A Tourist Trap with a Difference

During Easter weekend this year, I finally visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. It wasn’t planned as a religious pilgrimage; it just worked out that way. My family and I were visiting my north-dwelling in-laws for the holiday, and I had a day to spare.

The City of Cleveland has kicked up a lot of noise about the museum. Its civic-boosting hype has probably scared away some of the people who would most appreciate the place. But hype and corruption are as intrinsic to rock-and-roll as the sound of electric guitars. So I went with an open mind.

I’ve seen a few of the great American tourist traps—two different Six Flags, several Civil War battlefields, the St. Louis Arch, Disneyland, Graceland, all of the Smithsonian museums, Rock City, Ruby Falls, Mt. Rushmore, and Carlsbad Caverns (to name a few). And I must say that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is one of them. But it is a tourist trap with a difference: It is a monument to the outsiders of American culture and, most especially, an institution that at least makes a start at honoring the African-American origins of our country’s popular culture.

The museum opens at a movie theater with continuous showings of Mystery Train, a made-for-the-museum documentary purporting to tell the whole sad and beautiful Rock and Roll story in a little more than 20 minutes. But the lines were much too long, so I commenced to wandering.

I turned a corner, stumbled into an alcove, and "discovered" the battered, blonde, Fender Telecaster guitar that Jimmy Johnson played at Aretha Franklin’s legendary Muscle Shoals, Alabama recording sessions—the ones resulting in "Do Right Woman" and "I’ve Never Loved a Man the Way That I Love You." Johnson was a central figure in the 1960s Muscle Shoals scene, in which a group of backwoods, Southern, white boys provided the instrumental tracks for some of the greatest soul recordings of all time. In addition to the Franklin tracks, they produced "When a Man Loves a Woman" by Percy Sledge, all of the Wilson Pickett and Clarence Carter hits, and many more.

I passed the wall commemorating one-hit wonders and found myself in another, much smaller theater where another documentary film loop was running. As I entered, the speakers were blasting "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash, and Bruce Springsteen was talking about how rock and roll came from the America you never learned about in school.

A few minutes later, a 40-something Johnny Rotten (late of The Sex Pistols) was onscreen talking about his landmark recording, "Anarchy in the U.K." and the British class system. "It’s still true in England," said Rotten (nee Lydon), "that no matter how much money you have, you’ll never be accepted if you come from the wrong part of town and speak with the wrong accent. And that," he said in a voice as cold and hard as a gun barrel, "is not to be tolerated."

IN THE CENTRAL arcade of the museum stand some dark brown department store dummies dressed in the garish, futuristic stage outfits actually worn by the members of Parliament-Funkadelic. The arcade is dominated by a 20-by-40-foot wall of video screens showing a continuous montage of documentary and performance footage that, if you stay with it, recapitulates the history of rock and roll, from the cotton fields and Appalachian hollows to hip hop and grunge.

Near the beginning of this production comes a sequence that begins with the bluesman Big Bill Broonzy singing "The Ballad of John Henry," the ancient ode to a legendary African-American railroad worker. Before the end of the first verse, the music and pictures switch seamlessly to bluegrass legend Bill Monroe singing the same song. Then it’s on to Woody Guthrie, followed by the blues duo Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. Switching back and forth among the four artists, the song ends with the verse in which John Henry’s wife, Polly, takes up his hammer and "drives steel like a man."

Later on, Muddy Waters, larger than life (as always), is singing "Hoochie-Coochie Man." His music fades and his image moves to the bottom of the wall as his fellow Mississippian, Elvis Presley, moves into "I’m Evil" from his 1968 comeback TV special, which is essentially a rewrite of the Waters tune. Then Elvis fades out and Waters comes back up, the point made about who’s schooling who.

By this time I was hungry. So I made my way up to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame cafeteria. The wall outside the cafeteria is tastefully decorated with photos of rock icons chowing down. One, from sometime in the 1950s, shows Bo Diddley backstage before a show frying chicken in an electric skillet. He’s turning the pieces of meat with a long fork, with his rectangular electric guitar already strapped on.

Finally, just before closing time, I braved the line for Mystery Train. After a fairly cheesy montage of white, middle-class American life in the early 1950s, the film cuts to a cotton field and the voices of the black field workers, a team of African-American workers laying railroad track, a man swinging a hoe, and another pounding a sledgehammer.

This beat underlies the whole half-century-long commercial-cultural phenomenon subsumed under the rubric of rock and roll. Its magic moves the whole with-it, MTV, globalized, youth culture, what’s-happening-now world of ours. It all comes down to some desperately poor displaced persons swinging a hoe to a rhythm from Mother Africa and keeping time for the singing of their redemption songs.

DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches creative writing at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.

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