The Roots of Rock & Roll exhibit

The Roots and Definition of Rock and Roll

Written by: Rock Hall

How do you define rock and roll?

Each year, with the announcement of the next class of nominees for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a debate swirls as to what music is considered "rock and roll." The announcement of the 2014 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Nominees – the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Chic, Deep PurplePeter GabrielHall and OatesKiss, LL Cool J, the Meters, NirvanaN.W.A., the Replacements, Linda RonstadtCat Stevens, Link Wray, Yes and the Zombies – brought with it passionate discussions as to not only who should be inducted, but also how the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and people all over the world interpret and define rock and roll. 

Visitors to the Museum in Cleveland will find a large type-and-graphics treatment featured in the Main Exhibit Hall, just before the Roots of Rock exhibit. It marks the unofficial start to a tour of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and explains the roots of rock and roll, and how the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame recognizes rock and roll today. It reads as follows:

Rock and roll is a form of popular music that emerged in the United States in the late Forties and early Fifties. But rock and roll's roots can be tracked back centuries to drum beats in Africa and Celtic folk music in Europe. As people from these regions immigrated to America, they brought their music with them, and as they were exposed to each other's music, they began to incorporate different styles.

The more immediate roots of rock and roll lay in the so-called "race" music, or rhythm & blues, and "hillbilly" music, or county & western of the Forties and Fifties. Other significant influences include blues, jazz, gospel, boogie-woogie, folk and bluegrass. 

The actual phrase "rock and roll" emerged as code words for sexual intercourse in blues songs. In 1922, the words rock and roll appeared on a record for the first time. That record, Trixie Smith's "My Daddy Rock Me (With One Steady Roll)," went on to inspire other blues songs.

In the Thirties, the words were also used to described rhythms and musical beats, as in Duke Ellington's "Rockin' in Rhythm." In 1947, blues shouter Wynonie Harris covered "Good Rockin' Tonight," which went to Number One.

Cleveland deejay and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductee Alan Freed is widely credited with first using the words to describe the rhythm and blues music he was playing on the radio. Over the past five decades-plus, rock and roll has evolved in many directions. Numerous styles of music – from soul to hip-hop, from heavy metal to punk, from progressive rock to electronic – have fallen under the rock and roll umbrella. 

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame recognizes these different types of music and looks forward to seeing how rock and roll will continue to reinvent itself in the future.