Wednesday, August 13, 2014

[Book Review] The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock n' Roll by Preston Lauterbach


Raka reviews THE CHITLIN' CIRCUIT AND THE ROAD TO ROCK N' ROLL by Preston Lauterbach (Norton, 2011)
Preston Lauterbach’s book The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll  is a meticulously researched exploration of African-American night clubs and performance halls that began to form in the South during the 1930s.  After reading this book, I had to amend my chauvinistic focus on the city of Memphis as the center of black music in the South and account for the other places, big and small, that African-American entertainers frequented in the thirties, forties and fifties.  Lauterbach’s thesis appears to be a simple one – the southern circuit of clubs and juke joints had a unique place in the creation of rock and roll.  But after reading the first chapters, one learns that this history is far from simple.  The book carefully details the changing musical tastes and development of a wide variety of performers who were creating their own revolutionary music that existed outside of mainstream American pop music.
Although the The Chitlin’ Circuit has a point to prove, this is not a dry, academic treatise of musical anthropology.  Lauterbach has not only done his homework, he is also a gifted storyteller who introduces his audience to fascinating characters throughout the book.  One of the author’s stars is enterprising black capitalist, Denver Ferguson, who used legal and not-so-legal means to build up a formidable entertainment empire and was an important part of the African-American community in Indianapolis.  

My personal favorite subject of The Chitlin’ Circuit was bandleader Walter Barnes, whose journeys through the South made for fascinating reading in the black press of the time. Sadly, Barnes’s travels ended with his untimely death in the notorious Natchez club fire, a scene which Lauterbach describes in chilling detail. Lauterbach also discusses the careers of more well-known performers, like T-Bone Walker and Little Richard, but the book places them in the context of the chitlin’ circuit, which brings new perspectives to their stories.  The Chitlin’ Circuit, then, seems to have a little bit of something for anyone interested in the history of southern music; a new perspective, detailed research, great stories, colorful characters, and an intelligent, but not dense, style.
If you find the stories in Lauterbach’s book interesting, please stop by the Memphis Room in the Benjamin Hooks Library to learn more about our resources for studying the region’s musical history. This spring we were thrilled when Preston Lauterbach visited the history department of our library to conduct research on his next project!
Raka Nandi, Central Library

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