An Unclaimed Country: The Austrian Image in American …
Still, the bulk of this musical experimentation was taking place far fromthe awareness of the general public, at what might be thought of as the "cuttingedge" of U.S. cultural development. Most Americans were little concernedwith music at all, as the country struggled to withstand the ravages of theDepression, and hurtled once again toward War overseas. What music they didattend to consisted mostly of Hollywood and Broadway show tunes, big bandnumbers, and the crooning of such emerging stars as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra,and the Andrews Sisters. Music itself, although always important, was simplynot as central an element of average Americans' daily lives as it has been forthose of us who grew up in the Rock Era. There were, of course, no"stereos" nor any equipment capable of reproducing music at a qualitylevel remotely approaching live or in-studio sound. Most rock fans, I wouldguess, would soon tire of the music if the best sound systems they hadavailable were equivalent to 1940s vintage monaural phonographs, or even thebest radios of the time. In such an environment, a catchy tune and sing-alonglyrics were about the best one could expect to hold a wide audience's interest;it's doubtful that a fuzz-box and Hendrix-style feedback would have made muchof an impression. Owning a large record collection, which today is as common asfilling a few bookshelves with paperbacks, was for seriously devoted fans only,usually Classical or Jazz aficionados. Life in the 1930s and 1940s justinvolved other sets of tastes, interests, and priorities for the majority ofthe population.
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To understand rock 'n' roll, therefore, we must understand what slavery was,and where it left the sons and daughters of Africans who knew nothing of theEuropean roots of American culture. For slavery provides the perfect rationale,the perfect explanation for why rock 'n' roll should stand apart from othermusical forms, as a cultural revolution unto itself. Every society, after all,has its indigenous music, which serves as entertainment, accompaniment toritual and ceremony, bonding force, story teller, preserver of history. Rock'n' roll, certainly, is modern American folk music in these respects, successorto Stephen Foster and Cole Porter. But that is only a minor facet of rock 'n'roll's place in American, indeed in world society since 1955, and the largerelements of rock's influence reach far beyond the traditional cultural adhesivestatus of other folk . To solidify this claim,and to explain it, we can point directly to slavery, which forcibly mixed theradically different elements of two cultures in a boiling cauldron (rather thana melting pot), bringing to white, rural, agrarian America a series of rhythmicand vocal traditions that originated on the other side of the planet in Africa,and adding an important spiritual, melancholy, almost fatalistic sensibilitythat grew up by itself in the slaves' imprisoned souls.
I realize that this is hardly news, but sometimes it seems that whiteAmericans have forgotten, or want to forget, that slavery ever existed, letalone so recently as the 1860s. There are any number of ways to put it inrevealing perspective. Think of the condition that European culture hadachieved by the mid-1800s: the emergence of Impressionist art; the great novelsof Hugo, Flaubert, Tolstoy, and Dickens; the intellectual enlightenment of deTocqueville and Descartes; the revolutionary ferment of Marx. Any averageliberal arts student encounters most of these great cultural developments tosome degree: the core of modern Western civilization was formulatingoverseas. Meanwhile, Americans still thrashed fellow humans into pitifulservitude, and treated them legally as no more than personal property. Thisunavoidable element of our nation's history is ignored over and over byideological chauvinists who oppose Affirmative Action and civil rightslegislation, who decry "reverse discrimination" and claim it is"unfair" to try to force integration or to ameliorate AfricanAmericans' disadvantages at the expense of innocent European (or Asian)Americans. ("Hey, my ancestors immigrated in 1912. I'm notresponsible for slavery!") That anyone could find in the predominance ofpoverty within black communities in America anything but the continuing legacyof human bondage is unfathomable, and truly frightening. The only conceivableexplanation is that some people keep forgetting about slavery: