What is Rock and Roll? The Evolution of Rock and Roll (Past to Present)
The following is an excerpt from the School of Rock Education Guide, which covers show history, dramaturgy, and in-class activities. For more, download the Education Guide for free on the School of Rock show page.
Dewey Finn may not be the most traditional teacher around town, but he does know a thing or two about the power of rock and roll. Let’s explore all things “rock and roll” – what it is, how it came to be, its cultural impact, and how it has changed through the last century.
WHAT IS ROCK AND ROLL?
Rock and roll is a genre of music first named in America in the 1950s, often characterized by a fusion of rhythm and blues, jazz, gospel, Western swing, and country music. The music reflected a reaction to the straight-laced suburban fifties and an older generation holding onto the jazz and big band soundtrack of Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and several classic jazz artists. It became the music of the youth the lower class, and the disenfranchised. Ultimately, rock and roll was as much about the lifestyle, the clothes, and the rebellion as it was about the music itself.
HOW DID IT COME TO BE?
The origins of rock and roll began with the Great Migrations of the 1900s as African Americans moved from the rural South to the bigger cities of the North. With them, they brought the sounds of gospel, folk, and rhythm and blues. On July 11, 1951, Alan Freed, a disc jockey in Cleveland, aired music from African American artists on his program, “The Moondog House,” at the Cleveland radio station WJW. Freed, considered the father of rock music, coined the term “rock and roll” for this new music that was averse to the former generation of jazz standards and big band swing. In the movie Rock, Rock, Rock (1956), Freed stated “rock and roll is a river of music that has absorbed many streams: rhythm and blues, jazz, rag time, cowboy songs, country songs, folk songs. All have contributed to the big beat.”
In the 1950s, rock and roll was adopted by white teenagers in American suburbs, although many people banned the genre for its origins with the segregated African American community. Record producers tried to look for white musicians to emulate the sound and cash in on its growing popularity. With records such as Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” and Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right,” rock and roll was alive and well on the global map. Though the originally created the music, African American artists such as Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley and Little Richard finally became recognized at this time. Many historians credit the introduction of rock and roll as a precursor to the Civil Rights Movement and eventual racial integration of black and white people rock and rolling to the same beat.
ROCK MUSIC THROUGH THE DECADES
The popularity of rock and roll music began to dip in America in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Across the Atlantic, however, rock music was brewing up a revival and nurturing some of the most important artists of the genre, including The Beatles, The Animal, The Kinks, and The Rolling Stones. These bands gained popularity and eventually reached the States in what was called “The British Invasion.” Rock music began to birth new genres in the late 1960s into the 1970s, including psychedelic rock with The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Doors, and Pink Floyd. The style was marked by its culture and often fused folk, blues, and non-Western recording styles, including ragas and Indian music. Heavy metal rock also emerged during this time with Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Iron Maiden, which captured a more aggressive, louder sound with highly amplified distortion and extravagant guitar solos.
In the 1980s, rock music saw many forms, with bands such as Motley Crüe, Poison, Guns N’ Roses, Whitesnake, Cinderella, Journey, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, AC/DC, Twisted Sister, and Def Leppard. Music television (MTV and VH1) was born, and suddenly rock music was as concerned about its visual impact as it was about its sound. The diversity in rock music of the eighties reflected a full evolution of what the music and movement had become.
The 1990s brought grunge rock from Seattle, Washington, and the west coast. The music often used a high level of distortion, feedback effects, slower tempos, and complicated instrumentation. Bands such as Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Stone Temple Pilots conveyed lyrical topics of social alienation, apathy, and a need for freedom. More mainstream bands also emerged, such as U2, the Foo Fighters, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, with a softer rock sound that saw more commercial popularity. In the late 1990s and into the 200s, the music industry moved into the digital age, with file-sharing platforms such as Napster, iTunes, and Spotify. The rock sound continues to evolve into hybrids of different styles using new digital recording techniques. The range of contemporary rock music in vast, with bands such as Arcade Fire, The Killers, The Strokes, The Flaming Lips, and so many more. The rock music of today reflects the accessibility of music to influence and change each subgenre.
Though rock and roll has taken on many forms and many sounds, the spirit of the music remains: to live wild, free, and honestly. So hit the lights, turn up the amp, and get your game face on. It’s time to rock and roll!
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(photo: Tristram Kenton)