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?