Culture Rover

#102 - Sha Na Na At Woodstock

One thing that defines rock and soul music of the 1960s is a hyper-consciousness of rock and roll and rhythm and blues of the 1950s. The music is especially about the music itself.

In this way, rock and soul perform a historicizing task -- ordering the past in order to grapple with the present. These musicians and their audiences were concerned with hidden connections, unknown lineages, covert links, and secret passageways between disparate people, places, and times. The goal was to discover that your parents actually weren't your parents, but that you were an orphan from a traveling circus show, offspring from a parallel universe.

Rock and soul in the 1960s made comments -- marginalia -- on the explosive new cultural forms of the 1950s. These genres were addenda that blew up into their own story. As music critics such as Richard Meltzer, Lester Bangs, Ellen Willis, Nik Cohn, Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau, and Dave Marsh have argued, this ghost of a coda offered a new plot: not only can you enjoy yourself, you can also build a life out of cultural explosions. Rock and roll, rhythm and blues -- which could gyrate you loose from strictures -- could also generate the energy for a new order.

Like a Rolling Stone, the Rolling Stones, Rolling Stone. "Just let me hear some of that rhythm and blues music," Van Morrison sings in "Domino." "That sweet soul music," Arthur Conley insists, as he spotlights various rhythm and blues singers. "Here come old flat top," John Lennon sings, borrowing a line from Chuck Berry. Curtis Mayfield even quotes his own hit songs in "We're a Winner" and "We're Rolling On." And then, of course, there are the numerous covers, such as Janis Joplin's interpretations of "Piece of My Heart" and "Down on Me."

This hyper-consciousness of the 1950s in music of the 1960s explains why Sha Na Na fit at Woodstock. Usually portrayed as an incongruous addition, proof of the fakeness of the whole rock-hippie enterprise, Sha Na Na might rather be thought of as the New Lost City Ramblers of Woodstock Nation. They recreated the old folkways for the new culture.

Sha Na Na was an example of historical imagining: derivations being asserted, inheritances being claimed. They marked the effort in the late 1960s to document -- to claim -- historical bloodlines from greasers to hippies, from races mixing in gold lame to all humankind mixing in tie-dyed Technicolor, from simple chords and melodies played with the expertise of abandon that W.T. Lhamon calls "deliberate speed" to an expanded repertoire of sound and music grounded in the electronic riffage of rock and roll and rhythm and blues.

In the 1970s, punk rockers argued that the counterculture abandoned 1950s music and culture. But the 50s was, in fact, present at the Ground Zero of hippiedom. Woodstock Nation rooted its utopian longings in the cultural explosions of the previous decade. But because rock and roll and rhythm and blues were conjunctions (and conjunctures) meant to detonate in their collisions, meant to blow up their surroundings in a great howl of bodily and spiritual liberation, this made the dream of rock-and-soul consciousness rather like the experience of constructing a city out of rubble: of getting back to the garden, but discovering that paradise was the epicenter of an earthquake.

Rock and roll was here to stay, indeed, but here was now a trampled meadow, a destroyed field of mud and garbage. The question still resounds to this day: how does one tend to that?

07 August 06

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