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Louis Menand unmasks the rock god in his cultural history of rock’n’roll

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Louis Menand delivering the 2018 Camp Memorial Lecture.
Photo Credit: 
Steve Castillo

Who invented rock’n’roll? 

It’s not who you think.  

At the Stanford Humanities Center’s 2018 Harry Camp Memorial Lecture, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and cultural critic Louis Menand exposed rock’n’roll’s origin myths, shedding light on the power of media to shape cultural myths today.

In his lecture, titled “Conditions for the Possibility of Rock’n’Roll: An Exercise in Cultural History,” Menand revealed that rock’n’roll was, in fact, not invented by any one person or created by any one event. Instead, changing demographics, technologies, and mass marketing and consumerism produced rock’n’roll as we know it today. These “conditions,” as Menand defined them, included a nearly 800% increase in high school enrollment between the years 1900 and 1940, marking the inception of American “youth culture”; the proliferation of independent radio stations from coast to coast; and the modernization of record production and the rapid innovation of the jukebox.

“All history is retrospective,” Menand asserted. “We’re always looking at the past through the lens of later developments…. It’s natural for us to take events that were to a significant extent the product of guesswork, accident, short-term opportunism, and good luck, and of demographic and technological changes whose consequences no one could have foreseen, and shape them into a heroic narrative about artistic breakthrough and social progress,” he explained. “But a legend is just one of the forms that history takes.”


Lanier Anderson, Alison Simmons, and Caroline Winterer at the Camp Memorial Lecture. Photo Credit: Steve Castillo.

Menand used Elvis Presley as an example of the media’s power to rewrite history in the service of modern needs. Contrary to popular belief, Elvis’s arrival onto the scene does not mark the advent of rock’n’roll. The insistence that he does represent this moment is a cultural myth that Menand quickly dispelled in his lecture. The hip-swiveling rock god was, for Menand, at best a great “interpreter” of other peoples’ songs.  

Menand argued that the American media was largely responsible for creating the “remarkably resilient” origin myth of the “entertainer hero.” Industry magazines like Billboard cast white, male musicians as artistic icons who reinterpreted an authentic “black” sound for a new, mass audience of white teenagers in the Television Age. 

Elvis Presley was literally the poster boy for this myth. “Presley was made for television,” observed Menand. “[H]e was a gyrating fireball with an unbelievably sexy sneer.”

But the myth itself was “based on the idea that there is or was a ‘black’ sound or a ‘black’ musical style,” said Menand. A case in point was Elvis’s hit song “Hound Dog.” Hardly the product of a “black” backstory, “Hound Dog” showed the American melting pot at work.  

“[It] was originally released by a black R&B singer Big Mama Thornton in 1953, and went to number one,” Menand revealed as he played a recording of Thornton’s unfamiliar version. “But Thornton didn’t write the song. It was written by a couple of Jewish teenagers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller,” in about fifteen minutes. Leiber and Stoller had been commissioned by Johnny Otis, who “was actually the son of Greek immigrants, whose real name was John Veliotes.” 

Elvis didn’t record Thornton’s version. Instead, he forged ahead with what he heard “performed by an all-white Las Vegas lounge act, called Freddie Bell and the Bellboys,” who rewrote the lyrics to be about a dog rather than an unfaithful lover.

When Elvis sang the song on The Steve Allen Show in 1956 to an actual dog, “whatever sexual innuendo a couple of white songwriters had invented and had managed to persuade an African-American singer was in the lyrics had been completely erased,” Menand concluded. 

The history of “Hound Dog” proved to be a fascinating example of how the conditions for the possibility of rock’n’roll are many and varied—and largely forgotten. “The public lectures at the Stanford Humanities Center are a great way to show how careful scholarly research can have really important outcomes,” said Caroline Winterer, the Center’s director. “The history of rock’n’roll is also the history of America—so we need to get the story straight.”