by Karl Wenclas
Culture comes from the people, not the academy.
Rock n’ roll, for instance, wasn’t created by bureaucrats or theorists or intellectuals, but by the poorest segments of American society, black and white (and Latinos like Ritchie Valens). It was created first by street artists and propagated by low-rent hustlers like Sam Phillips, Alan Freed, and Dick Clark. Slick Dick Clark of TV fame, who started out hawking souvenirs on the boardwalk in Atlantic City.
These thoughts were occasioned by the death of music star Prince on April 21st. In his life and career Prince Rogers Nelson represented a populist moment in American culture. He came out of nowhere– Minneapolis, really– with a sound that was part rock and part soul. Natural and unfiltered. Half black and half white, as he was. A walking melting pot. His life and work showed the melding, the unity, of which America is capable when it puts aside projects intended to divide us.
Though he carried the aura and look of a rock star, Prince never fit any single category. From the start his music was a hybrid– which made his entrance onto the scene 37 years ago so mysterious and amazing.
The birth of rock n’ roll was similar. Yes, roots music had been around for decades (or really, centuries). Early recordings of it featured raw talent, from Robert Johnson to the Carter Family, but until 1955 when the segmented markets began to merge, it’d been divided. The divisions came not from the struggling people themselves, but from on high. They came from the divisions of political systems and laws of segregation. Culture overstepped those lines and broke down the barriers, spontaneously.
For instance, when white trash teen Elvis Presley, whose family had moved to Memphis from a shack in Mississippi, began listening to B.B. King and other black musicians on Memphis street corners. Elvis quickly affected a black style of dress– shocking in those days of extreme segregation– and listened to what were then called “race” records. (To be fair, Elvis was also a huge fan of Dean Martin.)
As important in the birth of rock was Chuck Berry, whose first hit, “Maybelline,” was a deliberate reworking of the white country song “Ida Red.” Berry’s ringing style of singing on his records sounded white, and many who bought them thought he was a white singer. (I have this from personal testimony of those who were teenagers then.)
But teenagers also have a way of not caring about designated divisions and lines. Perhaps because they haven’t yet been fully indoctrinated. They’re pre-university.
Whatever the case, 1955-56 was one of those breakout populist moments. White kids bought black records, and black kids bought white ones. This is documented fact. Soon there were no divisions. Briefly, there was no “country” or “r & b”; there was just rock n’ roll. American popular music. And so, an upstart storefront operation like Motown became huge by offering “the sound of young America,” bought by everybody.
Culture is natural and transcends artificial, arbitrary and abstract barriers.
Rock at its outset was a populist outbreak. It was scorned by politicians, intellectuals and the academy, who are always five steps behind the times.
Does America need a populist movement now, in 2016?
We believe so. It’s why we promote, among others, true roots “DIY” writers.
Our push anyway is on making the populist moment happen in the literary field.