Alert
Close

Get free help preparing your taxes from AARP Foundation Tax-Aide. Find a location

Highlights

Open

Bob Dylan Talks!
Caucasian couple looking at a laptop computer together

Horoscope

Pisces - AARP Horoscope

Look at what your future holds if your birthday is between Feb. 19 & March 20

CONTESTS & SWEEPS

AARP Superstar Contest

Sing for a chance to win $5,000! Enter AARP’s Superstar 2015 Contest!
See Official Rules

Win an ARRP Real Pad Tablet - Tribute to an Ancestor Contest

2015 LIFE@50+ MIAMI

Renew for 3 and attend Life at 50+ for free

Most Popular

Viewed

These Joints Were Jumpin’!

Preston Lauterbach reveals the roots of rock ’n’ roll in the segregated South

Having exposed the innards of the chitlin’ circuit — largely through extensive research in the vibrant black press of the time — Lauterbach explores how this demimonde revamped the sound and style of African American popular music. Singer-saxophonist Louis Jordan hit the big time by touring the chitlin’ circuit relentlessly, fronting the Tympany Five, a band that captivated audiences with its tight, blues-drenched groove. So effective was Jordan’s combo that he is credited with helping to usher out the big-band era. His rise to stardom was likewise instrumental in shifting the promotional focus from bandleaders such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie to singers such as Wynonie Harris and Roy Brown.

And what of the “rock ’n’ roll” in Lauterbach’s title? The road leading to it comes into focus with Jordan’s popularity and the breakout success of the artists who emulated him. The music they made — rooted in the blues, designed to fill a dance floor — reflected the lives of the working-class blacks who flocked to chitlin’-circuit shows. Words such as “rock” and “roll” — originally sexual metaphors — came to signify the music’s good-time feel and propulsive beat.

Vocalist Roy Brown, for example, celebrated a down-home world ruled by a funky blues sound. In Lauterbach’s eyes (and ears), Brown’s songs emblematized a musical and cultural shift. That was especially true of one of Brown’s own compositions, “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” which hit #1 in 1949:

[Brown] brought tough, lewd lyrics—the essence of the chitlin’ circuit song and a staple of rock ’n’ roll ever since—from down in the barrelhouse to the top of the Billboard charts from coast to coast … two years before Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed initiated popular use of the phrase rock ’n’ roll, four years prior to Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” and five years before Elvis Presley covered … “Good Rockin’ Tonight.”

White audiences were not always willing or able to attend chitlin’-circuit shows, but they could and did buy the records that emerged from this sub-rosa world. By the late 1950s, ironically, that crossover appeal had begun to lower the curtain on the classic era of the chitlin’ circuit. The so-called “urban renewal” of the 1960s then scrambled the circuit’s geography, as the strolls that Walter Barnes had discovered and lauded two decades earlier were bypassed or bulldozed. And the civil rights movement’s push for integration, in some ways, erased the circuit’s last reason for being.

Thanks to Lauterbach’s enthusiastic appreciation, however, the once-lost history of the chitlin’ circuit has now been reverently recaptured.

Robert H. Cataliotti, a professor of American literature at Coppin State University in Baltimore, produced and annotated “Classic Sounds of New Orleans,” a Smithsonian Folkways CD.

Topic Alerts

You can get weekly email alerts on the topics below. Just click “Follow.”

Manage Alerts

Processing

Please wait...

progress bar, please wait

Tell Us WhatYou Think

Please leave your comment below.

AARP Bookstore

Discounts & Benefits

From companies that meet the high standards of service and quality set by AARP.

Live Nation

Members save 25% or more when buying tickets in groups of four from Ticketmaster.

Cirque Du Soleil

Members save 15-30% on tickets to live Cirque du Soleil shows with their AARP membership card.

Pepperoni Pizza, Papa Johns Superbowl promotion for AARP members

Members save 25% off regular menu price orders at Papa John's.

Member Benefits

Join or renew today! Members receive exclusive member benefits & affect social change.