Film, News & Commentary

Rundle: Kansas City and the birth of rock 'n' roll

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Kansas City, Missouri. They rolled out of the south, would have walked out first, sleeping by the road, in farm clothes, with a cardboard suitcase, good suit and dress wrapped up in grease paper, pots and pans, and tools of trade.
At the end of the 19th century, when the brief summer of Reconstruction had faded fully  and the new ‘Jim Crow’ laws started to come down, they started coming north. Later, when there was more money, when there was some money, they came by train in the separate rail carriages — Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court case that established the ‘separate but “equal’ Jim Crow laws, was about railway carriages — coming out of Union Station’s separate entrance.
The destination was Chicago, coming straight up the middle of the country, crossing the Mississippi at the hook where it separates Illinois from Missouri, the south from the north. But even to get to Missouri was a blessing — Kansas City especially. Smack bang in the middle of the country, the state wasn’t so bad as things went, and there was plenty of work in a city with the largest stockyards outside of Chicago run by the Democrats’ fantastically corrupt but prodigious Pendergast machine. It was a world away from the fields.
When the movement northwards expanded vastly in the aftermath of the World War I, vacant lots around the station filled up with makeshift shanty towns. ‘I am already feeling so much better already’ said one trekker, interviewed by The Kansas-City Star. Many stayed and neighbourhoods grew quickly, round the area from 12th to 18th streets, and beyond.
Packed tight, world within world, but left substantially alone. Black businesses grew and with it a modest middle class. Chester Franklin founded The Call here in 1919, a black newspaper that eventually covered the whole midwest, and in turn attracted more people. Every month hundreds more arrived, got rooms near the station and unpacked their cardboard suitcases, pots and pans, and their instruments — banjos made from strings nailed to broomhandles, washboards, hand-made brass at first, then guitars, saxes and horns later.
They brought New Orleans jazz, i.e jazz, ragtime and above all blues — the slow, heavily syncopated, twelve chord lament and its ceaseless variations. Once thought to be a traditional pattern, it is now believed to be one song written once, round the turn of the 20th century or before, somewhere round the Mississippi Delta, and radiating out from there. House parties, block parties in the new neighbourhoods became like the dance parties of the old South, but amid a furious, packed city, the rhythms became faster, more insistent.
Blues tightened, lost its lilt, got a tilt, became rhythm and blues. In Chicago, a vast machine shop, the rhythm of the presses set the pace and something new was born.
In Kansas City  too, they were starting to push the beat, and something else happened — there was big work in music. Whites were tiring of the imitation white jazz that had been around for two decades and were willing to let black audience in by the back door to take the podiums in hotel ballrooms.
There was work there  in the clubs —  and there were lots of clubs in KC — simply because the writ of prohibition never ran there. The Pendergast machine got the booze flowing, and nationally, the Democrats’ reliance on them made them inviolate. KC lay across two state borders at a time when the FBI was small and ineffectual, so anyone could dodge either side to escape the law. It was an American interzone between north, south, east and west.
The booze flowed, the music flowed. It was the place where the all-night jam session began, R and B bands playing till seven on a Sunday morning, fuelled by over-the-counter benzedrine, staggering out into the sunlight for church, or something to take the edge off. KC jazz combos would play six, eight sessions a night, the same songs over and over, until it bled out their ears.
KC natives like Charlie Parker became so bored, they began to shift the scale further than the standard blue scale (sharpened third and seventh notes, the hanging blue notes), sharpening the fifth, flattening the fourth. That was on 18th Street. On 12th Street, the all night jams ran simpler, got faster and harder.
By the 1920s, across the middle and north, a new type of blues had developed, shorn of all the swing and lilt of  blues proper and R and B, and of the wistful, narrative style. Hard and fast, sexual, if not pornographic, hokum blues was scratch music, with one or two players, in back rooms and on street corners, played for the passed-round hat at bottle parties.
In KC it fused with virtuoso playing, already well-known singers, blues shouters, like Big Joe Turner, and his piano man, Pete Johnson putting it through its paces. And what you got was — well, have a listen to the whole thing, to Roll ‘Em Pete.

That’s from 1938, and that is undoubtably, unquestionably ‘rock n roll’, Fast blues, it’s labelled, but it’s more than that, more than stride or boogie-woogie. There’s something we all recognise;  the insistence, the attack, right on the note, but with a backbeat, ticking along, and then Pete Johnson’s solo, as insolent and disdainful as the kiss-off lyrics, hitting the same note over, before taking it out and about.

You can hear Chuck Berry in there, you could superimpose Chuck Berry. And this is the neat three minute version recorded in New York, for popular consumption. Back in KC , these songs would go for an hour, lyrics improvised, the piano banging in a hot, packed, smoky room, the music flowing out the door and into 12th street. ‘Twelfth street was rocking in the 30s, Big Joe Turner told me,’ Chuck Haddix, the doyen of KC musicologists, co-author of the standard history of Kansas City jazz, told me. And that I submit, is in its own way, a little mindblowing.

By now we all know that rock ‘n’ roll didn’t start with Bill Haley or Elvis, but the popular idea that it kicked off only a few years earlier, with something like Ike Turner’s Rocket 88 from 1951, and that has the full instrumentation — but the thing about Rocket 88 is it doesn’t rock as hard as Roll ‘Em Pete.

The lilt has crept back in, and so has the narrative, a cute little story about the car. Rocket 88 takes its time to get where it’s going, imitates an auto’s bounciness, it verges on being a novelty song. Other candidates: Fish-Fry, or Rock Me, with the extraordinary electric guitar of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. For a while, the title of ‘first rock n roll song’ went to Arthur Crudup, whose 1945 That’s Alright Mama was recorded, pretty much deconstructed, by Elvis in the Sun sessions.

But the whole thing was already there, rocking out, in an era we think of as dominated by Louis Armstrong and Glenn Miller. Roll ‘Em Pete’s the most famous of these songs, but clearly the place was rocking for years, and for a mixed audience. By the ’30s, going to ‘Harlem, in ermine and pearls’ or the south side of Chicago or 12th street, was part of life, a little risque, what you did on a Saturday night.

Indeed, it was only in the ’30s that the Jim Crow laws were really stepped up, rapidly becoming quasi-hysterical, covering everything from schools to the traffic laws (black drivers had to give way to white drivers whatever the circumstance unless —  can you guess it — they were black chauffeurs of white passengers).

Rising black prosperity made Jim Crow — there’d been no laws required when blacks were sharecroppers in separate towns — and the sudden multiplication of places where black and white people shared space. 12th Street was where it happened most, most often- – but even then we can go back further. Here’s Tampa Red with Georgia Tom, with Tight Like That, a fantastically pornographic hokum, Tight Like That.

And that’s from 1928. Don’t let the softer instrumentation of the acoustic guitar fool you — everything from the bass riff established at the end/start of every new verse, to the stop/start, to the almost disdainful straight chopping rhythm, is rock ‘n’ roll. Go back further and that disappears, there’s nothing without the lilt, and go back to before World War I, and music is slower, stately, because the world is. Most likely this sort of stuff was being played and heard and dancd to and accompanied on makeshift percussion from the early 1920s onwards.

Which really has to change how you think. not merely of the music, but of the 20th century. Because if any historical division has survived, it’s not the World War II, or the October Revolution in terms of the way we live, the rhythms of life — it’s the coming of rock ‘n’ roll.

‘Before Elvis there was — nothing’ John Lennon said, and that is pretty much an attitude embedded so deeply as to remain almost unexamined. The mass spread of rock ‘n’ roll didn’t merely alter musical tastes, it altered our relationship to time and space, to the sense of the pace and rhythm of the world, transformative in the manner that the coming of clock time is to people who have never had it.

Weirdly, some of the backtracking for the first rock song, to immediate precursor mid-range, rhythm and blues, has elided how radical it was, an overcompensation for excess credit given to its white exponents. But when you listen to Rock Around the Clock again, well, it’s pretty hard-edged.

And Elvis’s Sun sessions, music done not in the heat of an all-night jam, but in the leisure of the studio, is really pulling apart well-known songs, taking to the edge of collapse. Bill Haley would record Shake, Rattle and Roll a Big Joe Turner song –Turner would get a full career as a rock star — and Elvis recorded That’s Alright Mama. And Crudup, whose song it was, was mentored by Tampa Red in Chicago in the ’30s and that’s a chain stretching back, nearly a century now.

It’s like music coming out of a doorway, all that is missed, forgotten, not known, what was there and part of life, touching a wide circle of people, before it became packaged and given to us as rock ‘n’ roll. Really, it’s the appearance of punk as well — the attitude, the disdain. There’s 20 years between Bill Haley and the Sex Pistols, and the latter is present in the former. And you can hear them both in Tampa Red, playing in a studio what would have thundered out of a steel-bodied guitar in numberless juke joints in Chicago and beyond. But Kansas City was where popular music divided, the improvisations of Parker and others becoming bebop, music that only makes sense if you know the song that has been essentially removed from the musical cat’s cradle being woven, rock ‘n’ roll going in the other direction, to the injunction of the punk magazine Sniffin Glue: ‘Here’s one chord, here’s two more. Now start a band’.

There’s still something at 18th Street, not a huge amount. The strip was featured in Altman’s Kansas City, and that may have saved it from the memorycaust of redevelopment that KC has been undergoing for half-a-century. There’s a jazz museum there now, and the offices of The Call, and Dave’s Big Easy, a place with a rolling jam session all of Saturday, and the musicians’ union round the corner, where there’s still a 1am-6am jam.


Dave’s is thrumming, but they prefer a slower blues there, the type you get too much of on renovated waterfronts these days. In the jazz museum, they have a display playing ‘soundies’ —  little ten minute films produced between the late ’30s and 1946, featuring the jazz greats of the era —  Duke, Count Basie (another KC native) etc etc.

Soundies played on ‘Panorams’ — video jukeboxes in restaurants and bars in World War II — also disappeared to history, so we don’t know that millions of people saw and knew TV before there was TV — and black stars not playing maids or hapless clowns, but in suave, Busby Berkeley-style productions. You could right notes in a book to the end of your life and not get down all that has been missed on one street corner, in one city.

And 12th Street? 12th Street is gone beyond gone, now the grass verge of low level public housing, which is itself a replacement of earlier public housing, huge high-rises, everything of the previous half-century swept away like the Boers swept away Jo’burg’s Sophiatown, turning it into an arid suburb called Triomf, or like Ceaucescu swept away old Bucharest to destroy the Roma.

It wasn’t urban decay that the city fathers feared when they swept it away, it was urban glory, the rise of free American black culture. ‘Urban renewal’ — ‘negro removal’ as James Baldwin called it — was Jim Crow’s last act, the determination that even the cities could not be shared.

I could have stayed at the blues jam at Dave’s Big Easy, but I went to 12th Street instead, spent as long there as seemed wise. I didn’t come for the blues, I came to hear the music in the air, of the air, where it was from, where it came to, before it rolled out of there and came to us all.

7 responses to “Rundle: Kansas City and the birth of rock 'n' roll

  1. Rock’n’Roll was not just about the speed of the song, or the backbeat. The introduction of studio technology was the game breaker. Sam Phillips use of tape echo was the revolution. Music is a technological art form – and the introduction of new technology changes the sonic landscape. Of course the application of tape echo, and distortion in the case of the recording of Rocket 88, to the rockin’ styles of Big Joe Turner sealed the deal – but both the musical form and the technology were/are required.
    Good article.

  2. ‘Rock’n’Roll was not just about the speed of the song, or the backbeat.’ It was also about the tone and sentiment of the lyric, which means for me that a song like Unchained Melody, with its classic fall through the relative minor and popular before Rock around the clock also qualifies as part of the Rock and Roll canon. Similarly, Marlene Dietrich’s 1939 hit, Falling in Love Again also qualifies even though the refrain is atypical.
    Big Joe Turner looking east and west from the dark room of his mind
    He made it to Kansas City, Twelfth Street and Vine
    Nothin’ standing there
    Highwater everywhere

  3. It’s fairly improbable that Blues originated from one song. I play a lot of blues (guitar) and backlog quite a bit searching for very old blues songs to cover. A lot of the delta blues is played in vestapol tunings or similar variations such as DD, blues from other areas tends to be in standard. Blind Willy and Skip James wrote in vestapol, and have similar fingerstyle patterns by which the heavy E is used as a bass root generally in a declension pattern. it’s actually quite tricky to play sometimes, and is a style heavily borrowed, indeed stolen from. Led Zeppelin were atrociously bad for plain stealing the music of Black blues Artists.
    Sometimes Honkeys can do it well, but not often. I find clapton’s blues to be hideous. He is also probably the most over rated guitarist of all time after Santana.
    That said, sometimes you here some good white blues, I like this one, though it’s pretty NOLA and divorced from roots blues.
    The narrative of original blues does seem to very similar between artists. Generally it has to do with ‘My woman ran off with my best friend and she’s not coming back and neither is he’. In fact if you listen to Devil got my woman by skip james and come in my kitchen by robert Johnson, you’ll definitely notice similarities in the lyrical theme. This can be extrapolated out to all kinds of blues artists, especially Lightnin’ Hopkins etc.
    Interestingly blues is based on call and response a lot of the time. In Africa, when hunters brought back a kill to camp they would sing songs like this (Basically, ‘I brought this thing down! To which is called back ‘Yes you did!’). This a very, very old musical tradition from African culture that is carried on in to blues–you will notice that in a lot of blues songs, lines are repeated. This is mirrored in traditional African songs.

  4. Why delete my post? This is why I’ll never subscribe to crikey, because as soon as you know more about a subject than the journalist, you just get censored. Moron.

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