Jack Hamilton parses the racial history of rock music

Jack Hamilton discusses his work with Tom Breihan on Friday before Robin Tomlin of Grits ’n’ Gravy DJs a funk, soul, R&B and rock ’n’ roll set at the Ante Room. Photo by Kristen Finn Jack Hamilton discusses his work with Tom Breihan on Friday before Robin Tomlin of Grits ’n’ Gravy DJs a funk, soul, R&B and rock ’n’ roll set at the Ante Room. Photo by Kristen Finn

Pop music critic Jack Hamilton didn’t listen to much pop music growing up in the 1980s and ’90s. His parents had a few Beatles albums and one Supremes record, but they mostly played classical music and show tunes in their suburban Boston home.

He can’t recall exactly when he heard The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” (“I was probably 14 or 15,” he says), or where he was at the time, but he remembers his reaction. “It was like the heavens opened up or something. I still think it’s the most perfect piece of pop music ever made,” he says.

Virginia Festival of the Book
Under the Influence with Jack Hamilton
The Ante Room
March 24

Officially hooked, Hamilton started buying music “really copiously,” and with the purchase of the four-disc box set Hitsville USA: The Motown Singles Collection, 1959-1971 he became obsessed with Motown.

“I lived in that for like, a year,” Hamilton says of Hitsville. He’d sit in his room and put headphones on to listen to Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me,” and Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” and “Dancing in the Street.” He heard pure, perfect pop: catchy hooks, innovative musicianship and extraordinary songwriting.

After graduating from high school, Hamilton dropped out of college to play in a Boston-based R&B band. He says that people often asked why he wasn’t in a rock band, and he began to wonder: Why do people assume that a young white person would be playing rock music? What happened where we now associate rock music with white musicians?

The question followed Hamilton through college and graduate school, and he started to think of the question within the framework of 1960s popular music after writing a paper on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” He thought about it as he wrote pop criticism for NPR, Slate and The Atlantic. He thought about it as he continued to listen to Motown, still his “favorite music on the face of the Earth.”

“There’s been a tendency in rock discourse and the way rock music has been written about, to think about black influences and black music as source material for rock ’n’ roll, for white rock ’n’ roll. There’s the notion that it’s the raw materials from which The Beatles and Dylan and the Stones went out and made great art from. I think that’s a silly, misinformed way of looking at it,” Hamilton says.


In his recent book, Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination, Hamilton, a professor of media studies and American studies at UVA, declares his intent to “disrupt the stories that we have told ourselves about what we’ve partitioned as ‘black music’ and ‘white music’ and to identify what we are actually talking about when we say these things.”

By putting rock titans in conversation with artists they’re not usually connected with—Bob Dylan and Sam Cooke; The Beatles and Motown’s Funk Brothers (James Jamerson in particular); Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield and Janis Joplin—Hamilton introduces a new level of understanding of some of the most popular music of all time.

Take The Rolling Stones. In the early 1960s, they emerge out of London as a group of white British kids who are curiously obsessed with the blues and soul, what was considered to be black American music. In the mid-’60s, the Stones are celebrated for their fluency in that tradition, but by the end of the decade, “instead of being viewed as channelers of the authentic, they are the authentic, and that’s a weird shift,” caused partly by the fact that recognition of the Stones’ engagement with their influences slipped as the band’s own story grew, says Hamilton. Mick Jagger becomes “the real thing,” and not just “the white British kid who can sort of sing like Muddy Waters.”

Just Around Midnight is partly devoted to finding out where, why and how some of those erasures occurred and shining light on artists who have been left out of the broader rock music conversation. Hamilton doesn’t blame white musicians for stealing or borrowing from black music; “the greatest musicians are sponges,” he says. “They’re people who are forever open to an enormous generosity of influences,” and he believes that “the sort of misunderstandings and transgressions and erasures [that] have occurred are due to much larger forces.”

But it’s important to identify the transgressions, fill in the erasures and confront those larger forces, he says. Because when you do, you’ll never hear “Gimme Shelter” or “Like a Rolling Stone,” Are You Experienced? or Revolver, the same way again.

“All music begins life as a person or group of people at a specific moment in time,” and knowing the specifics of that moment—who was there, what they were into, where they were—makes for a richer listening experience, Hamilton says. “Those are really important histories, and the more you learn them, the more you can really marvel at how remarkable this stuff is.”

Hear it for yourself

Jack Hamilton wants the stories in Just Around Midnight “to suggest ways to hear this music differently, more complexly, and more clearly; in other words, to hear it better.” Queue up these tunes to hear it for yourself:

Listen to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind” (released in 1963 on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) and then Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” (recorded January 1964), which Hamilton says is a direct response to Dylan’s tune. Where “Blowin’ in the Wind” asks question after question, Cooke’s “corrects the indeterminate ambiguity invoked by the ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ refrain, declaring that, in fact, a change is going to come,” Hamilton says in the first chapter. “How many roads must a man walk down / Before you call him a man,” Dylan sings, keeping racism and morality in the abstract. “I go to the movie and I go downtown / Somebody keep tellin’ me don’t hang around,” Cooke sings in reply—he’s lived the reality of Dylan’s abstract.

Next, listen to Martha and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run,” released on Gordy/Motown in February 1965, then The Beatles’ “Nowhere Man,” recorded for the Rubber Soul album in October of that same year. Paul McCartney’s bass playing borrows quite a bit from the octave intervals and anticipated downbeats of Funk Brothers bass player James Jamerson; McCartney has admitted the influence.


Watch Jack Hamilton and Tom Breihan, senior editor at Stereogum, discuss Hamilton’s book, Just Around Midnight, during our Facebook Live event at 10:30am Thursday, March 23. Can’t make it? See the full video at c-ville.com.

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