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The History of Rock 'N' Roll - A'ROR'N Days 2023

One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock, rock

Five, six, seven o'clock, eight o'clock, rock

Nine, ten, eleven o'clock, twelve o'clock, rock

We're gonna rock around the clock tonight

~ Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and His Comets

A genre that continues to influence current musical tastes, Rock 'N' Roll has had an undeniable impact on the music of America and beyond. From its fast-paced rhythms, to its feel-good melodies, to its more controversial lyrics, to its nostalgic appeal, the genre of Rock 'N' Roll has had quite a fascinating past indeed. So, let's turn back the Rock 'N' Roll clock, and take a cruise down Memory Lane to learn some of the history of this energetic music genre!

The Origins of Rock 'N' Roll

Little Richard performance, 1950s

Rock 'N' Roll (a.k.a. "Rock and Roll" and "Rock & Roll") emerged as a music genre in the mid-1950s, beginning in the African American communities of the United States. The genre was inspired by a combination of country music (c. 1900s), rhythm & blues (post-WWII), as well as some gospel music compositions (1800s). The phrase "rocking and rolling" was originally a sailors' phrase in the 1600s, describing the motion of their ships out at sea. Over time, this phrase became used in the African American community as a euphemism. In the 1950s, the phrase came to describe the Rock 'N' Roll genre after radio disc jockey, Alan Freed, used the term on his radio broadcast when referring to the newly emerging genre. His use of the term was due to the genre's distinct "rocking and rolling" rhythms, as well as many of the songs' lyrics dealing with more "earthy" and rebellious themes.

The musical 'Grease' (debut 1971) is known for having depictions of the teenage Rock 'N' Roll culture of the 1950s.

The Rock 'N' Roll genre found particular appeal in the teenage culture of the U.S. during this time, due to its novelty and more rebellious attitude. Because of these characteristics, the Rock 'N' Roll music movement did meet some resistance from more conservative groups in the country, who were concerned about the influence the music and lyrics would have on young people, thus earning it the label of "the devil's music" in some circles. However, by the mid-1960s, more "sanitized" strings of the Rock 'N' Roll genre had also developed, thus encompassing wider swathes of society under its umbrella. As a result of its broad appeal, the genre also served as a uniting force between African Americans and white Americans during the years of segregation in the 50s, and into the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. Since its debut in the 1950s, the Rock 'N' Roll genre has evolved into the various rock genres we know and love today.

The Instruments of 1950's Rock 'N' Roll

Bill Haley and His Comets

While rock music in our 21st century world has evolved to incorporate all kinds of different instruments and electrical sounds, the original Rock 'N' Roll of the 1950s began with more traditional ensembles of instruments, albeit played with a new flare. Some of these instruments included:

  • Drums - A must-have for any Rock 'N' Roll ensemble, as the beat and rhythms were integral to the genre.

  • Electric Guitar - While invented back in the 1930's by jazz guitarist Charlie Christian, it wasn't until the 1950s with the rise of Rock 'N' Roll that the electric guitar soared in popularity.

  • Double Bass/Upright Bass

  • Bass Guitar

  • Saxophone

  • Various brass instruments

  • Piano - While the electric keyboard is now seen as a staple of rock music, it wasn't popularized until the Classic Rock era of the 1960s and 1970s, thus much of the Rock 'N' Roll music of the 1950s that included piano would've used a more traditional piano sound in its performance.

Listening Beyond the Concert

A young couple selects music from a diner jukebox.

As we well know in our present-day culture of smartphones, playlists on our computers, and even a resurgence in vinyl

records, people of the 1950s also liked to listen to their favorite music in their homes and on-the-go. Some of the most popular methods for listening to their favorite Rock 'N' Roll tunes outside of a concert venue were via:

  • Jukeboxes - Patented by Hobart C. Niblack back in 1918, the jukebox came to be iconic to the culture of public spaces in the 1950s, with Rock 'N' Roll music often featured among the different selections of music.

  • Vinyl Records - While the sizes of records vary, on average a vinyl record in the 1950s could hold up to around 20 minutes of music on each side. These would be played on turntables in the home, or on portable turntables for on-the-go listening.

  • Radio - As the Golden Age of Radio (1930s-1940s) had already occurred in America, many homes in the U.S. were well-equipped with their own radio units to listen to the new Rock 'N' Roll tunes coming in on the radio waves in the 50s. It was also during the 1950s that cars began to have radios pre-installed as a standard for the design.

Some Key Rock 'N' Roll Artists

As with any genre of art, Rock 'N' Roll had several pioneers that helped develop the genre and catapult it into the mainstream. While coming from various different backgrounds, the pioneers of Rock 'N' Roll in the 1950s all shared a passion in taking the genre to the next level in terms of lyrics, sounds and cultural appeal.

Some key Rock 'N' Roll artists of this era (in alphabetical order) were:

Chuck Berry

Bo Diddley

The Everly Brothers

Fats Domino

Alan Freed

Bill Haley and His Comets

Buddy Holly and the Crickets

Jerry Lee Lewis

Carl Perkins

Elvis Presley

Little Richard

Willie Mae Thornton

Big Joe Turner

Gene Vincent

We hope you enjoyed learning more about the history of Rock 'N' Roll on this "journey through yesterday" with us, and are feeling more inspired to celebrate with us during this year's A'ROR'N Days!


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