The First Great Decades of Modern American Rock And Roll

A week ago I could not have told you who sang “Johnny B. Goode,” although I had heard it about a dozen times and knew it held a prominent spot in the movie, Back to the Future. I could’ve sworn The Beach Boys invented the melody to “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” when in fact, they did not. A week ago I wouldn’t have been able to tell you how the term “rock and roll” had replaced the term “rhythm and blues” in order to appeal to white audiences or that African American musicians were the base of modern rock music.

What I soon learned was that I was lacking the basic knowledge of the history of rock music. And as someone who prides themselves in needing music on a daily basis as a catalyst for creativity and to help drown out today’s unwanted anxieties, I found that I wanted to soak up every bit of knowledge I could. What I quickly realized was how much of today’s music is based off of everything that came before it. Early music techniques and musicians played an intricate part in forming what we know today as rock and roll and pop music.

Some would say that the British Invasion was the best era of rock music. I’m not disputing that. But what I learned in the last week was how musicians in the late 1800s and early 1900s helped provide inspiration to the musicians of the 1950s who were the initial spark to what eventually lead to the British Invasion in America and music of the 1960s.

Oral traditions were how music was passed on in the very beginning and sheet music was the way to purchase music. Tin Pan Alley came along and it was the way to get music out before recording technology. It was on 28th Street, between Fifth Avenue and Broadway in New York. Composers from Tin Pan Alley eventually started writing music for Broadway musicals.

One of the early precursors to jazz was the syncopating rhythm and an early form of jazz was Dixieland. Jazz began to grow and swing started as dance hall music. Most of the swing bands were African American, but white swing bands gained more attention from record companies.

During the twentieth century, one of the most popular forms of African American musical expression was 12-bar blues. Dixieland and swing were based on 12-bar blues. The rural blues and urban blues followed with African Americans as the dominant musicians. There were also elements of gospel and spirituals. These records were marketed as “race records” to African Americans, but in 1949, the term was replaced with “rhythm and blues.” White audiences were interested in these records as well, but for the most part were not accepting of them. They soon took the African Americans’ style of rhythm and blues and changed it to be more “appealing” to white audiences.

With radio and movies, early country and western music was becoming more popular. Country and western was originally called hillbilly, but changed it’s name to country and western and eventually to just country. Early forms incorporated Anglo-American traditions of southern American music and borrowed from African American musical traditions.

The term “rock and roll” started in the 1950s as a way to help market rhythm and blues to white audiences. Some of the early rock and roll artists were Chuck Berry (“Johnny B. Goode”) and Little Richard who were both African American. They used elements of early rhythm and blues, country, and the 12-bar blues, as well as new instrument amplification. Many of the African American artists who sang rock music were pushed aside as white artists did covers of their songs in an effort to be more appealing to white audiences.

Elvis Presley combined hillbilly, gospel, rhythm and blues, and country and western to make a new form which was called rockabilly. Even though he was not a songwriter, he was a song stylist and performer, taking covers of songs and songs that were written for him to new heights. Buddy Holly and Johnny Cash were considered rockabilly artists.

The landscape of rock changed again in the late 50s. The show, American Bandstand promoted music by artists like Frankie Avalon and Bobby Vee who were considered teen idols with wholesome images. The only African American artist to appear regularly on American Bandstand was Chubby Checker.

Into the 1960s, the producers had a bigger say in what the artists did especially in girl groups. The singers could be fired and changed out at any time creating different lineups of the same group. Surf rock was a new form of rock in the early 60s which combined doo-wop as well as Chuck Berry’s style of rock and roll and the wholesomeness of teen idols.

Soul music was more popular than rhythm and blues as the genre of African American popular music in the 60s. Started by Berry Gordy Jr., Motown Records made soul music that was intended to crossover and be appealing to white audiences. Atlantic Records recorded a more southern style of soul that took roots in gospel. This type of soul was considered more authentic. Atlantic had singers such as Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin.

Each year, genres continued to build on rhythm and blues and branched out to create new sounds. There are so many subgenres as well and intermixing of genres and subgenres that when you listen to music from later years, you can hear what they took from years before.

I hope this extremely condensed crash course of early rock music was interesting! One of the best parts of my class is that Spotify is the main source of how we listen to examples of music. Below is a playlist I created of the early examples of rhythm and blues, gospel, country, and rock and roll.

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