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The Roots of Rock, from Cardiff to Mississippi and Back

Peter Finch
ISBN-13: 
9781781722664
Publication Date: 
Monday, November 9, 2015
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Peter Finch follows the trail of twentieth century popular music from a 1950s valve radio playing in a suburban Cardiff terrace to the reality of the music among the bars of Ireland, the skyscrapers of New York, the plains of Tennessee, the flatlands of Mississippi and the mountains of North Carolina. The Roots of Rock from Cardiff to Mississippi and Back mixes musical autobiography with an exploration of the physical places from which this music comes. It is a demonstration of the power of music to create a world for the listener that is simultaneously of and beyond the place in which it is heard. It also considers how music has changed during this time, from the culture-shaping (revolutionising) 50s and 60s to the present day, where it has evolved from the hard black vinyl of albums to the invisible digital mp3 file waiting to be summoned by mouse click.

Along the way Finch gives us sharp-eyed accounts of gigs from Champion Jack Dupree to the Garth Mountain Boys, muses on the importance of the Dansette record player, ponders why Elvis never came to Wales (except multiply in Porthcawl’s legendary Elvis Festival), visits musical shrines and theme parks – Dollywood, Grand Ole Opry, Graceland, Stax, rides along with singing cowboys and recalls his attempt to form a band, The Blueswailers. Add in music in Ireland and Wales (and in Welsh), the Bible Belt, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Etta James, Ray Charles, Bert Jansch, Taylor Swift, Alan Stivell, Chet Atkins, the Appalachian Mountains and Pigeon Forge and Finch’s world of music is as broad as the last six decades allows.

Each chapter is accompanied by a multi-track play list to help the reader have the full flavour of what Finch’s musical experiences and bring alive the many sharp witted stories and thoughtful cultural connections. The result is an entertaining, informative book from which the reader will learn much and hear more.

 

REVIEWS

Review by Alan Empson, Planet

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Peter Finch, besides being a poet and critic, is the author of Welsh-centric travel guides, particularly concerning his home city of Cardiff. However, as a long time music enthusiast, it was inevitable that he would be inspired to travel to, and write about, the land where his musical preferences originated.
The early chapters offer a kaleidoscope of memories that will be familiar to anyone born in the post-war baby-boom years, although they probably seem like visions of a distant planet to later generations. Amidst the comfortable BBC radio programmes offering light entertainment, there appeared the rumblings of something new that appealed to a younger audience: skiffle, courtesy of Lonnie Donegan, and rock & roll in the unlikely shape of the avuncular Bill Haley. Of course, Elvis came on the scene, and things got all shook up.
I confess that I too, like Peter, became hooked on the initial discovery of the blues; the earthy, authentic wailings of mysterious blues singers, with fantastic names such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Lonesome Sundown. That music became the bedrock of my lifelong musical tastes, although as the book reveals, Peter Finch widened his horizons to take in the many strands of roots music: blues, folk, bluegrass, hillbilly and country.
It took many years before Finch was able to travel to the States, but he made up for lost time by visiting the birth sites of his favoured music: the blues in Mississippi, rock & roll in Memphis (with obvious trips to Graceland, Sun Studios, and a diversion to Elvis’s birthplace in Tupelo), country music in Nashville (not forgetting Dolly Parton’s Dollywood), bluegrass in the Appalachian Mountains, and as many festivals as humanly possible.
Finch has a fine grasp of place, and uses a poet’s eye to capture atmosphere in a few words. The sense of wonder and discovery is tempered with the occasional jaded view – he is not the first to discover that Graceland is not the mansion of one’s imagination, but a testament to Elvis’s tacky taste.
Just as a Stateside road trip can lead to many a side turn, so the book often pauses to reflect on some salient lore, or veers off the main musical highway to muse, for instance, on the development of the Stetson hat. There’s a fascinating account of the story of the Knoxville Girl, from its origins in the 1685 ballad The Bloody Miller, through its permutations in hillbilly, country and rock, from the Louvin Brothers to Nick Cave.
Whereas the word Mississippi in the title of the book suggests that the main theme will be the origins of the blues, in fact the lion’s share of the work deals with the roots of country music found notably in Tennessee and the Carolinas. I suspect that, despite his varied tastes, this is where Finch’s heart really lies. He is certainly able to tap into a wealth of live music in these areas, while there seems to be a lack of success in finding much live blues, even in Clarksdale (though visiting this quiet town on a Tuesday didn’t help).
The Welsh connection is a common thread running through the book; Finch clearly tries to relate his travels and experiences to his own roots. We get Bill Haley in Cardiff, Finch’s amusing attempts to form a band, the current state of British bluegrass, and Welsh folk clubs. I am unsure as to how a non-Welsh readership will relate to comparisons made between US locations and those in Wales – for example, in a description of the Muscle Shoals four cities, we are told that apparently there are more people living in Penarth.
To complete the book, there is an interesting Timeline, followed by a useful discography referenced to each chapter. Also included is a very personal 61-track playlist, a source of great delight and surely plenty of discussion down the pub: how about James Cotton’s Polly Put the Kettle On? Or Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved a Man, described earlier in the text as ‘the world’s best soul record ever’. It’s all subjective, and great fun.
I would not suggest that the book unearths many new or unknown facts, but it is an enjoyable read as a personal voyage of discovery. Peter Finch’s conclusion rings true, that roots music may have its distant origins in Europe or Africa, but what we hear today was very much created by the great craftsmen: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Doc Watson, Bill Monroe and so on. I have been inspired to seek out some of the artists and recordings referred to, and for that, I can pay the author no greater compliment.

 

Alan Empson is a long-time blues enthusiast, and has been a promoter of blues shows, as well as Reviews Editor of Jukes Blues Magazine.

Review by Dr Sarah Hill, The Welsh Agenda

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Popular music heritage is big business. Pilgrims flock from all around the world to places where they believe magic once happened – Liverpool, London, Los Angeles, Lubbock. Academic popologists have long been exploring the connections between pop heritage, cultural memory, and local identity, working with museums, talking to the public, publishing (of course), and publishing some more, just to work out what 'place' means and how to define 'heritage'.
Peter Finch has spent his life in thrall to American roots music, and this book is in part a love letter to it. The first 72 pages of The Roots of Rock trace Finch's introduction to the world of high fidelity, and provide a vivid snapshot of mid-century Cardiff streets, cafes, record shops, and front rooms, all with their changing soundtracks. Early rock’n’roll is often written into autobiography, biography, and fiction, but very rarely is Cardiff the setting for the action. In this regard The Roots of Rock adds an important dimension to an otherwise familiar story. Much of the narrative is coloured by Finch's particular attention to difference:

Some of the material was actually okay. Most of it featured singers with Christian names I hadn't ever come across. ln my school people were called things like Trevor, Martin, Terrence and Ronald. At Cae'r Castell Secondary Mod there was no one called Bo, Pee Wee, Sunnyland, Peppermint, or even Big Joe. The nearest we had to a blues nom de plume was the sports master and Harlequins rugby player who went under the name Cowboy Davies.
[p. 24]

For a young man whose life was so consumed by American music, it is surprising to discover that he only took his first trip to the States in 2003. But had the younger Finch gone on a musical pilgrimage in the 1960s or 1970s this would have been an entirely different story, and not nearly as good. What is effective about Finch's account is the vibrant memories that he's carried from his Cardiff youth of the 1950s and l960s, and the shadows cast on those memories by the business of pop heritage in the 21st century.
It is not news that the Elvis Presley estate continues to capitalise spectacularly on the King's enduring legacy. Indeed, Finch's chapter on the Porthcawl Elvis Festival considers nostalgia, kitsch, and mortality in equal measures, with commercialism and class creeping up from behind. Those latter two are at the base of a lot of academic literature about rock 'n roll in general and pop heritage in particular Finch touches a bit on authorship and originality in The Roots of Rock, but the bigger questions, about who benefits financially from blues tourism, about whose 'roots' are actually being unearthed, about musical appropriation and systemic racism, are largely left unposed.
Where Finch's storytelling strength lies is in his ability to connect the furthest reaches of American culture back to Wales. Occasionally this takes the form of spotting familiar surnames and meeting expats, but also, more effectively, when Finch casts a critical eye not only on American consumption but on Wales’ own sense of cultural history:

Music Halls of Fame, it turns out, exist as a sort of twentieth century rash right across America. Unlike in Wales, land of song, where we have precisely none, the Americans have realised that as music is part of their world-dominating culture it should be celebrated as such. We have a tradition going back a thousand years and we hide it in the bowels of our museum of folk life and resited buildings, St. Fagans.
The Americans invented theirs somewhere in the middle of the nineteenth century and have been celebrating it with bells, whistles and constant dollar investment ever since.

[p. 183]

This speaks volumes about the differences between reputation and ostentation, about cultural timidity and self-confidence. As an American living in Wales, I confess that I have found the Welsh tendency toward cultural understatement beguiling and frustrating in equal measure. But given Finch’s descriptions of the alternatives, of tourists gawping at replica shotgun shacks, of endless parking lots and overpriced souvenir shops, I’m not convinced that St Fagans doesn’t offer the more alluring experience.

The Roots of Rock has a great deal to say about history, adolescence, and cultural belonging, and Finch’s timeline offers all the historical context the casual reader might need to access the music. I applaud Finch for including a basic bibliography, but there are some fairly standard, non-academic titles that I did not see on his list: Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train and Dead Elvis; Charlie Gillett’s The Sound of the City. Wearing my mortarboard and academic robes, I would take issue with Finch’s consistent misplacement of footnote numbers (they should go outside of punctuation) and incomplete discographical references (release dates, please). I would have liked a tighter sense of chronology in the narrative and a more meticulous proofreader (it’s Haight-Ashbury, not ‘Height Ashbery’). But as a trip back through time to Cardiff at a pivotalmoment in pop culture history, and forward to that historical moment’s afterlife, this is a vivid and engaging read that breathes new life into some great old music.

 

Dr Sarah Hill is a Senior Lecturer in Popular Music at Cardiff University. Her latest book is San Francisco and the Long 60s (Bloomsbury)

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