The Roots of Rock & Roll: An American Journey
In the 1950s, a new and electrifying musical style called rock & roll swept the airwaves.
Rock & roll won the hearts of teenagers across the United States in the postwar period. This revolutionary music, however, actually grew from roots in older styles including blues, gospel, country, and rhythm & blues.
“Roots of Rock & Roll: An American Journey” is taught at two levels. At the K–4 level, students sing along with the Rock Hall’s very own band—the Backbeats—as they learn that music is created in many different styles. This class focuses on three genres: blues, country, and vocal harmony, and students consult US maps to identify key regions and cities where these roots of rock & roll flourished.
At the 5–8 level, students learn to identify historical and cultural contexts that have influenced rock & roll music. Focusing on blues, country, and gospel, this class digs into both cultural meanings and musical characteristics. Students compare and contrast historic and modern recorded performances by Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductees and other artists to understand how musicians connect earlier musical styles and diverse aspects of American culture.
Related content areas: Social studies, fine arts / music
Level: grades K–4 and 5–8
Days offered: Tuesday–Friday (October to June)
Times offered: 10:00am or 11:30am
Duration: 60 minutes
Capacity: Up to 150 students per session
Available supplemental materials: See below!
Rock & Roll's Country Roots Playlist
American country music has roots in the traditional music of primarily white, working-class communities, particularly in Appalachia and other regions of the South. Before recordings were common, musicians gathered in churches, town halls, and barns to sing and play music—often utilizing wooden, stringed instruments such as the fiddle, acoustic guitar, mandolin, and banjo. Record companies began marketing country music in the 1920s, and radio programs like National Barn Dance (out of Chicago) and the Grand Ole Opry (out of Nashville) reached rural and urban populations alike. The Carter Family—featuring A. P. Carter, his wife Sara Carter, and Sara’s cousin Maybelle Carter—and “Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rogers created some of the first recorded examples of country music. Wider distribution allowed country to become a major part of the popular music landscape in the 1930s and 1940s, when figures like Hank Williams became stars. The singing cowboys of film and television, like Roy Rogers, brought in a Western influence. Bluegrass music, a subgenre that emphasizes vocal harmony and virtuosic instrumental playing, emerged after World War II in the music of artists such as Bill Monroe.
In the 1950s, country was one of several genres that influenced early rock & roll; rock & roll with a strong country sound was sometimes called “rockabilly.” Johnny Cash began recording for Sun Records in Memphis, and his song “I Walk the Line” reached number 1 on the country charts and crossed over to number 20 on the pop charts. Cash incorporated both rock and country idioms throughout his long career. Wanda Jackson started her career as a country singer in Oklahoma, but she also recorded rockabilly numbers like “Let’s Have a Party.”
Rock & Roll's Blues Roots Playlist
Blues music arose from African-American communities in the South and has origins in older styles such as work songs, field hollers, and spirituals. This music was informed by the African-American experience, which often relied on oral tradition to pass on knowledge, values, and history. While we associate “the blues” with sadness, blues music expresses a range of emotions; its power comes from artists’ unique stories and sounds. This playlist features three types:
- Classic blues, a style first recorded in the 1920s, was influenced jazz and typically featured a solo singer with a pianist and/or small backing band. Many major performers were women. Ma Rainey was one of the first stars, and she coached Bessie Smith, who became known as the “Empress of the Blues.” Later artists including Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton carried the classic blues traditions into the rock & roll era.
- Country blues, a style with strong ties to the Mississippi Delta region. This music usually featured a singer accompanying themselves on guitar or another portable instrument. Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues,” for example, has an improvised sound and exhibits call-and-response between voice and guitar. Charley Patton is another example of an artist who recorded songs in country blues style.
- Chicago blues, also called electric blues, emerged during the second wave of the Great Migration. Musicians began playing electric instruments, turned up the volume, and put together larger bands. For example, Muddy Waters—who was born in the Mississippi Delta—played songs like “Got My Mojo Working” in Chicago clubs. Howlin’ Wolf, known for his booming voice and electric guitar playing, also influenced many rock musicians.
An activity adaptable for students in grades K-4.
Through exploring the music and histories of the musicians who influenced early rock & roll, students learn about the people behind the music and better understand the origins of the genre.
Students will draw portraits of selected artists and may answer biographical questions about them.
An activity adaptable for students in grades 5-8.
Just as the population of the United States is large and diverse, the country’s music is made up of many styles and genres. These different types of music are often associated with particular regions and communities.
This activity helps students explore the question: what is American popular music?
A glossary of terms students may encounter in learning about rock & roll's musical roots.
Terms defined: Blues, Chorus, Country, Culture, Doo-wop, Gospel, Great Migration, Harmony, Musical style, Racial segregation, Region, Rock and roll, Roots Region, Rural, Verse, Urban.
Read more about some of the the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductees covered in our Roots of Rock & Roll Classes!