Editor’s Note: Because you can’t just have politics all the time…
Rock: Its Origins, Nature, and Value
By Michael Edward Berumen
Rock ‘n’ Roll has many fathers and mothers and a greater number of opinions about who started it all. So naturally, I begin with my observations on its origins. One comes across many learned arguments about how the likes of Chuck Berry and Little Richard were the major architects of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and how it is an outgrowth of gospel and rhythm and blues. There are going to be inevitable references to the influence of country artists such as Hank Williams and Carl Perkins. And at some point, someone will mention the importance of disc jockeys such as Alan Freed and Dewey Phillips, who introduced and promoted the music in its early days, and of all-the important behind the scenes people such as the famed record producer, Sam Phillips, who discovered and groomed and polished the stylings of several of Rock’s most famous early interpreters. And of course, considerable attention will be devoted to the latter’s greatest find, Elvis Presley, who may not have “invented” the form, but certainly was a principal who packaged it all up, added his unique style to it, and was the first to make it go viral across the world.
But, one might reasonably ask, who influenced all of them? To what extent, for example, did Howlin’ Wolf influence Little Richard; and, in turn, how did artists such as the Mississippi Sheiks and Ma Rainey influence Howlin’ Wolf? Rufus Payne and Jimmie Rogers exerted considerable influence over Hank Williams, and who, in turn, were their influences? We know the gospel music sung at the African-American church young Elvis attended affected him profoundly. Presumably, the parishioners’ styles were handed down from one generation to the next and from neighbor to neighbor. What influence might recording artists such as Mahalia Jackson or Sister Rosetta Tharpe have had on those parishioners?
We cannot leave out the fact that some gospel favorites were composed by people of very different backgrounds, such as the classic “How Great Thou Art,” composed by the Swede, Carl Boberg, or the old standard, “Amazing Grace,” a creation of an Englishman and erstwhile slave-ship captain, John Newton. How did gospel and the blues intertwine with the day-to-day life of African Americans in various regions of the South, and what European forms might have affected them? How, in turn, was predominately southern music later transformed by inner-city life in places such as Chicago, New York, St. Louis, and Los Angeles in the migrations that occurred immediately following the Civil War and again later in the 20th century?
How and to what extent was the music found in Appalachian hollows and the backcountry of the Deep South influenced by the early Irish, Scottish, French, and British settlers? How did canción ranchera music of Mexico, its precursors, and local Native American music influence musicians in the southwest, strands that would find their way into the work of artists such as the Arizonan of Paiute Indian heritage, Marty Robbins, and the Dust Bowl music of migrants from places such as Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma that would inform the Bakersfield sounds of the likes of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard? What were the effects of Spanish music on the peoples of the Caribbean, many of whom were from various places in Sub-Saharan Africa, and to what extent were these Spanish styles, themselves, affected by the Roman conquerors of Iberia millennia ago, or the Germanic tribes that often invaded the area and, later on, by Roma or Moorish peoples? And how did these Caribbean styles affect the music in the southern states, given the proximity and cross-pollination among these cultures, and particularly in port cities such as New Orleans?
Might we also give Marconi, Edison, Tesla, and other inventors of technology their due for having developed the means of recording, amplifying, and transmitting the music, indeed, even modifying the way it sounds? How might things have been different had the phonograph or the radio not been invented, or had the transistor and integrated circuitry not transformed sound engineering and production techniques and capabilities, not to mention putting miniature sound devices into the hands of teenagers around the globe? And of course, the invention and continual modification of musical instruments have had an obvious influence on music over millennia.
However, technology is not the only thing that has a reciprocal relationship with music in terms of stimulating creativity, and it is not even the most obvious or ancient one. Rhythmic sound, cadences, beats all inform our physical movements, and our movements inform them. Dance styles arise from the music, and the dance styles themselves inform the possibilities of infinite combinations of notes. Take the Cuban cha-cha. The feet move in the cha-cha-cha pattern, which itself informs the patterns of how a composer will conceive and construct sounds from various instruments. Or consider the physicality of the Spanish flamenco with its complex footwork; the sound of the dance itself, of the shoes against floorboards can inspire the handiwork of the composer of guitar music. More to the matter at hand, there’s the dance every teen of my era knew, the twist, where the way and speed with which we swivel our hips are informed by the rhythms of the music, and where it is obvious that visualizing our movements inspires the composer.
One could go on and on with these kinds of questions, observations, and analyses. But it soon becomes interminably pedantic and similar to otiose theological discussions over matters such as the “true” nature of the Trinity, devolving into a species of medieval scholasticism, the kind of disquisition whereby reason turns against itself counting the proverbial number of angels on a pinhead.
Here is my point: the very question of who “invented” any particular genre of music is one that can never be answered fully or satisfactorily without also tracing its multifarious threads to the first human ancestor to have hummed a tune while gathering berries, to whoever first put melody to words, or to whoever noticed that thumping on an object created a beat pleasing to the ear. Often enough, there is an agenda behind ascribing the invention of a musical tradition to any one person or group of people. It is an exercise that most often occupies those with little or no knowledge of musicology or anthropology, and whose predetermined objective is to claim ownership of something. But music is not a piece of property that can be fenced off in quite the same way as a plot of ground or owned in the same way.
What we can do is identify key innovators who make use of the various musical and technological ingredients that obtain at a given time, and who discover new constituents to add to the world’s repertoire, combining them in various ways with the old to produce even newer forms that are destined to inspire yet other innovations. Such people are identifiable, but as Isaac Newton said about himself in relation to physics, they stand on the shoulders of many who went before them. In music, the past is always prologue, and finding a point of origin for every strand of inspiration is nearly akin to grasping hold of water.
There’s much we will never know, of course. For example, who first noticed how sound, rhythm, and cadence inspire certain bodily movements? Who discovered that air could be used to make mellifluous or orotund sounds when forced through natural objects such as a hollow stick or a seashell? Who was the first to create an instrument that was not produced by nature? Who, for example, designed the first simple, stringed instruments? We know the Egyptians used them thousands of years ago, but it seems likely they originated in even earlier civilizations? Who first used symbols to represent notes on a page? The Greeks certainly analyzed the nature of harmonics as early as the 5th and 4th centuries BCE with the systema ametabolon; but did other civilizations have a conception of such things even before them or concurrently in other places? One thing that we do know is that humankind originated in Africa, and it is an equally safe bet that music also originated there. That should settle a “who invented music” question: our African ancestors.
We also can assert with confidence that all musical forms since the earliest humans were adopted and then modified as one person, tribe, or clan encountered music from another person, tribe, or clan, thereby creating a trajectory of musical development that expanded with a geometric shape in a multitude of variations as humankind spread across the globe, and in a process that continues apace today among cultures and subcultures in every locale, from person to person, house to house, block to block, and city to city, nation to nation, and so on over the world. In this manner, all music was and continues to be “appropriated”––to use a now commonplace pejorative used rather too loosely by “woke” critics.
Some would have us believe that musical forms are proprietary and belong only to a particular group, as though it emerged endogenously and fully-formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. Others would say that once one adopts a style of music, Heaven forbid that one should experiment with another or dare abandon it for a different tradition, for that is apostasy of the highest order. It is an absurd criticism that one hears from the Puritans of musical rectitude. It is not a new thing, at all. Classicists said it about jazz artists, and acoustic folkies said it about electrified folkies, old country lovers say it about new country, and hard rockers say it about popish rock. But artists ought to be free to explore and move along a nearly infinite spectrum of musical and production possibilities without fear of opprobrium or being accused of heresy. Freedom of expression is a sine qua non of art, whereas pandering to orthodoxy and being enslaved to the preferences of the crowd each constitutes a grievous sin against it.
The fact is this: all music is based on what has transpired before it, and it is built on a manifold of borrowed influences. What is more, music has an inextricable relationship with technology, both in its more primitive and modern forms, and technology that is adopted and modified to suit the purposes at hand. Hard and fast bright lines that separate musical genres are impossible to draw. There is always borrowing from and bleeding onto other forms within every major classification of music.
It is easy to show that Rock ‘n’ Roll as a genre is informed by gospel, rhythm and blues, and country; but it is equally influenced by classical (e.g., symphonic music used by the Beatles and Moody Blues); jazz (e.g., as adopted by Jimi Hendrix and The Zombies); the blues (e.g., Rolling Stones); Eastern traditions (e.g., use of the sitar by The Byrds); folk (e.g., Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell); skiffle (e.g., Rory Storm & the Hurricanes and Billy Bragg); and flamenco (e.g., Gipsy Kings). And each of those influential forms, in turn, has had a host of other influential antecedents.
It should be noted, too, that Rock itself has influenced other musical forms since the 1950s, especially more strictly “pop” forms and modern country music, but also even modern orchestral music, jazz, and certainly hip hop in its cadences and beats and with its frequent sampling of Rock recordings.
So, who invented Rock ‘n’ Roll? Thousands upon thousands of men and women over a great many generations and in a great many places. When did it become Rock ‘n’ Roll? When someone first called it that and someone else repeated it. The question is simply not answerable in a way that will satisfy those who must have a first cause for things, any more than the so-called “first cause argument” satisfies philosophers who inevitably will ask what caused the unmoved mover, which is to say, “what caused the first cause?”
What is it about Rock ‘n’ Roll with its several derivatives (alternative, metal, grunge, pop-rock, psychedelic, etc.) that defines it as a distinguishable class or genre of music? One might suggest that it is having a snare-driven backbeat or a guitar or two. But there’s plenty of Rock music without drums, e.g., Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” just to name two. A great deal of early Rock was more driven by keyboards and horns. Guitars played a comparatively minor role for the likes of Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, James Brown, Dion, the Coasters, and Phil Spector. There are even bands today, including so-called heavy metal bands, that don’t use a guitar, or that rely on just a bass guitar for strings.
It is true that most Rock artists since the mid-fifties, beginning with Chuck Berry, Elvis, Buddy Holly, and others, have used guitars–––and if they were not used by the principal vocalist, they were used by a back-up musician who represented an essential role in the performance. Rock artists have used driving backbeats as major ingredients to their artistry, certainly before, but perhaps especially since the Beatles, with the snare and kick drums also as standout instruments. But these instruments are not peculiar to Rock and they are used extensively in other genres, as well. So what, then, is it that more uniquely defines Rock, if anything at all?
Whether or not it is unique, using the word in its strictest, “only” sense, I submit that there are three major characteristics embedded in the musical styles of Rock and its derivatives, both sonically and lyrically, and that at least one and often enough all three will be observed in the various iterations and styles of Rock. I am referring to Youthfulness, Angst, and Rebellion. In turn, each of these can all be encapsulated within one overarching concept and word, namely, Attitude. Rock is all about attitude. That is its essence, I believe–––what defines it–––and to borrow what Justice Potter said about pornography when he saw it, I know it when I hear it.
I shall now briefly describe what I mean using the three foregoing attitudes to illustrate my point.
Youthfulness is nearly always an attribute of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Brain science teaches what we’ve always known, and that is that young people feel more deeply and they act more impulsively. Our senses are at their height of receptivity when we are young, and our emotions are at their peak response to external inputs and also to the kinds of interior thoughts that most often beset young folks. Love, fear, swagger, rage, excitement, joy, sorrow, self-consciousness, awkwardness, jealousy, and just about any emotion or circumstance one can imagine. When we are young, they are more intensely felt. The central control of emotions and impulse, our amygdala, is not fully developed until we are in our twenties, and the amygdalae of males develop more slowly than females. For most of us, age has a way of calming or containing our feelings, and they are increasingly less likely to instigate the kinds of impulsive responses that often accompany youth. But they do not ever entirely disappear, and shadows of their intensity from the past can be summoned with the sounds of music.
Music has always captivated the young and it is obvious why: music brings out an emotional response, and the young are especially attuned to emotions. It is no coincidence that some of the greatest works were composed by relatively young artists throughout history. Mozart, for example, composed many great pieces in his teens and twenties. But it is fair to say that Rock was especially entrancing to youth when it arrived on the scene, for it spoke the emotional language of the young perhaps more clearly than ever before. It was loud, intense, dramatic, rousing, sensitive, bumptious, garrulous, sexual, and it inspired unrestrained erotic and sexual bodily movements more than most other forms of dance.
It is no coincidence that many older people are geared more to music that was popular when they came of age, for as I have previously averred, that is the time in our lives when we feel most intensely and passionately about, well, nearly everything, and the limbic imprint music of that period leaves on our minds remains powerful over the years as a kind of musical engram. Thus, it is not at all surprising that my elders preferred the big band sounds of Glenn Miller over the Beatles or Rolling Stones, while today’s youth tend to prefer Nicki Minaj or Greta van Fleet to the hitmakers of my generation. However, with that said, it is not at all uncommon to see older folk taken in by current Rock or its several derivatives when they are exposed to it, sometimes in a format that is more countrified, for example, as with the music of Keith Urban, or more pop-oriented music, such as Taylor Swift’s or Katy Perry’s. It puts them in touch with their prior selves, which never entirely disappears from our consciousness.
Indeed, newer music that can broadly be classified as Rock will bring out a kind of youthfulness in older people when they give it a chance. I have paid attention to what the young listen to over the years, and throughout, I have found there is much about newer music to enjoy or even love. Consequently, as a characteristic, Youthfulness does not suggest that it is only for the young, but rather that it is inspired by the penetrating feelings most associated with youth, granting it is a more of a memory of how we felt as we age, but one that music, and especially Rock music, helps us recollect more vividly, and even to feel a bit of the old intensity, even if it is only fleeting.
Angst has many variations, but its essential features are characterized by a kind of generalized feeling of anxiety and dread. Anxiety entails apprehension and nervousness, whereas dread consists of fearfulness and trepidation. Angst occurs when there is despair or despondency over things that lie beyond our control. The feeling can be found in matters of love, politics, race, environment, or any number of specific things, or it can be non-specific, a feeling that just overwhelms us without a particular object. These emotions are not uncommon among the young, in particular, and especially as they face the unknown future that lies ahead of them. Such feelings can arise at any age, of course, though on average their intensity will diminish with age and they are less likely to compel us to act upon them.
Rock music often evinces angst, and it even plays a central role in entire sub-genres of Rock, such as the punk sounds of the Sex Pistols or Seattle grunge of bands such as Nirvana, not to mention the more blues-based Rock of the early Rolling Stones. But angst also finds its way into mainstream Rock in the tunes such as Crosby, Stills Nash & Young’s politically charged “Ohio,” written in response to the tragedy at Kent State in 1970; Cream’s plaintive lament in “White Room”; Buffalo Springfield’s “For What it’s Worth,” inspired by the arrests of protestors demonstrating against a curfew and loitering on the Sunset Strip; and the more non-specific angst expressed in Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” It can be heard in the lovelorn tunes of artists as different as Janis Ian in the 1960s and Avril Lavigne among contemporary rock artists, and even in the emotion-laden bubblegum Rock appealing to people in their early teen years or even younger.
Rock speaks to the kind of anxiousness that we can feel about unrequited or unreciprocated love, or of jealousy, each occupying a large chunk of romantic songs associated with Rock; the darker forces that we must face in the world such as war, racial hatred or––and especially in the more recent music of the Me Too era––misogyny; or just a more generalized kind of despair, the kind expressed in songs such as the Stones’ “Paint it Black,” a feeling of dread that youth seem especially prone to experiencing.
Rebellion represents a revolt against authority, legitimate or otherwise––raging against the machine, the man, our parents, social conditions, conformity, orthodoxy, constraint, rules, chastity, and expectations. Rebellion is fundamental to Rock ‘n’ Roll music. From the day Little Richard simpered across stage with mascara and Elvis lustily shook his pelvis; to when Jim Morrison refused to change the line, “Girl we couldn’t get much higher” when the Doors did “Light My Fire” live on The Ed Sullivan Show; to Portugal the Man’s anti-religious screed, “Modern Jesus,”–––rebellion has been an essential part of Rock’s nature and it is an important reason for its longevity, for there’s always something or someone against whom to rebel.
The raw sexuality of early Rock was purposeful and deliberate in setting parents everywhere on edge with its primal masculinity and overtly coquettish femininity on full display. This aspect of Rock has never really gone away, though it has been amply punctuated by more saccharine tunes, and has been since the early days when the likes of Pat Boone and Bobby Vee mollified the orthodox with more innocuous tunes. But make no mistake: Rock is very much about sex: wanting it, seeking it, and having it. And that most certainly is a rebellion against what most parents want their children to be doing or what moral scolds of all ages prefer to be hidden away and not mentioned.
The protest folk-Rock of the 60s by Bob Dylan and others questioned authority and orthodoxy, themes that would soon infuse more mainstream music. Then the sounds of psychedelia in bands like the Jefferson Airplane veered into mysticism and invited us to expand our minds, and drug usage often represented the subtext. The punk rock of the 70s said “fuck you” to the world, and the glitz, big hair, and androgyny of the 80s said, “look at me, I’m not you.” Rebellion came back full force with the Rock-influenced rap of groups like NWA in the late 80s and early 90s declaiming against police brutality in songs such as “Fuck the Police,” and then, after a seemingly interminable period of pre-pubescent calm of cutesy pop, glee club vocalizing, and lullaby-style music in the mainstream during the 90s and early 2000s, where hitting high notes was esteemed more than musical composition and originality, artists come-a-roaring against bigotry in its various forms in anthems such as Miley Cyrus’ “Mother’s Daughter.”
Attitude. In sum, that is what defines Rock ‘n’ Roll. It encapsulates all that is important about it. Whether it is soft, hard, metal, acoustic, electric, or pop-rock, it is all about the attitude that makes it what it is. There are common elements to be found in the way the music is composed, to be sure; but none are especially unique to Rock. More central are the way it is presented and the intention behind it, what it is meant to evoke, and then, the feeling it actually does evoke, which is to say, the attitude is in the denotation and the attitude is in the connotation, and the denoted and connoted attitudes consist of one or more of what is evinced by Youthfulness, Angst, and Rebellion.
Why does Rock ‘n’ Roll matter? I will tell you why. It matters because it is the music that impels us to feel a particular way. It is music that can get you up and out of your chair and obliges us to desire things and behave a certain way, whether it is wanting sex, driving a car fast, bobbing our heads, drumming on the table, cutting a rug, or in the immortal words of Howard Beale, “Go to your windows. Open them and stick your head out and yell: ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!’” It motivates, invigorates, energizes, sexualizes, challenges, informs, and reforms. It puts you in touch with your youth, in deals with your inner lizard brain, and it lets you burst forth unchained from stifling convention.
There’s music to calm you; music to waltz by; music to fall to sleep to; music to entertain; music to make one reverential; and music to be sentimental to–––these are all good and worthy of appreciation. However, no other musical form does quite as much and does so in as many ways as Rock to express our unfettered id and our primal nature. It is a release that no other form duplicates. It is bold and insolent. It subsumes defiance when we are loving or lovelorn, telling others to go fuck themselves when they need to be told, or when we are driving home the unpleasant realities about the society in which we live. Rock enlivens our potential energy and makes it kinetic. It is an attitude that seeks to rouse us from somnolence and gives us the power to face the day or come what may. We will always need that. And, therefore, by any other name or description, we will always need Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Michael Berumen is a retired CEO and a published author on diverse topics including economics, mathematics, music, politics, and philosophy. He has lectured to civic, academic, and business audiences internationally, and testified before the US Congress and local legislative and regulatory bodies as an expert witness on health insurance reform. He has served on various boards of directors. Among other publications, he is the author of the book Do No Evil: Ethics with Applications to Economic Theory and Business. An Army veteran, aviator, kung fu sifu, outdoorsman, music lover, former juvenile delinquent, CSUEB and Stanford alum, and longtime Californian, he and his wife retired to the northern Colorado countryside. He plays around with the piano and guitar. He still takes on speaking engagements on a limited basis.