Rock 'n' roll in the Jim Crow South
Many of Ronald Kidd's novels for children and young adults are built on keen historical research. Monkey Town (2006) explored East Tennessee in the 1920s during the infamous Scopes trial on the teaching of evolution. Kidd's latest, On Beale Street, offers readers a trip back to the Memphis of the mid-1950s, a city mired in Jim Crow racism but also the site of an upcoming musical explosion.
"Memphis is a seminal place," Kidd says. "As someone who as a kid listened to a transistor radio under my pillow, I got fascinated with the idea of a teenager in Memphis being exposed to black music and having it open up a world for him."
The protagonist in Kidd's new book for teens is 15-year-old Johnny Ross, a spunky and inquisitive young man facing identity and class issues. Johnny is also drawn to the rhythm and blues he hears on Beale Street, Memphis' musical mecca, and this passion leads him to landing a job with legendary producer Sam Phillips, whose Sun Records cut the first Elvis Presley hits and later helped launch the careers of music immortals like Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis. Kidd deftly merges the real-life Memphis music people and events with his cast of fictional characters.
The author, who lives in Nashville, was a musician himself in earlier days. "It's great to return to that in my writing," Kidd says. "It just seems like a bunch of stuff came together in Memphis in the '50s—the cult of celebrity, rock 'n' roll, how the blues went R&B—and I became fascinated with that point in history." Like his creator, Johnny Ross becomes enamored of the Memphis musicians and clubs and DJs of the day, even befriending Elvis and hanging with icons like guitarist Scotty Moore. Kidd asked Moore, now 76 and also a Nashville resident, to give his book a read in the manuscript stage to assure historical accuracy. Kidd also includes some valuable endnotes in the book, which delineate a dozen or so Memphis personages.
On Beale Street also works a strong racial theme, which becomes very personal for Johnny yet is also reflected in the confluence of musical styles, serving as a harbinger of Elvis' eventual success. "If I could find a white boy who sang like a Negro," Kidd quotes Phillips, "I'd make me a million dollars." Johnny Ross embodies the coming together of black and white. "I had to deal with the racial issue, which I embarked on with some trepidation," says the author. "Like who am I to write anything about the experience of being black in the U.S. or in Memphis at that time? But I thought the story called for it, and if I told it from the point of view of someone who is white, then that would give me a way in." The totally fictional side of Kidd's tale features credible characters who represent various aspects of the Memphis racial and economic divides, from Southern white bigots to at least one young black man who has strong ideas about justice and change. Johnny becomes fully caught up in the social collision, and surprising revelations have a dramatic impact on his future.
"I'm interested in the mixture and the sparks that are struck when different groups meet and clash," says Kidd. "Plus, the world that Johnny Ross discovers in this book is essentially gone. That's one reason I wanted to try to recapture it—because it was a really special, gritty place." When he's not a novelist, or working his day job as an editor of religious nonfiction, Kidd is also a playwright. "When I write plays," he says, "they're for adults or a general audience. But for some reason, when I write novels, they're for teenagers. It's nothing I turn off and on—it's simply the way I think about the story. It's always someone in their teenage years who's at a turning point in their lives."
Next up for Kidd is The Year of the Bomb, due out next spring. The setting is again the 1950s, his heroes four 13-year-old boys, his theme revolving around McCarthyism. "I do lots of historical research," Kidd says, adding with a chuckle, "it's hard to know when to stop. But between the Internet and books and helpful librarians, I'm always finding a pathway into my material."
Martin Brady is a musician and writer in Nashville.