News / Arts & Entertainment

Where Did Rock 'n' Roll Come From?

TEXT SIZE - +
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.

Where Did Rock 'n' Roll Come From?
Where Did Rock 'n' Roll Come From?i
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

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.”

x
​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.

You May Like

Multimedia Anti-Keystone XL Protests Continue

Demonstrators are worried about pipeline's effect on climate change, their traditional way of life, health and safety More

Thailand's Political Power Struggle Continues

Court gave Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to prepare her defense over abuse of power charges but uncertainty remains over election timing More

Malaysia Plane Search Tests Limits of Ocean Mapping Technology

Expert tells VOA existing equipment’s maximum operating depth is around 6 kilometers as operation continues on ocean bed for any trace of MH370 More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Messagei
X
Penelope Poulou
April 22, 2014 5:53 PM
Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Message

Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pro-Russian Separatists Plan 'Federalization Referendum' in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to move forward next month with a referendum vote for greater autonomy, despite the Geneva agreement reached with Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine to end the political conflict. VOA's Brian Padden reports from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video International Students Learn Film Production in World's Movie Capital

Hollywood - which is part of Los Angeles - is the movie capital of the world, and many aspiring filmmakers go there in hopes of breaking into the movie business. Mike O'Sullivan reports that regional universities are also a magnet for students who hope to become producers or directors.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Beyond Category

Saxophonist Craig Handy has an exciting new band called 2nd Line Smith, which combines the organ-jazz repertoire of Jimmy Smith with the “second line” rhythms of New Orleans parade music. Craig Handy joins "Beyond Category" host Eric Felten at Washington’s Bohemian Caverns jazz club to talk about the music and perform with the band.