History of Rock: Early Influences, The Legacy


Rock and roll is the fusion of two races, two cultures, two distinct societies into an art form which surpasses all limitations and makes rules of its own. Early rock was simply black artists, and then later white artists covering those songs. To appreciate rock fully then, it’s important to understand what drove these early rockers to perform these songs.

So now, here it is: a brief history (because there’s just so much to be told) of rock’s early influences. From the working songs of the slaves, to the riffs of the blues guitar, from gospel and soul to the steady beat of jazz, rock’s beginnings are as rich and exotic as the land from which these performers came.

Many, many years ago, American plantation owners went over to Africa in search of workers to slave under them. The conditions these people were forced to live under were appalling, being the denied basic human rights and privileges addressed in the Declaration of Independance because they weren’t considered people. To endure this life, the workers sang songs while they worked the fields, seemingly, to the plantation owners, to pass the time, but really to show soliditarity and support. This was the working song, and it was the spark that lit the fire under blacks desire for respect. According to an African legend, song gave wings to the African people, to lift them over troubles and desperation, to bring them together as a people, and to remember their origins.

Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, blacks were still treated condescedingly and weren’t permitted to participate in many public activites. In effect, they were separated from the power-holding whites, in a policy known as segregation. Blacks had separate restauraunts, churches, washrooms, everything. They were assaulted, denounced and basically treated like dirt. Again, they turned to song to withstand this treatment. However, the working song of the plantation was no longer possible, since the blacks had long since broken the shackles of slavery. Instead, they sang in church. Yet another show of solidarity was the song of gospel, which praised their beliefs and brought them together. Traditional psalms and other church songs were set to an african beat, making church a fun experience for young and old. Gospel grew and grew in popularity, and soon branched out.

After a while, blacks wanted to share these songs outside of church. In clubs all over the south, particularily New Orleans, blues were being played. Blues, after all, were just another way to express the troubles of ones life while still keeping that heart-and-soul feeling of music. From the old acoustic blues was born jazz. Jazz was a milder version of blues, without its rawness, but still retaining its energy. Based on improvisation, jazz was a natural outlet for the artist’s emotions. Jazz and blues were rivals at first but soon collaberated to make some major changes in both forms of music. Jazz took on a more hard-nosed style, with saxophones really taking over the scene. Although other instruments were popular in jazz, such as the trumpet, the sax became best known for its influence on jazz. Blues, strangely enough, got rawer instead of picking jazz’s mellowness.

The new, modern blues style was still the same pace, but became electric. Literally. With the rise of blues came the rise of the electric guitar, namely the Gibson Les Paul. The electric guitar was unrivalled in its ability to soar to new heights. With the advent of rock, the electric guitar became the symbol of all that was wrong and rebellious in rock. It passed through the hands of geniuses who took it made madeit their own “electric voice.” Blues and jazz spread like wildfire, jazz popping up all over the east coast, mainly New York, and blues travelling along the Mississippi to the Mid-West, mainly Chicago.

As Muddy Waters, a legendary bluesman, once put it: “The blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll.” From the homeland of the Delta up to Chicago, the early forgings of rock could easily be heard. The feel-good songs of the early fifties soon succombed to the largest demographic ever seen, the baby boomers. They preferred the fresh new sounds coming out of black artists, and thanks to the many people who either helped get black songs on the air (Alan Freed), or opened their recording studios for black artists (Leonard Chess), black music could now be heard and enjoyed by all. Soon, it became not-so-black music as white artists who loved that Delta sound started changing their tunes, in more ways than one. Rock was now, it was hip, and was the voice of a new generation. As Danny and the Juniors put it, “Rock and Roll will never die/ It’ll go down in history.”