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Collection The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America

Rockabilly

Rockabilly music arose after World War II and is one of the earliest styles of rock and roll. Mixtures of country music with swing and boogie woogie styles preceded it in the 1940s. As early as the 1930s, Western swing artists such as Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies freely mixed Black and white styles of music. In the 1940s, the "Honky Tonk" style of country music emerged in the mid-1940s, as artists such as Lefty Frizell, Hank Williams, Hank Thompson, Kitty Wells and others brought a frank, adult sensibility to their lyrics, and delivered them over amplified accompaniment, including drums and electric guitar, that showed the influence of western swing as well as of boogie woogie and blues at a time when much other country music was increasingly influenced by pop music of the period, and adding string arrangements and full choral backing.

At the time country music was called "hillbilly" music. As early rock and roll, itself a mixture of several African American styles of music with Western swing and country music, the style that mixed rock and roll with "hillbilly" music became known as "rockabilly." Early recordings by Elvis Presley, such as his 1955 rocked-up version of the bluegrass song "Blue Moon of Kentucky" by Bill Monroe, and "Heartbreak Hotel" by Tommy Durden and Mae Boren Axton (1956), helped to define the rockabilly style as a distinct style within the emerging genre of rock and roll then sweeping the country. It was Presley who inspired Buddy Holly to combine the country style music he had grown up playing with rock and roll in compositions such as "That'll Be the Day," released in 1957. At the same time rhythm and blues star Chuck Berry recorded songs influenced by country music, such as "Maybellene" (1955).

Buddy Holly, half-length portrait, facing front, snapping fingers. James J. Kriegsmann, photographer. General Artists Corporation, 1958. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62

Though it began in the South and Southwest, the rockabilly style inspired young musicians around the country. Eddie Cochran, best known for his 1958 hit "Summertime Blues," was born in Minnesota and raised partly in California, but is regarded as one of the top rockabilly artists of all time. Cochran also became a direct and vital influence on English rock musicians when he toured England in 1960.

This presentation includes a concert by rockabilly singer/songwriter Sonny Burgess with his group the Pacers, presented at the Library of Congress in October, 2006. In the early 1950s Sonny Burgess was playing boogie woogie music in dance halls. In 1954 he formed a group, the Moonlighters, named for the Silver Moon Club in Newport, Arkansas where they performed. The group combined elements of boogie-woogie, rock and roll, and country. When Elvis Presley played the club, they opened for him, and subsequently opened for him several more times. It was Presley who suggested that they record. They expanded, renamed themselves the Pacers, and, in 1956, released a single with two songs by Burgess, "We Wanna Boogie" and "Red Headed Woman." This recording is among those that defined rockabilly. The group continued performing until 1972, when rockabilly was on the wane.

By this time, however, a major revival of interest in rock and roll of the 1950s was underway, spurred on by the Broadway show "Grease" (1971), the film "American Graffiti" (1973) and the television series "Happy Days." (1974-1983). First generation rockabilly stars such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and many others found new audiences at home and abroad. The death of Elvis Presley in 1977 sparked a further resurgence of interest in rockabilly music, not only in the United States but in Europe. Sonny Burgess and the Pacers re-formed, and the group continues to perform today.

Resources

  • Dregni, Michael, ed., 2011. Rockabilly: the Twang Heard 'Round the World: the Illustrated History. Forward by Sonny Burgess.
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