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The Dawn of Rock N’ Roll: Chitlins and Gospel Roots

Posted in: General,Reviews by Mary McDonough on April 11, 2012

The Chitlin’ Circuit. For those of you who have heard of the pre-civil rights movement music circuit it usually denotes second-rate acts. Musicians were relegated to the Chitlin’ Circuit. But a 2005 interview between Preston Lauterbach, a freelance Memphis writer, and Sax Kuri, a former Chitlin’ Circuit star, inspired Lauterbach to research the history of the Circuit. What he found was a rich, creative, dynamic arena for black musical acts that laid the foundation for rock music. Lauterbach’s findings, published in a book called The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock N’ Roll, carefully map out the intricate connections between the Circuit’s performers, many of whom never received adequate recognition, and the birth of rock music.

The Chitlin’ Circuit was named after chitterlings, cooked hog intestines, which are an ingredient in soul food. Originally emerging during the 1930s, the Circuit consisted of African-American music acts that toured throughout the Midwest and South playing in segregated nightclubs. Several famous artists emerged out of the Circuit such as Ike Turner, B.B. King, Little Richard, James Brown, and Ray Charles.

Lauterbach vividly describes the various performers, promoters, agents, and nightclub owners who were the lifeblood of the Circuit. He interviewed numerous Circuit artists and surviving relatives, and studied various media sources such as newspapers, scrapbooks, and even old city directories to tell a story of “ the numbers racket, hair straighteners, multiple murders, human catastrophe, commercial sex, bootlegging, international scandal, female impersonation, and a real female who could screw a light bulb into herself—and turn it on” (11-12).

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This is the third part of a series on the contribution rock music and the Black Church made to the civil rights movement. You can find part 1 here and part 2 here.

While the Brown case made segregated schools illegal, the decision was largely ignored in the south. Mississippi Senator James Eastland stated that the region would simply refuse to obey it. Several state legislatures passed bills to fund “private” schools with public monies to avoid desegregation. By the end of 1956, 6 southern states had not desegregated one single school. Even worse, the Ku Klux Klan increased its activities committing hundreds of acts of violence against African-Americans between 1955-59.

So civil rights leaders went back to their churches to organize their parishioners. One of the first major mobilization efforts came in Montgomery, Alabama when, in December of 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to vacate her seat on a city bus for a white passenger. Recognizing the need for a coordinated response to her arrest and to the racial segregation policies on Montgomery’s city buses, several local ministers and other civil rights activists organized the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., pastor of the local Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, became its leader. The MIA led a year-long boycott against the Montgomery bus system eventually ending when the Montgomery Federal Court declared the city and state bus segregation laws unconstitutional.

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