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Thursday, November 06, 2014

Rockabilly as a Model for the Growth of a Subculture

1957 Elvis liked Pink.

Rockabilly as a Model for the Growth of a Subculture

Book Review
Rockabilly The Twang Heard 'Round the World
The Illustrated History
with Greil Marcus, Peter Guralnick, Luc Sante, Robert Gordon and foreword by Sonny Burgess
Michael Dregni, editor
Voyageur Press
p. 2011

   I was largely ignorant about rockabilly outside Stray Cats, Brian Setzer's subsequent solo career and the odd friend who liked the Cramps until 2011, when Dirty Beaches Badlands came out.  The three most descriptive terms applied to that record were:

1) Rockabilly
2) Elvis
3) Suicide
4) Cramps
Gene Vincent wearing leather and performing.

  Three of those four descriptive terms were Rockabilly derived.  Describing something as "Rockabilly Elvis" is the same thing as saying "Early Elvis."  The Cramps are a revivalist manifestation of the original Rockabilly culture.  Thus, conscious or not, people seemed to think that the Dirty Beaches Badlands LP was some kind of rockabilly inspired work.   Whether the description is accurate or not, it is what the audience was thinking about while listening.
This famous photograph of Elvis performing has Buddy Holly in the Audience.  Taken on June 3rd, 1955

  That episode didn't trigger any kind of active interest in rockabilly.  Within the last year, a trip to Nashville and the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum and the opportunity to watch Wanda Jackson perform at the Stagecoach Festival have led to moments of Rockabilly inspired contemplation.  Finally, Dirty Beaches ending its run as a "band" have led me to review the history of the project, and of course to focus on the time surrounding Badlands as being both crucial to the break up itself and the fact that anyone at all cares about the break up.

  This was the route that led me to: Rockabilly The Twang Heard 'Round the World
The Illustrated History.  This volume is a 200 page picture book, with text from multiple contributing authors.  Most of the space is devoted to either interviews with surviving (or recently deceased) artists from the original period, or thematic essays on important subject.  The key point to emphasis about this volume is how CRITICAL photographs are for obtaining any thorough understanding of the rockabilly era. You need to be able to see records, record art, show posters, etc if you want to really get what was going on.

  Rockabilly The Twang Heard 'Round the World is very precise about the historical facts of rockabilly, and sports its assertions with photographs, interviews and footnotes.  The original period of rockabilly started with the first Elvis record and ended by 1960, though the precise end point is a matter of dispute.   The time period of the original Rockabilly subculture was: 1950ish-1956: precursor events/beginning 1956-1958: heyday 1959-1960: end.

   Between 1956-1958, Elvis rose to fame, but perhaps more importantly, "package tours" of rockabilly artists toured coast to coast, and not simply major markets. Although the roots of rockabilly seemingly lay in Memphis because of the confluence of Elvis and Sun Studios, the active area includes West Texas and New Mexico.  The origins of rockabilly are inseparable from the origins of Elvis Presley, and his early records and shows are the fountainhead for all subsequent rockabilly culture.

   Elvis was of course the son of poorish whites from Tupelo Mississippi, but the music that brought him to attention was unarguably "black" sounding.  Multiple people interviewed about their involvement with early Elvis and commercial radio in the South explicitly say that they would always introduce him by saying what High School (a segregated, whites-only high school) he attended so that his audience would "know" that he was white.

  In fact, race seems to be a critical determinant in separating Rockabilly culture from the larger culture of Rhythm and Blues and rock and roll.  I did not see a single black face in this book, which is a book of photographs, and there was not a single black artist profiled among dozens.  Since so much of the growth of rockabilly culture was the direct result of the success of Elvis Presley with a large audience, it's impossible to "blame" anyone, but it just happened that the Audience for rockabilly and the culture it inspired was 100% white, and it stayed that way until Japanese fans created their own revival twenty years later.

  The second aspect of rockabilly culture that requires emphasis is the style being equally or more important than the music.  If you were to look at subsequent rockabilly revivals, it would be clear that the fascination with rockabilly costume plays a greater role for revivalists than does the accompanying music.  The great majority of this costume was either directly modeled on the wardrobes of Elvis Presley or Gene Vincent (the motorcycle jacket look) and worn by fans of those artists, often at their concerts or events where there music was played by disc jockeys.

  In the example of rockabilly, sub-cultural growth is tied to a very narrow range of conditions and events: the growth of audience for a few musicians and the efforts of their fans to increase their emotional involvement in the career of that artist.   The book makes clear that after the initial break through by Elvis, stake holder in the music industry rushed to find their own versions of Elvis.  It was this effort that dominated 1957 and 1958, and Rockabilly the Twang 'Heard Round the World makes this process abundantly clear by profiling dozens of Artists.  These records were not produced and distributed by rockabilly specific labels, rather they were added to the rosters of existing independent labels who were making a living selling other genres of music.

  This growth in the number of "rockabilly" artists dovetailed with the market for "package tours" in smaller markets all over the United States, and gave these secondary Artists a chance to tour (and extend the hey day of the rockabilly period.)  The "end" of the classic period can be identified a number of ways- Elvis "leaving the building" for pop music, the death of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper in a place crash or through changes in the underlying conditions: Diminished audience interest, co-option by larger industry players and subsequent dilution of the underlying culture, incorporation of the most interesting elements by musicians outside the rockabilly sphere.

  At the end of the classic period for rockabilly, again the racial nature of the culture stands out, with essentially no rockabilly artists migrating to Rock and Roll, but many returning to the fold of Country and Bluegrass.  The conclusion that subcultural growth is more narrowly tied to specific Artists and even more specific economic conditions is inescapable.  The desire for critics to venture further afield seems typically to be a mistake concerning the influences on a specific Artist (What inspired Elvis) with the influence of an Artist on his Audience (What Elvis inspired.)

 Elvis' fans did not necessarily know or care what he "stole" from black music, they just knew they were fans of Elvis.  Trying to attribute some racist impulse to his fans his ridiculous, but documenting the overwhelming white Artist and Audiences of classic rockabilly seems impossible to avoid.

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