“Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination”: Rock, Race and What We Take for Granted

Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination
Jack Hamilton
2016 – Harvard University Press



It happened fast. In 1952, Alan Freed popularized the term “rock and roll” for what had been known as “race records.” In 1955 Chuck Berry scored his first hit with “Maybellene,” about which Rolling Stone would later say, “rock and roll guitar starts here.” In 1965, Diana Ross and the Supremes were on the cover of TIME magazine for the feature “Rock and Roll: Everybody’s Turned On.” Just five years later, an obit for Jimi Hendrix referred to him as an “a black man in the alien world of rock.” In less than 20 years, rock and roll grew up, entered the mainstream and turned white.

In “Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination”, Jack Hamilton, pop critic for Slate and an assistant professor of American studies and media studies at the University of Virginia, looks at how rock music became the genre of “white men with guitars” while shedding light on some common truisms about music to which we’re usually oblivious. The book goes beyond chalking things up just to appropriation and examines the concept of musical authenticity and how the term has been co-opted and defined by whites. As any student of history and politics knows, those who successfully define the terms have the upper hand in the battle.

Just Around Midnight begins by contrasting the careers of Bob Dylan and Sam Cooke, examining how Cooke’s transition from gospel to pop was seen as a sellout in many quarters, while Dylan’s transition from folk to rock saw him cast as rock’s first “individual genius” figure. (From Dylan the genre also acquired its veneration for originalism as opposed to interpretation, while it borrowed the fiction of disdain for remuneration from folk directly). While Dylan was hailed as an innovator, Cooke remains largely analyzed in relationship to the group identity of gospel.

This wasn’t something new: As protest music largely by and for the white middle class, folk had been dealing with an identity crisis for years, which it resolved by casting itself as the “preserver” of a disappearing foundation art form. The masters were “known” to be of a bygone generation (there was some genuine surprise for some when Mississippi John Hurt showed up very much alive at the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival); records by living black artists that went beyond an accepted level of primitivism were decried as inauthentic. As early as 1963 the music’s accepted mouthpiece, the Little Sandy Review, created a self-fulfilling prophecy through definition by opining that “Negro” participation in “true” folk music had waned to such a degree that by 1970 whites would be the only ones performing it.

The chapter tracing of the interplay of the Beatles and Motown is especially fascinating. While the standard view is that Motown was a youthful pleasure that the Beatles transcended, Hamilton shows that the group continued to be inspired by it, particularly James Jamerson’s bass playing, highlighting its influence on “Nowhere Man,” the tune most often cited as the starting point for the Beatles’ break from pop conventions. While “Revolver” is typically thought of the first step toward the elevation of “rock” as a serious art form that would come to fruition on “Sgt. Pepper” Hamilton hears in the horn riffs of “Got to Get You Into My Life, the bluesy “Taxman” and the continued influence of Jameson, “a cutting edge R&B album.”

And Motown in turn engaged with the Beatles. Artists like Gaye, Wonder and Franklin put their own stamp on revelatory versions of Beatles songs that reinvigorated the Motown catalog. Also, noting the band’s artistic independence, they broke with their label’s authoritarian structure to demand the same for themselves, paving the way for releases like Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” a concept album of protest music from a label that built its fortune on non-political singles. (Another rock truism: the primacy of the album over the single). For Hamilton, the Beatles and Motown changed music together, not separately, and need to be heard and understood that way.

One reasons for Sgt. Pepper’s entrenched place in history is the millions gallons of ink  poured out writing about it. Criticism leads the way in defining and thinking about anything as art, and allows the audience to view their taste as a definition of identity. The year of Pepper’s release, Rolling Stone was founded; the year before, Richard Goldstein’s “Pop Eye” column had begun in The Village Voice, and Crawdaddy (AKA Crawdaddy!), widely considered the first rock criticism magazine, had started publication.

Unsurprisingly, the writers in this new field were nearly all white, and they continued the intellectual gymnastics involved in placing the influence of blues and R&B safely in the past. Rock musicians were lauded for keeping the faith abandoned by black artists in the process of losing their “authenticity” by seeking mainstream success. The quotes by Ralph J. Gleason on the subject are breathtaking, and not in a good way.

The book’s scholarship is impeccable (it started life as Hamilton’s graduate thesis, reflected in the academic tone), but it works so well because Hamilton is a musician as well as a historian; throughout the book he takes you deep into the relevant records, diving deep into their musical technique and structure–the drumbeats, the chord progressions, the shouts and whispers–as well as their aesthetic impact. To even begin to understand what Just Around Midnight is saying, you need to fire up the player of your choice and take the time to listen as well as read.

Obviously, the topic is beyond complex, and parts of the discussion are outside the book’s scope. Selective payola and moral approbation by both white and black authority figures (reasons cited by Dylan himself) precede its timeline. It delves into the discussions around the concept of “soul” of the late 60s and early 70s, but for balance you’d need another source to cover the self-segregation of black music, when, as described by Daryl Hall, “About 1970 a big schism happened. White music got real white and black music got real black. That’s where heavy metal comes in, and that’s when Philadelphia music threw out all the white guys.” Likewise for the issues surrounding Led Zeppelin. But Just Around Midnight more than succeeds in nudging readers into something very necessary: looking at-and listening to-history again, and challenging things we’ve always accepted as true.


6 thoughts on ““Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination”: Rock, Race and What We Take for Granted

  1. “Criticism leads the way in defining and thinking about anything as art, and allows the audience to view their taste as a definition of identity”- yes, yes, yes, exactly. That kind of argument is what I’m more or less focusing my own research around right now.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds like a must-read for any of us Rock Hall hobbyists. I’ve long wanted to do a more in-depth blog entry on rockism and how and why it came to be the way it is now… and I’m clearly beaten to the punch from a far heavier fist.

    Liked by 1 person

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