Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Chitlin' Circuit

Reading Preston Lauterbach's first book, The Chitlin' Circuit, a history of the music and artists and venues from whence rock 'n' roll arose. 

This was mostly a southern thing, and the artists, customers, and more than a few of the promoters were black. It had a loose beginning in the late 1930's, starting with bands playing jazz, then moving into swing, blues, and bebop, and led to smaller groups who morphed into rock. And it's still around.

Years before the term "rock and roll" began to be used on white radio stations, and half a decade before the rise of Elvis, black performers were tearing up juke joints and larger venues across the south, from Texas to Memphis and everywhere in-between, playing seminal rock 'n' roll.  This took place on what  was known as the chitlin' circuit–named after a common dish in the south, made from pig intestines ...

It wasn't the high-brow route that people like Basie and Armstrong and Cab Calloway were playing, for white audiences, but where the black folks went to listen and dance. The small towns, little clubs, collectively called "the stroll."

It can be argued that the earliest rock came from the race records going all the way back to the 1930's. No doubt that the blues and jazz influenced rock, along with some hillbilly stuff, but the book makes a strong case that most of the white rock 'n' roll that blossomed in the fifties, with folks like Elvis, Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins and the like was swiped from the black singers and players who worked the chitlin' circuit. There is plenty of documentation to back it up.

Ever hear Pat Boone doing Little Richard? Wop-bop-a-loo-bop ...

I found the period in WWII particularly fascinating, since the gas rationing that went into effect in 1942 effectively killed private bus travel. A lot of the musical groups moving from town-to-town were fairly large, fifteen, sixteen players, and when gasoline was limited to a few gallons for anybody without enough clout to get a bigger stamp ("A"-stickers for cars allowed only four gallons a week), that mode of transportation went away. As a result, some of the bands got smaller and stuffed into cars.

There were ways to game the system. One of the early promoters was making a ton of money running numbers, so he just bought more cars for his groups. If you could get four gallons a week for six cars and you had a siphon ... ?

It's a great read, detailing a part of American history most of us probably don't know much about. Check it out.