Intro Notes - What Is Rock and Roll? Rock and roll, at...

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What Is Rock and Roll? Rock and roll, at best, is an inexact and imprecise term that now covers tens of thousands of songs written and recorded between the mid-1950s and the present. Initially, rock and roll referred to the music created by artists like Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley that grew out of late 1940s and early 1950s rhythm & blues and up-tempo country songs. Most of these songs were characterized by their focus on rhythm with an emphasis on the backbeat in what, at the time, became a fairly distinct style. Heavy metal, which first appeared in the late 1960s, is now broken into dozens of subgenres including black metal, death metal, Goth metal, grindcore, groove metal, industrial, nu metal, power metal, speed metal, thrash, and many more. From its beginnings, popular music has been an inclusive art where cross-influence was more the rule than the exception and diversification the result. As a consequence, blues songs became country songs and, years later, those country songs would influence blues artists and once again become blues songs. As an example of the circular pattern of influence and change, “Old Zip Coon,” a minstrel show song that was based on a country folk tune titled “Natchez Under The Hill,” later became the country classic “Turkey In The Straw” and recently formed the basis for Jibbs’ hip-hop song, “Chain Hang Low.” Hank William’s first major hit, “Lovesick Blues,” was a Tin Pan Alley song written in 1922 that first became a hit in 1925 as a minstrel show song by blackface singer/comic Emmett Miller, later was a popular blues song, and finally found its way into country music a quarter century after it was first introduced. Put simply, when the audience accepts a song as a rock and roll song — or a country song or a rhythm & blues song — it becomes part of that genre, not because it conforms to some rigid definition, but because the audience recognizes it as belonging to a broader category in popular music. In the 1920s, Jimmie Rodgers sang blues songs, often backed by jazz and blues artists like Louis Armstrong, that were accepted as country tunes even though the only “country” elements were Rodgers’ twangy Mississippi vocals and his signature yodels, which at the time were not particular to country music and originally came from Swiss folk tunes. Similarly, Elvis Presley’s 1960 hit “Are You Lonesome Tonight” was originally recorded by Al Jolson in 1927, but is now generally regarded as a “rock and roll ballad,” despite the fact that it was a Tin Pan Alley song recorded more than twenty-five years before rock and roll even existed. The recognition of any song as belonging to a specific genre may be akin to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s understanding of obscenity. In 1964, in his opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio, Justice Stewart found that obscenity was often a matter of “trying to define what may be indefinable,” but, he went on to say, “…I know it when I see it.” While attempting to define rock and roll as it is understood by a contemporary audience
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This note was uploaded on 02/24/2009 for the course INART 116 taught by Professor Jeffvanfossan during the Spring '08 term at Pennsylvania State University, University Park.

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Intro Notes - What Is Rock and Roll? Rock and roll, at...

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