Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination
This might be the best book about rock & roll history I’ve ever read.
That’s a pretty bold claim, considering the amount of biographies, anthologies, oral histories, critical studies, and autobiographies from across the musical spectrum I’ve consumed in the past 15 years. And it’s not a declaration I make lightly, because I’ve recommended classics like Cash by Johnny Cash, Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azzerad, Just Kids by Patti Smith, and Life by Keith Richards to people who don’t even love music, and they’ve devoured the stories.
So, what makes this exploration of music, art, culture, and race in the rock & roll of the ‘50s and ‘60s rise to the top of the heap? Because Jack Hamilton has crafted a brilliant sociological treatise that reads like an artful combination of a top-notch album review, academic musicology, and deft historiography – with an ample helping of racial semiotics. And I couldn’t put it down.
Hamilton has a rather direct thesis statement for Just Around Midnight: “This is a book about how … rock and roll music – a genre rooted in African American traditions, and many of whose earliest starts where black – came to be understood as the natural province of whites.” (3) Specifically, the book aims to figure out how this happened, even as the top white artists in the rock music canon frequently lauded and praised the black artists that influenced their work. He then takes this investigation a step further by discussing how those white artists regularly communicated with top black artists.
The book discusses how the ‘60s experienced the curious rise of a racial divide in rock & roll, after one didn’t exist in the ‘50s. Hamilton pursues this investigation through a few key comparisons, with each one forming the core of the book’s six chapters:
- Sam Cooke & Bob Dylan
- American Blues & the British Invasion
- Motown & The Beatles
- Aretha Franklin & Janis Joplin (with a bit of Dusty Springfield)
- Jimi Hendrix & white rock critics (with a bit of Santana)
- The Rolling Stones & the white rock establishment
The principal theory addressed in Just Around Midnight is this: white rock artists took music from the African American blues tradition, combined it with energy of ‘50s rock and roll, learned just enough soul from gospel singers, and made it all better. As in, Hamilton does not believe this line of thinking himself, but he does believe it to be the founding tenet of white rock music as defined by the sort of artists lauded at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
I’ll be the first to admit – that is a VERY pointed claim to make – but it’s backed up with ample research into press clippings, record reviews, artist profiles, chart rankings for song, and more. These are not spurious claims, and Hamilton doesn’t seem concerned with offending people as tear apart the prevailing mythology of Western rock music. He carefully does not to lay any blame at the feet of the artists he discusses (with the exception of the occasional dig at Janis for how she mythologized black sexuality), though he has no problem showcasing all the ways cultural critics (read: mostly white people in charge of popular media) dismissed African American artist while lauding white ones.
One of my favorite tacks Hamilton takes throughout the book is to showcase the many instances when the artists profiled communicate across racial and cultural lines because of their respect and admiration for each other. He takes great pains to point how the perceived divide in popular music of the ‘60s was manufactured by cultural critics, and not the artists themselves (again, with the exception of Joplin). He chronicles the many times that The Beatles and Stones specifically mentioned the impact African American music had upon their art. He also illustrates how Cooke modeled one of his biggest hits off a Dylan track, while detailing how a spate of Motown artists created excellent covers of Beatles tunes.
Another conversation that undergirds Just Around Midnight is the debate about authenticity in rock and R&B. Plenty of ink is spilled examining how the white folk scene of the ‘50s and ‘60s co-opted African American blues from the first half of the twentieth century. By overtly paying homage to the source material, they sought to imbue their own music with greater authenticity. Currently referred to as “cultural appropriation,” these white, middle-class-and above singers would sing flood blues from experiences outside of their own, hoping to lend greater credence to their own music. This practice ends up white-washing the blues tradition.
On the flip side, Hamilton presents a conversation about soul. His presents reviews from many African American publications of the period that lambasted Sam Cooke, Motown, and Aretha for toning down the “spirit” in their music to make it more palatable for white audiences. As in, they accused those popular artists for selling out the quality of their art to make a few more bucks, creating a false dichotomy rooted in determining which artists are more sincere than others. This is contrasted by the mercurial rise and fall of Janis Joplin’s career – her vocal tone, the artists she revered, how she talked about African American art and culture in general, and how critics across the spectrum discussed her methods.
Finally, Hamilton brings things to a head by illuminating the distinction between “rock & roll” and “rock music” developed by critics and commentators. Much like the “rockist” v. “poptimist” debate that raged in some circles for most of this decade, “rock & roll” (and R&B) were for the unwashed masses, while “rock music” (read: white) was for serious (read: also white) connoisseurs who could actually identify “good” music. This point is illustrated through the lens of Jimi Hendrix, the sole African American artist in the rock music canon, by diving into how critics wrote about his music compared to the actual themes Hendrix explored with his music.
The core tenets of Just Around Midnight are best observed in Chapters Three (“Friends Across the Sea”) and Six (“Just Around Midnight”). In the former, Hamilton goes into intense detail to display the dramatic influence of James Jamerson upon the music crafted by The Beatles at the quartet’s peak. This under-heralded session bassist was responsible for the artistic heft of many ‘60s Motown hits, and he was specifically praised by Paul McCartney for propelling his bass runs throughout Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper’s. Charts and chord structures are examined in detail to exemplify how the racial divide in ‘60s rock music was rather thin among the major players themselves.
In the latter, we’re treated to 30 pages outlining the tumultuous ‘60s through the eyes of the Rolling Stones and how those raucous Brits interacted with African American music and the press. In this brilliant and rather scathing treatise of rock criticism (read: white again), cultural trends, and society in the ‘60s, Hamilton explicates how the Stones blatantly wanted to be a blues and R&B band, and follows it up by including the conversations and mutual admiration that existed between the band and African American artists they loved.
This is paired with the spirit of the coverage the band received – by using descriptors referring the band’s supposed sexuality, danger, rebelliousness, and “otherness” that enhanced how “scary” they were supposed to be, writers were implicitly criticizing the Stones’ influences. And it’s brought to a terrifying conclusion with the tragedy at Altamont, which, when combined with the drug-influenced deaths of Hendrix and Joplin, brought the spirit of the ‘60s to a dispiriting conclusion.
The strength of Just Around Midnight is two-fold – the depth of the research is buoyed by the readability of the Hamilton’s writing. Instead of entering into angry screed territory, Hamilton uses his experience as a writer for Slate and professor at the University of Virginia to present pointed perspectives rooted in the history of the time period under consideration. It also helps that he’s writing about an art form he loves, as he’s not interested in tearing down golden idols as an end unto itself. he wants to shed light upon the reality of the situation: the racism of popular culture forcibly imposed a division between the purveyors of rock and R&B in the ‘60s, even as those artists directly influenced each other’s work.
If you like the music of this decade in any shape, form, or fashion, I encourage you to pick up a copy of this book and engage with Hamilton’s persuasive thesis at face value.