Thursday, 24 October 2013

The Devil’s Music: Religion and Rock in the 1950s South

Yesterday, 23rd October 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome Dr. Randall Stephens (Reader in History at the University of Northumbria) to the second of the Centre’s 2013-2014 seminar series. In what was an engaging and highly insightful talk, Dr. Stephens discussed ‘The Devil’s Music: Religion and Rock in the 1950s South.’ Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Monday, October 28th, 1957, and Elvis Presley is about to perform to a packed crowd at the Pan-American Auditorium in Los Angeles. Before going on stage, a member of DIG magazine, marketed as ‘For Teens Only,’ was eager to gain a rise out of Presley during an interview backstage with the question: ‘As the reputed King of Rock 'n Roll, how do you feel about the comments Frank Sinatra made railing Rock 'n Roll enthusiasts as being nothing but a bunch of 'cretinous goons' and the music itself as 'the martial music of every side-burned delinquent on the face of the earth.' Although Presley responded calmly, as Dr. Stephens highlighted, this type of question itself illustrated the perception held by many that rock music was abhorrent. Yet of more interest to Dr. Stephens was Presley’s answer to a follow-up question about why he gyrated on stage as he sang – Presley said, ‘I just sing like they do back home. When I was younger, I always liked spiritual quartets and they sing like that.’ Here was Presley articulating what Dr. Stephens had set out to discover – namely, to understand the important connections between religion and the evolution of rock music in America.

To do so, Dr. Stephens discussed the rise of Pentecostalism in the American South, where believers spoke in unknown tongues, worshipped in free-form churches, and broke down social barriers that had divided traditional Protestants by gathering white and black converts long before desegregation. Gender equality was also a mark of the Pentecostal movement, which according to Dr. Stephens went the way of the ‘horse and cart’ by the 1930s. Nevertheless, the rise of Pentecostalism, with its unique blend of highly energetic and emotive services to spread the word of God – gospel was often combined with various musical instruments during services – had an indelible impact on the character of the South and the childhood of many future rock and roll stars of the 1950s and 60s. Dr. Stephens revisited Presley here, describing how in interview after interview he always mentioned to reporters that he and his family belonged to Memphis’s First Assembly of God church. For example, when speaking to an Associated Press reporter about Pentecostalism, Presley said:

We used to go to these religious singins all the time. There were these singers, perfectly fine singers, but nobody responded to ‘em. Then there were these other singers – the leader wuz a preacher – and they cut up all over the place, jumpin’ on the piano, movin’ every which way. The audience liked ‘em. I guess I learned from them singers.

According to Dr. Stephens, uninhibited Pentecostalism gave Presley ideas about music and performance. Indeed, he was often called the ‘evangelist’ by his inner circle of friends. Nevertheless, many in the American South did not appreciate his borrowing of sacred music for secular ends.

As Dr. Stephens highlighted, many of Presley's records were condemned as wicked by Pentecostal preachers, warning congregations to keep ‘heathen’ rock and roll music out of their homes and away from their children's ears. Likewise, White Supremacist groups, such as the White Citizen’s Council called rock and roll ‘jungle music’, ‘Congo rhythms’, and ‘animalistic.’ Thus, with these perceptions fuelling the rock and roll backlash, programmers announced they would not play Presley's music on their radio stations due to religious convictions that his music was ‘devil music’ and to racist beliefs that it was ‘negro music.’

Dr. Stephens then discussed the Pentecostal roots of various other singers at the time – James Brown, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash to name a few – to further reinforce his argument that religion had a massive influence on the rise of rock and roll in the South. Indeed, in the career of many of these stars, a duality between religion and the sins associated with rock and roll plagued them. Dr. Stephens played an excerpt of an intriguing conversation between Jerry Lee Lewis and Sam Phillips at Sun Records to illustrate this. This is attached here.

In closing, Dr. Stephens highlighted how his talk was part of a wider project in which he examines the relationship of rock music to American Christianity, beginning with Pentecostals who took to the new genre — Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and others — and ending with the advent of Christian rock in the 1970s. In his lecture, he mixed history, politics, religion, and music to provide a detailed picture of the South in the 1950s. Moreover, by highlighting the role of religion in rock and roll, Dr. Stephen helps us to understand the dynamic ways in which religion influenced the South in a number of ways outside of the church walls. In what was an informative and well attended lecture, Dr. Stephens unravelled the interesting roots of religion in the lives of many famous rock and roll stars – many of whom are more often associated with debauchery.
By Joe Ryan-Hume
PGR at the University of Glasgow

The Centre’s seminar series continues with Prof. Ivy Schweitzer (Dartmouth College) ‘More Pleasurable Reading We’re Not Doing: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.’ This is part of the 'English and American Literature Lecture Series', co-sponsored by the Centre, and will be held on Thursday 7th November in Room 202, 4 University Gardens, at 5:15pm. All very welcome!

Friday, 18 October 2013

Careless People: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Inventing The Great Gatsby

Welcome to the blog for the Andrew Hook Centre for American Studies at the University of Glasgow. Yesterday, 17th October 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome Professor Sarah Churchwell (Professor of American Literature at the University of East Anglia) to the first of the Centre’s 2013-2014 seminar series. In collaboration with the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow, and as part of the 'English and American Literature Lecture Series', co-sponsored by the Centre, Churchwell discussed ‘Careless People: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Inventing The Great Gatsby.’ Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s magnum opus, is a timeless American classic. Since its release in 1925, it has captivated generations, becoming one of the most widely read books in the world. In what proved to be a highly popular event – the lecture theatre was literally bursting at the seams – Prof. Churchwell described her attempts to piece together the chaotic and inchoate world behind Gatsby in her new book, ‘Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby.’ Using diary extracts, newspaper cuttings, and letters, Prof. Churchwell sought to examine the real-life events of 1922, including a gruesome double murder, to show their influences on the famous novel.

According to Prof. Churchwell, 1922 was a remarkable year, which began with the publication of ‘Ulysses’ and ended with ‘The Waste Land.’ In seeking the origins of Gatsby, Prof. Churchwell shows how Fitzgerald reflected the stories around him. The major news story at that time was that of the murder of Eleanor Mills, a married woman, and her lover Edward Hall; who were shot through the head near an abandoned farmhouse, their love letters scattered around the corpses. The murder of the adulterous couple held America spellbound and largely dominated the headlines whilst Fitzgerald was in New York. Prof. Churchwell points out a number of echoes with this and the story of Tom Buchanan's affair with Myrtle Wilson in The Great Gatsby.

In recreating the world of New York before the Great Depression, Prof. Churchwell also set out to debunk myths of the time perpetuated since in Hollywood films and lazy scholarly works. One such myth was that of fashion, or more specifically, the length of a lady’s dress. Through her research of newspapers in 1922, Prof. Churchwell demonstrated that the dresses often depicted in adaptions (films or theatre) of Gatsby since are in fact those of the late 1920s, and not 1922. On her PowerPoint, Prof. Churchwell showed the audience pictures of dresses in 1922 – which were a lot longer than assumed. This might seem trivial, but as Prof. Churchwell argued, in discovering the context of Gatsby, it is imperative to recreate the world exactly as it was. For example, with wit and insight Prof. Churchill further described the great lengths she went to in crafting her book (she spent four years trying to pinpoint the date that Fitzgerald returned to New York from the Midwest to begin working on Gatsby). Like finding a needle in a haystack, Prof. Churchwell described her elation at discovering the date - September 20th, 1922 – through a lost telegram.

Moreover, one man who has been overlooked proved pivotal to Prof. Churchwell’s analysis of the time. Burton Rascoe was the literary editor for the New York Tribune in 1922 and according to Prof. Churchwell his writing offered important glimpses into the time. His ‘A Bookman’s Daybook’ column was littered with information related to various parties he and Fitzgerald attended, which Prof. Churchwell argued provided the motif for the Gatsby parties. Through researching this man, Prof. Churchwell uncovered a diamond in the rough – a letter from Fitzgerald to Rascoe in which he explains his motivations behind Gatsby.

Prof. Churchwell then described another example of how Fitzgerald’s fictional landscape was based on reality. In his own drive to Manhattan from Great Neck (which is called West Egg in Gatsby), Fitzgerald, like Gatsby, would have driven west along Northern Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue to the Queensboro Bridge, crossing the Flushing River about midway. There in the 1920s the road passed through a former swamp, which had gradually filled with household garbage and coal ashes. On city maps the area was labelled the Corona Dumps; Fitzgerald called it the valley of ashes.

Prof. Churchwell concluded by showing that when Fitzgerald died in 1940, he largely considered himself a failure – Gatsby had sold only seven copies in the last year of his life, and his complete works had earned him a grand total of $13.13 in royalties. But following World War II, with new attention the meaning of Gatsby began to emerge and the book began to sell, and it now occupies a central place in the American canon.

In her lecture, Prof. Churchwell mixed biography, history, literary criticism and the compelling story of a true crime murder mystery to create a brilliantly detailed picture of the story behind a classic. With its release still due in the US (coming early 2014), this very carefully researched and well-crafted piece of literature by Prof. Churchwell provides an important contribution to the scholarly discussions on Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, and America in the roaring 20s, discovering where the fiction comes from and how Fitzgerald poetically presented modern America through his tale. Prof. Churchwell’s lecture was informative, and as suggested by its attendance, was highly popular.

By Joe Ryan-Hume
PGR at the University of Glasgow

The Centre’s seminar series continues with Dr. Randall Stephens (University of Northumbria) ‘The Devil’s Music: Religion and Rock in the 1950s South.’ This will be held on Wednesday 23rd October in Room 208, 2 University Gardens, at 5:15pm. All very welcome!