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Monday, August 29, 2011

A great music book about the days when the road was the road

This weekend I finished The Chitlin' Circuit: and the Road to Rock 'n' Roll by Preston Lauterbach, which is one of the best music books I've read in years. Chitlins are pig intestines which, when fried, were a popular delicacy among African Americans. Hence the Chitlin' Circuit was the name given to the network of dancehalls, night clubs and music joints flourishing below the Mason Dixon Line in the days before television and mass entertainment.

Lauterbach's book is essentially the story of Denver Ferguson and Don Robey, the promoters who realised that every community down south had a "dark town" and every dark town had a "stroll", a parade of black-owned barbers, beer joints, undertakers and money lenders. Where there was a stroll there was invariably a market for rambunctious musical entertainment.

Thus they despatched hundreds of entertainers on tours of one-nighters throughout the south in the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. Advance men went out in front, making sure that the musicians' record was on the jukebox. Recorded music was about immortality and profile, not about money. This was a live business and it ran as perfectly in sync with human self-interest as eBay does today.

If the performers were lucky there were black hotels that might accommodate them. More likely they'd be staying in boarding houses or sleeping on buses, doing their best to keep their stage clothes clean, trying to make sure they got paid at the end of the night and avoiding the attentions of razor-toting members of the audience who suspected the saxophone player of looking at their girl.

In the 30s it was all about the big bands. Walter Barnes and his Royal Creolians were one of the biggest attractions of that era. They were killed along with 290 dancers in a 1940 fire in a dancehall at Natchez, Mississippi. Many of these venues were known as "toilets", not because of the sanitary conditions, but because there was just one way in and one way out.

It's full of examples of ingenuity in pursuit of green: from the "policy" rackets that drove the neighbourhood economies to the promoters who put on "sissie nights" to cater for the transvestite market; from James Brown's first group whistling the instrumental passages because they couldn't afford gear to the early 78s which were literally baked like biscuits. Nobody in this book talks of creativity. They talk about making a living.

By the 40s a wartime shortage of buses meant the bands got smaller after the style of Louis Jordan's Tympany Five. It became more about rocking than swinging. When Elvis Presley finally came along, chitlin circuit heroes like Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris wondered what the fuss was about. They'd been making that exact same sound for five years.

I suspect some canny publisher suggested the author put that bit about rock'n'roll in the title. There's a tendency to undervalue any version of popular music that doesn't culminate in a big white millionaire. It's a shame we have to see it like that. Even if this journey had led nowhere in particular it would still have been a hell of a ride.