In 1929, the great songwriter Hoagy Carmichael recorded his “Rockin’ Chair,” which soon became a standard covered by Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers, and many others—Mildred Bailey made it such a regular feature of her sets that she was called “the Rockin’ Chair Lady.” Her 1937 version accentuates the laziness, the minstrel wink, that could be sealed onto a record. “Old rockin’ chair’s got me / Cane by my side / Fetch me that gin, son / ‘Fore I tan your hide.” Critic Will Friedwald wrote, “This is why God invented YouTube,” as he steered readers to Jack Teagarden returning to “Rockin’ Chair” with Armstrong on a 1957 episode of the Timex All-Star Show, the facial gestures and dialogue as pivotal as the guttural moans and upturned brass. Here, the twist was that Armstrong was a patriarch as much as, indeed more so than, Teagarden, though he was not allowed to fully occupy that role. So the duet turned on rejoinders (“my hide is already tan”) and scat singing for things that couldn’t be outright articulated. The songwriter’s disposition, a mix of engagement and disengagement, had set the stage for this show of nonchalance. Carmichael, in the vein of Stephen Foster before him (when use of outside songwriters became a common part of pre-Civil War minstrelsy), or Randy Newman afterward (when use of pop-rock songwriting became a common part of Hollywood–Tin Pan Alley alliances), wrote within a popular music moment, but in a sometimes elegiac, sometimes sarcastic manner (often both) that created an irremovable sense of distance from that moment.
But the chair mattered too, as much as what George Lipsitz might call the sedimented ironies of these songwriters and performers. It had become a popular music staple, representing musical motion unattached to anything remotely close to individual or social progress. The folk song of domestic violence “Red Rocking Chair,” a variant on “Sugar Baby,” can be tracked from Dock Boggs and Charlie Monroe to Karen Dalton and the Grateful Dead. Country music’s “Rockin’ Alone in an Old Rockin’ Chair,” first recorded in 1932 by the Burnett Brothers, would be revisited by Bob Wills, Eddy Arnold, the Everly Brothers, Hank Snow, and most recently the team of Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones. Hank Williams went looking for “Rockin’ Chair Money” in 1949, associating himself with the dissolute spirits of returning soldiers and an incipient form: “oh baby, rock.” Harmonica Frank, the first artist covered in Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train, self-positioned as a “Rockin’ Chair Daddy.” Ray Charles had a “Rockin’ Chair Blues” early in his career, celebrating a Seattle jazz joint: “If you’re feeling lowdown, don’t have a soul to care, / Just grab your hat and start for the Rocking Chair / There’s Dubonnet Judy, Gin Fizz Flo, Cocktail Shorty, and old Julip Joe.” Fats Domino hit #9 on the R&B chart with “Rockin’ Chair” in 1951, piano in that New Orleans boogie-woogie pattern that feels like it can go on forever. Gwen McCrae brought a different song with the same name, à la George McCrae’s even bigger “Rock Your Baby,” to the top of the R&B charts in 1975. One put the chair into a song as a way to rock in place, to assert one’s place but also know one’s place. “I don’t need no rockin’ chair,” George Jones sang on a comeback single in the 1990s.
Since we’re talking LPs in honor of JPMS at 33.3, I want to focus on my favorite rocking chair moment, which I heard on vinyl and which I’m going to argue we should hear as a musical mood that the LP heightened, its 33.3 cadence oriented to aging, investment portfolios—and rot. That would be the Kinks, “Shangri-La,” from their 1969 album Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire). In it Ray Davies sang, as he so often did, to a figure with no rock ‘n’ roll whatsoever, a rule-follower, a consumer with a mortgage.
This all reads as manifest character assassination. But as with Davies at his best, it didn’t sound that way. He didn’t just take the chair from Carmichael, he took some of the “rockin’ chair’s got me” vibe, the boozy wobble and warble that lurch-to-lurch produced stasis and accompanying one-liners. Only he sort of sanctified it: from the moment his song put on the slippers the melody became almost as indelible as his “Waterloo Sunset” peak—you really can’t get any higher than this in songwriting terms.
The Kinks at this point were banned from touring the US, off the charts, but in a series of poorly selling, critically beloved albums they defined what critic Robert Christgau would soon call the semipopular: music that existed in relationship to the pop world but didn’t really belong to it. Velvet Undergrounds and Big Stars, so to speak, with plenty of room for Kinks. Other versions of the rocking chair pop ditty would take on semipopular characteristics, too. The Band’s “Rockin’ Chair,” featuring an old sailor longing for Ragtime Willie in old Virginny, did what the group so often did, making the old tropes and new rock proddings coexist: “That big rockin’ chair won’t go nowhere.” In 1978, Jane Birkin’s “Rocking Chair,” written by Carmichael-Davies counterpart Serge Gainsbourg, was almost delirious as it rhymed the place you sit your ass down with Baudelaire, Apollinaire, Humbert Humbert, “tilted legs in the air / in my rocking chair.” Capping the century, Magnetic Fields delivered “Time Enough for Rocking When We’re Old,” on 1999’s 69 Love Songs: “We can rock all day in rocking chairs of gold,” Stephin Merritt intoned, “But tonight I think I’d rather just go dancing.” And Lil Wayne, past his peak, flirting with semipopular, on Tha Carter V in 2018, talked about a childhood suicide attempt on the album’s outro, “Let It All Work Out,” which included the verse: “The game ain’t easy, but it’s fair, nigga / I’ma sit in this throne so long / ‘Til it’s a fuckin’ rockin’ chair, nigga / Bad bitch playin’ with my hair, nigga.”
In this compressed space, I want to draw one final question into a conclusion. We have a growing body of writing on recordings and schizophonia or acousmatic listening cutting off sounds from sources, on vernacular sound revolutions transporting voices as never before, on edited audio production plays turning songs into mini-dramas, on vinyl as a curated revival format in this otherwise digital century of streams. This kind of academic scholarship can be set apart from the album guides of the past, written by the likes of Christgau, Friedwald, and Marcus, critics disposed to generalize from what they heard in a process of near-endless, structured intake. But can we now imagine connecting the two modes of analysis, academic categorization and critical delineation? And if we did, what would we be listening for and writing about? I hope that I have at least hinted here at what a new model might look like. In many ways, popular music criticism was shaped primarily by the spirit of the single, the novelty, the breakthrough album. Popular music studies said not so fast, and brought a revisionism that questioned the earlier triumphalism. Might we now allow more space for quirkier impulses, for highly accomplished expressions of failure, for the extra tracks that got shoved into the recesses of Side B?
The LP took into its 33.3 revolutions counter-revolutionary impulses, or at least slowed the earlier sense of revolution down. Alongside the adult post-popular staples most associated with albums from their onset, such as the symphony and the cast recording, came the knowingness of Davies’s beloved music hall and the sarcastic sloth of Carmichael’s collegiate minstrelsy. When rock and rollers became album artists, part of what transferred was the tone of heightened art about fallen prospects that linked Carmichael to Davies as much as the words rocking chair. The rocking chair, going nowhere, like the record spinning, then the LP making that spin into an expanse: that’s what I propose it might be good to trace as an aspect of how song impacts format, how certain kinds of expression need a McMansion, and how the LP expressed affluence in its vinyl frontier but decline in its endless grooves almost from the start. Or I could just sit back down.