Book Review: The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1: 1920-1963
Reviewed by Tim Stegall, Fri., Nov. 4, 2016
Many a rock history's been written. Rolling Stone made three attempts, the third of which, 1986's Rock of Ages, was co-authored by this book's very scribe. This one's different.
Ed Ward's more qualified than most to write a sweeping, definitive social history of rock & roll. An on-and-off local of long standing with a rightful claim to being one of rock criticism's pioneers via his Sixties/Seventies work with Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, and Creem (revisit "Tombstone Blues," Sept. 16), he doesn't begin his timeline with 19-year-old Memphis truck driver Elvis Presley walking into Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service to cut a private, one-off record as a birthday gift to his mother. Rather, he reaches back to the mid-19th century, tracing rock's origins to the near simultaneous births of the blues and what would become country music out of Southern immigrants' remembrances of the folk music of their native lands.
Moving on to the advent of the recording industry as Thomas Edison's phonograph entrenches by the Twenties, Ward documents independent record labels building stars from blues performers like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Ma Rainey. Country pioneers including the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and Bob Wills color their sounds with blue notes, then electric guitars and drums invade both genres, introducing volume and energy. Once 1953 arrives, the author takes the timeline year by year, avoiding a star-driven approach and magnanimously spreading the credit as rock & roll develops, Charlie Feathers given the same weight as Chuck Berry.
The once mythic assumption of the form dying with Buddy Holly in an Iowa plane crash is also eradicated, massive R&B hits and teen instrumentals keeping the momentum alive while Britain brews something quite heady and about to be sprung on the world as Vol. 1 cuts off in 1963. Huge in scope, this is Ed Ward's masterpiece. (TBF appearance: Sun., Nov. 6, in Capitol Extension Room E2.030 for "Writing About Music," 12:30pm)
The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1: 1920-1963by Ed Ward
Flatiron Books, 416 pp., $35