It’s More Than Just Rock’n’Roll

You’ve probably heard the expression:  Sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll.  And you’ve probably heard a number of people allege that drug abuse has taken over the industry over the past fifty or so years.

The odd thing about believing that drug abuse has taken over the industry over the past fifty or so years is that the claim turns a blind eye to the many references to drugs and drug abuse in the music from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.

For example, in 1944, an Irish folk song, “Who Put The Overalls In Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder?” was given new lyrics, and was later recorded by Harry “The Hipster” Gibson.  The new version was blacklisted, and got no radio airplay as “Who Put The Benzadrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?”  But it garnered a lot of attention among record buyers.

The Memphis Jug Band was a popular American band in the 1920s and 1930s.  They had an impressive fan base, and sold out nearly everywhere they played.  Back in 1930, they had a hit with their song, “Cocaine Habit Blues.”

When Victoria Spivey recorded “Dope Head Blues” in 1927, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind what she was singing about:  Cocaine.

Just give me one more sniff of, another sniff of that dope,
Just give me one more sniff of, another sniff of that dope,
I’ll catch a cow like a cowboy, and throw a bull without a rope.

Victoria wasn’t one of the footnote singers of the day.  She performed with the likes of Louis Armstrong and Lonnie Johnson over her four-decade career.  What’s more, she had a reputation for singing about drugs, crime, and sex.

Some readers and visitors might think that these songs are like the novelty songs of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.  Not so.  There are a great many songs where drugs are the central theme.  Take, for example, the jazz recordings, “Weed Smoker’s Dream” and “The Candy Man” by the Harlem Hamfats, featuring Rosetta Howard on vocals for “The Candy Man.”

The Harlem Hamfats were a studio recording band out of Chicago, assembled by African-American talent scout Mayo “Ink” Williams.

They backed jazz and blues singers who recorded for Decca Records — singers such as Johnny Temple, Rosetta Howard, and Frankie “Half Pint” Jackson.  And despite their name, none of the musicians was from Harlem, and none of them was a hamfat (which was an insulting term for an indifferent no-talent musician).  Two were from Mississippi, three were from Louisiana, and three were from Chicago.

Most of their original songs recorded solely by the group revolved around drugs, drinking, and sexual activities.  More importantly, the Harlem Hamfats were among the more prominent musical influences for what eventually became rock’n’roll music.

Even the Ink Spots — responsible for the doo-wop style of singing that was popular in the 1950s — got into the groove with their hit, “That Cat Is High.”  In 1989, the Ink Spots (Bill Kenny, Deek Watson, Charlie Fuqua and Hoppy Jones) were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame;  In 1999 they were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.  In other words, the Ink Spots weren’t a flash-in-the-pan one-hit wonder group.  They had legs!

All four were northerners with Orville Jones hailing from Chicago (IL), Ivory Watson from Mounds (IL), Jerry Daniels from Indianapolis (IN), and Charlie Fuqua from New Haven (CT), and the group hit international fame in 1934 when it toured with Jack Hylton’s Orchestra.

The next time someone tries to sell you on the idea that music’s bad behavior thanks to drugs, drink, and sex happened about the time that the hippie movement got rolling in the 1960s, you might want to suggest they listen to some of the hits from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.

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2 Responses to “It’s More Than Just Rock’n’Roll”

  1. misterinkspots93 Says:

    Sex, drugs and alcohol really did begin with Rock n Roll though… these artists you mentioned here may have recorded “reefer” songs or songs about alcohol but they weren’t at all “hits” as you suggest. These were complete novelty songs and not very popular at all. They were very much frowned upon by a large percentage of the American population. The Ink Spots (whom you mention here) later became popular for their schmaltzy ballads. They weren’t popular at all when they recorded “That Cat Is High” and the record was one of their worst sellers. They didn’t want to do refer songs for personal reasons as well as financial (they didn’t sell) and ditched the whole “jive” style within a year two. As for the other names here, they too were pretty much “novelty” acts that were not at all household names or something you’d hear on the radio or find records of at a neighbors house. These were songs that were marketed to a very small population of inner-city African Americans and even many of them preferred pop music written by Gershwin, Porter, Carmichael etc.

    Too often, people bring up these early examples of drugs and alcohol in music claiming Rock n Roll isn’t responsible for the degradation of American culture not realizing the context. The fact is that society was not okay with the glorification of drugs and alcohol or sexual content in music until a little while after Rock n Roll came along. Popular music pre-Rock n Roll dealt with romance (most often), destinations, dance or comedy. The 1930s & 40s were socially conservative times where “rebels” weren’t celebrated like they are today. I don’t usually respond to blog posts, but with all due respect, this post is just inaccurate and misleading.

  2. Elyse Bruce Says:

    Hello misterinkspots93.

    The article’s premise is that drug abuse didn’t take over the music industry in the past fifty years.

    Drug abuse — whether it’s narcotics or alcohol — have been part of the industry for far longer than that. If a song — novelty or otherwise — makes it onto the charts, it’s considered a popular song. Of course, in no way did I state or imply that every song recorded and released that reference drugs was a hit. That was your misinterpretation of the article.

    As for your claim that the 1930s and 1940s were socially conservative times, you’re mistaken on that count as well. In the 1920s, the separation between high culture and pop culture emerged. By the time the 1930s hit, there were far fewer pretensions in society, and things such as prohibition were repealed. The 1930s was tagged as the “Vital Decade” and artists from all disciplines were fusing many different styles together — something that was supported by society which, if it had been socially conservative at the time as you claim, would not accepted.

    Even in literature, that same vitality was being felt as regional exposés and travelogues became popular (something that would have been suppressed if the 1930s had been socially conservative times). It also found its way into visual art and movies.

    The 1940s continued on this trajectory. Fads in music were easily accessible. If consumers couldn’t get what they were looking from from domestic labels, they had no problem having foreign label records shipped in. Naughtiness and bad behavior were oftentimes a running theme with double entendres. And Betty Boop — the most famous cartoon character to break through in the 1940s — was a main staple for most. She went from originally being an animated Fleischer Studios poodle to being a very risqué every day character (something that a socially conservative society wouldn’t have allowed to happen either).

    That doesn’t mean that there weren’t social conservatives in society because we all know there were. There were also social liberals, and while it’s true that the 1960s are perceived to be more socially conservative than the 1930s and 1940s by some, that doesn’t mean the original premise of this article is inaccurate or misleading.

    Bad behavior in the music industry didn’t originate in the 1960s because of drugs, alcohol, and sex. That kind of behavior’s been around the music industry for a very long time.


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