Punk’s Roots in the Blues: New Book by Alum Looks at How the Genre Was Shaped by Changing Ideas About Race

February 11, 2021

Alumnus Evan Rapport's book explores punk’s debt to what many might consider an unconnected genre, the blues, and the ways that punk emerged during the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s.

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Punk music album covers and the cover of alumnus Evan Rapport's book, "Damaged: Musicality and Race in Early American Punk"

"Read with the headphones on!" That's how Lyle Preslar of punk legends Minor Threat described Damaged: Musicality and Race in Early American Punk, the new book by Evan Rapport (Ph.D. '06, Music). The book explores punk's debt to what many might consider an unconnected genre, the blues, and the ways that punk emerged during the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s.

Rapport, who is also a composer and performer, is a professor of ethnomusicology at The New School. He recently spoke to The Graduate Center about his diverse musical interests — his previous book was about Bukharian Jewish music in New York —  and gave his playlist for the book, both the top 10 and the 178-track Spotify playlist that he put together for his book:

The Graduate Center: What led you to study race in punk music, and what are the connections between the blues and punk?

Evan Rapport
Evan Rapport

In my research, I found the thorny relationship between punk and whiteness to be at the very core of punk's early style. Race as an area of inquiry, of course, includes whiteness, white identity, white privilege, and the like. With respect to the blues, broadly speaking, early punk musicians and their predecessors used blues resources as a language, but also enacted strategies that obscured the blues as punk's foundation. In my estimation, because all rock music, including punk, is a form of blues and primarily based on African American musical resources, one of the best ways to analyze rock styles is to try to understand how they relate to the blues.

GC: What was your first experience with punk music?

Rapport: I was probably in third grade, right around when the Clashs Combat Rock came out in 1982. I think what initially drew me to their music was the heavy beat and the sense that they were engaged, singing about the world around them, that it wasn't the usual hackneyed pop material. As far as American punk goes, it wasn't until I was in high school that a friend turned me on to Fugazi and some of the D.C. punk music going on around us, but even then I didn't really get too into it —  I was focused on learning to play jazz. In college in the early 1990s a lot of my friends were involved with the punk scene, and that's when I started playing in bands and got deep into the music.

And I'm definitely a fan, but I'm not sure I'd call myself a "punk expert" even though I've written this book! The book is the result of a lot of research, and a lifelong interest in punk, but I'm most interested in situating punk with a broad tradition of American popular music. The book is not just about punk but about American music, race, and society —  those are really the big topics I'm trying to explore.

GC: What 10 songs would you put into the quintessential playlist for your book?

Rapport: It's tough to pare it down —  the Spotify playlist I put together is 178 tracks, and it's not even close to all of the music I refer to in the book — but I'll do my best:

1. The Stooges, "T.V. Eye"": one of the best examples of what I call the "raw power" style, this song captures a particular approach to the blues among some rock musicians in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and which punk musicians later made a cornerstone of punk.

2. Patti Smith, "Gloria": Smith's vocal style was so important in the formation of punk, and the Patti Smith Band explored a lot of creative uses of familiar rock patterns, as can be heard in this vital interpretation of Van Morrison's song.

Patti Smith
Patti Smith performed at The Graduate Center as part of an “Extraordinary Lives” event with former Graduate Center President Bill Kelly in November 2010.

3. DEVO, "Auto Modown": DEVO is really an underappreciated band in the history of punk, especially because they became known for "Whip It" long after their formation. Jerry Casale once remarked that he thought DEVO's music belonged "somewhere between Muddy Waters and Captain Beefheart," and you can hear that in early songs like this.

4. Blondie, "Denis": Early punk rock in New York and Boston was very nostalgic, drawing explicitly on a lot of musical resources associated with the 1950s and early 1960s. This fun cover of Randy and the Rainbows' hit from 1963 is a great example. It's not ironic. Deborah Harry and the rest of the band are celebrating the music of their teenage years; Harry was 18 in 1963.

5. Ramones, "Blitzkrieg Bop": More than any other band, the Ramones laid the blueprint for punk as a defined style. It's hard to imagine a more powerful statement than their debut album, starting right off the bat with this enduring classic.

6. Damned, "Neat Neat Neat": It's not easy to pick one song from the explosion of British punk in the mid- to late-1970s, but the Damned are a fantastic band for understanding how British groups put together a lot of different musical strands to help forge punk's sound.

7. X, "We're Desperate": At the same time, musicians in California were also creating punk as we now know it. X brought such a huge range of musical references to their sound — they were really students of American music in the broadest sense. They were also of an earlier generation than the hardcore bands that started popping up in the late 1970s, and they were sort of straddling an older and a newer idea of punk.

8. Black Flag, "Nervous Breakdown": Just like X, Black Flag was straddling an older and a newer punk sound, but they went in a different direction. Songs like "Nervous Breakdown" set the stage for hardcore.

9. Bad Brains, "Pay to Cum": This one is like "Blitzkrieg Bop"—  it just blew everything wide open. One can't overstate the importance of Bad Brains for punk. Not only were they extremely fast, loud, and technically proficient, but they were the first all-Black punk band to have a far-reaching impact during their heyday.

10. Minor Threat, "Small Man, Big Mouth" Minor Threat musically followed Bad Brains' model, and they also promoted punk as a conscious form of expression. These elements were there before in punk, but not to this extent, and their approach had an impact on almost every punk band that came after them.

GC: Last year you won The New School's Distinguished Teaching Award. How do you balance teaching and research?

Rapport: I've found it very rewarding and productive to have my teaching and my research inform each other. For example, many of the ideas that are in my new book came out of a course on punk that I started teaching about 10 years ago. During my time at The Graduate Center, I thought it was a great privilege and very exciting to be in grad school, and I wanted to get the most out of it that I possibly could, so I was quite disciplined. For example, when I was writing my dissertation, I would arrive at the library first thing in the morning and usually work until 3 or 4 p.m., and I still try to keep similar serious but sane hours. I've always prioritized my friends and family, but I realized that I could keep all of these aspects of my life more balanced when I'd put in a solid day of work.