“A THOUGHT-PROVOKING LOOK AT HUMANITY’S MOST INFLUENTIAL FORM OF EXPRESSION, MUSIC – THE SOUND AND THE UNSOUND“
C H A P T E R F I V E
THE MUSIC OF LAODICEA
“…that first little dirty song that slipped out on the radio without being censored, that ‘roll ’em girlies, roll ’em down and show your pretty knees,’ that was the first slip-up right there.”21
The year was 1925. William Jennings Bryant and Clarence Darrow battled in a Tennessee courtroom over the issue of evolution; in Germany, an ex-prisoner by the name of Adolf Hitler published his memoirs which he titled Mein Kampf; a new dance craze called the Charleston kept arms and legs flying in 4/4 time; and across America, radio became a major source of family entertainment, ushering in what came to be known as the Golden Age of Broadcasting.
Undoubtedly, the most revolutionary advancement of the early 1900s was the recording of sound. Man had at last discovered for himself an earthly, if somewhat fragile, immortality, and the force of its influence transformed our world and dominated our lives. It was good: No longer did we have to rely on memory or evoke imagination to recall the voice of a loved one, the performance of the musician, or the intonations of the orator. It was bad: It opened doors into darkened sanctums, and with our minds we walked through those doors and into places we would never have allowed our feet to take us.
Music now occupied the center stage of the world, a feat unthought-of before the arrival of phonograph and radio. And its unique abilities to attract, entertain, teach, cajole, and influence its listeners was not overlooked by the smut-peddlers of the day.
Listen girls, listen girls
I’ve a word for you,
Just because you’re up to date
And do the things you do,
Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t act nice,
You’re as sweet as Grandma was
So take my advice.
Roll ’em girls, roll ’em
Go ahead and roll ’em
Roll’em down and show your pretty knees,
Roll ’em girls roll ’em, everybody roll ’em
Roll ’em high or low just as you please.
Don’t let people tell you that it’s shocking,
Paint your sweetie’s picture on your stocking,
Laugh at Ma, laugh at Pa,
Give them all the ha! ha!
Roll ’em girlies, roll ’em, roll your own.
Roll ’Em Girls by Marr, Heath, and Fletcher
Copyright 1925, Joe Mords Music Co.
Selfish, provocative, and defiant, “Roll ’em Girls” opened fire on old time religion in a new, teasing way. Uncensored, it slipped its subtle message of immorality onto the airwaves and into the subconscious of an unwary public. A pathway had been cleared through the field of broadcasting for an army of musical goblins that was fast advancing on the horizon.
Gospel music continued to contribute its share to the musical stew. In 1929, the Graves Brothers recorded what they called “rockin’ and reelin’ spirituals” for Paramount Records – based loosely on the kind of congregational singing that was being heard in Holiness and Pentecostal churches throughout the South. In 1934 a live recording was made in a backwoods church that proclaimed:
“Oh, my Lord! Oh, my Lordy! Well, well, well! I’ve gotta rock! You gotta rock!”22
At the onset of the 40s, it was estimated that fully half of all Pentecostal Christians lived below the Mason-Dixon line, and most of that half were hillbillys – dirt-poor farmers and sharecroppers. In the North, member churches thrived principally in lower-class neighborhoods, and by 1945, four fifths of the 500 black churches in Chicago were of the Pentecostal variety. Pianos and organs were beyond the financial reach of most of these ‘holy roller’ congregations, but with guitar, drums, and horns they supplied the rhythm for the dancing feet and swaying bodies that were now an integral part of the Pentecostal church service.
As they struggled for position on the ladder to stardom, it was inevitable that those musicians who had been raised in church would begin to combine that familiar gospel fervor with the worldly lyrics and vocal characteristics of the pop(popular) and country (hillbilly) music of the day. But, for the general population of the 1940s, music was still as much segregated between blacks and whites, as were all other aspects of social life. This newest musical offering was simply too ‘racy’ for the mainstream music market. Outraged parents protested when radio DJs tried to introduce white youth to the ‘jungle beat’ of ‘race’ music.
In 1947 a new term was coined: “Teenager.” And what teenagers wanted to listen to was something that moved them. They wanted to clap, sing, and dance. They wanted to “Shake, Rattle, and Roll.” The alliance of youth, rebellion, and sexuality (albeit as old as time) was explosive. It didn’t take record producers long to realize that if they could just find a white man who could sing with the style, energy, and passion of a black singer, they could both satisfy the teenage lusts, soothe parental concerns, and take control of the music industry in one fell swoop.
At the same time, it was unmistakably clear that American music was once again experiencing birth pains. Blues, jazz, ragtime, boogie-woogie, pop, country – all the driving energy and carnality that a generation eager to put the war behind it could muster – had come to term. And the evidence suggested that this offspring would be the most noisy that music had ever produced – a noisy, rebellious, American brat to grab the attention of the entire world. Its name was Rock’ n ’roll.
In 1954, a young truck driver named Elvis Presley recorded an old blues number titled “That’s All Right Mama” at Sam Phillip’s studio in Memphis, Tennessee, and by 1956 the phenomenon dubbed Presley mania had the entire music industry all shook up. They knew they had found their man.
“Pentecostalism was folded into the substance of Elvis’s music, like eggs folded into pancake batter…”23 but in the process, the eggshell that had separated inspiration from exploitation, wholesome from unwholesome, had been cracked. The very definition of music was being blurred, and willingly America listened, as all of hell broke loose.