By Daniel Garrett
Chuck Berry is featured, with Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, in photograph on the cover of Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination, a book on popular music particularly devoted to the genres of rock and soul, written by Jack Hamilton, a scholar and critic of culture who is combining the serious concerns of the academy with the curiosity and pleasure of popular culture and discourse. Chuck Berry (1926 – 2017), the singer-songwriter and guitarist, a rebel and musical pioneer, was born Charles Anderson Edward Berry, in St. Louis, the son of a college-educated woman and a carpenter/deacon father; and before he gained fame as the architect of rock and roll with songs such as “Maybellene” and “Roll Over, Beethoven” and “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” Berry as a boy was a carpenter, a photographer, a choir singer and the student of jazz guitarist Ira Harris—but, somehow, though enrolled in an esteemed private school, Berry went astray and got into trouble with the law (he went on a spree of robbery with two friends). When Chuck Berry got out of reform school, Berry became part of a jazz band, to which he brought his interest in country music—and a listener can hear his diverse influences, jazz, blues, and country music, in early rock and roll. (He would get a degree in hair care, too.) The songs Chuck Berry recorded for Chess Records, with the encouragement of Muddy Waters, attracted diverse audiences. Fame did not protect Berry: another encounter with the law, an association with a woman selling sex, put Berry in prison, but after Berry was freed, he and his music were still popular. Chuck Berry shared music stages with James Brown and the Rolling Stones—and he was cited by generations of musicians as an influence and inspiration. Chuck Berry was a revered but scandalous music institution—and he announced months before his death a new album, dedicated to his wife, Themetta Suggs, a woman he was married to for more than fifty years until his death, an album those who have heard it call very impressive. How does such a man become both respected and neglected? Berry was an American of African descent in a society conflicted by color and culture, an aging man playing the music of youth.
In the beginning of Jack Hamilton’s book on music and cultural politics, Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination (Harvard Univ. Press, 2016), Hamilton states, “The history of rock discourse is marked by a profound aversion toward discussions of race, and attempts to reckon the music’s racial exclusivity have often been met with hostility, particularly at the level of fandom” (page 12). American artists of African descent are not given the same consideration and value as American artists of European descent—and Hamilton explores such issues in the book, a work of 340 pages which has six chapters after its introduction, and notes, acknowledgements, credits, and an index. Sam Cooke and Bob Dylan are compared by Hamilton for their musical roots and affiliation with particular communities and subsequent independence and experimentations with genre and form, though Dylan’s work has received much more critical exploration and celebration, suggesting, among other things, a misunderstanding of the choices—aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual, and political—that are made by African-American artists, who want both creativity and commerce, glamour and grit, imagination and intellect, and whose works affirm both style and substance. Jack Hamilton discusses the marginalization of the blues and of musicians such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard in the evolving critical and popular histories of rock music, as well as the work and reputations of Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, and Carlos Santana.
Jack Hamilton discusses the great public appeal of Berry Gordy’s Motown and his crown jewel, the Supremes featuring Diana Ross, but I wish that Jack Hamilton had more to say about Diana Ross. I have admired for many years the energy and sensuality, and the piercing yet thoughtful sentiment, of Diana Ross’s musical work; and, at the same time, been attracted to, but sometime ambivalent about, her great glamour: glamour can be a defiance, if not defeat, of mundane and predictable limitations, especially for a person or group facing great opposition—and glamour can be a disregard of fundamental facts, facts of injury or need. Jack Hamilton does note the tremendous popularity of Diana Ross and the Supremes in his book Just Around Midnight (“the most successful American recording act of the 1960s” he writes on pages 126 and 127), but he actually does not say much about the aesthetic and individual qualities of the glossily elegant, intelligent, and fun musical work. Yet, Jack Hamilton’s book discusses much that I care about, and, consequently, I wondered about the possibility of asking the author some questions—and thought of a range of topics, from the current state of cultural criticism and the fragmentation of culture, including the conflicts between urban and rural societies, to the priorities and prestige of music critics of African or European descent, as well as Hamilton’s favorite artists and his interest in sports, and other topics such as gender and sexuality, and political principles and civic virtues.
There are many writers whom I admire in literature, criticism, and journalism, among them those who have illuminated beautiful, joyous, thoughtful sounds—music: Raoul Abdul, Nitsuh Abebe, Naomi Andre, James Baldwin, Playthell Benjamin, Delphine Blue, Daphne Brooks, Gwynne Kuhner Brown, Nate Chinen, Kandia Crazy Horse, Stanley Crouch, Justin Davidson, Angela Davis, Jim DeRogatis, W.E.B. DuBois, Michael Eric Dyson, Gerald Early, Ralph Ellison, Christopher John Farley, Nelson George, Farah Jasmine Griffin, James Hannaham, Claudrena Harold, Margo Jefferson, Pauline Kael, Greg Kot, Will Layman, Wynton Marsalis, Michelangelo Matos, Lionel Mitchell, Albert Murray, David Nathan, Paul Nelson, Ann Powers, Adolph Reed, Sarah Rodman, Kelefa Sanneh, Gene Seymour, George Shirley, Greg Tate, Greg Thomas, Stephen Thompson, Joseph Vogel, Armond White, Christian Wikane, and Carl Wilson. With his book Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination, Jack Hamilton has become a respected resource for me, as he has for others; and I am glad to able to present his answers to some of my questions—sent via electronic mail to him on February 15, 2017, with the answers sent from him and received by me on March 16, 2017.
Garrett: In your book Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination, you state, “The racial imagination that was transferred from the folk revival to rock ideology was one that had held black music on a mystified pedestal, viewing it as raw, powerful, and important but at the same time denying it as presently viable” (page 83). It seems as if black music was used as raw material, as valuable property to be appropriated, transformed, and sold—a parallel with other forms of labor, past and present. Was it the mythology of creativity that obscured such facts—or was there really no obscurity, just a refusal to explore the full implications?
Hamilton: I think among certain groups of white listeners there has always been a deep romanticism about black music that is full of a lot of uncomfortable contradictions. For instance, there’s a longstanding cultural belief, in America but also elsewhere, that black music is a sort of vessel of extraordinary affective power, and that that power derives in some fundamental way from black suffering; you can see this as far back as the earliest writing on slave music. And yet at the same time, white people have often been hesitant (to put it politely) to couple their enjoyment and admiration of that music to drives for racial justice and actual material alleviation of said suffering. The folk revival, for all its imperfections, had a real political consciousness and set of political priorities, many of which were tied to its reverence for black music; I’d argue that rock music has been far less successful at connecting those two things. Certainly by the 1970s, it’s pretty hard to hear anything resembling a progressive politics or drive for racial justice in the music of Led Zeppelin, or Aerosmith, or many other blues-derived hard rock bands of that era.
Garrett: What inspired your own interest in pursuing music and culture as serious subjects, and how did your formal education, especially at Harvard, fulfill or frustrate your interests?
Hamilton: I’ve been interested in music for as long as I can remember, and I spent a pretty long time as both a musician and a music journalist before ever pursuing music academically. As for Harvard, I did my Ph.D. in American Studies there, and generally had a really great experience. My advisory committee in particularly was very encouraging and were just terrific mentors—I feel like I owe them everything. Pop music studies is still a relatively new field in the academy, particularly compared to a lot of more “established” humanities fields, but it’s grown a huge amount over the past few decades. I definitely don’t know that I would have been able to pursue the field I did had I gone to graduate school 25 or 30 years ago, but while I was there it was rarely ever an issue.
Garrett: You critique, in Just Around Midnight, the legendary notion of a 1960s British musical invasion—for its positioning of America as being of central focus and importance, a cultural event with an easily identifiable point of origin and time, gathering together a diversity of groups into a unified whole, while denying ongoing cultural exchanges among nations and musicians. Is that kind of concept inevitable, the effort of trying to comprehend and name experience and events—which might be simpler than saying that all sorts of things are always happening? Do categories identify facts, ideas, and identities, collect them, or create them?
Hamilton: I don’t think that it’s inevitable, but I do think that pop culture history is very often a “print the legend” sort of endeavor. We’re drawn to these mythic constructs because they’re attractive and fun and easily digestible, even if they don’t often make for precise history. I understand why the notion of a monolithic “British Invasion” took hold in the American imagination, particularly during a moment when most Americans were more or less totally unfamiliar with the post-WWII landscape of British popular music, but I also think it’s an idea that needs to be revisited and revised. That’s really what I was trying to do.
Garrett: “The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and other British bands name-checked black musical heroes with obsessive frequency in interviews, and they sometimes spoken openly of their discomfort with the fact that their music had reached heights of popularity in England that their American idols had never achieved,” you wrote in Just Around Midnight (page 95). Why do you think there was so much resistance to this cultural correction?
Hamilton: I think a lot of it really just came down to racism; white audiences and the mainstream music industry were more drawn to and fascinated by young white British young men than young (or not-so-young) African American men. But there was also a real exoticism that was attached to the “British Invasion” bands, particularly in the States—the haircuts, the accents, the clothing styles. It was new and titillating and often scandalous and transgressive. Those are powerful qualities!
Garrett: What kinds of subjects do you pursue in your own teaching of American Studies, and of Media Studies?
Hamilton: Most of what I teach is related to music and sound—that’s definitely my area of expertise. But I also sometimes teach film classes, and I teach introductory American Studies courses as well.
Garrett: I tend to think that focusing on the diversity of African-American music-making, on African-Americans in classical music and folk music as well as in jazz and rock and other popular music, is one way of transcending narrow expectations of culture and race. What is your opinion?
Hamilton: I think that’s absolutely true. I think there’s still a tendency to treat African American music as a sort of monolith, a strange sort of teleological progression from the spirituals to the blues to jazz to R&B to soul to hip-hop, or some such trajectory. There’s certainly some kernels of truth there, but there have been so many variations and diffuse directions that different musicians and communities have gone in. It’s also led to a situation where artists and performers who don’t squarely fit into that narrative often get sort of left out in the cold, particularly in terms of criticism and historiography.
Garrett: Berry Gordy, the founder of the Motown Record Corporation, is an American artist and a business executive of lasting value. Berry Gordy was, of course, a very ambitious visionary—and the music of Motown was original, intelligent, and vastly entertaining. “Gordy did not found Motown on the goal of being the most successful black record label in America, but rather on the goal of being the most successful record label anywhere, period,” you note in Just Around Midnight (page 126), commenting on Gordy’s recognition of talent and commitment to craft and marketing. Do you find it shocking that there has been such little serious commentary on the aesthetic, emotional, and intellectual content of the music of Berry Gordy’s Motown, and particularly the work of Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and Diana Ross?
Hamilton: I’m biased because I’m an enormous Motown fan, but yes, I definitely think there’s a real paucity of commentary on Motown and Motown artists, particularly when compared to other Sixties giants like Dylan or the Beatles, both of which have been written about pretty voluminously. To be fair, there are probably some extraneous factors for this: for instance, Motown’s archives have long been notoriously difficult to access, and Berry Gordy has historically tried to maintain a pretty firm control over the way his label’s “story” is told. But yes, I’d certainly like to see more writing on Motown, to go along with some of the really excellent writing about it that’s already out there.
Jack Hamilton, I wish we had the time to discuss other ideas and issues. Thank you for your consideration and thoughts—and, to you, health and happiness, and good luck with all you do!
Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue, Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art& Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.