The Rolling Stones finally came to Israel last week. They loved the place, they loved the crowd, and the crowd loved them back. In defiance of Roger Waters, the politically correct, anti Israel British rocker from the Pink Floyd who demanded that the Stones boycott Israel, instead Mick Jagger and his fellow rockers defiantly and enthusiastically visited the Western Wall of the second temple in Jerusalem, accompanied by their welcoming Israeli colleagues and friends.
Clearly, the Stones were excited and touched to be standing beside a slightly different collection of stones from a much earlier time than their own. As Jagger once sang on Stones’ Album, Between the Buttons, “On with the show, good health to you.” And indeed they gave a great show.
I saw the Rolling Stones live in 1965. I was twelve years old and I was as excited as any one of the forty thousand people who went to see last week’s concert at Hayarkon Park in Tel Aviv. Soon after, I bought myself an electric guitar and started to learn how to play and sing Rolling Stone songs.
I managed to master Time is on My Side, Satisfaction, The Last Time and many, many others. I found like-minded young friends from my junior high and high school and we played these songs in basements and garages. As we performed these songs from the deep south of the United States, we imagined ourselves on stage, worshipped by thousands of ecstatic youngsters, just like ourselves, but of course, from the opposite sex.
Occasionally, we managed to play these songs at teen age dance parties, but ultimately the real thing on the ‘hi fi’ was just too good to resist and there we were, 17 and 18 years old, jumping up and down, imitating Mick Jagger as we bounced to the sounds of Brown Sugar and Sympathy for the Devil.
By the time I was 19 I had bought most of the Rolling Stones’ albums and I had learnt to sing and play many of their songs. Vocalist Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards’ music lived inside of me. As there is a family talent for mimicry that I have inherited from my Mom and Dad, I have done my fair share of Jagger imitations at family functions, but as a guitarist, my greatest pleasure has been to play those open G blues chords that are the signature of Keith Richards, in a manner and style that those listening, enjoy, and at the same time recognize where they are coming from.
Despite my 17 years living and working as an anthropologist overseas, on several occasions I fell into cover bands with British, American and African expatriates playing Stones and other Rock and R and B classics on stage at night clubs, dance halls and private parties for people who were enamored by the Stones and the old blues men, in and around Nairobi, Kenya and later in Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania. These gigs gave me much “satisfaction.”
Even while doing field work in the desert borderlands of Ethiopia I would occasionally wake up startled by a dream that I had been on tour with the Rolling Stones. In those dreams I am always the back up guitarist. In the last one I ever had, instead of playing back up, I was the Rolling Stones manager. I woke up anxious and thankful that I did not have to worry about wires, contracts and collapsing stages.
I suspect that millions of other young men of my generation have had similar dreams. The collection and analysis of these dreams would make a great, and no doubt psychologically revealing, ethnomusicological study for it reminds me that Pygmy musicians in the Central African rainforest once told me that they often dream up the songs that they compose the next day. Something archaic is going on here.
As a teenager I had an idea that the Rolling Stones were middle class white Brits who had been listening to blues and rhythm and blues and so I started buying the records that had inspired them-Muddy Waters, Fred McDowell, Robert Johnson and so many others. These largely southern, African-American musicians had been recorded by the likes of song catcher Alan Lomax, who first recorded Muddy Waters in 1941.
Waters’ real name is McKinley Morganfield who Lomax discovered driving tractor on a southern cotton plantation after his failed attempt to locate the deceased blues master, Robert Johnson. It is said that the Rolling Stones got their name from a blues number by Muddy Waters when he shouts out a phrase with the word “Rolling Stone” in it. Years later they were to repay Waters and many other blues men like him, bringing them to the UK, facilitating their concert tours and jamming and recording with them.
As Steve Legett writes tells of one incident:
On November 22, 1981, in the middle of a huge American tour, the Rolling Stones arrived in Chicago for a three-night run at the Rosemont Horizon. On their night off, several of the Stone hit Buddy Guy’s Club the Checkerboard Lounge, to see Muddy Waters and his band (which featured guitarist John Primer and harpist George “Mojo” Buford at the time). An impromptu blues jam ensued, and before the night was done, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Ian Stewart, Lefty Dizz, Junior Wells, and Guy himself had all appeared on the stage with Waters and his band. The whole thing was both recorded and filmed, and portions of the set began appearing as bootleg and unofficial releases almost immediately, and have continued to appear in various configurations ever since across all formats, from LP and CD to VHS and DVD. This set, though, was remixed and mastered for both audio and video by Bob Clearmountain, and stands to be the definite document of a very special night.
(Mick Jagger performing with Blues icon, Muddy Waters, from whose song lyrics Jagger named his band, ‘The Rolling Stones’)
The Rolling Stones (and the Beatles in their time) have been labeled as the vanguard of the British Invasion of the 1960s where wave after wave of British performers took over the eyes, ears and hearts of North American listeners. It took some time for indigenous Americans, both white and black, to turn the tide and still, even Welsh rockers like David Bowie, managed to make it big in the States. What was going on?
In order to understand the rise of rock and roll we have to get musicological for a moment. I will try and draw on my ethnomusicological background to make sense of why the Rolling Stones are so popular in America and, why they are also a big hit in Israel.
First of all, I must disabuse you of your assumption that there is an infinite variety of music. According to Alan Lomax (who was also a comparative musicologist) there is not. He and his colleagues demonstrated that the music of the world can be reduced to fourteen singing styles that are spread across the globe. Each style most probably evolved from the other; all of them originating 40,000 years ago among the ancestors of the Pygmy Bushman peoples of central and southern Africa. These fourteen song styles can be ranked across a continuum.
At one end you have music that is textually complex, uses precise enunciation of lyrics and melody, is metrically simple ( 2/4 and 4/4 time), uses complex melodies (think of an Irish lament) and uses lots of embellishment (again think of Irish folk singers).
At the other end of the continuum music is groupy and choral (with various harmonies and back up singers in voice/chorus alternation), the performance is cohesive and multi level (think of a Cuban jazz ensemble) pronunciation is slurred (think of most Rolling Stone lyrics, Or Muddy Waters songs performed by Jagger, where you can barely understand what he is saying) the performance is metrically multileveled, there is little vocal ornamentation but lots of “playful” variations in style of singing.
The first end of the continuum describes the folk music of the English, Scots and Irish (who first settled the United States). The other end of the continuum describes the music of the West Africans who were brought as slaves to the New World but ,as Alan Lomax once argued, whose music conquered its conquerors. Just think of Gospel, Blues, Ragtime, Jazz of all kinds, Rhythm and Blues and of course, Rock and Roll.
The whole musical style of Rock and Roll is clearly African American, which itself is a direct continuation of the music and dance styles of West Africa. Just think for a moment about the way Mick Jagger prances on stage. That is not the up and down jumping that you see in Irish inspired River Dance, or in English Morris Dancing.
Bearing this mind we must conclude that there was no “British music” invasion in the 60s. It was an invasion of Brits who had listened to the African American music of the south and brought it back to post War baby boomers in the States, who, because of Jim Crowe laws, segregation and a host of other socio economic reasons could hear the music on the radio, but did not have much direct access to it at the dance or concert hall.
Lomax argued that one of the reasons that the African American style is so popular among white Americans, is that it continues to liberate them from the dour Protestant Ethic of Anglo American culture with its folk songs, where, as in its country and western incarnation you “lose your job, lose your car, lose your girl and often your life.” West African music and Rock and Roll is by contrast libidinous, exhibitionist and very heterosexual.
Most young Israelis are unaware that Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern Jewish State of Israel was also a hip, urbane, worldly writer of plays in Vienna and hung out with the “cool” people of Vienna at the turn of the 19th century. Acutely aware of the suffering of his own people he also agonized over the fate of Africans.
Long before the State of Israel was declared, Herzl wrote not only about the redemption of the Jews, but of oppressed Africans:
There is still one question arising out of the disaster of the nations which remains unsolved to this day, and whose profound tragedy only a Jew can comprehend. This is the African question. Just call to mind all those terrible episodes of the slave trade, of human beings who, merely because they were black, were stolen like cattle, taken prisoner, captured and sold. Their children grew up in strange lands, the objects of contempt and hostility because their complexions were different. I am not ashamed to say, though I may expose myself to ridicule in saying so, that once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my own people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.
The message of the Rolling Stones is ecstatic, anarchic, passionate, libidinal and life affirming. It is essentially West African in musical structure and spirit. This is indisputable. So we should not be surprised that the Rolling Stones and their African inspired rock and roll equivalents have been so popular among Sabras, that born in Israel generation who are famous for their passion, creativity, individualism and ability to cross cultural boundaries. Theodore Herzl himself would have been delighted to know that West Africa’s music is now part of the spiritual and cultural redemption of the citizens of the State of Israel.
It is indeed a strange and marvelous world we live in.