Black History Month: Africa Gave Rock & Roll To Me – Part 1

       The musicological understanding of rock and roll is that it is loud, dance oriented, high energy, up-tempo, blues-based music that employs the use of electric lead guitars, electric rhythm guitars, a bass, a drum set and at times a piano.[1]  It finds much of its roots in Afro-American influences in the early Black culture of America. While there are other influences, the contribution of black music styles to Rock’n’Roll has rarely been recognized.

       Between the 1920’s and 1940’s, the term “rock and roll” ranged from partying to rocking music to a euphemism for sex in the music of African Americans.[2]  In the 1940’s very few whites listened to ‘black appeal’ radio stations (which played rhythm and blues music) until the term was changed to “rock and roll”.  This change was introduced largely by Alan Freed (a dj at station WJW in Cleveland) who named his radio show (which played ‘rhythm and blues’) the Moondog Rock’n’Roll Party.[3]  In a 1957 interview by Theodore Irwin, which appeared in Pageant, Freed was quoted as saying that he changed the term from ‘rhythm and blues’ to ‘rock and roll’ in order to disassociate the music from any and all racial stigma “in order to cultivate a wider audience”.[4]  “Rock and roll, then was initially a sociologically conceived term to designate the consumption of a particular music by a different demographic defined by race.”[5]  Why was the music that had a “black appeal” beginning to draw an audience from the white culture of the United States, namely white teenagers?  What was going on behind this new taste in music and its popular demand?

       The Afro-Americanization of popular music has three reasons according to Cornel West.  The first reason was the rise of U.S. as a world power that gave focused international attention to its cultural forms and styles.  Secondly, the technological innovations in mass media and communications gave room for immediate and massive influence of certain forms and styles upon other forms and styles.  Finally, Afro-American music can be seen as a countercultural practice with deep roots in modes of religious transcendence and political opposition.[6]  Therefore, the Afro-Americanization of popular music, namely rock and roll, became seductive to rootless and alienated young people disenchanted with existential meaningless, disgusted with flaccid bodies, and dissatisfied with the status quo.[7]  West goes on to say that “Afro-Americans have had rhythmic freedom in place of social freedom, linguistic wealth instead of pecuniary wealth.”[8]  According to Cornel, Afro-American jazz has an accent on contrasting polyrhythms while deemphasizing the melody and giving room for the vocalization of the saxophone.  He saw this as not only a reaction to white-dominated, melody based “swing” but also a creative response to the shifts taking place in sensibilities and moods of Afro-America after WWII.[9]  The musical style of bebop jazz keenly expressed the tensions, frustrated aspirations and repressed emotions of aggressive yet apprehensive Afro-America.[10]

     The roots of rock and roll started with the music brought over by slaves from Africa which had an affective and participatory element to it by emphasizing rhythm (the beat) over melody.[11]  Barry Shank in his article “From Rice to Ice: the face of race in rock and pop” found in the Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock uses Portia Maultsby and Samuel Floyd’s interpretation of black to synthesize its central function.  He quotes Maultsby directly saying, “The fundamental concept that governs music performance in African and African-derived cultures is that music-making is a participatory group activity that serves to unite black people into a cohesive group for a common purpose.”[12] It is Dionysian (raw, immediate, and evocative) as Nietzsche would define it, which is opposed to the Apollonian emphasis for order, discipline and logic.  Apollonian music aims at calming and soothing the mind whereas Dionysian music seeks to excite and arouse the body.[13]


Nathaniel Dett

There have been attempts made at discrediting the origin of Black music in rock and roll, saying that it was first sourced in a variation of hymns and popular songs heard by the Negro in his early days of being a slave in America.  From there he would produce them imperfectly from memory as they were distorted somewhat to fit his limited speech and then would reappear as a new expression of music birthed out of a slave culture but influenced by the slave masters.[14]  Nathaniel Dett goes on to dismantle this argument sourcing the spirituals in a much more original source that extends beyond the founding of the United States as a nation.  He believes that the most critical element in music is the rhythm.  According to Dett, the Early Church divorced rhythm from religious music in order to discriminate “religious” music from “secular” music.  This then gave rise to what he calls the “great contrapuntal (counterpoint) school of religious music, [that was] initiated by Palestrina and climaxed by Bach.”[15]  Through this school of music there came a focus of inter-weaving the melodies sung by the soprano, alto, tenor and bass and not allowing one to have more attention than the others.  This was done by bringing them into correlation with each other and then to a cadence or common conclusion so as to not center on any aspects of any individual line.  Through this the rhythmic beat is then obscured.[16]  Dett goes on to contend that the “Negro loves an unmistakable beat; with him accents are pronounced…”[17]  The distinctive of syncopation in rhythm has been a defining point for black music that has grown into the American popular music of ragtime, jazz and swing.[18]  Nathaniel Dett demonstrates in his article that the Negro spiritual has more connectedness to ancient scales that find familiarity with music from China (five note scale) of 3000 years before Christ as well as some American Indian songs, some Byzantine modes of scales as well as Russian folk tunes and the Dorian and Aeolian modes used by ancient Greeks.[19]  The Negro spiritual is then a departure from the general music standards of America and is actually more familiar with archaic rather than modern idioms in its peculiarities, which is a characteristic of many forms of folk music.[20]  If the roots of rock and roll are sourced in the historic folk music of Afro-Americans and that folk music is sourced originally in the people of slavery in the American south then one could surmise that rock and roll is historically sourced in the Negro spiritual which then evolved into jazz, blues and finally into rhythm and blues.

          Black slaves had a call and response style to their earlier forms of music that began as slave work songs.  This eventually evolved into the music of Doo Wop that became popular in the 1950’s.  Slaves were not allowed to read or write, so therefore songs and storytelling became the forms of communication and entertainment.  A current example of this in popular music is the musical genre of rap.  Will this be the next influence that will shape popular music the way blues did to rock?  Generally oppressed people will use language, music and dancing as a form to subvert or even mock those that are in power over them, expressing rage, and formulating fantasies of subversion. The songs and the rhythms appeared to express joy because of the perceived clapping and slapping of their bodies in unison with the lyrics.  Many northerners could see this displayed and mistakenly assume that slaves were happy and content.  In actuality their singing and dancing was an expression of sorrow. Therefore the blues music that sometimes sounded pleasing to the ear was sung to drown sorrow rather than to express happiness.[21]

Led Zeppelin is a perfect example of a Rock’n’Roll group that popularized black music, by  ripping off music and lyrics from less well-know black artists. This video, by Kirby Ferguson, below showcases specific examples of Zeppelin’s rip-offs.

Everything is a Remix Part 1 from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.

        As a result, the era of rock and roll that was expounded on by white “rock” stars, had originally co-opted the appeal of black music, changed its lyrical content, matched its own appeal to the senses, and then reformed its message to be one of happiness, celebration or at other times generational and political subversion. It has been demonstrated that many subversive political movements in the U.S. were accompanied by the influence of rock’n’roll. The catch is that the original subversion this music appealed to really belongs to the style of music that birthed rock’n’roll – Spirituals, Jazz, Rhythm & Blues, etc. While many of us in the U.S. are aware that the south (and north) continued with segregation even after the end of slavery, many of us aren’t aware that the plight of Afro-America was also expressed in how their music was ripped off, co-opted and reformulated without attribution or recognition. One of the most neglected aspects forgotten in this process of translation was the actual historical hardships reflected in black music.[22] In America, we who love rock’n’roll, are the heirs of a musical tradition that has rarely been recognized or validated – an ignorance which continues to this day.

Part 2 of this series will explore how rock-a-billy music was fused with black music styles to birth the early stages of rock music that “rocked” the American cultural scene nearly a century ago.


[1] The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: Vol. 3, The United States and Canada; New York and London, 2001  p.348
[2] Ibid, p. 349
[3] Ibid, p. 349
[4] Ibid, p. 349
[5] Ibid, p. 349
[6] Black Sacred Music: A Journal of Theomusicology; On Afro-American Popular Music: From Bebop to Rap, Cornel West, 6 Spring, 1992, p. 282
[7] Ibid, p. 282
[8] Ibid, p. 282-283
[9] Ibid, p. 283
[10] Ibid, p. 283
[11] Using Rock and Roll to Teach the History of Post WWII America: Yamasaki, Mitch: The History Teacher, v. 29 #2, p.180
[12] The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock; From Rice to Ice: the face of race in rock and pop, Shank Barry; Cambridge University Press (2001)  p. 263.
[13] Ibid, p. 180
[14] The Authenticity of the Spiritual: Nathaniel Dett; Black Sacred Music: A Journal of Theomusicology, Vol. 5 #2 Fall 1991, p. 108.
[15] Ibid, p.109
[16] Ibid, p. 109
[17] Ibid, p. 109
[18] Ibid, p.110
[19] Ibid, p.111
[20] The Authenticity of the Spiritual: Nathaniel Dett; Black Sacred Music: A Journal of Theomusicology, Vol. 5 #2 Fall 1991, p. 113
[21] Using Rock and Roll to Teach the History of Post WWII America: Yamasaki, Mitch: The History Teacher, v. 29 #2, p.180-181
[22] Many blacks in the south still faced segregation in the form of Jim Crow laws that enforced lynchings and the blacks’ “proper place” in society.  In the north blacks were kept away from better jobs and labor unions would not allow blacks to join so their plight continued but now in a different form.

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