What’s Wrong with Rock? (1): Origin (Concluded)

As we noted in the first installment on the origin of rock music in the May issue of the “Beacon Lights”, jazz had its origins primarily in the whorehouses of New Orleans, although it was also played in the saloons, dance halls, juke-joints and cabarets surrounding the ” red-light ” district. The two main elements of New Orleans jazz were the blues and ragtime which, on the one hand, could be considered parents of jazz but, on the other hand. have also continued to exist and develop side by side with jazz.

The blues might be called the American Negroes’ folk music. Musically it is characterized by the so-called “blue notes” – the flatted third and seventh and sometimes the fifth – of the major scale, creating a minor or “sad” sound; simple I, IV, V harmony (at least in the beginning); unaccented 414 bass, an example of which is the “walking bass” or the rolling octaves bass – dotted eighth and sixteenth notes syncopating up and down octaves – as in the boogie-woogie. Syncopation is also often achieved by missing rather than hitting particular accents.

As to the content of this vocal side of jazz, the blues are “hard-boiled personal statements of elemental facts, with frank treatment of sex, violence and infidelity and with a cynical view of human nature motivated by self-interest and animal appetites in a deterministic and materialistic world.” 1) “Innuendo and double meanings are important aspects of blues lyrics, and racial protests as well as sexual feelings are often hidden in humor or metaphor.”2) Lyrics – usually made up of three-line stanzas, the second line repeating the first – are often so crude and vulgar that to cite them would transcend the limits of decency which we must observe.

Concerning the influence of the blues on American music, Alan Lomax has this to say in his book “Folk Songs of North America”: “The blues have crept in everywhere, into Carnegie Hall and cowboy songs, into spirituals and symphonies, into hillbilly and the hit parade.” But, more important in our study of rock music, the blues was the forerunner of rhythm and blues which, in turn, spawned rock ‘n ‘ roll.

            Ragtime represented the instrumental side of early New Orleans jazz; “it was played at dances, intermission at brothels and to complement the joy, rage or sorrow of whiskey in the blood. . . . The only critics were the dancers and the drinkers.”3) “The word ‘ragtime’ was probably derived from the shuffling clog dance black men called ‘ragging’.”4) The music is characterized by a 2/4 meter, functional I, IV, V (i.e. stressing tonic, subdominant, and dominant) harmony, and a fast-moving strongly syncopated melody over a rigidly even, non-syncopated bass line. Originally and primarily a piano music, ragtime was also adapted by bands – the New Orleans ragtime bands which “developed into the jazz bands of the twenties. . . Harlem ragtime was partly responsible for the development of swing in the thirties. ” 5)

            Ragtime was probably already widespread in the early 1890’s, became the first black music to become widely accepted and popular, and has profoundly affected American music.

This then, briefly, was the jazz of the early 1900’s.

            Interesting and relevant in the study of popular music is always the study of the lives of the performers – true not only in the case of rock ‘n’ roll as we will see D.V. in a future article – but also in the case of the forerunners of rock music.

Many of the early blues singers were women and “the queen of them all was Bessie Smith, ‘the Empress of the Blues’ as she chose to call herself.”6) “Throughout her life she was haunted by memories of an unhappy childhood and youth and consumed by an insatiable appetite for liquor and sex. . . The twenties was Bessie Smith’s decade of triumph. The end of that decade plunged her from the heights into the abyss. . . Her own indiscretions had aged her beyond her years.” She died early in the morning September 26, 1937, when “her car, speeding south from Memphis on Route 61, plunged into a parked car.”7) Bruce Cook in his book “Listen to the Blues” speaks of the “raw power of the woman’s voice. It practically assaults the ear, matching in strength the crudity of the lyrics she sang.”

            Robert Johnson, sometimes called “King of the Delta Blues”, is a legendary figure as much for his excesses in liquor and women and his run-ins with the law as for the blues he wrote and performed. He died at the age of 24, having been killed either by a woman or by her jealous husband. Bruce Cook writes of . . . “the son of excessive, reckless, self-destructive behavior epitomized by Robert Johnson, who sang so eloquently of that life he lived in the blues ‘Hellhound on my Trail’. ”

A major figure in ragtime music is, of course, Scott Joplin, born in 1868 in Texas. His most famous work, “The Maple Leaf Rag”, was published in 1899 and he was a prolific composer of ragtime, including instructional exercises, ten songs, a ragtime ballet, and two operas. After 1915, he began to lose his physical coordination as well as his mental faculties, due to the effects of syphilis, of which he died in 1917 in the Manhattan State Hospital. In our day we probably know Joplin mainly as the composer of the ragtime piano solo ‘“The Entertainer”.

            Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, considered one of the greatest, if not the first of the jazz pianists and composers, in the early 1900’s made a career of playing the piano in the brothels and barrelhouses of New Orleans. “Jelly Roil” had some interesting sidelines – he was a pimp, a pool shark and a comedian. An expert in bragging and self-glorification. he insisted that he was the inventor of jazz. In his playing. he merged the elements of ragtime, blues and brass-band music and he is considered by some to be a transitional figure from ragtime to jazz.

Another famous figure in early jazz was Buddy Bolden. “the almost legendary cornet player and bandleader who is said to have been one of the first, if not the first, New Orleans musician to play in the style subsequently called jazz.”8) In 1907 Buddy Bolden went berserk during a parade with Allen’s Brass Band and was taken to jail. “Heavy drinking and syphilis had led to symptoms of insanity beginning already in 1906, . . . He was committed to a state institution in June of 1907 and died there in 1931.”9)

These are five of the most prominent figures in the early history of jazz.

            In 1917, because of an order issued by the Secretary of War and the Secretary of Navy forbidding open prostitution within five miles of an army or navy establishment, the Navy stepped in and closed Storyville. “. . . after midnight on November 12, 1917, it would be unlawful to operate a brothel anywhere in New Orleans. The great patron of jazz in New Orleans went out of business and, as a result, black musicians began to look for work elsewhere. Some went to New York, some went to Chicago and some stayed home. But jazz would have spread like wildfire whether Storyville closed or not.” 10)          As we are well aware. jazz has pulled itself up by its bootstraps, so to speak, and has made its way from brothel to box-office, a process which started already in the 1920’s.

“Jazz concert opportunities have . . . expanded but the music is still most often heard in night-clubs where many jazz men are more comfortable.” 11)

Robert Palmer, 12) writes that “Jazz . . . was a popular music with mass appeal throughout the thirties (and) continued to produce occasional pop hits during the forties. But” he states, “a significant number of urban Afro-Americans. most of whom were either born in the country or only a generation removed from it, did not care for the slider, more sophisticated black bands and a raunchier, more down-home jazz style emerged to cater to their tastes, a kind of rhythm-and-jazz. ” We take the liberty of emphasizing this statement because it is obviously this branch of jazz which produced rhythm and blues.

            David Ewen calls rhythm and blues “the urbanization of black folk music”; in other words, Negro hillbilly music!

In the 1940’s rhythm and blues was still an exclusively black music; but in 1951 this changed:

            “Alan Freed, a disc jockey at WWJ in Cleveland, was the host of a radio show featuring the best-selling records of the day. The owner of a large Cleveland record shop reported to Freed a phenomenon: the (white) kids were buying recordings of rhythm and blues by the armful. This gave Freed the idea that he might attract youngsters to his program by including r. & b. The response to his innovation exceeded his hopes. He was deluged with requests for more numbers. As a result, Freed, calling himself ‘Moon Dog’ initiated a new radio show which he named ‘Moon Dog’s Rock & Roll Party’, offering an exclusive diet of r. & b. . . Freed used the term ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ in preference to r. & b. since he felt there was a racial stigma to the latter. He found the words ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ in the lyrics of a r. & b. number.” (The meaning of this term we explained in last month’s article.)

“The kids loved the music . . . responded to the decisive heavy beat which carried such a kinetic impact, to repetitions of the melodic phrases that produced a kind of hypnosis, and to the earthy lyrics . . . in contrast to the romantic sentimentalizations of the pop tunes to which their parents were partial. In Freed, the kids found a kindred, understanding soul, who, in his in-between-the-music-commentaries, backed them up fully in their rebellion against domination of parents and society. ” 13) (emphasis mine)

            Our consideration of the origin of rock music is not complete without a brief look at country music since this, too, was a factor in the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, the earliest form of rock ‘n’ roll – rockabilly – is, as the name suggests, a combination of (black) r. & b. and (white) hillbilly music.

”The music of the West”, the World Book Encyclopedia tells us, “like its literature, has been mainly popular, not serious. ” Country music has over the decades evolved from the very simplistic hillbilly music of the twenties and thirties to the pop sound of country and western music of the sixties and seventies. The word hillbilly originally referred only to the inhabitants of the backwoods of the rural South and only later became associated with the music of that region. The mountain tunes were simple, usually 2/4 or 4/4 meter, the voice often “gliding” from one note to the next. Accompaniment was provided by “fiddles”. Lyrics largely centered on the personal woes and tragedies of a backwoods people.

As country music has gained in sophistication, it has lost many of the characteristics of the early hillbilly music and, at this point, such an amalgamation of country, pop, and rock has taken place that it is often impossible for the uninitiated to distinguish one from the other. Greater sophistication and the merger with rock has brought about a significant change in the character of the lyrics. There has always been a percentage of smut in country music, but that percentage has increased to the point where country is not a great deal better than rock ‘n’ roll.

Lay minister and Grand Ole Opry member Billy Grammer in 1975 denounced country music as “slut and slanderous”: “His remarks before the Opry audience and carried on radio station WSM were: ‘In order for a country song to be popular these days, it has to have lyrics about laying in bed with someone and getting them pregnant before they get married.. . Country music is becoming a smutty world. It’s a shame to think the pornographic business has hit country music and infiltrated the ranks’. ‘ ‘ 15)

To further get this point across, we would like to have listed the titles of a number of country hits of recent years but, on second thought, it seemed to us that these titles were a bit too vulgar and risqué to print in the “Beacon Lights”.

Incidentally, Hugh Hefner has gone into the country music business, and “Playboy Records” is doing tolerably well for a new label. 16)

            As we trace the roots of rock music – African tribal music, slave songs and shouts, “coon’ ‘ songs, the cakewalk, jazz, including blues, ragtime, swing, boogie and rhythm and blues, and country music – a curious fact emerges: Without the American Negro, there would have been no rock ‘n’ roll! The origins of rock music are about 90% black and 10% white. A strange thought, isn’t it, that, in the final analysis, it is the incredible ruthlessness and greed of those white traders who forcibly took hundreds of thousands of African Negroes from their homeland to America, which brought about not only jazz, but also rock music.

However, this subject – the American Negro influence on rock ‘n’ roll -needs some clarification lest we draw wrong and unfounded conclusions and this we hope to write something about D.V. in the next installment.


1) Neil Leonard “Jazz and the Other Arts” – Essay in the book “American Music” by Charles Nanry

2) Frank Tirro- “Jazz-A History”

3) Nat Hentoff “The Early Years of Jazz” – Essay in the book “American Music” by Charles Nanry

4) David Ewen- “All the Years of Jazz” – Essay in the book “American Music” by Charles Nanry

5) Tirro- Op, Cit.

6) Bruce Cook- “Listen to the Blues”

7) Ibid.

8) The New Edition of the Encyclopedia of Jazz

9) Tirro-Op. Cit.

10) Ewen- Op. Cit.

11) Hentoff- Op. Cit.

12) Rolling Stones Illustrated History of Rock ‘n’ roll

13) Ewen- Op. Cit.

14) Ibid.

15) Aida Pavletich- “Rock-a-Bye Baby”

16) Frye Gaillard- “Watermelon Wine”