“If you want to release your aggression, get up and dance. That's what rock and roll is all about.”
Development of Rock and Roll – part 1 – 1922-1939
Link to the part one playlist at the bottom of this post.
I have one question for all of you. I’d like to hear you speak your piece about ANYTHING that comes to mind as we go through this project and listen to some great old music along the way, but there is one question.
It is to be applied to each song as you listen. Answer for me, if you would, “Is this song rock and roll?”
The best part of that is that we might just have different answers along the way! Now, when it comes to THIS list, part one, I doubt many, if any songs could be called “rock and roll”, but damn, a couple of them come close in here, and I want to know from YOU! The first time you hear a song in these lists that causes you to think “This one. This is rock and roll.” Let me know it! Let me know what about it that makes you feel that spirit!
I suppose the first thing I should mention is that the term ‘rock and roll’, coupled together, had been popping up in songs since … the 16th century maybe? Sailors sang work songs and used the terms in conjunction with each other to describe the movements of the sea, the waves, and the ship. The term began to pop up in old publications of sailing songs, and had nothing to do with the form of music now described as rock and roll.
About five minutes later, the sailors began using it as a euphemism for sex.
You might see it pop up a bit in nursery songs describing to movements of the cradle or a rocking chair, but the only connections to the sailors’ second meaning might just be that a baby resulted.
But slowly, as a term for sex outside of the world of sailing, it was adopted by African Americans as a euphemism for sex, and that has been as least a portion of the meaning up to today. But also, it was just as quickly adopted to describe the collective experience of faith. The sheer release, elation, and heartfelt emotion that only comes when singing in the context of faith. “Rocking” was just as much about experiencing the spirit as much as dancing or singing, and in some of these old recordings it rings from the rafters.
By 1917, the young recording industry released what some experts believe was the first jazz record. By that time, Ragtime had been a crazy, and jazz had already developed into a sensation. And for a few years, that’s what was produced. Classical records, a few novelty records, and jazz. Anything else wasn’t worth recording, and the records wouldn’t sell enough to justify the cost. It was a risk that the backers of a new technology weren’t willing to take. But that changed in a big way.
After the first world war, radio became a viable option. They were becoming affordable to the public, the technology was becoming solid, and there were starting to be radio stations all over.
A poor family could buy some instruments. But that means you had to invest a lot of time learning hoe to play and HOPE you had just a bit of talent. You could buy a phonograph! But, then you’d have to by a bunch of records. New ones all of the time, in fact.
Or, you could by a radio! Okay, maybe you couldn’t choose the music at any given moment, but you could hear just about anything … anything that was ‘safe’ to broadcast.
But this sudden competition scared the young record companies and they SEARCHED for new markets. Blues, folk, and what would one day be called country and western was being recorded for the first time, and people bought it! What’s more, with now music being recorded from different places around the company, audiences had greater chances of hearing sounds they might not have ever imagined. It changed the world of music forever.
My Man Rocks Me – Trixie Smith – 1922
This is perhaps the earliest secular song, divorced from any connection to sailing, that mentions “rock” and “roll”. It’s about the sex. What’s more, it’s about doing it around the clock. For Trixie’s part, she sounds a mix of satisfied and a bit tired from the experience.
Way Down in Egypt Land – Biddleville Quintet – 1926
This is that gospel I was talking about. Call and response style. But this is the bit I want you to focus on. The clapping on this up-tempo number. The tune starts at a moderate tempo, but about 30 seconds in they pick up the beat and the hand clapping starts. But it’s back beat! This is not the rhythm of jazz, or tin pan alley, this is the rhythm of the church, the rhythm of the meeting house, the rhythm of the tent revival. And this beat will stay in churches for some time to come, but this is the energy and back beat of rock and roll. And it starts in the churches! The rhythm of the devil’s music starts in church.
Kansas City Blues – Jim Jackson – Oct. 10, 1927
Okay, I’m going to be honest. There’s not much here in terms of rhythm, beat, title or lyric themes to mine as a progenitor of rock and roll. This is a moderate tempo blues in a slow swing rhythm. What’s more, I’m a pretty big fan of blues from this era and I find this tune somewhat unremarkable. But there’s something. Listen to the melody. Picture the melody sped up, transformed, and delivered with energy. Venture a guess? Comment on it! If not, I’ll Reveal it in some future part, But there’s a pretty direct linage already at work here.
If I Had My Way I’d Tear the Building Down – Blind Willie Johnson – Dec 3, 1927
Shame on you if you don’t already know who Blind Willie Johnson is! He also on those golden Voyager discs (for a different song). Plus, these days, any sepia-saturated horror film set in the deep south seems to include his records in the soundtrack. I’ve heard his tunes pop up in the Devil’s Rejects, Skeleton Key, and even an episode of The Walking Dead. If I had my way … I’d write in depth about the life and times of some of these musicians. Or maybe you recognize the song from someone covering it like the Grateful Dead. Oh, hey! The song! Yes, let’s talk about it!
Johnson was a street preacher. One of those fire and brimstone sorts too. Here he’s relating the story of Samson and Delilah. He starts big. He starts with the chorus, shouting like he’s swallowed a pack of 60 grit sandpaper. He delivers the story in unequal verses in an almost ‘talking blues’ fashion. But to me, this song rocks! There is a relentless energy to it, and musically, the guitar is pounding out straight eighth notes in a driving rhythm, and the figure is straight out of any beginner’s guitar book teaching how to play a ‘Chuck Berry” type of rhythmic figure.
Honky Tonk Train Blues – Meade “Lux” Lewis – 1927 (released 1929)
If you want to trace stylistic rhythmic changes in music, you follow piano. Ragtime, with its syncopated bass and championed by Scott Joplin gives way to stride with its syncopated Melody, closer rhythmic chords, and Fats Waller, and then boogie woogie which would dominate the 30s and first half of the 40s. This is caught somewhere between late stride and the first boogie woogie. The guy is a monster player, but rock doesn’t owe too much to this directly. But if you’re really listening to the wilder parts, he’s shifting that rhythm in and out of swing and straight eighths. He’s playing a few polyrhythmic figures of twos over threes, and changing it up while keeping the beat consistent.
Crazy About My Baby – Blind Roosevelt Graves – 1929
This is an easy going blues tune, and considered the first guitar boogie. It’s hard not to smile as he’s singing “I’m crazy ‘bout my pumpkin”. Now this isn’t a very rocked up number, but what it is, is a small combo arrangement of guitar, tambourine, piano, and trumpet (maybe a bass? Someone help me on that) playing a fully realized rhythmic figure, but without a whole horn section. This is stripped down, and the guitar licks will find there way into rock and roll for the next three decades and beyond.
As a side note, since I had started this project, my long-suffering wife Joy has sat through an endless stream of plantation pounders, twangy voiced hillbillies with guitars, and piano players who sound like there about to bust the keys off. But for whatever the reason, when I had this tune one, she was lightly bopping to it in an easy going way while killing things in her video game. I think that’s a pretty strong testament.
Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie – Pine Top Smith – Dec 28, 1928 (released March 1, 1929)
This is literally the song that coined the term “boogie woogie”. It became a standard all on its own, covered by many musicians. Boogie in one of the key genres that directly develop into rock and roll, but when you listen to this song, it should STRONGLY remind you of Ray Charles’ “Mess Around” or Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”.
Good LordRun (Old Jeremiah) – Austin Coleman and group – 1934
At the top of this post I talked about how everything changed once radio came along and record companies reached out for more audiences. Our government tends to ignore the arts as hard as it possible can, and ignore the doings of average people even harder. But some intelligent human beings at the Library pf Congress recognized that the sheer beauty and diversity of various American folk music would amalgamate and disappear. In 1928 they began collecting material, and what’s more, sent out people to record material in the field as they found it. This was a remarkable endeavor and we are FORTUNATE to hear sounds that existed, shaped the lives of our people, and otherwise might have been lost.
This is a field recording made in a church in 1934.
This is that release of energy found in the church at the time. The singer, in his ecstasy, literally sings “I’m gonna rock! You gonna rock!” They are pounding out a straight eighth rhythm at a frenzied pace, and every single hand clap, as it comes and goes naturally, is on the back beat!
Rock It For Me – Ella Fitzgerald and the Chick Webb Orchestra – 1937 (released 1938)
This song is not a rock and roll song. Let’s be straight from the top, it’s a smooth walking tempo swing tune.
But it’s not the music, it’s the lyrics! Twin sisters Kay and Sue Werner, born in Oct. 1918, likely weren’t even nineteen years old when they penned these lyrics.
This song is a bit of a novelty song, and it went to number 19 on the charts. But here the thing, the lyrics are CLEAR. She’s not singing about sex, nor is she singing about music that ‘rocks’, she’s singing about music CALLED rock and roll, and how it’s the latest crazy. For this song to chart means that the audience already understands what she’s singing about. She’s not inventing a term, she’s calling out to those who already love rock and roll. Again, this is recorded in 1937.
In 1937, if you missed the bridge especially, Ella sings:
“It's true that once upon a time
The opera was the thing
But today the rage is rhythm and rhyme
So won't you satisfy my soul with the rock and roll?”
She goes on to describe its effects:
“You can't be tame while the band is playin'
It ain't no shame to keep your body swayin'
They beat it out in the minor key
Oh, rock it for me”
If you missed this, to listen to the lyrics again and remember she’s singing something to fans that they automatically understand and connect with!
July 21, 1938 Metronome magazine reviews a Harry James song: “Lullaby in Rhythm really rocks”
1939 The Musician magazine reviews a performance of Bing Crosby with the Andrews Sisters, and of their performance of Ciribirbin and Yodelin’ Jive the reviewer says “Rock and roll with unleashed enthusiasm tempered with strict time.”
Sing Sing Sing! – Benny Goodman – 1937 (released 1938)
This song first recorded by Louis Prima was covered by Benny Goodman at a live performance in 1938, and they recorded the performance of this song. Frankly, I think it blows the LID off the joint!
But I don’t think it’s rock and roll per se.
I have this song on this list because there is a MONSTER behind the drum kit and that monster is Gene Krupa.
The dynamics, the complexities, and most of all that relentless beat.
Every serious rock and roll drummer will go on to study Gene Krupa and this song especially. Maybe no one else will agree, but even if the beat and rhythm aren’t rock and roll, this still sounds like the birth of rock and roll drumming!
Rock Me – Sister Rosetta Tharpe – 1938
This is Sister Rosetta Tharpe. In retrospect, now bestowed titles like “The Godmother of Rock and Roll”
She’s a gospel singer. Pretty much all of her material is praising the lord and feeling the spirit. But there is a key difference that made her controversial in religious circles of her own time.
She’s singing it in the style of the devil’s music.
This is one of her earliest singles, and it’s a smoother jazz tempo, but she’s playing those guitar chops with an aggression that you find in rock and roll. And her voice! Her voice is COMMANDING! It is a BIG voice.
We WILL be returning to Sister Rosetta Tharpe in part two. In the meantime, I spoke in the prologue about ‘style’, and I sure should have cited Cab Calloway by now, but instead, we’re starting with Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I didn’t have any contemporary footage, so in the comments I’m posting a photo of her, but if you look at ANY photo, and at her later footage from the 60s blues revival, she owns a stage and approaches her guitar solos with the iconic “stink face”. I love her so damn much.
Ida Red – Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – Nov 29, 1938 (released Sept 1938)
Up until the 40s, what we call “country” music was called “hillbilly” and not in a derogatory way. This isn’t “country” though, and it isn’t “hillbilly”. This was at the time a separate related genre called “western”, and rather than derived from Appalachian fiddle tunes, it’s derived from the hoedowns and the cattlemen songs.
This is not rock and roll. But what it is, is a strong two-beat and a vocal delivery that is going to start to sound real familiar down the road if it doesn’t already.
In the 40s, western music will fuse with swing to create ‘western swing’. It has all of the big band sensibilities, but with fiddles and steel guitars. What’s more, Bob Wills will push the genre further into rockabilly. I’ve looked ahead on my list and haven’t included him in a future part. I may need to sit down and rethink my life on that point. Maybe I’ll pull up a tune and have it make the lists!
Roll ‘em Pete – Joe Turner and Pete Johnson – Dec 30, 1938 (released 1939)
This is boogie with persistent straight eighths. Some experts insist rock and roll starts right here. I’m not quite there. I want the back beat to be more pronounced, and I want some drums at least. But damn, I can be swayed, this is so damn good.
So that’s part one, and I think there is a lot to talk about
already. If you’re not hearing at least WHISPERS of rock and roll in these, I
ask you to listen again with my notes on each song in mind. There’s already a
number of key elements, they’re starting to gel, and if recorded music isn’t
quite yet what we’d call ‘rock and roll’, then it was still in the clubs as
Ella Fitzgerald points out.
I already can’t wait to get to parts 2 and 3, there’s some astonishing shifts ahead!