Tell Tchaikovsky the News

Rock ’n’ Roll, the Labor Question, and the Musicians’ Union, 1942–1968

Tell Tchaikovsky the News

Book Pages: 280 Illustrations: 9 illustrations Published: March 2014

American Studies, Music > Popular Music, Sociology

For two decades after rock music emerged in the 1940s, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), the oldest and largest labor union representing professional musicians in the United States and Canada, refused to recognize rock 'n' roll as legitimate music or its performers as skilled musicians. The AFM never actively organized rock 'n' roll musicians, although recruiting them would have been in the union's economic interest. In Tell Tchaikovsky the News, Michael James Roberts argues that the reasons that the union failed to act in its own interest lay in its culture, in the opinions of its leadership and elite rank-and-file members. Explaining the bias of union members—most of whom were classical or jazz music performers—against rock music and musicians, Roberts addresses issues of race and class, questions of what qualified someone as a skilled or professional musician, and the threat that records, central to rock 'n' roll, posed to AFM members, who had long privileged live performances. Roberts contends that by rejecting rock 'n' rollers for two decades, the once formidable American Federation of Musicians lost their clout within the music industry.


"Both a compelling labor history . . . and a music history . . . Roberts supplies fascinating views into struggles within the AFM over a developing music industry and about a music revolution." — R.A. Batch, Choice

"Michael James Roberts outlines the American Federation of Musicians’ systematic marginalization of rock and roll musicians in the 1950s and 1960s largely due to advancing recording technologies, shifting recording industries, morphing U.S. labor laws, and an idiomatic elitism." — Kathryn Metz, ARSC Journal

"A good look at rock music’s impact and power in its earliest phases." — Kenneth Bindas, Journal of American History

“This book is well researched and offers a good overview of many aspects of rock music’s history within the context of the AFM. Roberts interweaves issues of class and culture, which provides an interesting and unique assessment of the issues addressed. … It provides a unique perspective on rock music, the AFM, and how each may have played a role in the weakening of the unions in the United States.” — Joe C. Clark, Music Reference Services Quarterly

“Roberts … has produced a work that offers many insights. … [I]t provides an excellent interdisciplinary approach to the subject at hand and comes with a comprehensive bibliography that a wide array of readers will relish.” — Michael T. Bertrand, Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

“Music history buffs this book, by Michael James Roberts, is for you. … Roberts has written an interesting, well researched work that in retrospect is quite surprising to the average music listener.” — Leanne Weymans, M/C Reviews

“Surpassing a simple account of class domination, working class resistance, or binary conflict, Tell Tchaikovsky the News weaves a historically rich tale of contradiction, cultural and economic intersection, and unexpected turns.”

— William G. Roy, American Journal of Sociology

"Tell Tchaikovsky the News presents an exciting account of an exciting time in American history..." — John Pippen, Notes

“…this book is a remarkable read. It excels in tracing American class conflict from the early 1940s to the late 1960s through the responses of the AFM’s leadership and some well-established rank-and-file members to the advent and enduring appeal of rock ‘n’ roll music. Tell Tchaikovsky the News also offers a cultural study of that working-class musical form which helps chart the post-Depression history of labour relations in the recording industries of the United States.”  — Paul Aikenhead, Left History

"Michael James Roberts has written a superlative book that places class and work squarely in the center of our understanding of rock music." — Alex Sayf Cummings, Journal of Popular Music Studies

"There is much to recommend to popular and U.S. music historians about Michael James Roberts’s 2014 book, Tell Tchaikovsky the News: Rock ’n’ Roll, the Labor Question, and the Musicians’ Union, 1942–1968. It is easily the best book published on the history of class, classism, and how those aspects of U.S. culture informed early rock ’n’ roll." — Tim J. Anderson, Journal for the Society of American Music

"In this book Michael James Roberts has succeeded in breaking down the categories of labor studies and aesthetics. Not only has he written a superb account of how the Musicians Union lost its bargaining power with the record industry. He shows that its refusal to recognize the musical value of popular music of the past forty years led to its narrowing and ultimate reduction of influence over the most vital section of the music industry. The book is vividly written, conceptually strong and instructive about the growing complexity of labor relations in the entertainment industry." — Stanley Aronowitz, author of Taking It Big: C. Wright Mills and the Making of Political Intellectuals

"In this lively study of the remarkable victories and disheartening failures of the American Federation of Musicians, Michael James Roberts presents a strong case that union culture played a central role in the decline of the U.S. labor movement. Focusing on the union's dismissal of rock 'n' roll, Tell Tchaikovsky the News explores how class cleavages—conflicts over what count as culture, taste, talent, skill, and proper expressions of working-class resistance—undermined solidarity among workers. This wonderfully engaging analysis of the class textures of popular music and the cultural politics of the labor movement is a must-read." — Kathi Weeks, author of The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Michael James Roberts is Associate Professor of Sociology at San Diego State University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface ix

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction. Union Man Blues 1

1. Solidarity Forever? The Musicians' Union Responds to Radio and Records 19

2. Have You Heard the News? There's Good Rockin' Tonight: Hepcats, Wildcats, and the Emergence of Rock 'n 'Roll 41

3. If I Had a Hammer: Union Musicians "Bop" Rock 'n ' Roll 113

4. A Working-Class Hero Is Something to Be: The Musicians' Union Attempt to Block the British Invasion 167

Epilogue. Tuned In, Turned On, and Dropped Out: Rock 'n' Roll Music Production Restructures the Music Industry along Non-Union Lines 201

Notes 209

Bibliography 233

Index 243

Photo gallery follows page 112
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5475-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5463-5
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