Back to his musical roots, in the garage

William Bielby

William Bielby, a sociology professor--and rhythm guitarist--has blown some myths about garage bands in his research on the topic.

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s—before the Beatles landed on American soil—groups of young men gathered in garages across the country to form bands and play music.

Penn Professor of Sociology William Bielby was one of those young men, as a rhythm guitarist and bassist in the Harvey, Ill., band, The Newports. And he’s made this era of garage rock his recent research focus.

After co-authoring several works on the career trajectories of TV writers, Bielby—then a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara—decided, at the urging of his graduate students, to explore issues of race, gender and social class in the grassroots rock movement of the early 1960s.

Fortunately, in the past few years, sociologists have embraced cultural studies in a huge way, says Bielby, who arrived at Penn in January.
Though Bielby thinks that “rock and roll music, for young men, did provide, in a significant way, a venue for taking up some sort of creative … or artistic activity,” his research has blown a few myths.

The notion that young men played in bands to get girls, for example, is a fallacy, according to many garage rockers Bielby interviewed for his research. “Because it was such a novelty to take up performance in that era, it really [involved] the kids who had a serious commitment to music,” he says.

In his interviews of these almost-famous musicians from the mostly working-class neighborhoods in south Chicago, Bielby also discovered that being in a pre-Beatles rock band had a strong impact on school career and transition to adulthood. “In this era,” he says, “it wasn’t formally sanctioned by the schools. ... It drew kids away from their peers.” Also, he thinks it delayed advancement to adulthood, since many of these rockers—many more than Bielby anticipated—tried to make it as professional musicians after high school. They later went on to pursue college or a career, after their musical careers failed to take off.

Bielby also notes that while young women were better-versed in the popular music of the time and bought more records than young men, forming garage rock bands remained primarily a male pursuit, perhaps because parents preferred not to have their daughters spend time out of the house practicing in a band. Also, these bands were racially segregated and featured white young men who, Bielby found, shared a common experience—listening late at night to authentic Chicago blues on one of the city’s black radio stations.

When the Beatles came to America, and as folk music grew in popularity, everything changed, says Bielby, Suddenly, The Newports had plenty of competition as garage bands sprang up overnight and musicians attempted to write their own “bad Beatles songs.”

This summer, Bielby will return to the Chicago area to continue interviewing musicians for a book he plans to write on the subject. He’ll also get to relive his band days: Bielby and some of his grad school friends will take the stage at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting in Philadelphia to play 1960s instrumentals, British Invasion tunes and Chicago blues numbers.

Originally published on March 17, 2005