I teach a course at Le Moyne College called “This History of Rock”. From time to time we’ll share some of the information we dig up in our research. If you see inaccuracies or you find broken links, please notify me. We’ll make it right. firstname.lastname@example.org
In the 1950s music changed forever. We know this to be true. We know how it came to be, who its first practitioners were, and how the music they created affected all who followed. I don’t know where it’s going to end, but I do know that I witnessed the dawn of Rock & Roll. And I know that I’m still a living breathing practitioner. A guy who played in concert halls, stadiums, barrooms, roadhouses, fields, and hell holes in too many cities and towns to mention. A road warrior who plies his trade into old age still… still playing, still recording, still practicing… and still dreaming.
There’s a nasty old saying about the arts. “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who suck at both, become critics.” Well, I’m a practitioner, a professor, and I teach through critique. I believe that if you follow your passion, your passion flows into everything you do. I love to play. I love to share my passion. I love to talk about it, dissect it, and figure out why a great song played well can bring you to tears, and the same song played not so well can make you want to hurl.
I’m a rocker. A songwriter. I climbed on the mountain in search of Rock stardom. Yeah, I climbed on it. Got up there so I could see the summit. I smelt that rarefied air up there. Breathed it in… and fell back down to Earth with my heart in my hands.
Nope, never “made it”. But, I made a lot of music along the way. I’m not a rock star, but I got to share some space with a lot of them. And more importantly, I got to share most of my life with freaks like me: the players, the weekend warriors, and their families, the losers as well as the winners, the drunks and the not so drunk, and the flat-out fans. Not just those celebrity chasing, personality obsessed groupies. I’m talking about music fans; people who love and support the art-form because they still believe in the mystery and the majesty of this music.
If you listen, it’s not WHO plays it, it’s HOW it’s being played. True fans understand the sweet, sweaty, passionate moment when every single person in the room knows that “This is Rock and Roll”. Define it? Nope, can’t. But, trust me, you’ll know it when you feel it.
So, as a musician who learned his trade on the street AND in the conservatory, I have a unique and very personal perspective on the first glorious decades of Rock and Roll, as seen from the inside, the soft and dirty underbelly of this beast. But most of all I want you to know that I am a fan. I love Rock and Roll music with a passion, and I always want to learn more about it.
First, a brief history of music, and what led to the birth of Rock n Roll.
First came the stick and the log. We thumped for a long time.
“It was all about the groove… It still is.”
Before humans became literate, we played music. Music helped pass the time. When we weren’t foraging for food we entertained each other with songs. The instruments were simple; drums mostly, with some flute-like and harp looking instruments. Sweet. A few notes, a little rhythm, and celebrations were more memorable. We danced. We created epics memorializing our fallen heroes so we would never forget them. And music helped us remember a host of important things more easily so we could retain the information and pass it on. Early hits were songs like: “Don’t Eat the Red Ones, You’ll Die” and “Always Do What Your Mother Says, or You’ll Die” and “Dad Was a Hero, He’s Dead”.
It was a social thing, important to survival, a way to communicate, and what the heck it was fun. Modern research has born this out; women are still attracted to good dancers. Anyone who could lay down a good beat and keep it interesting was of great value back in the day.
Much of this early music survives to this day. Traditional Folk Music is tied to its culture like glue. I believe that you can take a quantum leap from an early tribal celebration right into last Saturday night’s Rave, down at the corner “Club Hip and Groove” without skipping a beat. Look here for more information on Prehistoric Music
Long about 4000 BC the Pre-“historics” became the Historics. These early enlightened civilizations were found in Persia, India, China, Greece, Rome, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. Same folks, same cultures as before, it’s just that they were now able to write it down. The traditions were still passed from generation to generation the same way; listen to it, learn it, then pass it on. But as soon as a few people became literate, we had a pretty good record of the stories they told and the instruments they played. For a more in-depth look at the music of these cultures visit Ancient Music.
Now consider this: the reason we are studying Western Music is because we have something to study. Written records. That does not mean that there weren’t huge and powerful unwritten musical traditions. There was, and still is. Traditional African Folk music was brought down through generations. When the African peoples were dragged from their homes and sold into slavery, they were robbed of everything. The only evidence of their culture was what they carried with them in their minds and hearts. They did manage to smuggle watermelon seeds and other delectable nuggets in their cornrows (for which we are eternally grateful), but mostly they brought their culture embedded in their music.
African-Americans were given new names, a new language, new instruments and a new religion. They were forced to lose their own culture and adopt the culture of their captors. They were taught to play European style music, but the deep and rich African musical tradition wrapped itself around these melodies in many wonderful ways. More on that later.
64 AD – Rome burned while Nero played his fiddle. That is actually a myth. Nero may have been a mean, tyrannical ruler, who may have been more interested in music than fire prevention, but he never played the fiddle. The violin was invented in the 16th century.
Rome dominated everything from language to the arts. Roman architecture still stands around Europe. Their art and music from this period dominated. The Roman Empire collapsed on itself in 476 AD. Leaving in its place the Roman Catholic Church to dominate the European Continent. Early Music was controlled by the Church of Rome. They did not approve of the non-liturgical song (Secular Music). They also were pretty much the only cats who could write, but even though they tried to make believe that folk music didn’t exist… it thrived. And formed the roots of what would become the folk music of modern Europe.
These were some dark times. We’re talking Europe from the fall of Rome in 476 AD right up until the Renaissance which started around 1400. The Roman Catholic Church remained politically very strong through these Middle Ages. There were basically two genres of music: liturgical and secular. In church, peasants and proper folks listened to Gregorian Chant and sipped wine. At home and in their fields they listened to folk music and guzzled beer.
The Patron Saint of singers, musicians, students, and teachers – Pope Gregory is known for his many great works as a Pope (590-604). Yes, Gregorian Chant carries his moniker.
A quick NOTE about booze: Alcohol was important in the middle ages. Water was rancid. Drink it, you die. Around the Mediterranean, they fermented grapes and found that they could drink as much as they wanted without getting sick. (Well, you know what I mean). The same is true of barley to the North. Beer good, water not so good. A little farther North and East – the potatoes gave us Vodka. (Who says God doesn’t love us.) Drinks that not only insured our survival but gave us a little entertainment value as well. Speaking of entertainment. The more you drank, the better and bawdier you sang. Which brings us to the Troubadours (French – Trouveres). People listened to and were very much aware of both church music and folk music in all cultures across Europe. You will see that this is important as they come back together in America to form Rock n Roll. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to history – and a man all of us in music are very fond of.
1000 AD – Music notation was invented by Guido D’Arezzo. The Benedictine Monk developed the musical staff and a way of identifying and codifying notes and chords that we still use today. Whether it was liturgical or secular, musicians could write it out, share it with others and preserve their creation for all time. Yup, Do, Re, Mi… That was Guido’s invention.
1400 AD – In October 1347 a ship sailed into Europe from the Far East carrying The Black Death. It decimated most of Europe. By some accounts, it killed half the population. By 1400, if you were still alive, things were looking up. In Florence, Italy something special was brewing. We credit the Medici family, but LOTS of people felt the same way. “If we’re going to be alive… Let’s really live.”
In Florence, Italy a family emerged who would dominate the political and social landscape. The Medici family defined what it meant to be a patron of the arts. The Medici This family, and people like them, created an atmosphere in which musical talent and the arts thrived.
“Nobody remembers who played the piano part, but the Composer will be remembered forever.” James Ball, one of my music school professors said that to me. He encouraged me to write. He knew that you need dedication, desire and no fear to create. It helps to have a benefactor. Before the Renaissance, you will see lots of music attributed to “Anonymous”. Thanks to the Medici family and people like them creators got paid to pursue their dreams.
NOTE: Have you ever noticed that orchestra musicians wear tuxedos? Hmmm… just like butlers. The Kings, Dukes, Earls and rich folks were mighty thrifty. After they seated the guests and served the meal, the servants picked up instruments and provided the entertainment.
Instruments – During this awakening or Enlightenment, craftsmanship also developed. Artisans thrived, and with these new talents and materials, they developed a host of instruments to fulfill the dreams of these new composers. As instruments developed and musicians became better at their craft, the composers pushed the art-form. Some more Wiki-wisdom awaits:
1600 – Single note unaccompanied melodies gave way to chordal accompaniment and polyphony. (Harmony- two or more notes played or sung together.) Serious professionals practiced it, taught it and perfected the art, creating memorable masterpieces that survive to this day. And they enjoyed a certain amount of celebrity along the way. During the next era, some real stars were born.
BAROQUE MUSIC (1600-1750)
Music and the people who composed and played it enjoyed a strong period of growth for the next 150 years. Music was refined, defined in universities, royal courts, and churches across Europe. Antonio Vivaldi, Georg Philipp Telemann, Johann Sebastian Bach, and George Friderich Handel wrote for an ever-expanding group of instrumentalists and choirs. And in clearly defined styles. From gigues, gavottes, minuets, and fugues, to large works like Symphonies for grand orchestras, and Concertos featuring breathtaking soloists accompanied by full orchestras. They wrote for church services, royal weddings and funerals, and every conceivable state function. There is a massive catalog of music, most of which is still being performed today. Baroque Music
1700 – Instrumentalists and instrument makers tooled around with the tuning of instruments from the dawn of time. As technique and the desire to create more complex compositions rose, so too the need to create an instrument that could be played in any key. And even modulate to different keys in the same piece. Before Tempered Tuning was invented, instruments were designed to only play in one key! To solve this problem, instrument makers developed a system of cheating the tuning a little at each scale degree to trick the ear into thinking it was in tune with the key you were playing in, and with any subsequent key signature, you would like to play in. If you’re interested, Ed Foote wrote a nice little article on tuning. Here’s the link: TUNING
1722 – Johann Sebastian Bach composed “The Well-Tempered Clavier”. A collection of pieces written in the keys of all 12 scale degrees.
1750 – Bach died, signaling the end of the Baroque Period. J. S. Bach
NOTE – Just about this time in history Tea was introduced to the European continent. Remember all that booze they were drinking (out of necessity). Imagine if you will, a population who consumed all or most of their liquids from the distillery. By the end of the day, they’d be pretty hammered, right? It’s not much of a stretch to assume that the great progress of music and, indeed, the Industrial Revolution owes itself to the introduction of a beverage that actually energizes you.
CLASSICAL PERIOD (1750 – 1820)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Joseph Hayden were three of the big names from this period of music. The Classical Period lasted for 70 years. Everything got bigger and more refined. Notations in the composers’ score began to include dynamic markings to indicate how loud or soft a passage should be played. Individual notes also had articulation makings to indicate the length and breadth of notes and how they should be played within a phrase. (staccato, slurred, etc.) Note that the whole era was not much longer than Rock and Roll music’s current age. Classical Music
ROMANTIC PERIOD (1820 – 1900)
The Romantic Period in music wasn’t really about romance. It was more about esoteric freedom. The composers pushed their music forward freely, with longer, stronger, more chromatic melodies with lush harmonies. Remember, the Industrial Age was in full swing. Instruments were being manufactured better. They were louder and easier to play. The music reflected this.
It was during this period that Niccolo Paganini emerged as one of the greatest virtuoso instrumentalists of all time. Check this dude out. They called him the Devil’s violinist. The world’s first shredder. Paganini
By the end of the Romantic Period, many of its greatest composers were celebrating nationalistic pride with huge orchestral works. Tchaikovsky and Wagner come to mind. And there were the very popular Strauss waltzes and spectacular operas by Puccini and Verdi.
Meanwhile, in America, Blues and Gospel music was beginning to develop alongside of a growing interest in popular songs destined to become folk music classics. Songs from the Civil War like “Dixie” and “Camptown Races.” More on that later.
Paris ruled the art world at the turn of the century. The great Impressionists, Monet, and Renoir had already established a new style, and Van Gogh had already severed his ear. Debussy and Ravel set the musical standard. It was a sweet sound, with big open whole tones. It sounded as ethereal and pastoral as music had ever been.
Then just before the outbreak of World War I Igor Stravinsky pushed orchestras and their listeners to the breaking point. At the premiere of his “The Rite of Spring,” the dissonances in the score and wild syncopations sent the audience to the brink of a riot. By mid-century, the first great American composer, Aaron Copeland created a distinctly American sound, wide open and genuine. In South America, Hector Villa-Lobos wrote in the distinctive style of his native Brazil.
Contrast all of those very different styles with a dude named Anton Webern. He REALLY pushed the envelope. Was it math? Scientific exploration? Could it have had any inspiration? No doubt, the man was brilliant. He expanded the musical vocabulary to include all twelve notes of the scale, by including all twelve pitches in his melodic statements. He also spread the melody around the orchestra. The technique was called Klangfarbenmelodie.
Klangfarbenmelodie, in the hands of the masters and learned listeners this new music was challenging, even exhilarating. To the average listener, it was cacophony. The music could be described as controlled chaos, or worse, random acts of melodious calamity. Why not just throw out any thought of melody and harmony and reach for all the gusto? Which of course is what ensued. The Avant-garde movement stretched the boundaries of notation and sonic energy. Experimental composers like John Cage and Terry Riley used instruments in new ways and pushed performers to expand their musical vocabulary to include improvisation and graphic notation.
The search for new classical music continues. It can be varied and as exciting as ever, with many of today’s classical artists on a quest to reach for new music as they continue to celebrate the masters of the past.
1878 – Thomas Edison invented phonograph recording. Edison
Until the 20th-century music was only heard live and in person. But, that all started to change in 1878 when Thomas Edison made his first recording. Listen to it here:
1896 – Guglielmo Marconi patented the first radio. Marconi
Although radio waves were invented in the 19th century, its development evolved over time, with the help of many brilliant inventors and dynamic companies. It wasn’t until the 1920s that music began to be broadcast on radio stations springing up across America and around the world. History of Broadcasting
Not necessarily a technological advancement, but very important, the establishment of ASCAP and BMI ensured that the creators of music would get paid for their intellectual property. These performing rights organizations, as well as SESAC, administer performance royalties. Whether performed live, or played on the radio, TV, on the internet, or any other medium, these organizations collect fees and distribute income based on their tracking of performances.
Let’s not forget electricity. From PA systems to lighting, amplifying, and creating brand new instruments, without electricity, Pop music would not have spread so fast. Speaking of which…
What is Pop anyway?
“Popular song hits come from everywhere imaginable.”
Traditional Folk Music arrived in America on a boat. The cultural stewpot of America blessed this land with uniquely geographic styles of music. Indeed, European classical music was taught and learned by the landed gentry. But the “folks” were listening to and creating, their own brand of traditional music as well. It was borrowed from Europe to be sure, but as civilization spread across the American continent, the music of the people began to reflect the mix of its storied citizens. Every region celebrated its own brand of cultural song. Here are some examples: Traditional Folk Songs
Jigs and Shanty songs of the British Isles were played on instruments brought from the old country and sung by the new citizens of the new world. American folk music developed from these root songs into a broad spectrum of styles: Bluegrass and Old Time Music, Gospel, and Appalachian Folk. All of these were the predecessors of the Country and Western genre, today’s Country Music.
Traditional Blues arrived by boat as well. The slave trade brought Africans to America along with their rich tradition of rhythmic chants and songs of celebration and communication. The African scale with its five notes was embellished with pitch bends, not heard in European music. The call and response format and long melismatic phrasing can be traced directly to Traditional African music. A melismatic phrase is a one syllable musical sentence. The singer will sustain a word with a long, improvised series of notes. Origins of the Blues
1901 – The earliest record of the Blues form was discovered by an archaeologist in Mississippi.
A VERY SHORT AND EXCELLENT HISTORY OF THE BLUES:
The Gospel Tradition of the American South owes its style to a distinctly American cultural mix of white Protestants and African Americans. Although the two groups were segregated, they lived, worked and prayed within earshot of each other. The Southern Christian owners taught their slaves Christian Hymns. Black Church musicians and singers expounded on these hymns and performed them with fervor, and in a style to which they were accustomed. Gospel Music
Dixieland and Ragtime gave birth to American Jazz. Although Jazz musicians have had a profound effect on the world of Rock and Roll, as an art form, Jazz has remained pure and unto itself. Its direct influence on early Rock and Roll is evidenced most in the Swing and Be Bop groups of the 1940s. Its purveyors and enthusiasts had a profound effect on American Pop music. Jazz
ORIGINS OF POP
Opera – Take a great melody, tell an engaging story of tragic proportions, add a handsome lad in a tight suit and sprinkle in some well-coiffed ladies of questionable repute and what do you get? That’s easy. Country Music! Just kidding. Hey, they don’t call it the Grand Ole Opry for nothin’.
Blame it on the Italians. They created the first superstars, the Divas and the paparazzi that followed them. They invented the art form way back in the 16th century, but every Western culture had their favorites. Although the styles varied slightly, the ingredients were all the same: drama set to strong melodies, performed by dynamic, romantic singers, dressed in grand style, set upon festive stages, backed by outstanding musicians in grand orchestras. They truly invented the popular song. Every Italian knows every word to every aria in every opera. That’s “popular” defined.
For more information: Opera
The dawn of the 20th century was the golden age of opera. Wagner in Germany and Verdi in Italy refined the artform while Puccini lifted it to frenzied proportions. The great tenor, Enrico Caruso was, in his day, every bit the superstar that Elvis was in his. Do you want to hear a dude sing? Check this out:
America’s Opera – American music can easily be traced to its English roots. The Puritan’s Hymns, the sailor’s sea shanties and lyrical limericks, along with Irish jigs arrived along with our early settlers. The popularity of Gilbert and Sullivan operas was not lost on the American audience either. Opera Houses sprang up all over America, and Americans flocked to see these productions. Entertainment would also include drama and variety shows. By combining drama interspersed with songs- Musical Theater would soon dominate Broadway and eventually the movies.
Vaudeville – From the 1880s to the 1930s entertainment was centered on the Opera House. Most towns had one and people from far and wide would flock to town to be dazzled. The entertainment would arrive on the train. Every conceivable act: dancer, singer, acrobat, comedian, and orator would ply their trade from town to town. Singers and musicians would perform hits of the day. It was part burlesque and part circus. It could be as bawdy as it was patriotic. The early stars of Radio (and pop music) learned their trade one show at a time. By the time LIVE TV came along, they were polished, professional and ready to go. Vaudeville
Minstrel Shows – Nobody likes to talk about Minstrel Shows, and with good reason. Early in the 19th century, white comedians would paint their faces black, assume an exaggerated Southern Negro accent and portray blacks as lazy, ignorant, happy go lucky, singing and dancing fools. The first full Minstrel Show, with the entire cast and all the musicians in blackface, is attributed to Dan Emmett’s Virginia Minstrels on January 31st, 1843 at the Chatham Theater in New York City. Dan Emmett is attributed with writing one of America’s first big hits, “Dixie.” Soon after, the Christy Minstrels refined the Minstrel Show artform by toning down the low humor and focusing on the more song and dance aspects of the show. Their composer (under contract) was none other than the father of American song, Stephen Foster. It was from the Minstrel stage that the first truly American Pop songs were performed. For this reason, they deserve mention in the search for the roots of Rock and Roll.
For more information: Minstrel Shows
Tin Pan Alley – The surest way to determine what is the most popular music is to look at the sales figures. Before records and radio play, sheet music sales measured the success of a song. Music Publishers, aware of the economic impact of a popular song, hired the best songwriters to churn out potential hits. At the turn of the 20th century, virtually every music publisher was centered in New York City. Particularly in an area called Tin Pan Alley. (Tin Pan Alley was the block on West 28th St. between Fifth and Sixth Avenue.) Never in history had so many great songwriters congregated in one place to ply their trade. Vaudeville entertainers, Broadway performers, musicians and song pluggers streamed in and out of this district.
The district spawned the likes of Scott Joplin, the King of ragtime, and George M. Cohan, the toast of Broadway. Irving Berlin began his career there and lived in Manhattan until his death in 1989. George Gershwin got his start writing tunes for a publisher, and would eventually crossover into the symphonic world. And Hoagy Carmichael placed many a song into the American song book from his piano in the neighborhood. Even Cole Porter’s roots are traced to this hotbed of inspiration and talent. And each of these composers was influenced by the spread of American jazz across the land. The early Rock and Roll songwriters were born into this tradition. Tin Pan Alley
American Pop – Before phonograph recording, sheet music sales would indicate what songs were the most popular. From 1897 to 1918 Ragtime was king. George M Cohan’s “Give My Regards to Broadway” was a monster, as was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”. By the 1920s, American Jazz was the rage. And out of this revolution sprang the Big Bands. The Saturday night dance party was a staple in every American city and town. The barn dance, the cotillion, the ball, all called for musicians to provide the beat and the tune. The first Pop Stars cut their teeth as band singers.
It wasn’t until 1926 that the term Pop Music was used. Tracking of what was top of the pops didn’t start until the 1940s. There were three charts: record sales, Jockey plays, and jukebox plays. Then in the 1950s Billboard Magazine started tracking all sales and play categories in it pages. The Hot 100 would count, catalog, and codify the Pop Songs of the day. Only one song at a time can be the Number ONE hit in the land based on sales. And since 1940, Billboard has kept very close tabs. Check out this list: Top Hits thru the years
Pop Singers 1930 – By the 1930s radio had invaded enough homes to change the face of popular music forever. Until then, an artist would spend their entire life traveling from town to town to spread their fame and garner their fortune. With radio airplay, a song and its singer could vault to the top of popularity in one week’s time. One of the first super star singers was Bing Crosby. There were many popular singers of the day, and they came from the world of Jazz (Billie Holiday), Broadway (Kate Smith), the movies (Fred Astaire) and the bandstand (Guy Lombardo). It was a magical time. Hits of the 1930s
Pop Singers 1940 – Arguably the biggest pop singer of them all was Frank Sinatra. He was the featured vocalist with Harry James and then signed with Tommy Dorsey in January of 1940. He left the Dorsey band to pursue his solo career. He was the first singing teen idol, and the first to reveal a whole new audience for popular music. The girls would line up in droves to hear him croon. They were called Bobby Soxers. Dances were often held in school gyms. The kids weren’t allowed to walk on the gym floor with their street shoes, so they danced in their sox. The adulation… and the record sales were a sign of things to come.
Who invented Rock n Roll?
We know who coined the phrase to describe this music. Allan Freed. And we’re pretty sure we know who recorded its first rumblings. Sam Phillips. But, just who invented this music that shook the world? Clearly, no one person or group invented Rock and Roll Music. It evolved over time. Here are some historically significant events that led to the emergence of Rock and Roll; the artists and personalities who lived in the culture and created the atmosphere surrounding the birth of a distinctly American art form. This is the stage onto which Rock and Roll burst.
The Nominees for the first Rock n Roll recording ever are:
Roy Brown recorded his song “Good Rockin’ Tonight”. Probably the first recorded “Rockin'” reference, but let’s be honest, he was swinging not rocking.
Wynonie Harris recorded an easy boogie version of “Good Rockin’ Tonight”.
Jackie Brenston “Rocket 88” is credited to lots of folks. Ike Turner (Yes, that Ike Turner. Tina’s Ex.) had a major hand in this song, which he arranged. It was a take-off on a song called “Cadillac Boogie” earlier that year. There was also a similar sounding “Rocket 88 Boogie.” But, the 1951 Bill Haley recording probably was the most memorable.
Bill Haley and the Comets “Rock Around the Clock” is the first widely acclaimed Rock and Roll record. (Yes, it took a long seven years before the greater American public became aware of Rock ’n’ Roll.) His cover of the Sonny Dae and the Knights song benefited from its inclusion in the film “Blackboard Jungle”. From this point on Rock and Roll was here to stay.
Elvis Presley listened to these early recordings and added his own intensity to Arthur Crudup’s song “That’s Alright Mama”. The B side of that single was a cover of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Elvis never considered himself the first Rock and Roller. He readily admitted to listening to and trying to copy the black singers he’d heard as he was growing up.
“Rock and Roll” as a term can be traced back to Gospel music. As early as 1916 “Rocking and Rolling in the Arms of Moses” appeared in a song. Over the years Rocking and Rolling crossed over into dancing, partying, loving, and hot and sweaty human behavior. It eventually became slang (code words) for making passionate love. Make no mistake, jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton wasn’t fat. He was a lady’s man, known for his “rollin'”. Probably the earliest recorded proof of the words “Rock n Roll” in a song were recorded in 1922 by blues singer Trixie Smith. “My Daddy Rocks Me” (with one steady roll) blatantly recounts an around the clock lovemaking session.