How the Labor Movement Shot Itself in the Foot: Rock Edition

chuck berry

“Ambition makes you look pretty ugly,” Thom Yorke sneered on Radiohead’s seminal 1997 album OK Computer. He did not mean aesthetic ambition, of course—the band had that in spades—but the crass materialism of a yuppie careerist, the proverbial “kicking, screaming Gucci little piggy.” The next year, rapper Amil made a very different declaration on a classic Jay-Z track: “Ambition makes me so horny… My hoochie remains in a Gucci name.”  Their two perspectives on material aspiration could not be more different—the art-rocker disdains the trappings of consumerism, while Amil is totally frank about the fact that she wanted her art to succeed commercially, to bring the comforts that upward mobility could offer.

Of course, this dichotomy parallels other class dynamics in popular music, such as the rivalry in British rock between the bourgeois Blur and the rowdy, working-class Oasis during the same decade: art-school sophistication versus populist grit.  But it also resonates with debates about the meaning of art, labor, and respectability during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, as sociologist Michael James Roberts reveals in his remarkable new book. Tell Tchaikovsky the News: Rock ‘n’ Roll, the Labor Question, and the Musicians’ Union, 1942-1968 sheds new light on an almost completely neglected subject, the relationship between the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) and rock & roll music. It is in large part a story of organized labor’s self-sabotage in the United States; by refusing to embrace blues, country, and rock musicians, the AFM cut itself off from the most rapidly growing and successful sector of the music business. Indeed, the book opens with the extraordinary fact that, in 1969, the phrase “rock & roll” appeared for only the second time in the union’s main publication, and even then only in a quotation from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty (2).  A massive earthquake had shaken the music industry for over a decade and a half, yet the AFM had barely registered it.

tell tchaikovsky the news

Roberts does a skillful job of explaining the manifold reasons why the musicians’ union would deal itself such a fatal blow. First and foremost, the AFM was a craft union, solidly placed in the tradition of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The more conservative of the two major US union federations, the AFL had traditionally emphasized guild-ish exclusivity, only letting in members of trades who could show their skills in clear, demonstrable ways. For musicians, this meant reading musical notation and showing their virtuosity in performance.  Most of the insurgents who transformed American popular music in the mid-twentieth century could not read music—including the self-taught and often poor or working-class artists who willed blues and country into being. To classically trained AFM journeymen, these musicians were ignorant pretenders and boisterous dilettantes. Even the head of Hank Williams’s own local in Alabama admitted he liked the country giant’s music, but had to turn his brain off to enjoy it (122-3).

Indeed, Tell Tchaikovsky the News introduces class to a subject—rock & roll—that has too often been viewed almost solely in terms of race, gender, and sexuality.  Roberts certainly does not neglect these other, critical dimensions of popular music, as race in particular is inescapable in understanding the class relations within the AFM and the music industry more generally. The author makes clear that class struggle is not simply about a conflict between capital and labor, drawing on the work of a wide range of scholars from EP Thompson to Lawrence Levine to show how class identity emerges out of lived experience and the way workers see themselves and each other. In this book, the vicissitudes of class have as much to do with the way working musicians—whether jazz prodigies like Dizzy Gillespie or rock pioneer Chuck Berry—related to each other as with record labels or radio stations, although these gatekeepers still play a clear role in shaping who earns social status and commercial success.

Race hardly disappears amid Roberts’s emphasis on class as a driving force in the history of rock and pop music. Black musicians faced a typical double bind; they could embrace the politics of respectability and persuade whites that jazz was an expression of high modernism, or embrace the raucous music of artists such as Wynonie Harris and Little Richard, which celebrated sexuality and self-indulgence. By and large, the jazz virtuosos of the 1940s and 1950s chose the former path, stressing that music such as bebop was sophisticated, intellectual, and avant-garde. Like their white peers in the AFM, they guarded the prestige of their hard-won skill and distanced themselves from the unruly music of artists who sang in an earthy vernacular about making money and spending it on cars, girls, and booze.  To a twenty-first century ear, the snobbery of a Dizzy Gillespie strikes one as just as short-sighted as Theodor Adorno’s infamous denunciation of jazz. The bebop genius lumped together Elvis Presley, doo-wop pioneers the Chords, and even country icon Tennessee Ernie Ford as “mongrel” music, unworthy of consideration (122).

Tell Tchaikovsky the News illustrates how these historical cleavages along lines of class, culture, and race hobbled organized labor in one of its least-studied unions—and at an utterly critical moment in its history. This study joins a limited number of books on entertainment industry unions, such as David F. Prindle’s 1988 The Politics of Glamour, on the Screen Actors Guild. It also provides a series of fascinating sketches of key figures such as Louis Jordan, Chuck Berry, and Wanda Jackson; such material may not necessarily be new to readers familiar with rock history, but Roberts places it all in a fresh context that stresses ideas about class, work, and leisure.

Indeed, perhaps the book’s greatest strength and weakness lie in its treatment of the idea of work itself.  Roberts convincingly describes a “struggle against work,” showing how much blues, country, and rock music of the 1940s and 1950s centered on the singers’ resentment of capitalist work discipline and the joys of reckless, libidinous leisure (53). He links this lyrical posture to the pressures of working-class life during and after the war, especially the raw labor conflicts that rocked the United States in 1946, as workers demanded long delayed wage increases and struggled to adjust to an economy demobilizing from war. In many ways, the book persuades readers that such lyrics were steeped in an oppositional, working-class experience of hardship shared by white and black musicians alike. Yet Roberts falls somewhat short by so closely identifying the Dionysian self-indulgence celebrated by blues and rock music with blue-collar culture. The hedonism of rock cannot be a strictly working-class phenomenon; if so, all other popular music would be about the bourgeois virtues of getting to bed at a reasonable time and saving for retirement.

Nonetheless, Michael James Roberts has written a superlative book that places class and work squarely in the center of our understanding of rock music.  His most provocative question arrives early on in the book, when the author points to the historic 1943 labor agreement negotiated by the AFM.  The contract was unique in that it “compel[led] record companies to create a fund to be used to compensate union musicians who had lost their jobs as a result of being replaced by records… and jukeboxes…” (16). Roberts links this remarkable provision to contemporary concerns about automation and joblessness—could the AFM’s signature achievement point the way to a future where organized labor could fight not just for better wages, but for less work or, more radically, none whatsoever? In this respect, the anti-work ethos that the author uncovers among blues and rock artists could be a radical harbinger of things to come.  How might Thom Yorke and Amil rethink their attitudes toward material success in a world where the enjoyment of leisure eclipsed the pursuit of work?

This review first appeared in the Journal of Popular Music Studies.