What IS ‘Rock and Roll’?

Dolly Parton-Photo by Lisa Bower

By “Tampa Earl” Burton, Rock At Night Columnist – Tampa

It often is a surprise to me that people cannot come up with the explanation for a simple word or phrase. Some may use a word frequently – think “conservatives” and the word communism, as an example – but have no clue what that word means. Others may THINK that they have the definition down but, in reality, they aren’t even in the ballpark. I see this often with one of my pastimes and, admittedly, one of my passions. 

The recent statement from country music legend Dolly Parton – and the response from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame about her statement – is in part what has sparked this essay. But it is something that has been bubbling up for quite some time. I often see people who SAY they are fans of “rock” music screeching about how Parton isn’t “rock” or that the Rock Hall has “inducted too many (insert genre here),” usually rap music. These and many other issues have been the impetus for my thoughts.  

Now, I don’t come to these thoughts just off the top of my head. I have been a part of the rock radio/journalism community for over 40 years. I’ve spent a great deal of time researching the music, learning about it, learning about where people came up with their inspirations and who influenced them. Thus, there is a tremendous amount of information that I’ve been able to learn about this area of knowledge and I continue to add to it to this very day.  

Dolly Parton-Photo by Lisa Bower

First, let’s establish what “rock and roll” is. If you look up some urban dictionaries, it will say that “rock and roll” is an old blues (some say jazz) euphemism for sexual intercourse. While quite accurate, the term wasn’t actively used towards music until the mid-50s, when legendary DJ Alan Freed applied the term to some of the songs he was playing on his radio show. Considering Freed’s appreciation for what were called “race” records of the era and his propensity for playing black artists on his program, it is quite conceivable he heard the term “rock and roll” through those old blues and jazz musicians. 

Now, if you’re going to look up the phrase “rock and roll” in the dictionary, there’s only one place to go. Miriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “rock and roll” as “popular music usually played on electronically amplified instruments and characterized by a persistent heavily accented beat, repetition of simple phrases (emphasis mine…we’ll be coming back to this point), and often country, folk, and blues elements. 
Putting that all together, that means that “rock and roll” has a HUGE umbrella, doesn’t it? 

Lester Bangs, the noted rock critic/musician, probably made the boldest statement about “rock and roll” when he said “Rock ‘n’ roll is an attitude, it’s not a musical form of a strict sort.” Muddy Waters, the classic bluesman, wrote an entire song about it called “The Blues Had a Baby and They Named it Rock & Roll.” Plenty of others, including the man called “The King,” Elvis Presley (“A lot of people seem to think I started this business. But rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing like Fats Domino can. I know that.”) have expressed their opinions. 
This is where the problems usually arise… 
There is a sizeable chunk of the fandom of rock and roll that think that it started in the late 60s and stopped around the end of the 1970s. These people are the “classic rock” dinosaurs that cannot even imagine that there was “rock and roll” around before or after that miniscule time frame. They are usually the ones screaming loudest about what is “rock and roll,” that a certain artist or group is “not RAWK!!” and they usually have no utter idea what the hell they’re talking about.  
Let’s look at some rock bands, just to show how they connect back in the timeframe of “rock and roll.” With bands like The Eagles, Little Feat, The Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd, their country music roots are plainly evident. On their current tour, The Eagles have even enlisted country music star Vince Gill to be a part of the band (his harmonies do work well with the group and, with the loss of Glenn Frey, his voice was needed). The list of these acts with deep country roots is a long one, demonstrating how country music is entrenched in “rock and roll.” 

George Clinton Photo by Bryon Holz

The same goes for the blues and its descendants, R&B and soul. Prince’s work is replete with soul, R&B and rock elements, as is the work of George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic. This goes back to Aretha Franklin in the 60s, Sam Cooke and James Brown, and the incomparable Fats Domino, B. B. King and even Robert Johnson.  

This leads directly to the next issue that comes up regarding the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – its inclusion of rap acts. Rap holds a direct link to the funk sounds from the 70s and, if you really want to extend it back, to the “doo-wop” groups of the 50s. Rap is simply those street corner serenaders using a different approach and a different sound. Additionally, it is covered by the dictionary definition of “rock and roll” because of the “persistent heavily accented beat and repetition of simple phrases (remember that quote from earlier?).”  

Of the 338 artists, groups, industry executives, and other assorted journalists and managers, there have been a grand total of 13 country artists inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Some of the names there include Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, and The Everly Brothers. Note – there isn’t a woman in that mix. There is a litany of country music women who would rate induction into the Rock Hall, including Parton, Patsy Cline, and Loretta Lynn (among others) and should, using the Miriam Webster’s definition of “rock and roll,” be inducted into the Rock Hall.  

This same experiment works with rap, too. Of the 338 inducted members of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a grand total of ELEVEN rap artists or acts have been immortalized, including Run-DMC, Public Enemy, N.W.A., The Beastie Boys, and Tupac Shakur. Just like country music, there are a list of qualified performers who rate entry (using the Miriam Webster’s definition of “rock and roll”) into the Rock Hall, including the originators of rap DJ Kool Herc and Coke La Rock, Eric B. and Rakim, and probably Queen Latifah and Missy Elliott…once again, no female rap artists have been inducted. 

Snoop Dogg-Tampa FL. Photo by Chyrisse.

Neither country nor rap are “overrunning” the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. They are, however, a part of “rock and roll,” along with R&B, folk, blues, rockabilly, bluegrass, and a litany of other musical genres. Thus, their legends should be enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for their contributions to the predominant form of entertainment since the mid-50s – rock and roll.  

Could the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame make this distinction known a bit better? Sure. The Rock Hall’s primary mission is to preserve the history of “rock and roll” for future generations to be able to learn from. How can you have such a learning experience if you deny entry to anyone who hasn’t done “rock” music? How can you truly be looking to preserve the history if you deny that the thing you’re looking to cherish – rock and roll – is only a very limited (in both time frame and styling) variation that should be examined? 

The Rock Hall has traditionally been very private in how their decisions are made. We know that there is a Nomination Committee, responsible for creation of the Nominees list (naturally) and the 1200-member Voting Committee made up of the living Rock Hall inductees, assorted musicians, producers and managers, industry executives, journalists, historians, and DJs (you know…people that MIGHT know a little bit about this subject). But the criteria have always been a bit shrouded behind the nomination process and especially the voting results, except for the one and only qualification – that you become eligible for the Rock Hall 25 years after your first release.  

Are there some oversights at the Rock Hall? Certainly. I’ve written several in-depth examinations of this issue, broken down by decade, of who might have been the “overlooked” artists and groups. For the most part, however, the Rock Hall has tapped into the 50s thoroughly and they’ve pretty much scraped the bottom of the barrel with the 60s and 70s. There are other ways that this can be rectified, however.   

IF the Rock Hall were to come out and say, “all are welcomed” (which they basically did in their response to Parton), then that would alleviate the screaming from the “RAWK” crowd when such acts as Parton, rap legend Eminem, and Lionel Ritchie (should be inducted with The Commodores) are nominated, or even past inductees like Miles Davis and Leonard Cohen are honored. After all, it is “rock and roll” in the definition of the term and it states “Rock & Roll Hall of Fame” above the doors (as it should) – “RAWK” people might need to learn this fact rather than demonstrate their lack of knowledge.   

Tampa Earl

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