Yet as in most things musical, it’s not quite that simple. Many writers such as Nick Tosches (Unsung Heroes of Rock and Roll) and Robert Palmer (Rock & Roll: An Unruly History) have over the years attempted to explain the origins of one of America’s greatest home grown art forms. But Stereophile Contributing Editor Larry Birnbaum has found previous accounts to be lacking and so has devoted years of his life to producing an exhaustive account, Before Elvis, The Prehistory of Rock ‘n’ Roll, (Scarecrow Press, Lanham, MD, 2013), that documents all the streams that led up to the first big rock ‘n’ roll hit: Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” in 1955.
“Until now, rock ‘n’ roll has largely been viewed as a bolt from the blue, an overnight revolution provoked by the bland pop that preceded it and created through the white appropriation of music that had previously been played only by and for blacks,” Birnbaum writes in his introduction. “The connection between rural blues and early rock ‘n’ roll is oblique, mediated by jazz and country music.”
In the 380 pages that follow, Birnbaum meticulously traces the cross pollinations and tangled webs that have informed and inspired a music that many, even today, view as simplistic, subversive or as Frank Sinatra so memorably put it, the music of “cretinous goons.” Organized as chapter long discussions of the roles played by the various musical flavors that mixed and influenced each other on the way to becoming rock ‘n’ roll, Before Elvis runs through detailed yet very readable discourses on the blues, hokum, boogie woogie, jazz, big band jump jazz, country music forms like western swing and hillbilly boogie and finally an R&B chapter that details saxophone honkers and blues shouters, and culminates in a great sub chapter on New Orleans R&B. Particularly fascinating is the way Birnbaum traces the common origins of a number of famous rock ‘n’ roll standards like “The Train Kept ARollin’,” “CowCow Boogie” and “Johnny B. Goode,” following them through all of their recorded versions, and concluding that in some ways, they are all the same tune.
This not light reading by any stretch, this study could have benefited from more flavorful scene setting and fleshing out of the personalities involved. Music, as opposed to say references to the sociopolitical climate at the time this music was being made, is the strict focus here and the resulting mass of names, dates and song titles here may frighten off the less musically obsessed. But for those interested in the multihued origins of this most essential American music, this volume is a welcome and important leap forward in tracing the capillaries and veins leading to rock ‘n’ roll’s heart.