AMS / Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Lecture Series
The American Musicological Society and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum (RRHOFM) in Cleveland, Ohio, are collaborating on a new lecture series that brings scholarly work to a broader audience and showcases the musicological work of the top scholars in the field.
Fall 2016 (date TBA): Steven Baur (Dalhousie University), "Toward a Cultural History of the Backbeat"
In a famous sermon given to his Nashville congregation in 1956—captured on grainy black-and-white film and now on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—Reverend Jimmy Snow preaches passionately about the evils of rock and roll, and he identifies the beat as the musical element most crucial to the impact and appeal of this controversial new music. To be sure, mainstream popular music was in the midst of a radical transformation in the mid-1950s, and Snow was right to identify the powerful percussive accompaniment as the most distinctive and captivating feature of rock and roll, commonly known then as “beat music” or simply “the big beat.” And the most distinctive and captivating feature of the rock-and-roll beat was its emphatic snare drum accents on the nominal “weak” beats of the measure — the so-called backbeat. Shocking though it was to many in the 1950s, the backbeat soon became, and remains to this day, perhaps the single most prevalent feature of Western popular music. Although it represents nothing less than a fundamental revolution in Western rhythmic sensibilities, there is virtually nothing in the scholarly literature on the origins and early history of the backbeat.
This study traces the origins of the backbeat to several nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century African-American musical traditions—including work songs, sacred music, and brothel house blues—and charts its early history through a critical survey of commercial and field recordings from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Drawing on Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s influential work on the practice of signifyin’ in African-American cultural traditions, I explore the meanings the backbeat has carried in specific contexts, including labor camps, black churches, and houses of prostitution. Furthermore, I establish a direct line connecting these earlier traditions to the emergence of the rock-and-roll beat in the 1940s and 1950s.
The evidence I present supports cultural theorist John Mowitt’s argument that the backbeat constituted the “beating back” of an oppressed racial minority against a history of violent subjugation when it emerged to the forefront of popular culture in the 1950s. I illuminate earlier instances in which the deployment of percussive accents on nominal weak beats functioned as a powerful act of resistance, and I explain how such percussive musicking has played into vital issues concerning race, gender, class, and social justice.
Steven Baur is an Associate Professor of Musicology at the Fountain School of Performing Arts at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He holds a PhD in Musicology from UCLA and has published widely on topics in nineteenth- and twentieth-century music from both “classical” and “popular” traditions. His work appears in the Journal of the American Musicological Society, American Music, Nineteenth-Century Music Review, Popular Music and Society, and the New Grove Dictionary of American Music, and he has co-edited two essay collections. He is also an accomplished drummer with dozens of recordings and live performances to his credit.
Call for Lecture Proposals
Follow this link for full instructions if you are interested in participating in the AMS/RRHOFM Lecture Series. The deadline is 15 January each year.
Jacqueline Warwick (Dalhousie University), spring 2016: “Dad Rock and Child Stars”
Stephanie Vander Wel (University at Buffalo (SUNY)), fall 2015: "Rose Maddox’s Roadhouse Vocality and the California Sound of 1950s Rockabilly and Honky-Tonk"
Mark Clague (University of Michigan), spring 2015: "'This Is America': Jimi Hendrix’s Reimaginings of the 'The Star-Spangled Banner' as Social Comment for Woodstock and Beyond"
Samantha Bennett (Australian National University), fall 2014: "Rock, Recording and Rebellion: Technology and Process in 1990s Record Production"
Christopher Doll (Rutgers University), spring 2014: "Nuclear Holocaust, the Kennedy Assassination, and 'Louie Louie': The Unlikely History of Sixties Rock and Roll"
Loren Kajikawa (University of Oregon), September 2013: "Before Rap: DJs, MCs, and Pre-1979 Hip Hop Performances"
Andrew Flory (Carleton College), December 2012: "Reissuing Marvin: Musicology and the Modern Expanded Edition"
David Brackett (McGill University), April 2012: "Fox-Trots, Hillbillies, and the Classic Blues: Categorizing Popular Music in the 1920s"
Albin Zak (University at Albany, SUNY), October 2011: "'A Thoroughly Bad Record': Elvis Presley’s 'Hound Dog' as Rock and Roll Manifesto"