Monday, December 27, 2010

The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below, I describe the rise of rock music in the 1950s.

Horror comics may not have survived the early 1950s, but the Baby Boom audience that read these publications would serve as the fans for one of the most durable creations of the decade: rock ’n’ roll. The ultimate origins of rock music can be found in the ring shouts of West Africa. A form of praying, singing, and dancing performed as participants stood in a circle, ring shouts broke out during weddings, funerals and other religious rituals throughout West and Central Africa, the ancestral homeland of most African Americans. According to historian of African American culture Sterling Stuckey, these ceremonies served as a "a means of achieving union with God.”

Music critic Robert Palmer describes the music brought from Africa to North America as sharing many traits with later rock music. “It was participatory; often a song leader would be pitted against an answering chorus, or a solo instrument against an ensemble, in call-and-response fashion,” Palmer said. “It sometimes attained remarkable polyrhythmic complexity and always had a kind of percussive directionality or rhythmic drive.”

Over the 200-plus years of American slavery, African music forms blended with European folk melodies and structure as the inspiration for work songs used by blacks to keep time, raise spirits and make moral comment on their slave masters as they worked in the fields. Slave songs also led to black gospel music while the West African call-and-response style formed the structure of both jazz and blues songs composed by black artists in the early 20th century along the Mississippi River from Chicago to Memphis to New Orleans. Another source for rock music came from the boogie style of piano-playing inspired by the hectic pace of life in African American urban neighborhoods. With the structure of a blues band centered on a lead singer backed by the guitar, drums, bass and piano in various combinations, the way was paved for the rise of rock music.

The basic form of the rock song was in place when the folklorists John and Alan Lomax recorded a black gospel group performing music in Mississippi in 1934 that, with its steady drumbeat, blues-styles melodies and singing rhythms, evoked the slave past while anticipating the future of American popular music. Singing in a style called “rocking and reeling” that incorporated drums, guitars and horns then prevalent in many Southern African American Pentecostal churches, the band performed the song “Run Old Jeremiah,” which the Lomaxes recorded for the Library of Congress. The lead vocalist blurted in a gravelly voice:

O my Lord
O my Lordy
Well, well, well
I gotta rock
you gotta rock
Wah wah ho
Wah wah wah ho

The hand-clapping beat and nonsense syllables would become hallmarks of 1950s rock music. As the music evolved, a new invention – the electric guitar – entered the sound mix. By 1940, pioneer blues artists like T-Bone Walker regularly played electric guitar riffs as part of stage performances. If rock primarily derived from African heritage, however, rural Southern white and black musicians fed off of and challenged each other, with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys playing white backwoods country and western music blended with urban African American blues and the sophisticated big band sounds from the East Coast to create a new genre called western swing music.

Such musical blending became easier with the development of sound recording in the late 19th and early twentieth century and the wider distribution of music records, in the bulky form of 78 rpm “records” by mid-century. The creators of rock ’n’ roll could carry on a musical dialogue over a much vaster geographic space than previously imaginable, adding greatly to the emerging rock genre’s range of expression. As radio formats changed from comedy and drama programming to music, white children in the late 1940s and early 1950s saw a chance to rebel and experience greater sexual expression as they danced to “race records” – blues songs recorded by black performers like Big Mamma Thornton and Fats Domino.

Memphis became an incubator for rock music by the early 1950s. Guitar masters like B.B. King stretched the boundaries of urban blues even as record producer Sam Phillips assembled a stable of artists that would dominate American youth music for the next decade beginning with the self-named Phillips Records, which opened for business in 1950, and then at Sun Records starting in 1952. Over the years, Phillips would polish raw talents like Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash at tiny studios, launching them into national stardom.

Phillips acted as B.B. King’s producer and in 1951 worked with musician Ike Turner on a recording of “Rocket 88,” a number in praise of the American automobile and highlighted by a fuzzy, highly amplified electric guitar playing to a boogie rhythm. The lyrics and the arrangement have led many music historians to label “Rocket 88” as the first rock ’n’ roll single. “Rocket 88” would soon also be recorded by Bill Haley and the Comets. Haley later released the hit “Rock Around the Clock,” a top-seller featured on the sound track of the juvenile delinquency-themed movie The Blackboard Jungle.

Haley would be one of many white artists who made hit versions of songs originally written and performed by black musicians and composers. Most African American performers remained uncompensated when white singers recorded hits based on their songs. Nevertheless, the rapid rise of rock music opened the door for black performers like Fats Domino, Little Richard and Chuck Berry to win an army of young white fans and to reach an even larger audience through variety programs like The Ed Sullivan Show. No black or white artist, however, matched the popularity or fame of Elvis Aron Presley, born to a dirt-poor Tupelo, Mississippi, family in 1935.

Presley spent his childhood listening to gospel music at his parents’ First Assembly of God Church. “Since I was two years old, all I knew was gospel music; that was music to me,” Presley later recalled. “We borrowed the style of our psalm singing from the early Negroes. We used to go to these religious singings all the time. The preachers cut up all over the place, jumping on the piano, moving every which way . . . I loved the music. It became such a part of my life it was as natural as dancing . . . a way to escape from the problems and my way of release.”

Sam Phillips would produce and engineer a custom-made record for anyone who came into his studio for $2 a side. In 1954, Elvis Presley appeared at the studio to record a pair of songs for his mother. Presley lobbied Phillips to record him for a professional release and the collaboration produced a single of the old blues number, “That’s All Right.” Phillips delivered a tape of the session to a Memphis radio station where a friendly disc jockey played the song six times in a row to an enthusiastic listening audience. By the time the record was finally released, there was a back order of 5,000 copies in the Memphis area, before the recording reached number one on the city’s country and western sales charts. By mid-1955, Presley enjoyed his first national country and western hit.

Signed by the flamboyant agent “Colonel” Tom Parker, who would over the years cheat his protégé out of millions of dollars, Presley would become the first rock ’n’ roll superstar. He recorded a remarkable string of number one hits such as “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” and “Jailhouse Rock.” Presley’s curling upper lip, untamed bangs and erotically charged dance moves led teenage girls in his audience to scream and weep. His openly sexual approach to music stirred controversy and attracted gigantic audiences when he appeared on the Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan television shows. Parents worried that Presley’s music would inspire sexual promiscuity among excited teenage girls. Alarmed by the clear influence of black music on white performers like Presley and other rock stars, the secretary of the North Alabama White Citizens Council warned in a 1956 television message that “Rock and roll is a means of pulling the white man down to the level of the Negro. It is part of a plot to undermine the morals of the youth of our nation.”

In 1950s, adults also perceived rock ’n’ roll as “children’s music,” as comedian Tom Lehrer put it. Newspapers and magazines disparaged youth culture and paid it scant attention. When an airplane crash in 1959 killed rock stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, famous as the “Big Bopper,” many newspapers ran the story on inside pages. But rock ’n’ roll would be influenced by politically oriented folk-music recorded by singer-songwriter Bob Dylan and others in the early 1960s, and would exercise a profound effect on the adult politics of war and civil rights in the coming decade. Young whites who eagerly bought rock records featuring songs written by or first performed by black musicians or released by black artists themselves developed an appreciation for African American culture that deeply influenced the attitudes of the Sixties generation.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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