Rock'n'Roll Music Origens


The 1950s in post-war America were quiet and trouble-free – as long as we're ignoring the restlessness of the country's teenagers and the frustration of blacks in the Jim Crow south. Out of the unhappiness of those two marginalized groups grew a musical revolution. Rock 'n' roll evolved from Delta Blues, adding a danceable beat to become rhythm and blues. Thanks to the emergence of radio and record shops, the music spread, changing our culture as it challenged the grip of segregation. This Active Minds program will feature classic, foot-tapping recordings and some live guitar playing!


“Rock and roll is the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression — lewd, sly, in plain fact, dirty — a rancid-smelling aphrodisiac and the martial music of every side-burned delinquent on the face of the earth.” – Frank Sinatra (1957)

But it's fun to dance to, Frank! Look, it's hard to imagine Western popular culture without rock 'n' roll. Since its beginnings in the 1950s, rock has impacted our tastes in fashion, hair styles, movies and other forms of entertainment. The political moods of the country have been severely influenced by the songs heard on radios in every home and dorm room. Rock became the soundtrack of the protest movements in the '60s and '70s. All this would have seemed strange to the pioneers of music that was originally created as dance tunes. In earlier decades, folks gathered to couple up and swing and sway to big bands and western swing bands. No surprise that music continued to excite and entertain fun-seeking Americans – but there was something new and, potentially, dangerous about the tunes coming out of the South, where rock 'n' roll was born. This was originally music of poor black America, those mired in poverty and hopelessness. Their unhappiness was relieved with the sound of the blues: songs of bitterness, lost love and private torment, expressed in a simple structure of two rhyming lines, sung over a format of three chords played on an acoustic guitar. Folklorists, sensing the importance of this music, traveled to the Mississippi Delta to record the singers who sometimes put a little swing to their laments, giving folks something to dance to – creating a new sound called rhythm and blues. Some of those seminal artists were brought into recording studios by white producers, who managed to get airplay on local radio stations. Listeners flocked to record stores to find these new songs, hardly concerned whether the singer was black or white. Fans of R&B (as it became known) gathered at clubs and bars presenting live music, usually by black singers and bands. The sight of white kids gathering and dancing alongside black kids must have infuriated segregationists who'd passed a series of laws separating the races. Jim Crow ruled the South – but not in dance halls. Consider that the records by Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry inspired debates about skin color among radio listeners. The South produced most of the early rockers (Chuck was from St. Louis), and that music came out of southern plantations, country and western barn dances and gospel churches. It gave rise to a generation of young people who'd become tired with middle-class life in post-war America and who were seeking a release from boredom and sexual frustration. For teenagers, rock was the answer to their prayers.

Exploration Questions

  • Who were Alan Freed and Dewey Phillips and why are they important?
  • Who ran Sun Records and Chess Records and who did those labels promote?
  • What were Les Paul's and Leo Fender's contributions to rock and recording?

Reflective Questions

  • Who were the rock 'n' rollers you listened to – and who scared you?
  • Why has Elvis remained such a presence all these years after his death?
  • Is rock 'n' roll here to stay (as the song says), or has it passed into history?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Altschuler, Glenn C. All Shook Up: How Rock 'n' Roll Changed America. Oxford University Press. 2003. 240 pages. It's impossible not to view the birth of rock as a seismic event in American cultural history – and too easy to get all scholarly and serious about it. Altschuler doesn't shy away from rock's significance (as the title suggests), but he keeps his focus on the music and its powerful impact on the country's youth in this highly readable, if fairly serious book.
    Click here to order
  • Miller, Steve. Detroit Rock City: The Uncensored History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in America’s Loudest City. Da Capo Press, 2013, 320 pages. The history of Rock and Roll in Detroit.
    Click here to order
  • Browne, David. Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970. Da Capo Press, 2012. 392 pages. Insider stories about rock and roll musicians in the turbulent 60s by a contributing editor at Rolling Stone.
    Click here to order
  • Jagger, Mick. The Rolling Stones 50. Hyperion, 2012. 352 pages. A retrospective examination of the 50 year success of the Rolling Stones.
    Click here to order