A Brief(ish) History of Awesome American Music Part 1

In honor of the 4th of July weekend and good ol’ American independence (which was declared in a document written largely by a sexy deist with jungle fever named Thomas Jefferson. The Texas School Board, chock full of dumbfucks as it is, doesn’t think TJ was all that important to the founding of our country, but I’ll raise a prost to anyone awesome enough to vandalize a Bible for what they believe), we here at Bollocks! thought it might be nice to lay a little history lesson on ya. An American history lesson. Specifically, I want to recount for you some of the most awesome moments in American music and salute my country for the one thing it invariably gets right. From Jelly Roll Morton to the Hold Steady, Americans have consistently been dead awesome at making great music.

Before we begin, it should be noted that this is an extremely subjective, heavily-condensed “history.” I can’t possibly include everything in American music history, even over three or four days, so I’ve selected some of my favorite artists and stories. That being the case, there won’t be a section on Kiss because fuck those guys. Also, I’m including artists that I actively listen to – I don’t want to put on airs about being an authority on music. So, with apologies to and out of respect for Guided by Voices and their fans, I’m not including them because I haven’t listened to them enough to feel comfortable speaking of them. My goal here is to leave you entertained and, in another proud American tradition, half-informed. If you find my history offensive, write your own. If you find it somehow incomplete, good. That means you read this whole paragraph.

Also, I’m starting with the 20th century because I ain’t too proud to admit I don’t listen to much American music that came before the 20th century. Anyway, here we go…

The first thing that had to happen in America to give birth to pretty much all the great music we know now (from jazz to blues to rock to hip-hop) was a little thing called slavery. Slaves sang gospel songs in the fields (although it’s kind of amazing to me that they sang the praises of the white man’s god; I mean, if a group of people treated you like three fifths of a human being, wouldn’t you kinda hesitate to praise their deity? I know I would) and these songs, through a process of adaptation and diversion into bawdier subject matter, eventually gave birth to the blues. The contribution of the blues to everything you like about music cannot be understated. Without Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, and Son House, you can pretty much eliminate the bulk of your records, be they rock, pop, jazz, or whatever.

But to keep shit chronological, we should start with the dude who invented jazz in 1902. Well, he says he did anyway. But Jelly Roll Morton was so awesome, you kinda have to give it to him. Born with the decidedly un-jazzy name of Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe in 1885, Morton got his start playing piano in the brothels of New Orleans and in 1915, he published “Jelly Roll Blues,” the first piece of jazz music ever published.

The same year Jelly Roll Morton was busy “inventing” jazz at the tender age of 17, Son House was born in Mississippi, two miles from Clarksdale, home of the famous Crossroads at which one Robert Johnson may or may not have sold his soul to the devil (we’ll get to that in a minute). Son House might be the drunken great granddad of the blues – it’s said that Robert Johnson used to follow him around to shows, trying to learn how he played. Son House played slide guitar, sometimes with an actual bottle neck, and was a huge influence on Mr. Muddy Waters, whose excellent music would go on to be desecrated by the likes of Eric Clapton and George Thorogood (For some reason, I’m reminded of the George Carlin quote, “If the KKK is gonna burn down black churches in the south, isn’t only fair to let black people burn down the House of Blues?”). House actually retired from music for a while and worked for the New York Central Railroad before being “rediscovered” in the 1960s, which may or may not have been a bad idea: House got drunk at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival and disrupted Howlin’ Wolf’s set. Kanye West will probably cite that as precedent for his assholery, but it should go without saying that Kanye is no Son House.

Even if you haven’t heard of Son House, you probably have heard of his would-be protégé, Robert Johnson. Johnson is the dude who supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his guitar playing talent (let’s face it, it sounds a lot better than “I practiced my ass off”), which turned out to be goddamn prodigious. In just a few recording sessions, to which we’re apparently listening too fast, Robert Johnson gave the world the haunting, amazing music that would later be completely shit on by Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, and a whole army of dumb white motherfuckers. The White Stripes did a pretty good cover of “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues” and John Hammond’s At the Crossroads album bests pretty much every other Robert Johnson cover ever. It’s pretty clearly not true that Johnson sold his soul to the Devil, but his story is weird enough without all that. He was possibly/probably poisoned for probably/definitely fucking a bar-owner/some guy’s wife/girlfriend and, to make matters worse, three different cemeteries claim to be home to his buried remains. Let’s see Eric Clapton copy that shit.

And then there’s Mr. Huddie William Ledbetter, Leadbelly to his prison friends. Not to beat a dead horse, but if you erased Son House, Robert Johnson, and Leadbelly from the  musical history books… there is only classical music (what can I say? I don’t like dead horses, I guess). Period. Do you doubt me? Leadbelly has been ripped off by everyone from CCR to Aerosmith, has been more kindly interpreted by the likes of Nirvana and Tom Waits, and when you wield that kind of influence, you earn the right to kick the shit out of Elvis in Hell. And for the kids who think today’s studio gangstas (looking at you, 50 Cent) are anything at all, Leadbelly went to prison for packing a gun, escaped (from an honest-to-god chain gang), went back to prison (because he killed one of his relatives in a – ahem – dispute over a woman), sang his way out of prison, and went back one more time for stabbing a white dude in a fight. So when Tupac and Biggie got to the Afterlife, I’m guessing they were greeted by the sound of Huddie Ledbetter calling them pussies.

We’ve not yet begun to selectively reinterpret the history of awesome American music! Next time, we’ll talk about how shitty Billie Holiday’s life was and I’ll probably get real long-winded on the subject of the Only Saxophone Player You Will Ever Need (if you ever need two saxophone players, the other one is Charlie Parker).

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