The Big Bang! The Birth of Rock and Roll

by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum

Overview

In the early 1950s, a new form of music exploded onto the scene, exciting a growing teenage audience while startling many others who preferred the music of Bing Crosby and Patti Page. Popularized by disc jockey Alan Freed in 1951, the term “rock and roll” came to be used to describe a new form of music, steeped in the blues, rhythm and blues, country, and gospel. Teenagers fell in love with this new sound, listening to it on transistor radios and buying it in record stores. Many parents believed that this music was simply noise that had a negative influence on impressionable teens. Either way, it became clear that rock and roll was here to stay, bringing with it important changes. Examine the impact of rock and roll, and explore how the birth of this new music influenced and was influenced by technology, teen culture, race, and geography.

Objectives

Students will be able to:

  1. Evaluate the significance of the birth of rock and roll in 1950s America.
  2. Identify key musicians that helped shape the sounds and style of early rock and roll.
  3. Give examples of how the birth of rock and roll influenced and was influenced by technology, teen culture, race, and geography. 

Key Terms

45: A seven-inch phonograph record played at 45 revolutions per minute (r.p.m.), especially a popular music single

Baby boomer: An individual born during the post–World War II baby boom

Civil rights: Rights for a nation’s citizens as defined by law, often understood as freedoms or protections; in the United States, rights discussed in the Constitution and its amendments, including those known as the Bill of Rights

Culture: A body of learned human knowledge, belief, and behavior; shared values and attitudes, customs, and styles for living

Deejay: Disc jockey radio show host who introduces and/or selects recordings

Disposable income: The amount of an individual’s income available for spending after essentials (food, clothing, shelter, taxes) have been taken care of

Jukebox: A money-operated phonograph or compact disk player, equipped with pushbuttons for the selection of particular recordings

Juvenile delinquency: Conduct by a juvenile characterized by antisocial behavior that is beyond parental control and subject to legal action; many linked juvenile delinquency to rock and roll and those who listened to it.

Mainstream: A dominating, widespread, or prevailing viewpoint or influence often projected to be an overall “norm” for a community or society

Musical style: The distinctive characteristics of the sound and organization of musical performances and compositions; used to categorize music reflecting similar approaches to melody, harmony, form, and/or performance techniques

Popular music: A broad term for music that appeals to large numbers or whole communities of people and may often be sold on recordings or sheet music

Racial segregation: Separation of racial groups by law and custom, which restricted the access of black Americans to jobs, schools, neighborhoods, stores, etc. and privileged white Americans; outlawed by the US Congress in 1964

Rhythm: The timing of sound in musical patterns, such as pulses, beats, etc.

Rhythm and blues: A style of upbeat popular music blending big band swing and blues that attracted large numbers of African American audiences after World War II, in the mid-1940s through the 1950s; a root of rock and roll

Rock and roll: African American slang dating back to the early twentieth century; in the early 1950s, the term came to be used to describe a new form of music, steeped in the blues, rhythm and blues, country, and gospel. Today, it refers to a wide variety of popular music.

Suburb: A small residential community established outside of a city; post World War II, families often fled cities to the safety and comfort of suburban areas. Neither urban nor rural, suburban towns were a compromise between the two extremes.

Teenager: An individual between the ages of thirteen and nineteen (also known as an adolescent); teenagers shaped popular culture in the 1950s by rebelling against the tastes of the older generations.

Tradition: Customs, beliefs, or practices valued by one generation and taught to the next

Transistor radio: Small, portable radio popular among teenagers in the 1950s that allowed them to listen to whatever music that they wanted whenever they wanted

Lesson Activities

Technology and Society

This activity is designed to hone research and analysis skills. In this class, students are asked to consider the implications of technology in the birth and growth of rock and roll in the 1950s. Changing technology is also the focus of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum exhibit entitled “Listen to Music: The Evolution of Audio Technology.” Ask students to identify and determine the origin of sound technologies of the 1950s and to trace this development throughout the following decades. For example, students may choose to research the transistor radio, stereo system, eight track machine, the Walkman, and the iPod. Who developed each one of these innovations? How did they change and evolve and why? How did consumers respond to them? How did these innovations change the way musicians approach the act of making and recording music? And how did this change how audiences listened to music? Why was there a need for new and different technology?

Finally, have students predict what future listening technology might involve. How might it be different from contemporary devices? How might we interact with it? What could be its advantages and disadvantages? When do you think this technology will become reality?

Teen Culture and Popular Music – Yesterday and Today

In this activity, students will examine and evaluate conflicting opinions about the music that has appealed to teens over the past fifty years. Have students read the quotes below. Ask them to identify whether they think each quote refers to music in the early days when rock and roll first emerged or in later years when heavy metal and hip-hop became popular. Continue the exercise by having students try to match each quote to its source. Finally, discuss with students the controversies that have surrounded rock and roll since its inception. Encourage them to share personal experiences they or their parents may have encountered regarding their own music choices.

  1. “The most popular music was reaching its lowest [point] in the [new musical] style of . . . chant [which] concentrated on a minimum of melody line and maximum of rhythmic noise.”
    • Encyclopedia Britannica’s Book of the Year, 1956
  2. “The theater is jammed with adolescents from the 9 a.m. curtain to closing and it rings and shrieks like the . . . bird house at the zoo. If one of the current heroes is announced . . . the shrieks become deafening. Only the . . . beat pounds through, stimulating the crowd to such rhythmical movements as clapping in tempo and dancing in the aisles.”
    • “Yeh-Heh-Heh-Hes, Baby,” TIME, June 18, 1956
  3. “You get narrow-minded critics reviewing the shows, and all they think about [our music] is that it is just total ear-splitting, blood-curdling noise without any definition or point complained [the board member]. This is a very, very professional style of music. It means a great deal to many millions of people. We treat [our] music with respect. . . . you have to spend many years developing your style and your art.”
    • Rob Halford quoted in “Purity and Power – Total, Unswerving Devotion to Heavy Metal Form: Judas Priest and the Scorpions,” Musician, September 1984
  4. “You had to know where [everyone] was gonna be playing. . . . To the rest of the world they were very little radio stations that came in staticky and the show was on in the middle of the night, but you were in the know and things were really exciting. And as much as I think we all liked being a part of our little secret thing, we all thought ‘Wow this music needs to be heard by everyone. Someone needs to take it and blow it up, give it the respect it deserves.’”
    • Danyel Smith, former editor of Vibe, about hip-hop in the early 1980s
  5. “Music ‘leer-ics’ are touching new lows and . . . policing, if you will, [has] to come from more responsible sources. Meaning the . . . record manufacturers and their network daddies. . . . It won’t wash for them to . . . justify their ‘leer-ic’ garbage by declaring ‘that’s what kids want’ or ‘that’s the only thing that sells today.”
    • “A Warning to the Music Business,” Variety, Feb. 23, 1955
  6. “I am going after the record industry because they are the ones that are out of control.”
    • C. Dolores Tucker quoted in “Caught Up in the (Gangsta) Rapture” by Kierna Mayo, The Source, June 1994
  7. “These are my children. I do not intend to marginalize them or demean them. Rather I take responsibility for trying to understand what they are saying. I want to embrace them and transform them . . . I don’t encourage the use of [inappropriate language]. I just think we should stop pretending we are hearing them for the first time.”
    • US Congresswoman Maxine Waters quoted in “Caught Up in the (Gangsta) Rapture” by Kierna Mayo, The Source, June 1994
  8. “Good morning. We are here today to revisit an issue that parents repeatedly raise with just about anyone who will listen – the challenge they face in raising healthy children in today’s 500-channel, multiplexed, videogamed, discmanned universe . . . [and its] harmful influence on the attitudes and behaviors of our children, and therefore on the safety and moral condition of our country.”
    • US Senator Joseph Lieberman, Rating the Ratings, July 25, 2001 

Race and Rock and Roll

In this activity, students will research and examine the implications of being an African American musician in the 1950s. Have students research important African American artists who were crucial to the development of early rock and roll. Examples include Chuck Berry, Ruth Brown, Laverne Baker, Etta James, Lloyd Price, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Orioles, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Big Joe Turner, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and the Chantels. Ask students to design a concert poster advertising a performance in the 1950s. (Examples of vintage concert posters can be found online.) Students should consider the following: Who is the headliner and who is the opening act? When is the concert and where? What is the venue of the concert? What are some major hits by their chosen artists? Students should remember the climate of the times when making their decisions (i.e., segregated concert halls, mixed bills, etc.). After creating the poster, have students write a music review of the concert for either a newspaper with a predominantly white reading audience or a predominantly African American audience (see Call and Post for example).

Rock and Roll Landmarks

As rock and roll became a national phenomenon, many cities across the country became key to its development and expansion. Many of these were discussed in class. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s Landmark Series designates certain sites around the United States as historic rock-and-roll landmarks. These include King Records in Cincinnati, OH; the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA; and Brooklyn High School and WJW, both in Cleveland, OH. Have students imagine they are on the committee to select other historic sites that have been integral in telling the story of rock and roll’s formative moments. Students should present their choices to their classmates as though they’re presenting to the other members of the selection committee. They should be prepared to defend their choices with solid evidence given their research. The class can then vote on 3–5 sites that should be designated as historic rock-and-roll landmarks. Working in small groups students can also design promotional materials (posters, t-shirts, magazine/newspaper ads, etc.) advertising chosen landmarks.

Suggested Listening for the Classroom

Note: Preview all materials for appropriateness for your students.

  • Wynonie Harris. “Good Rockin’ Tonight.” 1947.
  • Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. “Rocket 88.” 1951.
  • Big Mama Thornton. “Hound Dog.” 1952.
  • Patti Page. “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” 1952.
  • Ruth Brown. “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean.” 1953.
  • The Chords. “Sh-Boom.” 1954.
  • Bo Diddley “Bo Diddley.” 1955.
  • Fats Domino. “Ain’t That a Shame.” 1955.
  • Jerry Lee Lewis. “Whole Lotta Shaking Going On.” 1955.
  • Little Richard. “Tutti Frutti.” 1955.
  • Pat Boone. “Tutti Frutti.” 1956.
  • Elvis Presley. “Hound Dog.” 1956.
  • Buddy Holly. “That’ll Be the Day.” 1956
  • Johnny Cash. “I Walk the Line.” 1956.
  • Lavern Baker. “Jim Dandy.” 1957.
  • Elvis Presley. “All Shook Up.” 1957.
  • Ritchie Valens. “La Bamba.” 1958.
  • Chuck Berry. “Johnny B. Goode.” 1958.
  • Little Richard. “Good Golly, Miss Molly.” 1958.
  • Chuck Berry. “Memphis, Tennessee.” 1959.
  • Jerry Lee Lewis. “High School Confidential.” 1958.
  • Wanda Jackson. “Let’s Have a Party.” 1960.

Free, streaming videos of most performances can be found on www.youtube.com or blip.fm
Free, streaming audio tracks of most songs can be found on www.grooveshark.com or blip.fm

Online Resources

Note: Preview all materials for appropriateness for your students.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum
The official website of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. 

Rock Hall Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll App
This app allows you to explore the history of rock starting with the 1920s through 2000 by decade, artist, and song title. 

History of Rock
This website is dedicated to the history of rock and roll with an emphasis on “The Golden Decade, 1954–1963.” Organized by subcategories and subgenres, this site includes biographies, timelines, and discographies. 

Alan Freed
This website contains information about disc jockey Alan Freed who popularized the term “rock and roll” to describe the music he played on his Moondog radio show in the early 1950s. Includes photos, posters, and resources. 

Chuck Berry
The official website of Chuck Berry.

Jerry Lee Lewis
The official website of Jerry Lee Lewis.

Elvis Presley
The official website dedicated to Elvis Presley.

Little Richard
Fan site dedicated to Little Richard.

Suggested Reading

General References

  • Brackett, David, ed. The Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader: Histories and Debates. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. 
  • Cateforis, Theo. The Rock History Reader. New York: Routledge, 2007. 
  • Charlton, Katherine. Rock Music Styles: A History. Boston: McGraw Hill, 1998. 
  • Garafalo, Reebee. Rockin’ Out: Popular Music in the U.S.A. Boston: Prentice Hall, 2007 
  • Starr, Larry and Christopher Waterman. American Popular Music: The Rock Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 

Additional References

  • Berry, Chuck. Chuck Berry: The Autobiography. New York: Harmony Books, 1987. 
  • Dawson, Jim. Rock Around the Clock: The Record That Started the Rock Revolution! San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2005. 
  • Escott, Colin and Martin Hawkins. Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991. 
  • Gordon, Robert. It Came From Memphis. Winchester, MA: Faber and Faber, 1995. 
  • Guralnick, Peter. Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. Boston: Little, Brown, 1999. 
  • Jackson, John A. Big Beat Heat: Alan Freed and the Early Years of Rock & Roll. Diane Pub Co., 1991. 

For more resources, visit www.rockhall.com/education
Questions? Contact the Rock Hall Education Department: education@rockhall.org

©2012 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Inc. All rights reserved. www.rockhall.com

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