The true origins of rock’n’roll
When most people hear rock ‘n’ roll, they think of Elvis Presley in his star jumpsuit, but they usually don’t think of generations of black musicians, like Little Richard Where Domino greases, who laid the foundations for rock music.
Alexis Davis-Hazell, assistant professor of voice and lyrical diction, who is black, said it’s impossible to talk about American music without talking about the African-American tradition that characterizes it.
âThey are woven. We can’t talk about one without the other. It’s a fundamental part and it’s part of what makes American music unique from other national music, âsaid Davis-Hazell.
Rock’n’roll is a genre that comes almost entirely from black musical genres such as bluegrass, R&B, gospel and jazz. Like many things, it has been whitewashed by the pages of history books, radio, and movies.
The dominant American music culture is closely linked to racism and segregation.
According to Oakland Public Library, black music genres date back to the days of slavery, when slaves sang to each other to pass messages and share their life stories.
As Christianity entered slave culture in the United States, the hymns they sang would eventually be called spirituals, which would later become gospel music. This became the foundation of the blues, a genre of music that expressed the disappointment of the black community at the lack of freedoms and rights inherent in a post-slavery society, Jim Crow.
Eric Weisbard, professor of American studies, said that the international craze for American music – most notably, rock ‘n’ roll – began with minstrel performances, the theatrical act of white actors performing in blackface.
âThe phrase ‘Jim Crow’ comes from the beginning of the blackface minstrel in the 1830s. An artist named Thomas Rice, a white artist, put tar on his face, pretended to be black and gave a singing routine and dance called Jim Crow, âWeisbard said.
Weisbard said minstrel shows proved so popular internationally that Rice was taken to England to perform for royalty.
âEach part of the United States had its own acts of people doing this kind of work. Jim Crow names segregation and the beginning of American commercial music as this international craze, âWeisbard said. âSo he’s been there 200 years ago, he’s been there pretty much from the start. “
Davis-Hazell said the genesis of rock ‘n’ roll is not the first time that aspects of black culture have been co-opted by mainstream white culture.
âIt’s a pattern that goes back to the very first popular music in America which was a truly American form, which was the blackface minstrel,â Davis-Hazell said. “It lays the foundation for the comfort and commodification of black culture, whether genuine or not.”
The overwhelming commercial success, prestige and recognition that white rock ‘n’ roll singers have received over black pioneers of the same genre is astounding.
There are many examples of white artists re-recording songs owned by blacks, such as the Beatles covering “”Please postman“by the Marvelettes, or the resumption of Elvis Presley”Hunting dog“, which was originally written for Big Mama Thornton. These songs have been copied and rearranged to be more digestible for white audiences.
âThey would have the original race record in the control room and try to copy it in any way they can,â said Davis-Hazell. âIn other cases, they intentionally changed the way it was articulated to be more acceptable to a larger audience. So the text was worded differently, the recording quality was generally better as it was commercial property.
Davis-Hazell said the popularity of early rock ‘n’ roll with white teenagers allowed the nomenclature to spread, going beyond white artists doing covers and gradually turning into white artists actually trying to mimic the style.
âIt is absolutely true that the history of American popular music revolves around racial appropriation,â Weisbard said. “The idea that the same process that whites often enjoy black music seems to constantly involve taking it and enjoying it in ways that many black artists are unable to take advantage of.”
Weisbard said that every aspect of American entertainment involves trying to satisfy an audience and make a profit.
âSometimes that meant responding to racism. Sometimes that meant finding ways to target a black audience with black art, âWeisbard said. “More often than not, the result was that black performers in a commercial music industry were subjected to disqualifications that white performers never had to think of.”
While entertainment executives sought to make a profit, black artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, commonly referred to as the âgodmother of rock’n’roll,â and their contributions to music have been forgotten.
Tharp began performing and singing in church as a child prodigy at the age of four, touring the South with his mother’s evangelistic choir to hone his musical skills.
Tharp skyrocketed in the 1930s and 1940s, achieving mass popularity with his electric guitar-infused gospel songs. These infusions laid the foundation for the sound of rock’n’roll today, as Tharpe is considered one of the most dominant inspirations for artists like Little Richard, Johnny cash, Carl Perkins, Chuck berry, Elvis Presley and Jerry lee lewis.
Little Richard, a direct product of Tharpe’s musical inspiration, was one of the first black rock ‘n’ roll performers to address a gay audience thanks to his screaming voice and excessive flamboyance, which are both have become rock ‘n’ roll staples.
According to Florida State University, “Little Richard began to rally fans on both sides of the civil rights division “after his hit was released”Tutti Frutti“, bringing together black and white fans and challenging the hard lines of segregation.
Davis-Hazell said the recording industry was terrible about awarding royalties to black singers and songwriters, citing Little Richard as one of the earliest examples of black artists whose work was stolen by white artists who have received little or no credit.
âHe was so frustrated with the industry that he left,â Davis-Hazell said. “He went back to his church and entered the ministry because he was so frustrated with Pat Boone.”
Davis-Hazell said Pat Boone basically took all of Little Richard’s tracks and re-recorded them as covers or passed them off as his own, which generated a hit Little Richard had never seen.
Domino greases was another black artist who helped open the floodgates of rock’n’roll through his vigorous playing on the piano, which quickly became as crucial to rock’n’roll as he was to guitar.
Original wave of black rock artists would pave the way for more black excellence in the industry, with an ambidextrous guitarist Jimi Hendrix merge electric guitar chords with distorted rhythmic tone effects, as well as Michael jackson and Prince take pop music by storm in the 1980s.
Despite its rich and deeply black history, rock ‘n’ roll is another facet of black culture lost to systemic racism and oppression.
âDue to segregation and backtracking, we have legislated efforts to keep black culture separate, but that is not possible. You can’t keep it separate. Inevitably, people love it, people want to participate, people want to embrace it, âDavis-Hazell said. “So what’s happening is because of the power differences, the mainstream culture can just take it.”
Davis-Hazell said that because the nomenclature tends to go along with whatever has been adopted by the mainstream culture, the ideal is no longer seen as black, a cycle that continues to repeat itself.
Weisbard said the country finds itself at a time when the structures of the status quo, once taken for granted, are being challenged. While history is not being rewritten, the country is reaching a critical juncture where the story is being told by people more at the heart of the story.
âWhat contemporary black artists can accomplish creates a stark contrast to the limitations encountered 65 years ago,â Weisbard said. “I also think that at some fundamental level there is a sense of excitement about retelling the history of American popular music and bringing different figures to the forefront of the story.”
Now, with social media, the erasure of black creations has changed.
âThe virtue of social media, especially with video and time stamps, is the documentation, which is fantastic. You can trace it back to the source, you can see what time someone is posting something on what day, and you can prove who did it first, âDavis-Hazell said. “But it also means things spread faster and are absorbed more quickly by the larger culture.”
This was illustrated on TikTok, as many white TikTok creators came under criticism after taking credit for dances originally performed and choreographed by black creators with fewer followers.
As discussions unfold over the exact credit of black artists, past and present, Davis-Hazell encourages people to delve deeper into those moments in history that are “painful and uncomfortable” because of their connection to the present. .
This story was published in the Legacy Edition. See the full issue here.
Questions? Send an email to the culture office at [email protected].