Jack Hamilton


On his book Just around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination

Cover Interview of February 28, 2017

In a nutshell

Just around Midnight is about the entanglements of popular music and racial thought during the 1960s, and particularly the question of how rock and roll music “became white.” By the time Jimi Hendrix died in 1970, many of his obituarists found it remarkable that a black man would be playing electric rock and roll guitar, in a way that no one would have thought odd when Chuck Berry was doing it just a decade earlier. My book is about how this happened, and also about how it happened during a decade that’s often thought to be marked by unprecedented amounts of commercial crossover and aesthetic exchange. For instance, you have the extraordinary rise of Motown and Southern soul on one side of the Atlantic, and on the other side of the Atlantic a whole host of bands who “invade” America while having spent their formative years deeply steeped in black American musical traditions, most famously the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And of course there were individual stars like Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and Jimi Hendrix himself, all of whom crossed racial boundaries in both their music and their audiences.

All of these artists and entities were described as “rock” or “rock and roll” performers at various points in the 1960s; how, then, did we end up with a notion that rock music is something that only white people do? My book charts this shift, and argues that the real story is one of reception rather than production: in other words, “rock” didn’t become white because of choices musicians made, or because white musicians “stole” the music, or because black musicians chose to leave it behind. Rather, it happened due to the way audiences and writers and, subsequently, marketers and radio programmers and the music industry generally decided that different kinds of people made different kinds of music. The book is an academic book but I’ve tried to write it in a lively and readable style, so that it can reach as many readers as possible. This is music that a lot of people really love—I myself really love it—and at best I’d like to think my book offers us a chance to hear it differently than we often do, and also to correct some of the more tired and ill-founded myths about Sixties musical culture.