Thursday, June 29, 2006

Of Domino and rock & roll

Perhaps it is downright heresy to write of this here, but I do live dangerously, so...I am having coffee as I read this morning! There, kick me off the TeaReads blog, but the truth is coffee is my morning companion, and nothing else will do. Perhaps coffee is fitting as I read a book that is set in, around and about an American city much in the the national conciousness for nearly a year now, New Orleans, a city known for strong coffee (hold the chicory for me, please).
Can you imagine any connection linking Napoleon, Plessy v. Feguson, the 1791 Haitian Revolution, Pat Boone, John Lennon and Fats Domino? No, it isn't a certain date, but that's a good guess. To find the common thread among these disparate factors, you'll simply have to read Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock 'N' Roll. This is no meager, pallid recitation of half-supported facts, but a vivid and visceral historical tracing showing the inextricable path from the African diaspora via slavery to Louisiana's earliest recorded days to the advent and development of rock and roll.
But does that sound dry? What a disservice I have done, if so! This book, by Rick Coleman, is vital and juicy, sometimes bloodsoaked and sorrowful, and always gripping as it shows how rock and roll could not have been had there never been a New Orleans nor a Fats Domino. It is rich in historical moment and in geographical fact.
The name Fats Domino may call to mind the now-standard songs "Blueberry Hill" and "Blue Monday," and a little more thinking might also jostle to recollection "Walkin' to New Orleans" or, perhaps, a vague memory of a ripe plum of a man in suit and tie, but probably little more. One must read this book to find how it elevates the humble Mr. Domino to his rightful place in American musical history as one of the founding fathers of rock and roll (or, "rock 'n' roll," as the author writes it). The book conveys information on an intellectual as well as an emotional level, uncovering little-known facts and events, and bring fresh air to well-known ones, lacing the whole with quotations from those who were there and from those who have made in-depth studies of the times. Did you know, for example, that there's an old New Orleans tradition called Blue Monday? I did not until I read this book. I learned how many phrases and references in rock and roll were then-current slang terms that spoke to those in the know, meanings that have been all but lost over time, distance and geography.
And yet, for all the things that are right about this book, I must mention a thing or two that is wrong. In his clear appreciation for rock and roll and for the African roots of that genre`, Mr. Coleman draws totteringly close to a precipice. Swept up in his enthusiastic defense of the maltreated African and American Black people who built rock and roll, Mr. Coleman edges closer and closer to enshrining them as Noble Savages, whose nature is not just different to that of White people, but also superior. Loving classical music is not anthithetical to loving rock and roll music. I, myself, find room in my heart for both and for other genres` as well. A culture that is earthy in its expression is not necessarily superior to a culture that focuses on less visceral things. The African/Black view that related things to everyday life is posited to be above the European/White view that divides body, soul and mind, and which sees the soul as the acme of importance.
We read, for example, that "To the Eurocentric aesthetic, classical music was the apex of sophistication, but African-rooted music was more complex rhythmically, improvisationally, and socially - - that is, in the human terms of the everyday world." Rhythmically more complex? Really? More so than, say, Mozart, with his "too many notes?" More complex than the mathematically beautiful compositions of Bach?
Moreover, music has always served as a conduit for feelings in cultures, and few things rouse such fervent patriotism as music that is meaningful to particular societies. So how African-rooted music can be said to be more socially complex than other kinds is beyond my ken. let me leave you with a hearty recommendation for this book. It will amuse you, surprise you, inform you and challenge you. You might want to have a cuppa joe with it, too.

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