Pop Culture 101 for Pastors–The History of Rock & Roll Part 1

Posted: February 2, 2011 in Uncategorized

Rock & roll was an unholy mix of big band swing, the blues, country, jazz and gospel.  In many ways, rock & roll was an unavoidable product of World War II.  The mix of various pockets of Americans into barracks and fox holes with hours of nothing to do but talk and sing was bound to produce a syncretistic mix of genres. 

If one person is primarily responsible for inventing rock & roll it was Louis Jordan.   The big band leader, second only to Duke Ellington and Count Basie during the World War II years, created the “jump blues” that defined rock.  Take a look and a listen to Jordan performing his 1949 hit “Saturday Night Fish Fry” on a TV show in the 1960’s.  Remember this was years before Little Richard …

It is no coincidence that one of Jordan’s producers would go on to oversee many of Bill Haley’s records.  Haley is widely considered the first rock & roll artist cranking out this tune which took the country by storm in 1954.  The song had actually been written in 1952 by Jimmy Myers and Max Freedman but had failed to find an audience.  Haley, who was a struggling country artist, took the song with its obvious reliance upon Jordan’s “jump blues” and threw in a little bit of Hank Williams’ “Move It On Over” to create a masterpiece that sparked a musical revolution.

Haley’s song inspired other “jump blues” artists like Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and fellow country artists Buddy Holly to push the envelope further.  Rock & roll, thanks to entrepreneurs like Sun Records founder Sam Philipps and ace songwriters/producers like Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, took the country by storm between 1955-1958.

The music was largely ignored by adults who had already formed their musical tastes for country, jazz, blues, swing or gospel years before Bill Haley had adopted black music.  The new music was championed by young adults between the ages of 13-18. It marked the first time in history that a majority of young people listened to music that was different from that which their parents enjoyed.  Why?

The post-World War II economy changed America.  Most of the world was in shambles but the U.S. had largely been untouched by the bombs which demolished Europe, Africa and Asia.  The crippling of overseas commerce coupled with the mass industrialization of America to support the war effort produced a boom economy for the U.S.  American males entered factories or universities to be trained to be white-collar workers at record numbers.  Before the war, a college education was rare and the overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens worked on farms or adopted trades passed down by generations.  Young men and women were raised alongside their parents as they learned the family craft.  Not anymore. 

Men, and an increasing number of women, went off to work leaving their families behind.  Young men and women were largely left to their peers at and after school and, as a result, they created a culture of their own.  Rock & roll hit the streets just as millions of children who were estranged from their parents were looking for an identity.

As artists pushed the envelope with their music, dance moves, attitudes and outfits to stand out from the pack they inadvertently created an image and lifestyle that filled a vacuum created by absent parents.  Almost overnight, the record industry created the teen culture and widened the wedge between adolescents and parents. 

It is easy to see why rock & roll appealed to teens as the “jump blues” is perfect for dancing with the opposite sex.  Given that teens are bundles of energy in heat, it was not a hard sell!  Even the term “rock & roll” was a back alley way of speaking about sex. Thus, as parents turned to work insane hours in order to buy more stuff while entrusting their children’s moral education to mainline churches that were competing with other churches to boost attendance by watering down the gospel, rock & roll easy filled the vacuum and shaped an entire generation.   

Many parents blamed the music rather than themselves for their kid’s turn from traditional morality .  Today many Christians continue to forbid their children from sampling “secular” culture while the parents themselves spend very little time with their own family.  It is always easier to point the finger at something else rather than ourselves.

But while early rock & roll largely appealed to a more base nature with its jump beat and nonsense lyrics (e.g., check out a Little Richard song), things were about to change.  1958 saw the deaths of icons like Buddy Holly, the drafting of Elvis and scandals that rocked stars like Jerry Lee Lewis.  The music industry tried to replace these stars with teen idols like Fabian but an acoustic punk movement arose to take its place.  We will turn to that era tomorrow.

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