When Marty McFly played guitar for the Enchantment Under the Sea band, I was sitting on the floor of my grandmother’s little two-bedroom house on Montlieu Avenue in High Point, North Carolina. My grandmother and I were watching Back to the Future in various states of attention. Mine was rapt because it was my favorite movie; she was reading the paper or a magazine or something and looked up from her words when she heard the opening chords of “Johnny B. Goode.”
In Michael J. Fox’s timeless role, he awkwardly introduces the song as an “oldie,” realizing mid-sentence there are no such thing as oldies in 1955. “It’s an oldie where I come from,” he then says. He gives the band instructions (including “try and keep up, okay?” like the band would have any trouble playing alongside some cocky white boy secretly from thirty years in the future), and tears into one of the most time-honored songs in the history of music.
Some of the people at the dance start moving, but others very clearly don’t know what to make of the music being played. Sound familiar? This is how rock ‘n roll – along with pretty much every form of music introduced to the world by Black people, which is to say at least 70 percent of the music people on Earth listen to – was received in its nascent stages. (As a lifelong hip-hop fan, I encountered white men well into my 20s who refused to recognize the art form as “real music,” whatever the fuck that means.)
As far as covers go, this rendition of “Johnny B. Goode” doesn’t hold a candle to the original. That is to be expected.
During the performance, Marvin Berry (who earlier in the movie cut his hand pretty severely on a screwdriver trying to open the trunk of the car McFly was thrown into) calls his cousin Chuck and says, “You know that new sound you lookin’ for? Well, listen to this!” The Enchantment Under the Sea band starts looking a little confused as McFly rips into a solo, jumps off the piano, knocks over an amp, and starts finger tapping like he’s Eddie Van Halen. The backing musicians stop playing, the teenagers present stop dancing, and it’s just Michael J. Fox soloing into the void.
He gets on the mic to say, “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet, but your kids are gonna love it.”
My grandmother, who was born in 1931 and spent most of her working life in the kitchen of a senior living facility that eerily resembled a hospital in my childhood memory, looked off – speaking to me but not necessarily all that directly – and said, “That’s Chuck Berry’s song.” It seemed like an invitation to me, a prompt to explore the origins of rock ‘n roll and not be persuaded to find inspiration in Marty McFly traveling from the future to steal the genre and sell it back to a bunch of white Hill Valley teenagers in order to save his own life.
With nearly 35 years to revisit this lesson, I’m certain she knew exactly what she was doing when she made that short correction. My grandma always praised my intelligence. With the benefit of hindsight, I think there’s a good chance she felt being smart would save me from a country hungry for the flesh of our people. Maybe she knew being smart would assign me the duty of trying to take back some of the things they stole from us.
A loud, nasty, all-Black rock ‘n roll band; screaming and shouting and singing until our throats look like shredded, uncooked brisket. Spitting our lyrics all over the microphones and the floor around us. Shaking off our generational and ancestral trauma, exorcising the spirits of slavemasters and racist presidents and cops with KKK membership cards. Evoking the true spirit of rock ‘n roll: a gleeful danger way too fucking Black for the radio. I’d play sloppy rhythm guitar and we could find a kick-ass drummer and maybe a saxophonist (modern rock 'n roll has been dreadfully low on saxophones) and a bassist who can sing way better than me. Preferably a woman.
(Finding a singer better than me would be a frustratingly easy task.)
We’d write songs about defunding Amazon and dark-skinned women at the punk show on steady diets of beer and cigarettes and the best homemade fried chicken in the Northwest; and virtue signaling and a group of Black cowboys on horseback taking on the police department; and microaggressions perpetuated by Seattle’s barrage of white neoliberals and what Lars Finberg of the Intelligence once referred to as “passive-aggressive terror specific to the Northwest”; and drug dealers being the neighborhood rock stars because they represented the first sign of glamour for us poor Black kids eating Top Ramen or Kraft Instant Mac and Cheese with hot dog slices in it for dinner and using kerosene heaters and cracked oven doors to heat up our Section 8 apartments. We’d play shows with a landfill of empty Rainier cans at our feet, smelling like the most putrid of dank steamed vegetables.
We’d hope to sign to Goner Records for two albums – thus not accepting any comparisons to white people bands except the Reatards and maybe the Oblivians – and then start our own label and then see if all y’all white punks would really support a Black-owned business in the scene. I’d play a Fender Jaguar (or maybe a Surfmaster) and hook it up with some real foul-sounding pedals. Of course, we'd cite the Gories as a formative influence.
Our Bandcamp bio would say: “Reclaiming rock ‘n roll for its rightful heirs: Black people who love loud guitars.” I haven’t thought of a name for the band.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe left her terrestrial body nearly 50 years ago, but the thing everybody knows about rock ‘n roll is that immortality is achieved once you ascend to a singular level of greatness. As a song that she loved to play once said, "can’t no grave hold her body down." That’s why so many little kids want to be rock stars instead of cement masons.
The common phrase I’ve seen used to celebrate this trailblazing artist is “the godmother of rock and roll.” It’s a quaint title to give to a woman, right? A patient incubator for an enfant terrible; a caretaker, a lighthouse, a nurturer taking her place rearing what would become a world-beating monolith. If Sister Tharpe were a man, she would be widely praised as what she actually was: the architect, the founder, the monarch of one of the most popular, significant, and bastardized art forms of the last century. The innovator of a genre of music that has splintered off into dozens of subcategories. It not only speaks to the precise language of qualification mainstream America gives to Black artists, but also how little it truly values the contributions of Black women.
For every spotlight Black women are given, there are several spots backstage for those not invited to the gala. Big Mama Thornton, Mamie Smith, Silvia Robinson, and Beverly “Guitar” Watkins are all either antecedents to or influential figures of the shaping of rock ‘n roll music.
Rosetta Nubin was born in the heyday of Jim Crow, in Arkansas to two musicians who also worked on a cotton farm. She first picked up a guitar at four years old and was playing devotional music to audiences by age six. By the time she and her mother moved to Chicago, she was a child prodigy, playing worship music with almost the same frequency she toured nightclubs where she wasn’t even allowed in the front door.
Her first record, “Rock Me,” was among the first gospel singles recorded by Decca, which ultimately ended up releasing a staggering five volumes worth of songs recorded by Sister Tharpe. Her voice, containing lifetimes worth of emotion, ended up being a formative influence of Elvis Presley, just one of the artists taking such influence and making more money than Tharpe would over the course of her career. Of all areas of popular American culture to which theft benefitted systemic racism, rock ‘n roll music was where it was most painfully blatant.
Sister Tharpe was also a queer icon in the rock ‘n roll community, though the nature of her relationship with contemporary Marie Knight – forged two weeks after the former was spellbound by the latter’s performance at a Mahalia Jackson concert – was never confirmed firsthand as anything more than musical collaboration and friendship, despite rumors to the contrary. I’m not in the business of speculative journalism, but if this is true, if she did in fact bask in the tenderness of another woman’s love, that makes her life and music all the more beautiful. We all know how taboo two women engaging in romance and sexuality together was back then; we all know how stupid it was that it was ever taboo.
Gospel Train is the masterwork for which Sister Tharpe is most recognized; a magnificent album containing most of her best-known and best-loved recordings. But in my humble opinion, there’s nothing like hearing her make the strings of her electric guitar cry out in agony and her commanding presence captivating an audience. For this reason, Live in 1960 just might be her most essential work.
With just her voice, her electric guitar, and the foot she used to stomp for occasional percussion, Sister Tharpe gives an arresting performance with all of her best-loved songs accounted for: “Can’t Sit Down,” “Didn’t It Rain,” “Can’t No Grave Hold My Body Down,” “Down by the Riverside,” “Gospel Train.” It’s easy to lose the nuances of her voice in studio recordings, but here, every rumble and quake is captured in full display; when she wails and when she barely rises above a whisper. It’s so intimate you can hear one of the people in the crowd cough. Live in 1960 is part of a long tradition of bluespeople who have howled their way through every club, juke joint, and shack across Black America, the tradition of many who never received record deals, couldn’t afford to lay their songs to tape, and had to play to crowds vast and paltry for their music to live.
When Sister Tharpe died in 1973, her influence ran well past Presley: Chuck Berry, Tina Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Issac Hayes, Aretha Franklin, and Karen Carpenter are just a few famous names who have cited her as an influence. Little Richard and Johnny Cash named Sister Tharpe their favorite singer when they were children.
It’s often said true innovators are ridiculed or ignored while they're innovating, that their influence comes far too long after forging a new style, a new sound, a new approach. It’s human nature to walk down the worn path instead of carving one for yourself. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, 45 years after her death.
In 1986, three mods harboring an obsession with obscure garage rock 45’s and a shared love of cheap booze – Mick Collins (guitar/vocals), Dan Kroha (guitar/vocals), and Peggy O’Neill (drums) – came together with admittedly few chops and began to write and perform songs in line with the music they loved. They were punks in spirit if not necessarily by name, sullying up the Chess Records sound in order to resurrect the wild, freewheeling spirit of early rock ‘n roll. They called themselves the Gories and never cleaned up their act, only getting drunker and dirtier by the day.
In their earliest days, the band drunkenly fumbled through their sets to the point where they were actively driving away showgoers with the din of their noise. Named after a fictional band from the Sally Field-starring sitcom Gidget, the Gories bashed through sets at St. Andrews Church long before it became the famed hub of Detroit’s hip-hop scene. Infamously at their first show, the band drank a full bottle of gas station staple Thunderbird ESQ (later memorialized in one of their best-loved songs) and O’Neill has admitted to being on mushrooms that evening. Several firsthand testimonials, delivered with laughs, mentioned every patron in attendance clearing the building when the Gories struck their first note.
If Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s vision for what would eventually become rock ‘n roll was simply R&B sped up, the Gories’ perfection of the form was to kick a garden’s worth of dirt on rhythm and blues and make it way drunker and hornier. The Motown records inescapable in Collins’ Detroit-reared youth were the champagne and rose petals; the Gories were the equivalent of nasty fucking on the floor beside of a pile of beer cans all night or in the upstairs bathroom of an acquaintance's house party.
There’s a certain romance in the nasty fucking; it’s just buried beneath the lust and spit and piles of ripped clothing.
A misconception lies in the hagiography of the group, that they were a cult sensation in their initial run from 1986-1992, but the truth is the Dirtbombs are the band most people point to as ushering in the wave of modern garage-rock Detroit was known for (along with the White Stripes, one of many bands influenced by the Gories). The band is quick to correct this myth, saying most of the people who came to Gories shows before around 1991 were all their friends to some degree. It’s okay to be a fan, but you weren’t there.
The members of the band have spoken on how they were only starting to become popular when the band was winding down in the early ’90s. They famously broke up after each of their full-length albums (the first two being Houserockin’ and the impeccably titled I Know You’re Fine But How You Doin’, the latter produced by noted Gories fan Alex Chilton) and only recorded their third album Outta Here because the owner of Crypt Records promised them a European tour. Somewhere in that timeline, the band broke up and reconvened because they had promised a bunch of labels – including Sub Pop (catalog number SP134) – seven-inch singles.
Collins had the soulful croon which could switch to a drunken, lecherous warble or a Gerry Rosalie wail at a moment’s notice (the band, like many of its ilk, were influenced greatly by the Sonics); his guitar playing included the kind of simple riffs that would burn into your brain and clanging, scratchy solos which wouldn’t sound out of place bouncing off the dirty walls of a blues club bathroom with urinals filled with browning yellow piss. Kroha’s guitar playing contained the primitivism the band sought after because he didn’t really know how to play guitar until he was party to forming the Gories; he was a singer, and his vocals for this band had a mod/punk sort of brattiness to them, a snotty sneer right in step with rock ‘n roll attitude. O’Neill’s drumming was the spiritual midpoint between Mo Tucker and Meg White – only playing on toms (no cymbal, no snare) like the former, and a thrillingly primitive antecedent to the latter; the kind of caveman stomp White would later be widely (and bafflingly) derided for.
Knowingly inserting themselves into the pantheon of rock ‘n roll – albeit a very specific one – the Gories regularly played and often recorded grimy versions of classic tunes culled from spiritual predecessors all over the map: Howlin’ Wolf, Suicide, John Lee Hooker, the Stooges, Eddie Holland, the Strangeloves, Spinal Tap (rather cheekily), Bo Diddley, and the list goes on. It’s a time-honored tradition in rock ‘n roll, right? Rock ‘n roll is folk music; rock ‘n roll is the blues; rock ‘n roll is the African American spiritual; it is a cultural artifact passed down from generation to generation, celebrated and memorialized and unfortunately also stolen to make money off white audiences who have never heard it before or had never considered it to be a viable form of music (this will be my last reference to Elvis Presley in this essay).
The idea that you probably wouldn’t be able to discern many of these tracks between covers and originals unless you possess an intermediate knowledge of rock ‘n roll history speaks to the utter singularity of the Gories’ vision. Self-taught musicians don’t fall into the traps of the formally trained – including the least dignified, rote mimicry – because they don’t have a framework for which to develop their habits, good or bad. Classics like “I Think I’ve Had It” and “Sister Ann” sound like they could have been beamed in through airwaves from any period of time since the inception of rock ‘n roll, but they only sound like they could have come from the booze-warped collective mind of one group.
Nearly thirty years since the (final) breakup of the band, no other rock ‘n roll group of any repute has successfully attempted to sound anything like the Gories. And many have tried, which is a far cry from playing the same two or three clubs for nearly four years and having the people you shared a city with openly, gleefully, telling you you’re the worst band they had ever heard.
Those were probably the same people who now brag about being at Gories shows in the ’80s.
I’M SICK OF A GREAT DEAL OF THE MOST READ PIECES I WRITE BEING ABOUT BLACK DEATH OR BLACK TRAUMA OR THE OPPRESSION AND MARGINALIZATION OF BLACK PEOPLE. IT IRKS ME WHEN PEOPLE DON’T READ THE THINGS I WRITE ABOUT BLACK MUSIC AND BLACK PEOPLE THAT HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH ADVERSITY. AMERICA HAS THIS VERY UNSETTLING FASCINATION WITH THE SUFFERING OF BLACK PEOPLE. YOU CAN SEE IT IN THE NEWS OR THE COVERAGE OF WHATEVER BRILLIANT RAPPER THEY WEREN’T LISTENING TO OR SOME REGULAR PERSON THEY DIDN’T CARE ABOUT GETTING MURDERED IN A HAILSTORM OF BULLETS. I’M DISHEARTENED BY WHITE PEOPLE BRINGING OUT THE BLACK LIVES MATTER SIGNS ONLY WHEN ANOTHER BLACK LIFE IS SNUFFED OUT. YOU CAN FIND BLACK PEOPLE DYING WITHIN SECONDS ON TWITTER BUT YOU HAVE TO DIG DEEPER (OR ACTUALLY KNOW BLACK PEOPLE) TO SEE BLACK PEOPLE SHINING.
I’M SO FUCKING TIRED OF WHITE PEOPLE PATTING THEMSELVES ON THE BACK FOR GIVING BLACK PEOPLE THE SAME BASIC RESPECT THEY GIVE THEMSELVES. I’M TIRED OF THE PREMIUM PLACED ON THE AWARDS AND THE ACCOLADES FROM INDUSTRIES STOLEN FROM US. I’M TIRED OF THE CLICHE “WINNERS WRITE THE HISTORY BOOKS,” BECAUSE WHO WON WHAT, EXACTLY? THE SLAVE MASTERS, THE PERPETUATORS OF GENOCIDE, THE IMPERIALISTS POORLY MASQUERADING AS KEEPERS OF THE FLAME OF A DEMOCRACY THAT DOESN’T FULLY EXIST. THE OPPRESSORS WON AMERICA SO THEY GET TO WRITE THE HISTORY BOOKS. THAT'S WHY IT TOOK A SMART BLACK BOY UNTIL HIS 11TH GRADE AP US HISTORY CLASS TO FIND OUT ABRAHAM LINCOLN OWNED SLAVES.
THAT'S WHY MOST OF THE BLACK KIDS I WENT TO SCHOOL WITH LAUGHED AT ME FOR BEING A ROCK 'N ROLL KID WHEN BLACK PEOPLE ARE THE MUSICIANS WHO INVENTED THE GENRE.
I DREAM OF A BLACK FUTURE. A FUTURE WHERE WE DON’T HAVE TO HAVE AN OPINION ON WHAT WHITE PEOPLE ARE DOING. WHERE WE CAN GO TO RESTAURANTS AND BARS AND TALK AND LAUGH LOUD AS FUCK WITHOUT TURNING AROUND TO SEE WHITE PEOPLE TURN AWAY ACTING LIKE THEY WEREN'T GLARING AT US. WHERE WE CAN GO TO SPACES MADE SPECIFICALLY FOR US, SPECIFICALLY BY US – YOU KNOW, AS A SAFE SPACE AND WHATNOT. WHERE OUR ART IS CELEBRATED EVERY DAY, WHERE OUR ART IS OURS AND NOT SWIPED AND TURNED INTO VANILLA PUDDING BY WHITE MEDIOCRITY. I DREAM OF A FUTURE WHERE THE BLACK EXPERIENCE IS CULTURALLY ACCEPTED AS DIVERSE AND MULTITUDINOUS. I DREAM OF BLACK PEDAL STEEL GUITAR PLAYERS AND BLACK GAMERS AND BLACK TWEE-PUNKS AND BLACK MANIC PIXIE DREAM GIRLS GETTING THE SAME SCREEN TIME AS OUR WHITE COUNTERPARTS.
I DREAM OF A BLACK FUTURE WHERE BLACK JOY IS JUST A THING THAT HAPPENS TO US, WHERE BLACK PEOPLE DON’T HAVE TO FIGHT OR BLEED OR DIE FOR IT.
Sometime last summer – around the time I began working on this essay, around the time the soul of our country was made heavy under a police-issued boot – I told my nigga ‘Te that Black people have a spiritual duty as the conscience of America. I feel a great deal of reluctance in speaking directly about my niggas when I’m around my white friends and loved ones, on a stage facing my majority-white audience, or anywhere except for the warm company of my niggas. Anyway, my nigga ‘Te – separated from me by the distance of the continental United States and more than half a decade of life – was angry, and rightfully so, about the state of our nation and the unfair fact that we as Black people have a responsibility singular to our race. He was right; we shouldn't be the conscience of our country, we shouldn't have to worry about our personal responsibility to bring our people up. We shouldn't have to watch from the dugout as so many white kids are being born on third base.
I love America. I'm fucking obsessed with this country I was born in; its iconography, its art, its layers upon layers of culture and subculture. I slam the steel doors of the cars I'm most comfortable driving; V8 engines, good ol' American muscle, a prominent Chevrolet logo, and rear-wheel drive. Most of the people who know me are very well aware of my love for American cities. I'm nearly halfway through my lifelong dream of visiting every state. I watch westerns and salivate at the thought of a good hamburger. Before COVID shut the world down, I would regularly go to the fish fry on Hilltop or pick up some Ezell's with my niggas. I've dedicated nearly half my life to exploring the deep waters of American music. Me and my niggas are as much a product of America, every bit as American, as those flag-waving white folks who tell us to go back to Africa.
I'm every bit as American as the teenagers who called me a nigger out of the window of their hatchback on my way to my second-grade class.
So much of American culture has been conceived or innovated by Black people; the art, the social discourse, the true American dream of bringing needles of success and prosperity out of the haystack of hatred, marginalization, and state-sanctioned (or at the very least, state-ignored) killings. We as Black people hold the responsibility of teaching our people, and oftentimes other people, the atrocities which continue to happen to us and what we continue to build in spite of it. Even if we keep my idea here in the boundaries of music, we’re not just talking rock ‘n roll: hip-hop, soul music, techno, the blues, hardcore punk, some strains of folk and country music all sprang from branches sprang fat from seeds uprooted from African soil and brought here.
We as Black people, stolen from our homeland and brought to a stolen land as property, are uniquely American, speaking to the ways our country has historically treated us, even though most of our people aren’t American by choice. We are the conscience of our country because we are taught to, trained to, forced to survive the micro- and macroaggressions of the place we were born into. We are a daily reminder of its indifference and avarice, much like the original Americans, the tribes scattered all across this land and nearly wiped out entirely by European settlers and Manifest Destiny.
Our duty is to preserve the spirit and traditions of our people – our family, our loved ones, our niggas – in spite of the actions and beliefs of an establishment which has tried for centuries to placate and exterminate us. Rock ‘n roll is one of those traditions, no matter the erasure of our Black images accompanying the sound. I won't say rock 'n roll is the most American art form, because how could you quantify that? But I will say rock 'n roll is pretty high on the list of American signifiers.
I can’t help but remember observing someone – a long time ago in the space the fog of weed smoke making blankets out of the wrinkles in my brain has led me to forget – on a street corner in one of the many American cities I’ve visited. A street corner poet of sorts, a busker spouting words as his instrument. I remember thinking it was corny at first, but once I thought about it, the simple profundity stuck with me, leaving me smiling as I walked away with this half-memory I’d always treasure.
“We’re the rhythm and the blues, the hip and the hop; we’re what gives jazz its bop, we’re what makes pop pop! We’re the soul of rock ‘n roll! We’re the soul of rock ‘n roll! WE are the soul of rock ‘n roll!”
Martin Douglas speaks with the sibling rock 'n roll duo about an array of topics in this lengthy conversation.
Eva Walker of The Black Tones shares her experiences growing up loving rock music but not feeling represented, her encouragement for the future, and the artists who've inspired her.