What's the First Rock 'n' Roll Song?

Ask 12 people to name what they think was the first rock 'n' roll song, and you're likely to get a dozen different answers. But a Southeastern Louisiana University professor claims he knows the real answer.

Rock historian Joseph Burns, who doubles as a professor of communication, says it's "That's All Right Mama," a September 1946 release by Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup.

Burns says the first rock 'n' roll song should have the following four characteristics, and "That's All Right Mama" has them all:
1. It should draw heavily from the blues and country.
2. It should be in a danceable, hit format.
3. There should be hints of a jazz, gospel or folk influence.
4. There should be a technological influence.

"It's a lot to ask of one song," he admitted. "Few fit the bill." Burns, who hosts the weekly radio program "Rock School" on Southeastern's KSLU 90.9 FM, says other candidates for the No. 1 honor could include:

  • "How High the Moon" by Les Paul and Mary Ford

  • "The Honey Dripper" by Joe Liggens

  • "Boogie Chillen'" by John Lee Hooker

  • "The Fat Man" by Fats Domino

  • "(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and the Comets

  • "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats

But in his mind, "That's All Right Mama," a great rockabilly piece with a blues melody line over top, wins out as the first rock 'n' roll song. "It's sung with power, may contain the first guitar solo break, and, as a remake, became one of Elvis' first singles," he explains.

What is the origin of the term "rock 'n' roll"? "It started as a nautical phrase meaning the movement of the boat up and down and back and forth," Burns said. "Sometime in the late 1800s to early 1900s, gospel and jubilee music co-opted the term and used it to mean being rocked and rolled in the arms of the Lord. In fact, the first recorded use of the term in a song was 'Camp Meeting Jubilee' in 1916."

Sometime between that recording and the early 20s, according to Burns, the term "rock 'n' roll" started to leave the church and began to be used in blues and vaudeville music as a euphemism for sex. He cites as examples Trixie Smith's "My Man Rocks Me With One Steady Roll" in 1922, "Rock That Think" by Lil' Johnson and "Rock Me Mama" by Banjo Ikey Robinson.

Burns said blues wasn't the only music using the term then, citing big band greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Benny Goodman who used it in their music, as well as famous gospel singers like Sister Rosetta Tharp, who sang re-written lyrics to popular church songs so the phrase could be included.

"Even country artists were using the term in a new form of music that sounded like an early form of rockabilly," he said. "Buddy Jones was an early popular singer in the genre with his song 'Rockin' Rollin' Mama.'"

Burns explained that using the term alone isn't enough to give a song the title of being the first rock 'n' roll record.

"Too often rock 'n' roll is described as the coming together of blues and country, but that's too simplistic," he said. "Rock 'n' roll is a much more complex music that draws from six forms of music, three dominant and three sub-dominants."

He lists the dominant forms of music as blues for the basic chord progressions, country for stringed instruments becoming dominant and major melody lines and what was then termed "white pop" and "tin pan alley" style music for the concept of dance and hit song writing. The sub-dominant forms of music, Burns said, are jazz for a boogie-woogie beat, gospel for the vocal influence and folk for the influence of social concern.

So how did the term rock 'n' roll become associated with the music? Burns said it was probably the influence of radio, but one disc jockey in particular: Alan Freed.

"Freed was the Moondoogie on WJW in Cleveland, Ohio and the host of the 'Rock and Roll Show' on WINS in New York City," he said. "He was so massively popular through radio, television, movies and records, that he led the way for rock 'n' roll to become a legitimate music form recognized by the music industry and not just another short-lived genre."

--From the Editors at Netscape

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