[The Cunning Tower by Kim Davis: September 1, 2011]
When did writing on popular music come of age? Sure, we still have the ghosted autobiographies, thin and sketchy works of fandom and conveyor-belt histories of whichever act just arrived in the chart. In addition to that, we have a growing library of seriously researched, luminously written accounts of popular music styles and, especially, their evolution from folkloric (or roots music) forms.
Welcome to the front ranks of that collection a new book by Preston Lauterbach, The Chitlin' Circuit (And the Road to Rock'n'Roll).
I can't point to a single work which raised this literature to its current level, but I can't resist mentioning Peter Guralnick's trilogy of portraits of blues, country and soul musicians, completed with Sweet Soul Music (1986). I could also mention Greil Marcus and Jon Savage as writers with a deep but lightly worn understanding of the social, political and cultural contexts of their subjects; they each came to prominence in the 1970s, Marcus with Mystery Train and Savage as a writer for Sounds magazine, blossoming later as the author of England's Dreaming and Teenage - The Invention of Youth.
These days, the classics come thick and fast. Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop (2005), whether you care about hip hop or not, is not only a vital piece of social history, but a great read. Preston Lauterbach's subject will appeal to a narrower audience, but his achievement seems to me to be on a similar scale.
Since I first heard the term, I had always taken "chitlin' circuit" to refer to regional theater for an African American audience, Tyler Perry being its most prominent alumnus. I hadn't fully realised its historic application to performance venues of all kinds, especially in southern states, where black musicians and comics, as well as actors, could perform for a black audience in the days of segregation. Lauterbach's focus is a network of venues in Indiana, Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas and elsewhere, joined by roads constantly traveled by performers like Louis Jordan, Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris, T-Bone Walker and the young Richard Penniman.
Lauterbach is no slouch and bringing the musicians to life, but he has an even more vivid interest in the creators of this circuit, a fabulous crew of promoters, racketeers and outright gangsters. If the book has a hero it is Denver Ferguson of Indianapolis who translated a fortune made in an illegal baseball numbers racket into considerable prestige as a benefactor of the local community and owner of a series of music venues around Indiana's Avenue.
Lauterbach also brings to life what was known as "the stroll." These were the blocks of southern cities where the local black community gathered to enjoy not only nightlife, but shopping, barber salons, street corner gambling, gossip, dressing up and walking out. The Beale Street neighborhood in Memphis was an obvious example of a stroll. The neighborhoods were small and constrained precisely because segregation limited the community's scope for public leisure. The constraints produced density of population and intensity of experience; and yes, Lauterbach rightly cites Jane Jacobs here.
I want to stress than none of this is dry, academic sociology. Lauterbach shines with big set pieces: the tragic club fire in Natchez which claimed the lives of Walter Barnes and his popular band (as the smoke rose, they continued playing in the hope of encouraging an orderly evacuation); the senseless accidental suicide of Johnny Ace; the teenage James Brown watching Little Richard in a Macon club and realising that, although he looked and sang great, he couldn't dance.
The book is packed with perspective-changing detail, too. Urban renewal obliterated many of the strolls, ripping out established communities and replacing low-rise high streets with high-rise housing. Bad, right? But another major factor was desegregation, removing the pressure on African Americans to gather, eat, drink and shop in specific, constricted neighborhoods.
Another example. Big swing bands gave way to smaller groups in the late forties and fifties. A change in musical taste? In part, maybe, but in fact fuel-rationing made running large tour buses sheerly impractical; added to the cost of paying a large cohort of musicians, this encouraged performers like Louis Jordan to shrink their ambitions to quartets and quintets. Louis Jordan did so and scored a string of major hits: "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie," "Caldonia," "Ain't Nobody Here But us Chickens." Ike Turner went out with a small unit and recorded "Rocket 88."
Not that Lauterbach awards the prize for inventing rock and roll to these obvious contenders. He makes it clear that songs like Roy Brown's "Good Rocking Tonight" and Wynonie Harris's "Drinking Wine Spo-dee-o-dee" were already rock and roll in all but name. The book's punch line, if it has one, is Jordan's forceful description of the story that rock and roll was born when country met the blues as "white publicity." This book convincingly demonstrates that, whether or not country and hillbilly influences left a mark on rock and roll (they surely did), the rhythm and blues of the chitlin' circuit was an entirely sufficient condition for its creation.
From the Avenue in Indianapolis to the early days of the Memphis soul sound (and Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music picks up the story here), this is an amazing journey.