Tear Down the Walls: White Radicalism and Black Power in 1960s Rock

Univ. of Chicago. May 2021. 256p. ISBN 9780226768182. $95; pap. ISBN 9780226768212. $27.50. MUSIC
With this collection of previously published essays, Burke (music, Washington Univ., St. Louis; Come In and Hear the Truth) enters the discourse about appropriation, theft, and homage in music—particularly the dynamic among white artists of 1960s rock who incorporated Black culture and music into their work. He meticulously researches five incidents in late-Sixties rock that reflected these dynamics. The anthology opens with Burke’s best piece, which explores how the MC5 (Motor City 5) used blues and avant-garde jazz to synthesize their new sound. They were a band of white Michiganders who naively but apparently genuinely supported both the Yippies and the Black Panthers who protested at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Another essay is about an episode of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour where Jefferson Airplane singer Grace Slick performed in blackface and raised a clenched fist in the Black Power salute. Burke also examines filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard’s strenuous objection to the editing of his Rolling Stones film, Sympathy for the Devil; this essay feels forced into an otherwise coherent book. Burke continues with a narrative of the 1969 fight at Manhattan’s Fillmore East theater, involving the MC5, Fillmore empresario Bill Graham, and a group of East Village leftist/hippie radicals. Burke uses the incident to illustrate the multiple uses of Black radical rhetoric by white counterculture. He ends with an essay on Woodstock, where he describes leftist, Black Power–infused politics giving way to commercial interests.
VERDICT Though he’s overly concerned with academic squabbles, Burke evenhandedly demonstrates for music fans the complex and varied interactions between late-Sixties white rock and Black music and Black Power politics.
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