Origins of rock and roll  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Rock and roll emerged as a defined musical style in America in the 1950s, though elements of rock and roll can be seen in rhythm and blues records as far back as the 1920s. Early rock and roll combined elements of blues, boogie woogie, jazz and rhythm and blues, and is also influenced by traditional folk music, gospel music, and country and western.

Origins of the name rock and roll

The first coupling of the words "rock" and "roll" on record came in 1916, in a recording of a spiritual, "The Camp Meeting Jubilee", by an unnamed vocal "quartette" issued by Little Wonder Records. The lyrics include "We've been rocking and rolling in your arms / Rocking and rolling in your arms / In the arms of Moses". In 1922, blues singer Trixie Smith recorded "My Man Rocks Me (with One Steady Roll)", first featuring the two words in a secular context. Twelve years later, The Boswell Sisters had a hit with "Rock and Roll" (1934).

However, for many years and probably centuries previously, the term "rocking and rolling" had been used as a nautical term to denote the side-to-side and forward-and-backward motion of ships on the ocean. This meaning was used metaphorically in such records as Buddy Jones' "Rockin' Rollin' Mama" (1939) - "Waves on the ocean, waves in the sea/ But that gal of mine rolls just right for me/ Rockin' rollin' mama, I love the way you rock and roll".

Rocking was a term also used by gospel singers in the American South to mean something akin to spiritual rapture. A double, ironic, meaning came to popular awareness in 1947 in blues artist Roy Brown's song "Good Rocking Tonight" (also covered the next year by Wynonie Harris in an even wilder version), in which "rocking" was ostensibly about dancing but was in fact a thinly-veiled allusion to sex. Such double-entendres were nothing new in blues music (which was mostly limited in exposure to jukeboxes and clubs) but were new to the radio airwaves. After the success of "Good Rocking Tonight" many other rhythm and blues artists used similar titles through the late 1940s including a song called "Rock and Roll" recorded by Wild Bill Moore in 1949. These songs were relegated to "race music" (the music industry code name for rhythm and blues) outlets and were barely known by mainstream white audiences.

In 1951, Cleveland, Ohio disc jockey Alan Freed would begin playing this type of music for his white audience, and it is Freed who is credited with coining the phrase "rock and roll" to describe the rollicking R&B music that he brought to the airwaves. The term, with its simultaneous allusions to dancing, sex, and the sound of the music itself, stuck even with those who didn't absorb all the meanings.

Originally Freed used the name Moondog for himself and any concerts or promotions he put on. This arose from the fact he used a piece of music called "Moondog Symphony" by the street musician Moondog as his repeated opening music for his radio show. Moondog subsequently sued Freed on grounds that he was stealing his name. Since Freed was no longer allowed to use the term Moondog he needed a new catch phrase. After a night of heavy drinking he and his friends came up with the name "The Rock and Roll Party" since he was already using the phrase "Rock and Roll Session" to describe the music he was playing on his radio show. Since his show was extremely popular the term caught on and the subsequent public used it to describe a certain form of music.

"The first rock and roll record"

According to some, notably music historian Peter Guralnick, the first rock and roll record was "Rocket 88", by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (written by 19-year-old Ike Turner, also the session leader) and recorded by Sam Phillips for his Memphis Recording Service in 1951 (the master tape being sold to and later released by Chess Records). But this may be the result of shameless self-promotion on Phillips' part, as many other records recorded in the same time period or earlier are equal, or better, contenders for this title. Wynonie Harris' 1947 cover of Roy Brown's "Good Rocking Tonight" is probably the most legitimate claimant for the title of first rock and roll record, as the popularity of this record led to many answer songs, mostly by black artists, with the same rocking beat, during the late 40's and early 50's. (Roy Brown's original had a shuffle blues beat, not quite rocking, but Wynonie Harris changed the rhythm to a rocking gospel beat with hand clapping on the backbeat, which distinguishes it from previous records). Others have pointed to the later broad commercial success with white audiences of Chuck Berry's "Maybellene" or "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and his Comets as true starting points. Still others point out that performers like Arthur Crudup and Fats Domino were recording blues songs as early as 1946 that are indistinguishable from later rock and roll, and that these blues songs were based on themes, chord changes, and rhythms dating back decades before that. Crudup's That's All Right recorded with an electric guitar in 1946 is similar in style to Elvis's version recorded in 1954.

Rhythm and Blues sax player and band leader Louis Jordan actually broke into the pop charts in the mid-forties with the rocker "Caldonia". In 1947 Jack Guthrie and his group The Oaklahomans had a hit with "Oakie Boogie", basically a mix of boogie woogie with hillbilly and an electric guitar thrown in (a fairly new invention in 1947). Benny Carter, a co-author of "Cow Cow Boogie" (Capitol Records first gold single) back in 1942, wrote the jazz-swing song "Rock Me to Sleep" with Paul Vandervoort II in 1950...

See also

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