What Is Rock and Roll?

Happy Thursday! Today, I have a deceptively simple, single question for you to ponder.

R&B+C&W=R&R (I never loved algebra that much)

What is rock & roll? What does that term mean to you? Yes, the topic has a little to do with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, purely because it was that topic that sparked some thinking about it, additionally – I have heard so many people say that rock & roll is dead.

Let me give you a little to chew on and mull over. During the 1950’s, and certainly by 1955 when DJ Alan Freed claimed to have invented the term, “rock and roll”, the oversimplified “recipe” for the music was R&B+C&W=R&R (rhythm and blues plus country and western equals rock and roll).

This recipe overlooks so much, though. A myriad of styles influence both R&B and C&W. It is crazy to boil it down to two styles and a bunch of letters. I never loved algebra in school anyway. It is an awful lot to think about though, so I implore you to think it through. Does rock and roll come down to just the music? What about the social and cultural forces? I am one of those people who just doesn’t buy into an algebraic equation being the answer to my greatest historical interest….okay, obsession.

Rock around the clock

Let’s try to tear this apart a bit more, starting with the earliest “rock and roll” music. While many people believe that “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley was what started the phenomenon, there’s absolutely zero consensus with that assertion. Did you know that there are actually 50 milestone songs from the period of time prior to 1956 that have elements of rock and roll (that aforementioned equation) in them? There’s no way to determine just which one was the spark that set off the explosion.

I’m not entirely convinced that the general public could listen to the radio in 2019 and actually hear those roots. Maybe some people with some songs, but for the most part? Probably not. Is that the problem, or the point?

Testing, bending and breaking

As Jason said yesterday, rock and roll’s roots are steeped in Southern blues. That rhythm and blues music was indeed Black American music – and white people loved it. The early innovators of the rock music you and I love, were all Black and/or African American. White people did not corner the market on rock and roll. Ever. Did you know that of the first artists that could have been considered rock and roll musicians prior to 1955, there is only one white artist to note? That would be Bill Haley. The music began to bend a racial boundary in a way that nothing else did prior. I think that’s worth noting. (I’m looking at you, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination committee.)

During the 1950’s, the American youth had leisure time. A true “Youth Culture” evolved. The after school hours were spent socializing. Parents and the powers that be were worried about all of that spare time being spent on nefarious activities. People moved to the suburbs of cities, and “Main Street” America became a very prominent image. During this same period, Eisenhower was president, known for his very conservative, “squeaky clean” views. Soda shops, clean-cut boys and girls, letterman sweaters…all of those images are straight from 1950’s America, paired against the rebellious “rock and roll” image. Black leather jackets, smoking, motorcycles, fast cars, and oiled hair just to note a few of the stereotypical . The fear of kids listening to rock and roll, turning delinquent, and ruining their lives became a massive topic at home. As if listening to music was the complete opposite to work, rather than just a complementary aspect of it.

With a rebel yell

The kids still listened to rock and roll, of course. They rebelled. Do any of us really do as we’re told?? All any parent ever needs to do is say that something is trash, and kids will ruin their minds if they watch or listen, and that certain “something” will become the most sought after fad in America. That is precisely what happened as 1950 turned to 1960. The true rebels, these artists willing to put their work out there, were crucial to youth culture because they influenced kids, turning them onto blues, and politics and poetry. They served as a link for those who were culturally adventurous. Rock and roll was something far more than just background music to other activities during the 1960s. It inspired. It broke boundaries. It unified.

Gender roles, politics, social boundaries, race, sexism, AIDS, sexual practices, drugs, social and political activism….I could go on and on. The proof is in the history, and music is the magical link. Music continues to keep doing all of that. We talk, we argue, we unite, we make change, regardless of whether there’s a guitarists or ten keyboardists in the band we’re listening to. Think on that.

What is rock and roll

In wrapping this up, I don’t know that I agree about rock and roll being dead. They’ve been saying that since the days disco, and yet in hindsight it’s pretty obvious that the spirit survived the 1970s without too much of a problem. How can rock and roll be dead when it has inspired virtually every single piece of music that has been created since 1955? Yes, the sound of rock and roll has evolved since Halley’s “Rock Around the Clock” and Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” or even Chuck Berry’s “The Twist”. Thank goodness. That’s called progress and should be applauded. There is no litmus, or purity test needed. Is the spirit dead, or can we just not see it right now?

What is rock and roll?


8 thoughts on “What Is Rock and Roll?”

  1. What would have been considered Rock and Roll back then would only be a small part of the musical genre, mainly in blues artists. However, a lot of late 50’s music could be considered a forerunner of punk.If we go a little more modern, you can still hear bands that sound like the Beatles and Stones. To me, I use the term rock interchangeably but generally what most consider rock would be an electric guitar. Duran Duran for the most part to me falls under “rock” even by the strictest sense because they have always had a guitarist. The fact that people would say they aren’t rock at the HOF while they induct MANY acts who are less rock than them (such as the rap artists) are hypocrites.

    If you ever get a chance (and maybe you have) watch a documentary, read a book, or even take a class on the history of rock and roll. I consider myself an expert in rock music from my education and experience and even so learned things I never considered. For example, you mentioned “the earliest rock and roll record” and you can hear actual “rock” records long before the 1950’s. Like you mentioned, almost all are African American musicians. I took a class on the history and the professor showed how many spirituals back during slavery had elements of rock.Rock isn’t dead, but evolving which is always does,

    1. Hi stillafan!

      We have something in common – I’ve taken several classes on the history of rock and roll, as well as one on The Beatles, another one on 60s music and it’s role in social change, and then a bunch of music theory courses. My bachelor’s degree is in American Studies, but my area of speciality was 1960s Pop Culture. I took enough classes to get a minor in musicology, but my university didn’t offer it at the time. 🙂 Even so, I enjoy reading and writing about it, and I still continue to learn. I can remember in one of my American Studies courses, we talked about the role of black slavery – specifically their music and traditions – in rock and roll. It is incredible how very little credit is given, and how easily they are ignored, rebuffed and snubbed by people who genuinely owe their careers to black music in America. It’s appalling to say the least.

      I had a lot of difficulty writing today’s post because there was much I could have included but inevitably left out just due to time and space. I don’t think there are many people out there who have the time or patience to read a dissertation on the definition of rock and roll. So I tried to simplify, albeit clumsily. You are correct that there are many songs from well before the 1950s that have elements of rock and roll in them. There’s actually a book by Jim Dawson and Steve Propes that debates the very topic of the first rock and roll song – and of course there’s no clear cut answer.

      Thanks for sharing! I thoroughly enjoy the topic and am happy someone out there was engaged!

      1. I had a feeling you probably had experience in this because you know it well. I absolutely loved all the music classes I took and the coolest were the ones that really get to the heart of a genre. I recently watched the country documentary series on PBS (I highly recommend) and it discussed how country comes from black music. Often when we think country we think white people from the south but this documentary really explained how it came from the blues. All popular music today really comes from the blues,, which of course came from spirituals and if we want to trace it even farther, to African tribal music. I love how it all came together and just keeps evolving. Sometimes I’ll email people songs that are possible first rock and roll song contention and it’s a good discussion. I once argued with someone about racist rock (a genre sad to say) and how it was a misnomer because rock came from black people and taking music to espouse hate is morally wrong (or course racism is morally wrong but that’s another topic). I could talk about this topic for days, I’ve even done many research papers on this topic because it is so fascinating.

        1. It is nice to see someone who is well-versed on the history of popular music in this country! 🙂 I’ll have to find that documentary on country, I’d love to see it. I just went to see Restless Heart on Saturday night with my husband. Talk about an 80s flashback. I am not even a true country fan, but I love great musicianship of all kinds, and they definitely hit that mark. It was a fantastic show. -R

          1. To me all that matters is if something is good to me. I like all kinds of music and assert that every genre has great music. I love so much different kinds of music and I’ll play a country song next to a classical piece to Duran Duran. All music is really the same, even though we treat it differently. Older country is so good but is now often overshadowed by the last 10-15 years.

          2. Right now, crossover hits matter. It is annoying to see good people change their style to suit the masses in order to get a hit, but I suppose that’s the tough part about being in music. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. That said, I’ll listen to anything that I think is good, and I won’t listen to music that I think is awful, no matter who wrote or recorded it. -R

    1. Yes, at least mechanically. However, that was not the point I was making. It is about far more than just the mechanical aspects. -R

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