Accessibility links

Where Did Rock 'n' Roll Come From?

  • Richard Paul

For nearly 50 years, rock 'n' roll was the most popular music in America and in many other parts of the world. There are some common stories about where rock 'n' roll came from, but a new book argues that many of those stories are myths.

According to Larry Birnbaum, author of the new book "Before Elvis" everyone thinks they know the story of rock 'n’ roll.

“If you ask any -- the average person - where rock 'n' roll came from, they'll say 'It came from the Blues.' They think it came from the Delta Blues like Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters -- which it did not,” he said.

On songs like "Little Red Rooster," Birnbaum points out that this version of the blues didn’t become part of rock music until the 1960s, when the Rolling Stones embraced Delta Blues. And what about the other origin story for rock - that it came from rhythm and blues, or R&B?

Birnbaum says that doesn’t tell the whole story either.

“When they do these histories of rock 'n' roll, they'll say that rock 'n’ roll came from R&B,” he said.

While that’s true, he says the problem is: Historians who say that aren’t looking far enough back.

“They don't question where R&B came from," he said. "It's like it fell from the sky or something.”

​Every artist builds on the previous generation’s work. Birnbaum's book looks at that phenomenon when it comes to rock 'n' roll - exploring not only the music that came before rock 'n' roll, but the music that came before that. There are many examples and some of them go way back.

"You've got Louis Jordon -- he did ‘Ain't That Just Like a Woman’ and that has the guitar intro that Chuck Berry lifted for ‘Johnny B. Goode,’” he said.

There’s another important element of early rock, an element that goes back even further.

The song “Weary Blues” by Artie Mathews came out almost a century ago, during World War I. Its most important element is the Boogie-Woogie baseline.

“The Boogie-Woogie baseline is used in a lot of the early rock songs," Birnbaum said. "There are several Boogie baselines that are typical of the Boogie-Woogie and the most common one is [sings it] and you hear that in a lot of rock 'n' roll songs.”

Take that Boogie Beat, combine it with one more ingredient - and that, Birnbaum says, is the origin of rock 'n' roll.

“A combination of a back beat and a Boogie Woogie baseline and when you combine those two, you get a rock 'n' roll feel,” he said.

One example comes with Harry James and his orchestra in 1939, playing a song with a perfectly descriptive title: “Back Beat Boogie.”

“It's unusual to use the back beat that early and that prominently, but there it is! There it was," Birnbaum said.

It may seem like a quantum leap from the suave orchestrations of the Big Band Era to the rowdy sounds of rock 'n' roll, but it was really just a hop, skip and jump.