Just Around Midnight –
Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination
By Jack Hamilton
Harvard University Press – £23.95
Hendrix’s race produced a crisis in popular-music discourse. He presented a mix of stereotype and subversion, seemingly playing to racist cliches of black menace and sexuality while performing music that contradicted contemporary expectations of black sound. One of the most common accusations lobbed at Hendrix in this period was that of racial inauthenticity, or even race treachery. After Monterey a young Robert Christagau wrote a scathing appraisal of Hendrix’s performance in the pages of Esquire, describing Hendrix as ”terrible” and accusing him of being ”just an Uncle Tom” who ”had tailored a caricature to [the audience’s] mythic standards and apparently didn’t even overdo it a shade.”
In early 1968 the Washington Post wrote that ”Jimi Hendrix is the P. T. Barnum of rock. He assesses, and fills, the needs of his crowd. His blackness is an Uncle Tom blackness.” The article also noted that ”it is entirely necessary, in fact, that Hendrix is a Negro. His music is Chuck Berry filtered through the Beatles and the West Coast electronic freak-out, back through a black man to a 99 per cent white audience,” a sentiment conveyed more caustically by Richard Goldstein, who remarked in his own review of Hendrix’s Monterey performance: ”his major asset seems to be his hue.” Rolling Stone magazine eschewed the Uncle Tom epithet but wondered if Hendrix was simply a ”psychedelic superspade.” Never one to be outdone, in a New York magazine article entitled ”SuperSpade Raises Atlantis,” Albert Goldman mused on what he saw as Hendrix’s preference of ”playing to almost exclusively white audiences” and”consorting with white women” and concluded that ”Hendrix’s blackness is only skin deep.”
(‘House Burning Down –
Race, Writing, and Jimi Hendrix’s War’)
Looking back to the time when music journalism and rock criticism in general came into its own around the mid to late sixties, it’s surprisingly shocking, if not down right disturbing, to comprehend the degree to which certain writers were both degrading and openly racist toward black American artists.
Jimi Hendrix (and Motown’s Berry Gordy) in particular, as the above opening quotes from this book’s eye-opening fifth chapter more than sadly illuminates. That the writers themselves (Robert Christgau, Richard Goldstein and Albert Goldman) are white, should come as no surprise; although what is astounding, is the fact that said publications would openly be seen to print such abominable garbage.
Who on earth was/is Christagau to talk of ‘caricature’ and WRONGLY accuse Hendrix of being ”just an Uncle Tom?” As for the appalling Albert Goldman – he who was ”never one to be outdone”- well I’m not even going to bother wasting my or your time.
That said, Just Around Midnight – Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination is an unquestionably marvellous and rather brilliant book. Apart from being exceedingly well-written, it’s audacious and courageous, not to mention racially charged.
Making it all the more important.
Important, in that it places Jack Hamilton’s work amid so much of the equally charged trajectory of the American psyche into current, questionable perspective. An altogether torrid state of affairs admittedly, but as Emily Lordi of the University of Massachusetts has since said of these 276 pages (excluding Notes, Acknowledgements and Index): ”As musically detailed as it is theoretically expansive, Just Around Midnight reveals that popular music of the 1960s was defined by more vibrant inter-racial collaborations and more violent anti-black erasures than we could have imagined. This is a beautifully written and provocatively argued work of intellect, heart, and soul.”
I couldn’t agree more.
A terrific, all round astonishing and revalatory read.