What Was the First Rock 'n' Roll Song?

Released: 11/18/2010 11:55 AM EST
Source Newsroom: Southeastern Louisiana University
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Newswise — Ask 12 people what was the first rock ‘n’ roll song and you’re likely to get a dozen different answers.

Southeastern Louisiana University Professor of Communication and rock historian Joseph Burns says he has wondered about this for some time, but there are no absolute answers.

He said the first rock ‘n’ roll song should be music that draws heavily from blues and country in a danceable, hit form. There should be hints of jazz, gospel, or folk influence, as well as technological influence.

“It’s a lot to ask of one song,” he said. “Few fit the bill.”

Candidates considered for the honor include “How High the Moon” by Les Paul and Mary Ford; “The Honey Dripper” by Joe Liggens; “Boogie Chllen’” by John Lee Hooker; “Saturday Night Fish Fry” by Louis Jordan; “The Fat Man” by Fats Domino; “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets; and “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats.

“An argument can be made for and against every song mentioned, but there’s one that fits better than all of those noted: ‘That’s All Right Mama,’ by Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup,” said Burns, who hosts the weekly program “Rock School” on Southeastern’s KSLU 90.9 FM radio station.

He said the song came out in September 1946 as a great rockabilly piece with blues melody line over top. “It’s sung with power, may contain the first guitar solo break, and, as a remake, became one of Elvis’ first singles,” he added.

Burns says the origin of the term “rock ‘n’ roll,” is pretty straightforward.

“It started as a nautical phrase meaning the movement of the boat up and down and back and forth,” he said. “Sometime in the late 1800s to early 1900s, gospel and jubilee music co-opted the term and used it to mean being rocked and rolled in the arms of the Lord. In fact, the first recorded use of the term in a song was ‘Camp Meeting Jubilee’ in 1916.”

Sometime between that recording and the early 20s, according to Burns, the term “rock ‘n’ roll” started to leave the church and began to be used in blues and vaudeville music as a euphemism for sex. He cites as examples Trixie Smith’s “My Man Rocks Me with One Steady Roll” in 1922, “Rock That Think” by Lil’ Johnson and “Rock Me Mama” by Banjo Ikey Robinson.

Burns said blues wasn’t the only music using the term then, citing big band greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Benny Goodman who used it in their music, as well as famous gospel singers like Sister Rosetta Tharp, who sang re-written lyrics to popular church songs so the phrase could be included.

“Even country artists were using the term in a new form of music that sounded like an early form of rockabilly,” he said. “Buddy Jones was an early popular singer in the genre with his song “Rockin’ Rollin’ Mama.”

Burns explained that using the term alone isn’t enough to give a song the title of being the first rock ‘n’ roll record.

“Too often rock ‘n’ roll is described as the coming together of blues and country, but that’s too simplistic,” he said. “Rock ‘n’ roll is a much more complex music that draws from six forms of music, three dominant and three sub-dominants.”

He lists the dominant forms of music as blues for the basic chord progressions, country for stringed instruments becoming dominant and major melody lines and what was then termed “white pop” and “tin pan alley” style music for the concept of dance and hit song writing. The sub-dominant forms of music, Burns said, are jazz for a boogie-woogie beat, gospel for the vocal influence and folk for the influence of social concern.

One additional technological element aided rock ‘n’ roll’s rise, and that was the 45-rpm record.

“RCA Victor put out the 45-record just as television was taking all the major networks’ attention away from radio; that made the radio business local rather than national network-fed,” he explained. “That forced the radio business to rely on records – mainly the 45 – for the music they played. The 45 was cheap and plentiful, and the music that was poised to break, just as the technology broke, was rock ‘n’ roll.”

So how did the term rock ‘n’ roll become associated with the music? Burns said it was probably the influence of radio, but one disc jockey in particular – Alan Freed.

“Freed was the Moondoogie on WJW in Cleveland, Ohio and the host of the Rock and Roll Show on WINS in New York City,” he said. “He was so massively popular through radio, television, movies and records, that he led the way for rock ‘n’ roll to become a legitimate music form recognized by the music industry and not just another short-lived genre.”

Available online at www.selu.edu/news_media/news_releases


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