Jack Kerouac: 100 Years of Beatitude

Novelist and poet Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) has a long association with music. His writing was influenced by jazz; one of his recommendations to writers in his ”Belief and Technique for Modern Prose” was to “blow as deep as you want to blow”, and he frequently referenced jazz musicians (Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie) in his work. Kerouac also recorded some of his poetry and prose with musicians’ accompaniment (Poetry for the Beat Generation (with Steve Allen) (1959), Blues and Haikus (with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims) (1959)), and was himself an influence on musicians – perhaps most notably Bob Dylan. The connection between Kerouac and music is such that there is a book dedicated to the subject, Kerouac On Record, A Literary Soundtrack (Simon Warner and Jim Sampas, 2018).

March 2022 is the centennial of Jack Kerouac’s birth. To celebrate, the Kerouac Center at UMass Lowell and the City of Lowell with be holding exhibits, lectures, and readings. The centennial has also meant there has been a slew of publicity considering Kerouac’s legacy, from whether he was a “proto-dudebro”, a symbol of white male privilege, or a ground-breaking visionary and saved Western civilisation. Kerouac fans may baulk at the continuing commercialisation of their hero, but as Jack Kerouac: 100 Years of Beatitude shows, he has always been a target for media exploitation.

This bumper 52 track CD has no connection to the official celebration or estate, and includes material from 1946 to 1963. Kerouac is featured through two readings (from Readings by Jack Kerouac on the Beat Generation (1960), “San Francisco Scene (The Beat Generation)” and “October In The Railroad Earth”), as well as extracts from On The Road and Visions Of Cody from a 1959 NBC TV recording with Steve Allen on piano. There’s also a relaxed and interesting interview with Kerouac by Ben Hecht for Hecht’s show on WABC TV in 1958, which strays into politics and some now outdated terms on race.

Kerouac was part of the Beat Generation, a literary group of writers (including Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Gary Snider, William S Burroughs) who explored American culture from the 1940s onwards. The term has its roots in a conversation between Kerouac and writer John Clellon Holmes, in which Kerouac referred to “beat” meaning “tired” but also “beatific” (it also extends to the beat of jazz – “it’s the beat generation, it’s beat, it’s the beat to keep, it’s the beat of the heart, it’s being beat and down in the world and like oldtime lowdown and like in ancient civilizations the slave boatmen rowing galleys to a beat and servants spinning pottery to a beat”, Kerouac exclaims here on “San Francisco Scene (The Beat Generation)”.

Kerouac later disavowed being part of any generation or movement, and took exception to being labelled a “beatnik”; “I’m not a beatnik, I’m a Catholic”, he said to a reporter.  His friend Ginsberg (who is represented on this collection by his reading of his poem “America”, from Allen Ginsberg Reads Howl and Other Poems (1959), closing CD2) was similarly minded; he wrote to The New York Times to deplore “the foul word beatnik,” commenting that beatniks were not created by Kerouac “but by industries of mass communication which continue to brainwash man.”

The interesting sleeve essay by musician Roland Heinrich Rumtreiber, “Jack Kerouac: A Portrayal of the Artist as a Young Man (Mostly) in Fifteen Minutes (Speedily Written, without Benzedrine)” includes a biography of Kerouac, a history of the Beat Generation and an explanation about “beatnik culture”, pointing out that the term “beatnik” was invented by journalist Herb Caen in 1958 and alluded to the Russian sputnik. He goes on to note the Beats detested this subculture and its exploitation. Rumtreiber further notes in his essay that the music spawned by the Beats included the satirical, exploitative or dismissive, and that some reactionary songs both mock the Beats and attempt to cash in from them. 

If the purpose of Jack Kerouac: 100 Years of Beatitude is to honour Kerouac, the focus on the beatniks surely detracts, but they are represented by a torrent of singles focussed on the “beatnik craze”, including (on CD1) Paul Gayten’s “Beatnik Beat”, Louis Nye’s “Teenage Beatnik”, The Bee Hives’ “Beatnik Baby”, Barbara Evans’ “Beatnik Daddy”, Patsy Raye & The Beatniks’ “Beatnik’s Wish”, Jimmy Van Eaton’s “Beat-Nik” and (on CD2) Huey ‘Piano’ Smith & His Clowns “Beatnik Blues”, The Champs’ “Beatnik”, Joe Hall & The Corvettes’ “Bongo Beating Beatnik”, Rune Overman’s “Beatnik Walk”, The Royal Jokers’ “Beatnik”, The Untouchables’ “Benny The Beatnik” and The Beats’ “Beatnik Bounce – part I”. Some of these tracks are mildly humorous and interesting enough from a historic perspective, but it’s unlikely Kerouac and Ginsberg would have taken the joke.  

With the focus on “beatnik”, there’s unavoidably an element of novelty. Johnny Beeman’s “Laffin’ Beatnik” may have curiosity value, but it’s not far off Charles Penrose’s dreadful “Laughing Policeman” for being unbearably grating. The Beats are also misrepresented ; Bob McFadden & Dor’s “The Beat Generation” suggests the Beats didn’t work for a living, which is far from the truth. “Like Rumpelstiltskin”, one of two tracks from Don Murrow’s Grimm’s Hip Fairy Tales (1961), is a parody of the kind of hip jive the Beat writers were (incorrectly accused) of. Surprisingly, the other selected track, “Kerouazy”, is a breezy jazz instrumental which on the face of it has no axe to grind. 

As one would expect, jazz is well represented by some familiar names: the Chet Baker Quintet (“A Night On Bop Mountain”), the Charlie Parker Quartet (“Cosmic Rays”). Although the Beats were fans, the scat nonsense of Slim Gaillard & His Middle Europeans “Yip Roc Heresy” and Dizzy Gillespie & His Orchestra’s “Oop-Pop-A-Da” is, at best, an acquired taste.

The included music is not entirely focussed on jazz (which ranges from the relaxed – Charlie Parker Quartet’s “Cosmic Rays”, to the frenetic – Charlie Ventura & His Orchestra’s “Ha”); there’s a mix of old fashioned croon (Perry Como’s “Like Young”), raucous party band (Big Jay McNeely’s “Real Crazy Cool”), gentle swing (King Pleasure’s “Parker’s Mood”), twangy guitars (Edd Byrnes & Friend’s “Like I Love You”), laidback raps (Bing Day’s “Mama’s Place”, Babs Gonzales’ “Manhattan Fable”, Shel Silverstein’s “Have Another Espresso”), girl pop (Barbara Evans’ “Beatnik Daddy”) and boppy rock and roll (Paul Evans’ “Beat Generation”).

Film soundtracks are represented by inclusions from soundtracks. There are three tracks from British film “Beat Girl” (1960) (otherwise known as “Wild for Kicks”) which starred Oliver Reed exploring the “popular craze for Beatnik culture” – the (twangy and atmospheric) John Barry Seven’s “Beat Girl Main Title”, “Beat For Beatniks”, and “The Beat Girl Song” (with Adam Faith). There are also two tracks from the sensationalist 1959 film “The Beat Generation”: the first is a standout by the great Louis Armstrong & His All-Stars and the second, recorded but not used in the film itself, is a show tune by Mamie Van Doren (with Milt Rogers and his Orchestra). Two excerpts from the 1958 crime drama movie “High School Confidential’” are here on CD for the first time (having previously appeared on an MGM single): “High School Drag” (Philippa Fallon) and “Christopher Columbus Digs The Jive” (John Drew Barrymore). Also represented is comedy (Lenny Bruce’s “Psychopathia Sexualis” from The Sick Humour of Lenny Bruce (1959)) and spoken word (a 29 second clip of poet and journalist Carl Sandberg talking about “Beatniks” on TV in 1959, and two Ken Nordine raps, “Reaching Into In” and “Hunger Is From”).

By its nature, this collection is an entirely different proposition to 1997 tribute album Kerouac: Kicks Joy Darkness which featured spoken word performances by a wide bunch of contemporary characters including Michael Stipe, Patti Smith and Hunter S. Thompson. However 100 Years of Beatitude packs some punch from a historical perspective – it gives the listener an idea of the culture in the ‘50s, which was overshadowed by the fear of non-conformity, and for Beat completists it will serve a useful purpose by providing a record of the times in which their literary heroes rose to such heady prominence.



Label: Bear Family Records
Release Date: 11 MAR 2022