America's recent history is woven into rock 'n' rol

CLEVELAND, Ohio 'Hello Cleveland." Perhaps not everyone recognizes that line from the classic rock mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, though people often shout it when they enter Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But as they point out at the Hall, virtually everyone on Earth knows rock music. And not just here: NASA's 1977 Explorer carried a Chuck Berry song. It may be only raucous roll. But as our museum guide rightly noted, it's the one universal art form, and you can't write a history of 20th-century culture without it. Including the transformation of race relations in America. One day it may even reach the beer industry.

Incredibly, a major brewery, which has since apologized, just released eight "legends of rock'' beer cans each featuring a white person. Were they in a purple haze and hadn't heard of Hendrix? Didn't they know the first picture in the Hall is of the same Chuck Berry currently shouting "Hello Alpha Centauri" courtesy of NASA? That six of the first 10 inductees into the Hall were black, like so many of rock's precursors it also honours?

Rock 'n' roll may mostly conjure up bobby-soxers rockin' round the clock, hippies tripping to Joplin, or aimless rebellion, staged excess and slack-jawed morons interviewed about their mind-blowing wealth. Well, that and your first love. But there's much, much more. The American military and professional sports are rightly credited with helping break down segregation, because solidarity with buddies under fire or heroes on the field is incompatible with despising them. But I think the less obvious role of rock and roll was ultimately more important.

Rock had no formal launch date any more than, say, jazz. But it didn't exist in the mid-1940s and was widespread by the mid-1950s; legendary Cleveland DJ Alan Freed had popularized the term and the soundtrack of The Blackboard Jungle had sent Rock Around the Clock rocking around the world. As various Hall of Fame exhibits note, "Rock and Roll is city music," inconceivable without post-Second World War urbanization. But one aspect of it in particular: Hall of Fame curator Howard Kramer defined rock as "black music played by black people for a mostly white audience, or black music played by white people in the style of black musicians." And on the beer controversy, William McKeen, editor of Rock and Roll is Here to Stay, said "Rock 'n' roll is black America meeting white America. It's about the merger of white people's music -- country -- with black people's music -- rural blues." They met in the city. And knew one another.

Music is universal. As the Citizen observed a few years back, "You simply can't find people who don't sing, chant or beat on drums." And it's primal; other than people who can't hear, or can't hear pitch, almost everyone is stirred to the depths of their soul by some kind of music. To the point that sometimes you wish they weren't, if their preference differs from yours; a remarkable variety of music, from bouzouki to bagpipes to rap, makes non-enthusiasts long for the dulcet tones of Led Zeppelin. Lots of people never quote a sonnet, but almost no one doesn't sometimes hum a tune or feel a powerful wave of nostalgia the minute a certain song starts. Right, Peggy Sue? Thus a white bigot could enjoy the same bad 1950s coffee as his black neighbour but feel basic kinship with a white guy sipping tea 10,000 miles away. But not when they're both rocking to Blue Suede Shoes while some distant aristocrat is waltzing.

It's more a matter of changing ideas than behaviour, though what is agreed, at least in Cleveland, to be the first rock concert in March 1952 featured an audience desegregated in a way then miraculous. As radical 1960s journalist George Leonard, in his retrospective Walking on the Edge of the World, observes, "when the miraculous happens it quickly begins to seem commonplace. Today we complain that the plight of black Americans is in some ways as bad as or even worse than it was in the '60s. But not to credit the enormous, breathtaking victories of the civil rights movement is to dishonour the sacrifices of those who made them possible and to discourage people to work to make further gains." Indeed. And rock was there all the way.

Skin colour is not yet as trivial as hair colour in America. If it were the brewing company error could hardly happen, let alone be troubling rather than funny. But 30 years ago, race was on the verge of burning America down. Now it's a problem that is fast succumbing to America's optimistic, can-do attitude.

"Hello integration." I'll drink to that. Along with Ziggy Stardust, if the Explorer has reached him yet.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson