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Rock's First Song?
November 23, 2010 8:33 PM   Subscribe

Rock historian Joseph Burns makes a case for why Arthur Big Boy Crudup's "That's All Right Mama" should be regarded as rock & roll's first song. Not everyone agrees - clips to some of the other contenders inside. Or explore Google's Rock & Roll Timeline.

Other "first rock song" contenders from the article:
Les Paul & Mary Ford - High How the Moon, on Alistair Cooke's "Omnibus" (10/23/1953)
Joe Liggins - The Honeydripper
John Lee Hooker - Boogie Chillen"
Louis Jordan - Saturday Night Fish Fry
Fats Domino - The Fat Man
Bill Haley & the Comets - Rock Around the Clock - on Ed Sullivan 1955
Rocket 88 - Jackie Breston & the Delta Cats - and Ike Turner
Arthur Big Boy Crudup - That's All Right

Early songs cited as using the term "rock & roll"
Camp Meeting Jubilee - 1916
Trixie Smith - My Daddy Rocks Me - c.1925-29
Buddy Jones - Rockin' Rollin Mamma - 1939

More early rock history via Wikipedia and more "first rock song" contenders cited in Wikipedia:
Sister Rosetta Tharpe - Strange Things Happening Everyday - 1944
Roy Brown - Good Rockin Tonight - 1946
Jimmy Preston - Rock This Joint

More R&R Timelines
History of Rock and Roll Visual Timeline
Rock 'n' Roll Timeline 1877-1959
History of Rock Music - the Beginnings
Rock N' Roll Timeline
Rock & Roll Timeline.
posted by madamjujujive (45 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
No, the first rock song is the one that so utterly co-opts the back-beat blues from its origins that a British teenager could make a million bucks singing it.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:45 PM on November 23, 2010


I've never quite understood the obsession with the discovery/determination of the "first rock song." I'll definitely grant that music history is fascinating, but trying to pick the first rock song seems even harder than looking at a color wheel and picking the "first green hue." Same thing seems to happen roughly 25 years later when people try to label the first "metal" or "heavy metal" songs.

Until someone comes along with a sound that is so revolutionary that it's impossible to categorize and demands its own genre, I'm comfortable not knowing what the first ___ song was.
posted by explosion at 8:46 PM on November 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh shit, what an awesome post. I knew you was good people.
posted by nola at 8:48 PM on November 23, 2010


BTW, did everyone else but me know about the Google timelines? (Last link in fpp) You can drill down by decade, then by year, and then by month. It's a really fun toy.
posted by madamjujujive at 8:49 PM on November 23, 2010


OK, now what was the last?
posted by Capt. Renault at 8:50 PM on November 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.
posted by kozad at 8:51 PM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


In case anyone's counting, my vote is for Bill Haley or Maybellene. Everything before that, while great, was identifiable with other genres, blues, r&b, rockabilly, etc. 1955 was the breakthrough, when the flowers burst through the earth.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:52 PM on November 23, 2010


OK, now what was the last?

Arcade Fire - Month of May ?
posted by John Cohen at 8:56 PM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder.

{off topic}

(but i used the timeline;)
posted by clavdivs at 8:59 PM on November 23, 2010


Undeniably "Rocket 88."
posted by blucevalo at 8:59 PM on November 23, 2010 [4 favorites]


In May, 1955, with an introduction from Waters, Berry went to Chicago to audition for Leonard Chess in hopes of landing a recording contract. Berry thought his blues material would be of most interest to Chess, but to his surprise it was the hillbilly "Ida Red" that got Chess' attention. Chess, a great blues label, in recent years had seen its market shrink and was looking to move beyond the rhythm and blues market and Chess thought Berry might be that artist that could do it. So on May 21, 1955 Berry recorded, "Ida Red" renamed "Maybellene," the name taken from a line of cosmetics, with Johnny Johnson, Jerome Green (from Bo Diddley's band) on the maracas, Jasper Thomas on the drums and blue legend Willie Dixon on the bass. Johnson's piano playing, the heavy drums and maracas and Berry's lead style gave Maybellene the hard rhythm and blues feel that balanced the country elements. Maybellene reached the pop charts and #1 on the rhythm and blues charts.

To help get airplay Chess gave a copy of the record to the influential disc jockey Alan Freed.. In return Freed and his associate Russ Fratto were given two-thirds of the writing credits, something that Berry was unaware of until the song was released and published. Freed aired the single for two hours on WINS in New York. The song went on to sell over a million copies, reaching #1 on Billboard's R & B chart and #5 on the Hot 100.


It's got it all: country, blues, electricity, African instruments, unsponsored product placement, payola, the singer singing a song he wrote but stole most of from another culture and yet improvises during the recording to make it indelibly of its time...it may not have been first, but it was perfect.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:02 PM on November 23, 2010 [5 favorites]


It gives them life and rears them.
It gives them life yet claims no possession;
It benefits them yet exacts no gratitude;
It is the steward yet exercises no authority.
Such is called the mysterious virtue.


rock-n-roll tao
posted by clavdivs at 9:03 PM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Shake Rattle & Roll should be at least in the discussion, shouldn't it?
posted by Trochanter at 10:04 PM on November 23, 2010


Elvis would vote for this song I'm sure. He continued to use it in live performances frequently, right up to the end. It was often his first song, which the opening riff blended into. Here's a fun version from a rehearsal for his '69 comeback special (I believe).
posted by kevinsp8 at 10:17 PM on November 23, 2010


Going to school in Memphis, I got to do some fun stuff like taking a course called History of Rock N' Roll. My teacher, a genial jug band musician turned professor, played Crudup's original of "That's All Right, Mama" back-to-back with Elvis Presley's cover. He said there was no clear line for where R&B leaves off and rock n' roll begins. But, he said, listening to Crudup's version, which is essentially a man telling an ex he'll soldier on without her, then Presley's, whose vibe might be better explained as "Who the hell needs you anyway?" it's hard to miss that something is very different.

The whole process of trying to pinpoint the exact moment, the exact song that change took root is a tiresome one. And all too often, it's paired with the ugly business of trying to make rock n' roll a white thing or a black thing. It's an American folk music thing, y'all. And trying to pin it to one song is missing out on the whole messy, exciting history of it all.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:24 PM on November 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


Other fun originals/covers he compared in this vein:

Little Junior & the Blue Flames' "Mystery Train" vs. Presley's - The former is a sad shuffle about the train that took a guy's girl away, the latter is a jittery tune about going to get that girl back.

Billy "The Kid" Emerson's "Red Hot" vs. the version by Billy Lee Riley and His Little Green Men - The former song features Emerson saying his girl is red hot, then his band demurring, then him sticking up for her. Riley sings it as a message to you that your girl is nothing next to his.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:29 PM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, for a genre of music, wouldn't you need more than one song? So, for something to be the first Rock and Roll song, you need at least two Rock and Roll songs, but take away that second song and you don't have a genre anymore, you just have one, strange song. And like many, many things, genres - like Rock and Roll change over time, so the first song, isn't going to be similar to the, "last" (which, if you flip this argument around, also doesn't exist) song - sort of how chimps don't look too much like bacteria, but evolutionarily, they're connected.

That means, there isn't a first song, without every rock and roll song.

Come to think of it, that sort of applies to everything.

(Goes off to ponder...)
posted by alex_skazat at 12:17 AM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


That Les Paul clip is awesome. Clearly, he was the first rock and roll nerd.

For anyone who doesn't know, he essentially invented modern multitrack recording. Even if he doesn't get credit for the first rock song (which wouldn't be too big a stretch) he deserves ALL the credit for making modern recording possible. If you like Prince, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Badly Drawn Boy, Sparklehorse, Nine Inch Nails, Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix, Postal Service, among countless others, you have Les Paul to thank for making their best known recordings possible.
posted by mexican at 1:36 AM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


This post rocks.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:08 AM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


explosion: I've never quite understood the obsession with the discovery/determination of the "first rock song.

For me the conversations, debates, and tangents that go along with this unanswerable question are part of the fun of being a music nerd. The definitive answer is a destination we'll never get to, but the journey is a hell of a lot of fun and has an amazing and ever growing soundtrack.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 2:33 AM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


[Les Paul] essentially invented modern multitrack recording.

Plus, his parents named him after a guitar, which I always thought was cool.
posted by sexymofo at 3:10 AM on November 24, 2010 [10 favorites]


In first with smug and pompous contrarianism! The first rock song was Beethoven's Hammerklaviersonate, thus proving the superiority of my preferred type of music. Sincerely, a guy who will write an article one month later proclaiming the death of my preferred type of music and blaming it on Schoenberg and Cage. Still.
posted by No-sword at 3:48 AM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


What!? No Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee by Stick Mcghee and his Buddies? At least it's electric.
posted by scruss at 4:40 AM on November 24, 2010


What!? No Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee by Stick Mcghee and his Buddies?

Learn more here!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:47 AM on November 24, 2010


Until someone comes along with a sound that is so revolutionary that it's impossible to categorize and demands its own genre, I'm comfortable not knowing what the first ___ song was.
I'm pretty damn sure I read somewhere that the first Rock n Roll song was done by Calvin Klein at a high school prom in the 1950's. He was never seen again.
posted by hal_c_on at 4:47 AM on November 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


"Camptown Races" by Stephen Foster. It's got it all: irresistible rhythm, black/white counterpenetration, nonsense syllables, alliterative use of the letter "B" -- everything but sleazy sex and some mention of "my baby." If not that, I'd look to the world of gospel music for the first rock song. African American R&B performers strip-mined the gospel tradition to create their music, and I wouldn't be surprised if way back in the late 1800s, some preacher didn't set the whole thing off by singing "Rock me Jesus ... "
posted by Faze at 4:56 AM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Whatever the first r/r song, the thing that amazes me is the astonishing speed with which the form developed and mutated once it had crossed the Atlantic. From Love Me Do to Anarchy in the UK in 14 goddamn years. I've always thought a movie about those 14 years would be amazing.
posted by unSane at 4:56 AM on November 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's also interesting to see what's remained constant about rock music and what's changed.

constant -- snare backbeat, eighth-note feel, ostinato bass, drums, lead and rhythm guitar, vocals, AABABCB structure

changed -- blues tonality now optional, shuffle feel now completely gone, I-IV-V very rarely encountered in unmodified form, sax almost never encountered
posted by unSane at 5:02 AM on November 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm pretty damn sure I read somewhere that the first Rock n Roll song was done by Calvin Klein at a high school prom in the 1950's. He was never seen again.

Chuck Berry Remembers Call From Cousin About White Kid Playing 'Johnny B. Goode'
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 5:13 AM on November 24, 2010


Plus, his parents named him after a guitar, which I always thought was cool.

good joke and all, but the guitar named after him is not only one of the 2 most iconic rock guitars, but is based on a guitar he made himself which was the first solid body electric guitar ever; which he fucking invented! I'm a les paul fan.
posted by mexican at 5:46 AM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Great post, thanks, madamjujujive. Have to add one essential band that seems to always get overlooked in these discussions, Lionel Hampton's early 40s outfit, which recorded the amazing 1942 version of "Flying Home," with a sax solo by Illinois Jacquet starting about a minute in that was hugely influential on a generation of rocking sax players to come. The sound on that video doesn't begin to convey how awesome the song is, which in addition to the solo has an insane building groove and shrieking climax that put it into the upper pantheon of "first rock song ever" for sure.

This relatively unknown collection is the one to get if you want to hear what rock 'n' roll sounded like in the early 1940s. Amazing.
posted by mediareport at 5:52 AM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


pfft. call me when you can name the first post-shoegaze indie grungecore song.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 5:59 AM on November 24, 2010


Undeniably "Rocket 88."

Thanks for the vote, but I've always considered the song to be jump blues. Same for "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee".
I guess the closest to a difinitive answer would be whatever song Alan Freed was talking about when he coined the phrase (as a music style...the phrase "rock and roll" was around long before)
posted by rocket88 at 7:08 AM on November 24, 2010


Fats Domino always said he was playing rock and roll before they ever called it that. But the truth is, you can't treat music like a paleontologist treats the fossil record, especially not in a place where there has been as much clashing and blending of diverse cultures as the United States. In order to determine what the first rock and roll song is, you first have to determine what rock and roll is, as though that can be pinned down with any precision. Backbeat? That was a staple of rhythm and blues from the 1940s. Riff-based? Chalie Parker once wrote a riff-based song called "Now's The Time" which somehow turned into "The Hucklebuck," a rock and roll standard. There's not even a thin line separating many of Bill Haley's recording from jump blues -- had rock and roll not become a preferred term, he probably would have been known as a jump blues saxophonist. (In fact, a British jazz journal reviewed "Rock Around the Clock" with these mistaken words: "(A) jump blues by relatively unknown coloured group. Bill Haley blues shouts quite effectively, borrowing some of the tricks of Josh White. The band plays in a modern Harlem swing style."

So we're sifting through piles of bones, trying to find the moment that marked the clear transition from one species to another, when that transition never happened. Rock and roll was primarily a marketing terms for assembling a diverse selection of music into one easy category to sell to teenagers, and it cast a wide net. It's not like r&b turned into rock and roll, or Elvis combined country and blues music into something new, it's that suddenly we started calling r&b by a new name, and we started calling jump blues by a new name, and we started calling uptempo hillbilly swing by a new name, and we started calling blues shouters by a new name, and we started calling Chicago-style electric blues by a new name. And, once it got a new name, things started to change. A lot of these artists found a new audience, and went on tour with each other, and started to influence each other in a more direct way. And new artists started to identify themselves specifically as being rock and roll artists, and that's where you start finding songs that really are self-consciously rock and roll.

My point is I don't think we should be looking backwards before Elvis to find the first rock and roll song. We should be looking forward from when Allan Freed first popularized the tune, to the moments when artists self-consciously made the switch and started deliberately defining the parameters of rock. Because, before then, it was another sort of music that got slapped with a new label.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:19 AM on November 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


The Star Spangled Banner was written way before any of these.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:29 AM on November 24, 2010


I believe Little Richard first recorded Tutti Frutti in '53, but he had been performing it for years before that.

It's an impossible call to make, because it impossible to pinpoint where blues slid into rock-and-roll. Rock and roll was really more of an attitude change than a music change. But, in my heart, Tutti Frutti was the first real R&R song. And Little Richard is definitely the King of Rock and Roll.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:55 AM on November 24, 2010


What's the first modernist painting?

What's the first punk song?
posted by klangklangston at 9:51 AM on November 24, 2010


I don't think paleontologists sift through the fossil record looking for the bones that meant that a species changed to another. You can find an individual fossil that will be heralded as "the oldest feathered specimen", but there's a big old implicit "yet" on such news, and sure enough, later on someone finds something older with feathers, and now everyone thinks that all dinosaurs had feathers and what's really different between them and birds again?

In conclusion, everything is a big pile of mush and we don't fuckin' know anything.
posted by breath at 11:12 AM on November 24, 2010


All I know about paleontologists is that you want one with you when fighting raptors.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:27 AM on November 24, 2010


you want one with you when fighting raptors.

And he should say: "We've got company..." every couple of pages.
posted by Trochanter at 2:35 PM on November 24, 2010


we started calling r&b by a new name

Actually, r&b itself was a new name around the same time. Jerry Wexler coined the term Rhythm and Blues for Billboard magazine in 1948, looking for a less offensive term than "race music".

Bo Diddley said r&b stood for "rip-off and bullshit" and claimed that it was used to ghettoize him and other black rockers.
posted by timeistight at 3:54 PM on November 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


The first rock song was Beethoven's Hammerklaviersonate

I think that was the first ragtime song. (Seriously, what a strange piece.) Excellent post.
posted by mothershock at 8:41 PM on November 24, 2010


Rocket 88 doesn't really have the snare backbeat, does it?
posted by unSane at 4:33 PM on November 25, 2010


Great post at Tuwa's Shanty:
Once you hear it, it becomes blindingly obvious: Rock’n’roll began at the exact moment when Wynonie Harris added a back beat to Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight.”

These three versions of the same song tell the whole story. First, listen to Roy Brown’s original jump blues from 1947. Brown was an unknown who actually offered the song to Harris, an established star, before he recorded it himself, but Wynonie turned it down until Brown’s version hit the charts. Roy had a strong, silky voice with a touch of quaver and phrasing that uncannily anticipates Elvis. You might even think he was an Elvis impersonator until you realize he started seven years earlier — which actually makes Elvis a Roy Brown impersonator!

When Wynonie covered “Good Rockin’ Tonight” that December (it was released in 1948), he did something that changed the history of music. “Good Rockin’ Tonight” was a satire of church people who weren’t just “rocking” (i.e., swaying to the music in church) but also “rocking” (i.e., dancing, and worse). Wynonie ratcheted up the satire a notch by adding a church rhythm, clapping hands on the back beat as they do in gospel. Listen to the back beat kick in, about 15 seconds into the song. That’s the sound of rock’n’roll being born.

...

Rock’n’roll was already fully formed by the end of 1948. That December, Roy Brown re-recorded the same song with just a few words changed under the name “Rockin’ at Midnight.” Same tune, almost the same lyrics, and with the same hand-clapping on the back beat that Wynonie Harris had introduced.

But something really interesting happens about 45 seconds from the end. All of a sudden, Brown starts repeating the phrase “We’re gonna rock” over and over again with a hard-driving rock’n’roll rhythm behind him. Wild Bill Moore had only just recorded the original version of “We’re Gonna Rock, We’re Gonna Roll” in November, and Jimmy Preston wouldn’t even cut the original “Rock the Joint” (which is what Roy comes closest to, except he sings “We’re gonna rock this house” instead of “rock this joint”) until the following year.

That was it. Rock'n'roll was here to stay.
posted by caek at 12:47 AM on November 26, 2010


The Ramones invented rock and roll in 1974. Duh.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 2:31 AM on November 26, 2010


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