Tell Tchaikovsky the News: Rock ‘n’ Roll, the Labor Question, and the Musicians’ Union, 1942–1968 by Michael James Roberts (review)
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Tell Tchaikovsky the News: Rock ‘n’ Roll, the Labor Question, and the Musicians’ Union, 1942–1968. By Michael James Roberts. (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2014. Pp. 280. $84.95 cloth; $23.95 paper)

In his ambitious Tell Tchaikovsky the News: Rock ‘n’ Roll, the Labor Question, and the Musicians’ Union, 1942–1968, Michael James Roberts attempts to tell and conflate two stories: the evolution of a [End Page 138] working-class phenomenon known as rock ‘n’ roll and the decline of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), the nation’s oldest and largest collectivist organization representing workers who make music. In charting the connection between the rise of one and the fall of the other, he is able to hit several high notes. Particularly provocative is his suggestion that the issue of taste played a major role in preventing the preeminent musicians’ union from acknowledging the legitimacy of rock ‘n’ roll and its two major antecedents, rhythm and blues and country music. Consequently, the progressively elitist AFM, because it did not keep in touch with musicians on the mudsill and at the grassroots, eventually lost its influence. In short, Roberts seeks to furnish a class analysis of the cultural environment that produced rock ‘n’ roll, the American Federation of Musicians’ opposition to it, and the mass popularity of a proletarian upsurge that ultimately washed away the union’s significance. As with any exceptional historical or sociological scholarship that addresses music, Tell Tchaikovsky the News provides food for thought that transcends the musical arena.

An adaptation of his doctoral dissertation (City University of New York under the guidance of the renowned labor scholar Stanley Aronowitz), the book is divided into four chronological chapters that nevertheless read as independent essays. A brief first chapter outlines the endeavors of James Patrillo and the American Federation of Musicians in the 1940s to protect its members from the onslaught of technological innovations (explicitly recordings) that diminished the employment opportunities for live performance. A longer second chapter examines the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll as a form of working-class expression in the 1950s. A third segment details the advance of antipathy within the entertainment industry toward the new music, culminating in congressional hearings on radio payola in 1960. A final chapter examines the hoopla surrounding the AFM’s proposed embargo against internationally based musicians, including the Beatles and others of the 1960s British invasion. An introduction and epilogue serve to remind readers of the promise and power that unions, specifically the AFM, once held to create a worker’s utopia [End Page 139] where technology produced leisure, not unemployment. But alas, it is a story only of what could have been. The fault for this failure, however, should not be laid solely at the doorstep of management or strike-breaking mercenaries. As Roberts contends through his examination of music, musicians, and consumers, the villain was a class and cultural divide that existed between workers themselves.

Roberts, who teaches sociology at San Diego State University, has produced a work that offers many insights. His emphasis on the discriminatory views of AFM members who formally read music toward “amateur” musicians who performed r&b, country, and rock ‘n’ roll “by ear” from recordings, for example, ignites an engine that deftly drives his class interpretation. Based largely on readings in secondary literature—there is a smattering of primary sources—the book is a derivative one. Still, it provides an excellent interdisciplinary approach to the subject at hand and comes with a comprehensive bibliography that a wide array of readers will relish. References to figures such as Jacques Derrida, Stuart Hall, Walter Benjamin, F. R. Leavis, Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, and George Lipsitz place Tell Tchaikovsky the News within the mainstream of cultural studies. More importantly, Roberts has opened a new line of questioning that should preoccupy scholars of labor, popular music, rock ‘n’ roll, and American culture for years to come.

Michael T. Bertrand

MICHAEL T. BERTRAND teaches history at Tennessee State University. He is the author of Race, Rock, and Elvis (2005) and is currently writing Remixing the Master: The Significance of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Southern History.


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