book: ‘devil’s music, holy rollers and hillbillies’ dispels myths to shed light on the true origins of rock #soundcheck

May 26, 2017
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By the mid 60’s, rock had been so thoroughly gentrified, that a young Rick James declared himself the black Mick Jagger, despite Mick Jagger himself being just a white Chuck Berry who can’t play guitar (though in fairness, Keith Richards can’t play guitar either). Elvis is lionized as the King of Rock and Roll, despite the hit-making era of his career lasting barely 2 years. His crown was given by a white audience to erase the black origins of the music he played. Delving into the vast complex web of racial dynamics and musical evolution, James A. Cosby’s Devil’s Music, Holy Rollers and Hillbillies tries to peel back the layers of myth to shed light on the true origins of rock.

By Nathan Leigh*, AFROPUNK Contributor

Devil’s Music traces the origins of rock from Mali to Memphis, focusing largely on the musical movements of the 30’s and 40’s that paved the way for rock’s ascendancy in the 50’s. He recounts with reverence the myth of Robert Johnson, the epic saga of BB King, and the criminally overlooked genius of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The narrative jumps around in time, trying to draw straight lines from one artist to another before doubling back, tying in the rise of country and hillbilly music. Though it can be jarring at times, like any good needlework, the image that gradually emerges from the stitches is impressive and richly detailed. In the book’s most compelling sections, he attempts to reason out the first rock song, settling squarely on Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88,” though providing compelling evidence for a dozen other options. Crosby successfully quantifies the unquantifiable soul of rock when he observes “not only did a broken piece of equipment not stop a recording session, but that the participants decided, Who cares?, and then went with it because it sounded and felt right—and it even made the resulting music better. That is as rock and roll as it gets.”

His reverence for the subject matter sometimes gets in its own way, as when he excuses Sun Records’ founder Sam Phillips’ decision to abandon the black artists that his label built its name on after Elvis’ success as a simple financial matter. Or when he laments that Ike Turner’s abuse of Tina overshadows Ike’s contributions to music history. But the lengthy sections on Elvis do an impressive job of deconstructing the legend, and trying to understand it rather than justify it. When he notes “It would seem that any one of the sixteen gift shops that cover Graceland take in more money than the combined sale of Charley Patton, Lonnie Johson, Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters, combined,” Crosby gets to the heart of the matter. There are certainly many many ways in which Elvis the man was a problematic figure, but the bigger problem is a society that props up Elvis the myth at the expense of the black artists he drew from.

Devil’s Music, Holy Rollers and Hillbillies takes its time to delve in to not just the marquis names, but also acts like Charley Patton, Louis Jordan, and Lloyd Price who all provided the backbone for rock’s bigger acts. The biggest criticism: a glaring omission of a playlist.

The book is available on Amazon now.

“SRT” Photo Caption: “The still mostly unsung star of this story, Sister Rosetta Tharpe”, promotional photo. (ca 1940s) [Author]”

“union” Photo Caption: “District of Columbia. Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, at Fort Lincoln. Smith, William Morris, Library of Congress. (Between 1863 and 1866). [cropped photo]”

“Chuck Berry” Photo caption: “Chuck Berry (1957) New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)”