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  • How The Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative Music History of American Popular Music
  • John Clark
How The Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative Music History of American Popular Music. By Elijah Wald. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. [x, 323 p. ISBN 9780195341546. $24.95] Illustrations, bibliography, index.

Anyone who reads only the first half of this title will be left with a remarkably incomplete picture of the scope of this work—it is the second half that points to its main argument. For someone hoping to find a chronicle of the Beatles and their influence, How The Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll is bound to disappoint. A case could be [End Page 98] made, in fact, that the main premise of this book hinges more on the discussion of Paul Whiteman than on the discussion of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. For Wald, Whiteman represents a great and misunderstood figure in the history of American popular music: he was the great leveler of traditions who refined the elements of a folk form, rather than diluting them as so many commentators have held in the past. He, like the Beatles, was a catalytic force who turned dance music into an art form while combining both the melodic (European) and rhythmic (African) elements that had at certain previous points seemed antithetical.

Wald came to write this book not so much through the halls of academia (although his analyses and historical observations are informed by scholarly rigor), but through the crucible of a career spent as a working musician in various jazz, folk, and Latin bands on both coasts. His practical view of music and those who make it is a refreshing journey down a well-travelled path. His separation of "critics" and "historians" (p. 8) is a particularly interesting viewpoint usually overlooked in academic circles. Likewise, his point that both critics and historians who write about issues of their own youth culture are suspect in their objectivity and give a skewed impression of what was popular in "pop" music is important in his approach to the topic. By citing the subjectivity of both early jazz and rock journalists, Wald convincingly attempts to restore the voices of such traditionally ignored musical consumer groups as teenage girls and the middle-aged dancing crowd and record buyers.

Wald devotes single chapters to each of what he considers the most influential topics in American popular music history. From ragtime through early jazz, swing, country-western, rhythm and blues to rock and roll he develops an argument that the ebb and flow of each style was in large part a result of a predictable development from its origins as social music to a more complicated, "artistic" form. While he stops short of saying that in each case it was the African American community that initiated each style and subsequent white stylists who attempted to turn it into high art, the implication is clear.

Wald is guilty of several omissions, possibly due to the fact that certain popular styles do not fit neatly into his thesis. He calls ragtime the first popular music genre, but what of the march and related concert music? Sousa was the first musical superstar of the twentieth century, although he was closely followed by such "classical" artists as Enrico Caruso and John McCormack, none of whom had any roots in African American entertainment. The early history of country and bluegrass music—especially considering artists such as the Carter Family, Bill Monroe, and Flatt and Scruggs—is also largely absent, perhaps because their roots are in white folk with only a tangential relationship to black styles. His argument about the white cooption of black music is most compelling beginning with the rhythm and blues and rock eras, where recorded evidence is plentiful and film and television broadcasts more closely recorded the divisions of the color line.

Some of Wald's bedrock statements are not entirely grounded. His discussion of early jazz repeats the old canard that it was developed by black musicians but that white musicians popularized it (p. 29), although he states that such an approach is "anathema" to the way jazz and ragtime history has been written...


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