Main Body

3. Rock and Roll and Youth Culture

Clayton Funk

Rock and Roll Music

Wow! It's Rock and Roll
Creative Commons Image

It is hard to believe, but there was once a time when the term rock music was not heard. Most historians trace the beginning of rock back to the year 1954, when a new type of music, then called Rock and Roll, appeared and revolutionized musical tastes, at least among young people, and pretty much changed the world.

This new music, of course did not develop in a vacuum and it really wasn’t new. It resulted from the convergence of two earlier musical styles, Rhythm and Blues and Country. The sound of Rock and Roll was also unique because of technological developments in electric instruments and amplification that created a new market for music.

The Blues

Ray Charles was an important bridge between the Blues and Rock and Roll. Listen to this video and listen for the edge of the blues played against the fast excitement of Rock and Roll. See this video at:

Rhythm and Blues developed from the music called the Blues, which grew out of African American religious music and work songs sung by African-Americans who lived mostly in the South. Many of these people had been removed to the United States as slaves, and before the Civil War they labored in difficult situations on the Southern plantations. “Call and response” was often used as a means of communication among the workers in the fields. The workers fooled the plantation owners into thinking that their music was the “‘happy’ music of hard working slaves.”

One of the individuals who researched the Blues was John Lomax, a scholar from the University of Texas. In the early 20th century, ethnographers (scholars who observe the social and cultural patterns of people) made their way into the countryside. Lomax was a song hunter interested in documenting cowboy songs. Later he turned to the songs of African Americans. He traveled the Southern United States with a large recording machine that produced aluminum phonograph discs, which would survive the heat of the summer. The machine and its two large batteries weighed 300 pounds. He had to remove the back seat of his car to fit the whole apparatus in the trunk.

John Lomax Recording machine
Lomax’s recording machine was so large he had to remove the backseat of his car to put it in the trunk. Library of Congress, American Folklife Center

On a trip to Angola Prison in 1933, Lomax met an individual named Ledbelly (also spelled Lead Belly) who accompanied his singing on a twelve-string guitar. Keep in mind that in those days, a Black man could be jailed for merely looking at a White woman, so its safe to say that many African Americans did not deserve to be in prison. Once Lomax had recorded several of Ledbelly’s songs, he sent them to the governor of Louisiana who granted the musician clemency. Lomax took Ledbelly on tour to promote the blues.

Although Lomax’s work advanced the genre of the blues significantly, another matter to consider is that when Lomax submitted the printed transcriptions of the songs he recorded to Library of Congress, and because that library is the clearinghouse for all US copyrights, those songs were copyrighted under John Lomax’s name. As owner of that intellectual property he was entitled any royalties for those songs. Very few of the musicians he recorded received a share of those proceeds.

Blues and Country Make Rock and Roll

Around the time of World War I the majority of African Americans lived in the Southeastern U.S. But the onset of war and immigration restrictions imposed at that time cut off the supply of European immigrant labor for industrialists of the Midwest and the Northeast. As a result African-Americans made a mass migration to urban centers in the North to take jobs in those industries. This exodus of African Americans from the South, became known in history as the Great Migration. The music that came with these new migrants became the foundation for a range of Blues styles, which became known as Northern or Urban Blues.

The American South was home to an infusion of many musical influences, as well. Mostly White Communities  sprung up in the South and brought with them the folk songs of the English, Scots, and Irish. Instruments like banjo’s, fiddles, harmonicas and others too numerous to list were common. Eventually in the 1920s the rapid expansion of radio broadcasting provided a way to hear performances of country music wherever there was a radio. One of the most important programs in the 1920s was the Grand Ole Opry. This music tended to be an infusion of country and gospel genres by such groups as the Carter Family and Jimmie Rogers. Like the great Migration of the 1920s, the Great Depression also caused many White and Black families to migrate to urban centers, from the countryside.

As is frequently the case, visual and musical forms tend to begin in neighborhood studios and galleries, and bars and clubs where local musicians play. These venues became part of the cultural identity for their local audiences. And strains of the Blues tended to vary from city to city,. Northern Blues, for example, developed a unique feel compared to Delta Blues of the South. These local musical forms took on a new life, however, once they became commercialized and widely distributed. Community genres of the Blues took a backseat to commercial producers that held a big influence over public ideas of what “good Blues” should sound like, according Blues on the radio and on records.

One of the earliest musical innovations that led to Rock and Roll was a combination of Country Blues with Urban Blues. The Country Blues player Chuck Berry joined the Sir John’s Trio, combining these two forms into a new genre called Rockabilly. In 1955, Chuck Berry met the Chicago Blues giant, Muddy Waters, who introduced Berry to Leonard Chess of Chess Records, which soon launched Berry’s career as one of the first musicians marketed as Rock and Roll. It is obvious that genres of Blues or R&B and Rock and Roll overlapped, and which musician sang  which genre depended on how it was marketed.

These musical influences were a progression of Rhythm and Blues (R&B) that developed from the Blues, and then Rock and Roll, which derived from R&B. Little Richard, one of the well-known innovators in 1950’s rock music, has often said that “Rhythm and Blues had a baby and somebody named it rock and roll.” He, of course is absolutely right, and a number of important R&B artists were part of the beginning of Rock and Roll. Among them were Muddy Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Willie Mae Thornton, Joe Turner and Ray Charles. As influential as these African American musicians were, they were still segregated into separate hotels, restaurants, and many times received no royalties for their music. If you want to know more about this aspect of the music world caught between glamour and racism, check out the film Cadillac Records.

Music and Electricity

Something as basic as electricity led to big changes when it was incorporated into the music world. First, music became portable. While these new musical forms were developed, new recording technology also emerged. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, phonograph records were large and heavy and easily damaged. These records played at 78 rpm’s (78 revolutions per minute) on rather awkward phonographs that were usually part of a large piece of furniture (a console),  often located in the living room. In many homes, the entire family would sit in the living room listening to bands like Glen Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman, and soloists like Frank Sinatra, Patti Paige, Doris Day, and Eddie Fisher. Record companies marketed such music to adults and radio stations played music that would appeal to the entire family; but all that would soon change.

In the 1950s, recording technology changed with the development  the 33 rpm and 45 rpm records. The advantage of the new technology was that more music could be put on a record, and it was of higher technical quality. Thus, the 33 became a standard because more music could be put on a 33 than several 78’s and it sounded much better. The 45s, or “singles” were much smaller in size and contained one song on each side. Not only were 45s much cheaper to buy than the old 78s and the larger 33s, but they could be played on a small record player that teenagers could purchase inexpensively and keep in his or her room.

This meant that there were now two markets for music, one of adults who bought mostly 33 rpm records and continued to play them on console phonographs in the living room, and another market of young people, who bought mostly 45s and played them on their small “phonos.”

Music in Your Pocket

While phonograph records were improving, the “transistor radio” was invented and popularized. This meant that radios became much smaller and much less expensive, and like the small phonographs, these radios soon found their way to young people’s rooms. Car radios were also becoming more popular, and more people were listening to the radio while driving. For a long time, the radio was an expensive option in a car. It is hard to imagine a car without a radio today,  but in the 1950s radios were only beginning to become standard equipment in cars.

Radio stations began to program their music to fit the demographics of a new, mostly white, youth-oriented audience. The audience  was divided into segments with different interests and people listened to music in a number of places, including their cars. This all meant that some radio stations played music for adults and other stations played music for teens.

Not surprisingly, young people were tired of the music their parents listened to and they started to look for something new. The White teens of the major metropolitan areas such as New York, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles began to turn to the stations that played music by African American musicians they had never heard before. It turned out that the music being played on the so-called “Black” radio stations in those cities was Rhythm and Blues (R&B). This music was, of course, familiar to the Black population in America, but many White parents hadn’t considered that their teens might or should like it. Since the White audience was so much larger than the Black audience, radio stations and record companies engineered their marketing as if a major shift in listening patterns was about to occur. In order to keep the White audience, as well as to appeal to the Black audience, they needed to broadcast and promote R&B, or something like R&B.

So-called “White” radio stations began playing Big Joe Turner’s song “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” while the “White” record companies started looking for white musicians that played something resembling R&B (in the foolish belief, soon to be proved wrong, that white kids wouldn’t buy records by Black performers). Very soon, new White musicians joined the the music scene, like Bill Haley and His Comets (originally a country band called the Saddlemen) and soloists like Elvis Presley, who also brought a strong country background to the music, and this combination of R&B and Country was marketed as Rock and Roll.

These influences combined in a simple, Blues-based song structure that was fast, sexy, catchy and could be danced to easily and with excitement. These qualities, along with the fact that it horrified mostly white adults in general and parents in particular, that teenagers were so taken with the music made popular by African Americans. Either way, what happened in the Jazz Age of the 1920s also happened 30  years later on larger scale, when the American White youth market, for the first time, had their own music and youth culture.

Youth Culture

Ironically, record producers were banking on the idea that mostly White parents would be suspicious of Rock and Roll music, because it derived from the Blues, sung by Black people. Young people on the lookout for their own style of music began to ignore this racist perspective and became the largest recording market since the development of the phonograph, with record copies selling by the millions, instead of thousands. Young people with money to spend in a prosperous economy bought phonographs and personal radios; and the generation gap between parents and young people became much more common.

It was this way in other mass media, too. The differences between generations that we just discussed created what would be known through the 20th century as “the generation gap” propelled by the media. The Mass media, especially radio, television, and film created a multi layered culture, with the press reporting in one voice the uneasiness of a rift between Rock and Roll teens and their parents, while another voice aired television programs that focused on “good”  wholesome teen life. Ricky Nelson was a teen heartthrob who starred in the TV show The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. His character “Ricky” was a polite well-mannered teen who also had a rock and roll band that played for school dances.

So the drama played out for parents and their teens, as if to model how young people who could have proper manners and still listen to Rock-and-Roll. But turn the channel and one could also find a variety show with Elvis Presley notoriously swinging his hips, which excited teens and offended the parents. Indeed, parental “finger-wagging” was often not enough to keep teens from watching audiences of young women screaming as Elvis gyrated across the stage.

In this way, the mass media was able to deliver multiple cultural narratives to parents and teens, who stood on opposing sides of the ever widening generation gap.

More Reading and Listening

Keep in mind this media-propelled gap between generations as you read through the biographies of musicians. You can find them on the Biographies menu:

Or just follow this list

Next Review what you know about two important musical instruments at the time: The Hammond Organ and the Electric Guitar.




Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

A Quick and Dirty Guide to Art, Music, and Culture Copyright © 2016 by Clayton Funk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book