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Collection The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America


The term "Rock and Roll" was applied to several related forms of music broadly popular with youth starting in the mid-1950s. Some styles were already well established with certain audiences, or used musical devices that had been around for some time, but in the mid-1950s, they achieved national popularity, and soon became the driving forces in much of popular music.

The social common denominator for the many styles of rock and roll that emerged in the early days was a target audience of teenagers and pre-teens. The artists themselves were usually quite young and their adaptations of earlier styles often reflected a simplified approach to them. The songs dealt with familiar subjects by and large, but frequently with a new irreverence or directness sometimes due to the influence of blues and country & western lyrics. Teenagers that a generation or two earlier would have already been in the work force, now formed a new social class and a ready market, and their interests became the subjects of rock and roll songs about fashion (Carl Perkins's "Blue Suede Shoes," the Sparkletones' "Black Slacks," the Royal Teens' "Short Shorts"), cars (Chuck Berry's "Mabellene, Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88"), school (The Coasters' "Charlie Brown," Chuck Berry's "School Day"), romance (Dion and the Belmonts' "Teenager in Love," Pat Boone's "Two Hearts") and youthful frustrations (The Students' "Too Young," Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues"). On occasion, a rock and roll song might reflect earlier history, such as Johnny Horton's "Battle of New Orleans," a narrative of Andrew Jackson's victory over the British at the end of the War of 1812, set to the melody of a traditional fiddle tune known as "The Eighth of January," written at the time to commemorate the battle.

The musical common denominators are a little harder to define, given the range of styles, but the  various forms of "rock and roll" were generally simpler in their melodic, harmonic and rhythmic structure than much recent popular music had been, and they could be played by smaller ensembles. Though not always the case, rock and roll was generally perceived as being louder and faster than earlier forms of popular music, and being overly reliant on a strong "back beat," or a delayed emphasis on the second and fourth beats of the measure.

Dion DiMucci, of Dion and the Belmonts, in performance at the Coolidge Auditorium, May 11. 2010. Photograph by Abby Brack.

Although the producers of many early rock and roll hits took full advantage of the large ensembles available to them for recording, the additional instruments were often used simply to reinforce the song structure, rather than augmenting or extending it. The popular dance orchestras of the 1930s and 1940s typically featured anywhere from twelve to eighteen instrumentalists, complimented by male and female vocal soloists and groups, performing highly developed, and sometimes daring and complex arrangements. After World War II, bandleaders found it difficult to make enough money to tour with large ensembles, and vocalists came into their own as recording stars, but recordings still featured large groups, and vocalists often recorded with full symphonic accompaniment.

But most rock and roll could be performed by groups of three to seven members. Smaller groups, aided by electronic amplification of their voices and instruments, had been making inroads in popular music for many years, and their insistent dance rhythms appealed strongly to teenagers, who found them an ideal vehicle for both line and couples dancing.

Some of the earliest rock and roll was made by young vocal groups who could perform with little or no instrumental accompaniment, using their voices as substitutes. Elvis Presley's first recordings featured only two guitars, a bass and his voice. The first major, nationwide rock and roll hit, Bill Haley and the Comets "Rock Around the Clock" featured a group of seven players, including a pedal steel guitarist, though this instrument never caught on in rock and roll the way it did it in country and western. Haley based his style on western swing artists such as Bob Wills, Louis Jordan's "jump" or "jive" blues songs of the 1940s and uptempo blues "shouters" such as Wynonie Harris and Big Joe Turner. His successful mix of urban and rural, as well as black and white styles paved the way for other artists to attain national and even international success with their musical blends of the most energetic elements of earlier forms. This was not always universally accepted, and many white artists frequently covered songs that had originated with black artists, altering the style for their own audience, and sometimes bowdlerizing risqué lyrics. Hank Ballard and the Midniters, for instance, recorded the comic and suggestive "Work With Me Annie," which was reworked and released by Georgia Gibbs under the title "Dance With Me Henry."

Elvis Presley, who started recording in Memphis in 1954, achieved unprecedented national success in 1956, performing a mixture of rockabilly, country, blues and pop. Though he too occasionally softened the lyrics of songs, as he did with Smiley Lewis' "One Night," which went from being a song about the consequences of "one night of sin" to being a plea for "one night with you," his style was marked by a compelling blues feeling, and an unrestrained emotionalism, and no other singer of the era matched his stylistic impact and influence.

Rock and roll, and music directly influenced by it, was firmly entrenched in the musical mainstream by the early 1960s. At this point, it began to reflect many more influences, both old and new. Although traditional music and song had been a significant part of rock and roll from early on, a self-conscious "folk-rock" style emerged in the early 1960s. Some of it actually contained less traditional content than did the songs of Bo Diddley or the Everly Brothers, but took much of its initial inspiration from popular groups such as the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary, who had found success with a blend of older folk songs and newer, socially conscious material, played with chords and harmonies not specific to any particular style of traditional music, but which could be learned quickly and invited audience participation. The Byrds, a rock group formed in Los Angeles who rivaled the Beatles in popularity for a short time in 1965 and 1966, successfully added drums and electric instruments to songs first played in acoustic form such as Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a Changing" and Pete Seeger's "Turn, Turn, Turn." On their second album, they reworked the lyrics of Smith Casey's "Shorty George," recorded for the Library of Congress in 1939, into a lament over the death of President John F. Kennedy entitled "He Was a Friend of Mine."

The success of folk-rock brought many young musicians schooled in acoustic folk music or blues into the rock field, and helped-shaped other rock genres, such as psychedelic-rock, blues-rock, country-rock. Rock was also mixed with classical, jazz, Latin, African, and other styles.

Throughout this whole period, rock was a frequent vehicle for topical songs about current events and issues. "Kicks" by Paul Revere and the Raiders critiqued the emerging drug culture, while "Break on Through" by the Doors hailed it. "For What It's Worth" by Buffalo Springfield was directly inspired by street clashes between police and teenagers over a curfew law in Los Angeles in late 1966, but was received by the larger population as a reflection on the protest movements and urban violence of the period. "Pleasant Valley Sunday," written by Carole King and recorded by the Monkees in 1967 commented on materialism in the suburbs. "Requiem for the Masses" by the Association was ostensibly about a matador's death before a bullring audience, but evoked television coverage of deaths in Vietnam in an arrangement that mixed chants from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead with military snare drum and bugle accompaniment.

Through it all, rock and roll based on 1950s sources persisted, though sometimes at the margins, or in glitter or hard-rock, which greatly increased the amplification and theatricality of the music, along with the role of soloists, while holding onto much of the chordal and melodic stock of early rock and roll. A major wave of 1950s nostalgia swept the country in the early 1970s, and several new versions of 1950s songs were hits. In late 1971, singer-songwriter Don McLean released the number one hit "American Pie," a collage of images from popular culture and common history from the previous fifteen years, celebrating much of it as well as lamenting the country's loss of innocence. Mickey Newbury, a young country music singer-songwriter looked further back into American history when he released "American Trilogy" the same year. Newbury's composition combines three Civil War era songs, reflecting the Northern, Southern and African-American experience of it: "Dixie," "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," and the spiritual "All My Trials." Newbury's song would prove to be enormously popular, though not in the same way that McLean's was. His version was a medium-sized hit, but was subsequently covered by Elvis Presley, who made it a fixture of his stage act, and it has since been recorded by over four hundred other artists.

Fewer topical songs have found favor with rock audiences since the early 1970s, but rock songwriting continued to develop and reflect history and culture in compelling ways. In the 1970s and 1980s, artists such as Bruce Springsteen and John Cougar Mellencamp found a broad audience for songs that commented on the changes experienced by working class families as industry declined. Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." (1985) decried the fate of many Vietnam War veterans still trying to adjust. In 1989, Billy Joel strung together historical incidents and images from the previous forty years, much as Don McLean had earlier, in the song "We Didn't Start the Fire." Many rock songs have also been rediscovered or repurposed, as Styx's "Show Me the Way" and Bette Midler's "From a Distance" were during the first Gulf War.

In more recent times, the Association's "Requiem for the Masses" has been revived as a piece for school choirs. In 2005, as the second Gulf War entered its third year, the Irish-American punk rock band Dropkick Murphys released a version of "The Greenfields of France," a moving description of a latter-day visit to a World War I cemetery in France. Originally known as "No Man's Land," it was written in 1976 by Scottish-Australian folksinger Eric Bogle, who incorporated words from the American cowboy song "The Streets of Laredo" into the chorus. The song was a major hit in Ireland in the 1970s, and was well known in the Irish-American community of the United States before the Dropkick Murphys successfully adapted it as a rock song, bringing both a 19th century cowboy song and Bogle's 1976 composition into the twenty-first century.

Such a complex mix and variety of influences is not unusual in popular music, but it has been a distinguishing facet of rock and roll and its offshoots since the beginning, and in all likelihood, will continue to ensure that it endures as a popular creative musical outlet that can reflect both musical and social history