cultural critics.  GO GET IT.

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