The Roots Of 60s Rock
Okay, so you like 60s rock. But do you know anything about the inspiration for all that great music? If you do, you may want to skip this section. If you don't, or you'd like to know a bit more about the musical genres that spawned rock and roll, read on. If you really want to know where 60s rock came from, run out and buy some records by the artists I mention in this section; usually, these artists are far more interesting and entertaining than the more famous groups who rerecorded their material in the 1960s. It's worth noting that many of the artists who've become known as rockers didn't call the music they played rock 'n' roll, considering themselves either Chicago-style blues musicians (Eric Clapton), Rhythm & Blues artists (The Beatles) or both (The Rolling Stones).
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The 19th Century
All the most important twentieth century music genres in the Americas (except Country/Western and bluegrass) come from a combination of African rhythms and melodies with European harmonies, played on (mostly) European instruments. Rock 'n' roll is no exception. Born in the 1950's, and growing directly out of Country/Western and Rhythm & Blues, rock 'n' roll traces its roots back to the 19th century and even earlier.
Like jazz, rock and roll draws upon gospel spirituals and the blues - two styles of music developed in the 19th century by black musicians in the Southern U.S. Gospel - which, like the blues, is still popular today - is a form of Christian music, originally sung a capella. (Unlike in Cuba and Haiti, slaves in the 13 Colonies and the United States were generally not allowed to use drums or other musical instruments.) Gospel is a rich, passionate music, joyful and sorrowful by turns, and frequently involves call and response (following African tradition) in which a leader will sing one line and the chorus will answer; the lead line is often repeated with variations and embellishments. I don't really know who the earliest recorded gospel singers were; the best known is Mahalia Jackson, and more recently a number of pop and R&B singers have recorded gospel albums, including Aretha Franklin, Al Green and Phil Bailey. Many R&B and soul singers started out singing gospel, including Marvin Gaye, Franklin and Jackie Wilson.
Blues is a secular music, and while it usually reflects unhappy circumstances, it covers the whole range of subjects not appropriate for church music. (Although the lines even here are blurry; the chorus for one of the most famous early blues songs, "St. Louis Blues" by W.C. Handy, was derived from a line sung by a preacher calling his flock to church.) Musically, it is characterized by a three-line verse in which the first line is repeated twice (most often twelve bars although rural blues often had 10, 11 or 13 bars), basic chord progressions (typically I-IV- V) and the use of the "blues scale": a major scale with the addition of the flatted third and (less often) the flatted seventh, the performer using the flatted notes for added emotional effect. It's impossible to say exactly when blues started; W.C. Handy composed the first published blues song, "Memphis Blues," in 1905, but he said on many occasions that the style of music predated him, and that he was more of an ethnologist than a composer.
By the 1920's, two distinct styles of blues had emerged: City blues, which was performed by one singer backed by a full band, usually including drums, bass, piano, and wind instruments--this style, besides being more influenced by European harmonies and more palatable to white audiences, was also more danceable and very popular with black audiences as well. Country blues was usually performed by one musician who sang and (usually) played acoustic guitar as accompaniment. This is often known as Delta blues, because the foremost practicioners of the style lived in the Mississippi Delta region. Some of the best known early city blues singers were Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey; the best known country blues singers were Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Johnson and Elmore James were huge influences on 60s rockers like Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones, who listened religiously to scratchy old 78's by these guys.
Leadbelly, who was recorded in the 1930's while he served time on murder charges, was both a blues singer and a folk singer. "Folk" refers to just about any kind of traditional song, in any of a wide range of styles and patterns, often addressing social issues. (One way of looking at blues is just a kind of folk music that made it big.) The giant of U.S. folk music is Woody Guthrie, composer of "This Land Is Your Land" and many many others. A big folk song is one that everyone growing up in the country knows, although it never hit the sales charts. Folk music was a big influence on Country/Western, and later on rock and roll itself. In his early days, Bob Dylan was heavily influenced by Guthrie.
Country/Western, as I understand it, is basically an urban version of certain kinds of white folk music - traditional melodies made to fit into popular 16-bar forms and standard (major and minor scale) harmonies, blending symphonic and traditional instruments. C&W is usually played in strict 4/4 time, with an unsyncopated "2 and 4" bass. The biggest star of early Country/Western music is Hank Williams (the original one, not his annoying son). Country/Western was a big influence on folk-rockers like Steve Stills and Neil Young, and The Byrds, and a smaller but still significant impact on Bob Dylan, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
Around the same time that Country & Western emerged, city blues mixed with jazz and formed Rhythm & Blues - big band, usually dance-oriented music, that retained much of the flavor of the blues while using 32-bar forms and more complex chord progressions. Many Rhythm & Blues singers continued to succeed in the rock era: Ray Charles, for example, is still popular forty-some years later.
In the 1940's, as the popularity of big band jazz waned, many jazz musicians switched to R&B in order to stay alive (John Coltrane was one). They brought phenomenal technical chops and a great deal of musical sophistication to R&B, and jazz musicians were probably responsible for numerous innovations including syncopated bass lines.
Although jazz musician Charlie Christian had played guitar with an electric pickup as far back as the 1930's, it wasn't until the 1950's that the possibilities of the electric guitar became widely recognized, thanks largely to the efforts of guitar maker Leo Fender and guitarist Les Paul.
Following a huge postwar migration of Southern blacks to the Northern Midwest, country blues moved up to Chicago and got urbanized and electrified all at once. Chess Records artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Willie Dixon used electric guitars more prominently than they'd ever been heard before (although out of the three, only Waters was a lead guitarist himself). The Chicago blues scene was a huge influence on 60s rockers, and Howlin' Wolf and Willie Dixon tunes were recorded by everyone from genuine blues artists like Jimi Hendrix to blues popularizers like Led Zeppelin to teenyboppers who desperately wanted to demonstrate their authenticity (The Doors). Dylan's mid-60s period was also shaped by Chicago blues.
Chuck Berry, a singer and guitarist who recorded for Chess, put together his electric guitar sound, a driving 4/4 beat derived from Country/Western music but played at a faster tempo, and R&B instrumentation on his first single "Maybelline" in May 1955. I don't know who first called this kind of music "rock 'n' roll" - the term (like "jazz" before it) was originally black slang for sexual intercourse. Little Richard, originally an R&B singer, increased Chuck's rock tempo another couple of notches, and added R&B touches like wailing sax and syncopated bass. Another Chess artist, Bo Diddley, popularized the Deep South hambone rhythm, essentially the same as the "clave" which underlies Afro- Cuban music. By the end of 1955 rock 'n' rollers were everywhere, focusing on the emerging teen market.
Meanwhile, in Tennessee, Sun Records was looking to sell rock and roll to a white audience. (White pop singers were trying to sing rock and roll from the start - you should hear Pat Boone's version of Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" if you haven't yet - but none of them were anywhere close to the authentic sound.) Sun had Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins in their stable, but their crown jewel was Elvis Presley. Presley succeeded in putting black music across to a white audience, simplifying the music and becoming fabulously wealthy in the process - the Beastie Boys of his day. Incidentally, he left Sun Records at his first opportunity. More white rockers followed, including Bill Haley and the Comets, Buddy Holly (who used Diddley's hambone rhythm in his "Not Fade Away"), and others too sordid to mention. Middle-class white kids were dancing their heads off. Their parents were worried. The stage was set for the 1960s.