Ed Ward is best known as the rock and roll historian on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, dispensing concise doses of rock history with masterful storytelling. Many of Ward’s best Fresh Air pieces focus on influential acts such as Freddie King, The “5” Royales, and Garnet Mimms. These artists may be little-discussed today, but their critical contributions to rock and roll as we know it seem indisputable by the time Ward gets through with them. He excels at identifying the defining moments in music history through small stories that make up the larger narrative.
Reading Ward’s ambitious new book, The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1: 1920-1963, is a lot like listening to his Fresh Air pieces—minus the snippets of song interspersed with the storytelling commentary (for accompanying music, check out our playlist below this review). Indeed, many of the stories assembled in The History of Rock & Roll were discussed on the radio in similar form.
Ward defines a handful of overarching themes throughout the book: the emergence of the teen-driven market that distinguished rock and roll from the more “adult” genres that influenced it; the inability of major record companies and radio programmers to reconcile the music that teens actually like with their own preconceived notions of the “good” music that kids should be listening to; and the ways that the history of American music between 1920 and 1963 responded to the ongoing drama of racial segregation and the struggles for social and economic equality. Weighty issues aside, The History of Rock & Roll is most of all about telling intimate stories that shaped the music and revealing the threads that connect them. Neither as boldly revisionist nor tightly focused as, say, Charles L. Hughes’ Country Soul or Barry Mazor’s Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots, this book delivers a masterful and distinctive synthesis that is very much Ward’s own.
It’s always been challenging to pinpoint the moment when rock and roll began, but few—if any—would date it to 1920 like Ward. Maybe it happened during 1947-48 with the arrival of breakthrough R&B hits like Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88” or Wynonie Harris’ “Good Rockin’ Tonight”; or in 1954 when Elvis Presley lit into Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s old blues tune “It’s Alright Mama” during a break at Sun Studios in Memphis; or the day in 1955 when Chuck Berry laid down “Maybellene” in Chicago’s Chess Records.
Ward’s book incorporates all of these origin stories, but it doesn’t treat them as such. As the “1920-1963” subtitle suggests, he starts recounting rock and roll’s history long before anyone used the term…or at least applied it to music. Ward kicks off his narrative with the early evolution of the phonograph record, Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” and the dawn of race records featuring black artists, and the “Big Boom” of country music, in which Ralph Peer invited the Carter Family and others to make commercial recordings in Bristol, Tennessee. Ward discusses the Great Migration that engendered a mass exodus of blacks from the South to northern cities like Chicago and Detroit, drawn by the promise of wartime employment during the First and Second World Wars. Of course, he also describes the music they brought with them and the “Strolls” where they played it.
But again, Ward’s focus is not so much on the generation that moved north in search of greater opportunities than the individual stories of how, say, Stovall Plantation tractor driver McKinley Morganfield made his way north and became the legendary Chess Records bluesman Muddy Waters. That circuitous path, Ward explains, “was the story of black urban popular music in the late 1940s in miniature. The question was how to make money with it, and one way to do that way to make records, which sold musicians’ reputations to an audience while the musicians were busy performing live… If all you wanted to do was reach locals, knowing your Strolls as intimately as… Leonard Chess did was essential; there were few record stores, but plenty of jukeboxes, as well as beauty shops, newsstands, tobacconists, and radio repair shops willing to feature a rack of 78s. And lord knows there was talent begging to be recorded.”
The History of Rock & Roll connects hundreds of stories to contemporaneous developments in the recording industry and broader culture. Some of the book’s most telling tales concern lesser known vocalists, like Lloyd Price of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and “Stagger Lee” fame or a minor group called Joey Dee and the Starlighters (whose history as house band at the Peppermint Lounge in New York City reveals quite a bit about the mafia’s stake in the emerging rock and roll industry).
In the unceasing rush of engaging storytelling, it’s easy to miss a few points at which Ward makes questionable assertions (like suggesting that Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, an incomparable record-maker and talent scout but a notorious royalty cheat, eschewed the common industry practice of denying artists and songwriters their due) or appears to ignore some recent music scholarship (repeating the now-debunked myth that racial inequality never surfaced between black and white musicians at Stax Studios in Memphis).
But in a book this far-ranging, with its bounty of narrative delights and historical insights, these are minor quibbles. Hail, hail The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1: 1920-1963. Volume 2 can’t come along soon enough.
The History of Rock & Roll Playlist
Ward takes pains to note in his preface that The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1: 1920-1963 was written to be read from beginning to end to gain a full understanding of the story he’s telling. Like Dave Marsh’s epochal The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1,001 Greatest Singles of All Time, Ward’s book is not intended to be mined for a mere list of songs or scattershot stories about Elvis and The Beatles.
But like Ward’s NPR pieces, The History of Rock & Roll really sings when paired with the songs that underpin the stories. Ward mentions or discusses roughly 600 songs in this book, a remarkable number of which are easily tracked down on Spotify (when you take vintage vinyl out of the equation, this kind of collecting is a lot easier than it used to be).
To enhance the experience of reading this book, I’ve created a playlist of a significant portion of the songs Ward discusses in the book, sometimes mentioned in passing when he’s cataloging the hits that characterized a particular period, or more often, in chronicling how the record came about or the stories of the artists or label owners behind them. Listening to these songs is no substitute for reading Ward’s book. But it should come as no surprise that The History of Rock & Roll sounds richer with a soundtrack.
You can listen to the playlist here or with the embedded player below:
Steve Nathans-Kelly is a writer and editor based in Ithaca, New York.