The history of popular music in the 20th century is old news. It begins, depending on who you believe, with Scott Joplin and ragtime. Or maybe when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band first performed in 1916. At that point, the story marches through Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and the swing era to bebop, then to R&B, followed by Elvis and the Beatles, then free jazz, maybe a little nod to disco, and wraps up with punk, grunge and hip-hop. Class dismissed. Or not. There's always some smart aleck in the back of the room with a hand up, looking to make trouble. Yes, Mr. Wald, what's your point?
Elijah Wald is the author of How the -Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll, in which he tries to convince us that much about the way we interpret the history of pop is wrong. Wald argues that most of "the music's critics and historians have typically sought to distinguish the music they love from the mediocre pap that surrounded it. As a result, virtually all rock histories portray Pat Boone and Connie Francis in much the same way that jazz histories portray Guy Lombardo and Rudy Vallee." Wald sees two things wrong with this approach. First, lots of people listened to Paul Whiteman and Jelly Roll Morton, or Pat Boone and Little Richard. Second, it distorts the way the music developed, with disparate artists listening to—and filching from—each other. Louis Armstrong was a Guy Lombardo fan. Elvis sang almost only dreamy ballads before he entered Sun Studios and changed history.
The musical world that Wald describes lasted from the first decade of the 20th century until somewhere in the middle '60s. Then came the Beatles. In 1964, Billboard stopped publishing separate sales charts for pop and rhythm and blues, apparently because it was just too hard to make those distinctions musically, since white and black bands and audiences were on the same page. At first, that blending included the Beatles, whose music owed equal debts to Carl Perkins and Little Richard. Then the Beatles began to change, growing artier with every album, creating music that could be played only in a studio and that mostly neglected the rhythmic, danceable element that gave rock and roll its power. Because the Beatles were so successful, other bands followed their lead. The result was the greatest musical segregation of the last century. White musicians took one path, blacks another. It happened in a hurry (by 1965, Billboard had revived its R&B charts) and, according to Wald, it hasn't changed much since.
This is a debatable premise, but you don't have to agree with it to admire this book. Among the most illuminating parts are those sections that illustrate how historical and sociological factors changed music dramatically. Jukeboxes, the radio and record players put a dent in demand for live music. The twist, the first popular dance in which two people did not touch, killed ballroom dancing and the orchestras that accompanied it. Solo performers came to the fore during Prohibition because speakeasies preferred not to advertise their presence with loud music. It is as an alternative, corrective history of American music that Wald's book is invaluable. It forces us to see that only by studying the good with the bad—and by seeing that the good and bad can't be pulled apart—can we truly grasp the greatness of our cultural legacy.