In 1976 when I got into the music – a tender 12 year-old – it was ‘rock’n’roll’. As a late 70s ted in the music’s revival in Britain I was still into ‘rock’n’roll’, at the dawn of the 1980s when I got my first drape jacket I continued to love ‘rock’n’roll’, and now, approaching my dotage, I continue to be smitten by ‘rock’n’roll’.
But somewhere along the line, to explain what kind of music I like I have to call it ‘rockabilly’. Don’t get me wrong, I like most of what passes for rockabilly just as much as I like rock’n’roll, but the unfortunate thing is that somehow ‘rockabilly’ seems to exclude Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Larry Williams and countless others of our musical heroes. In an almost mirrored development the term ‘rhythm’n’blues’ nowadays is a short-hand way of saying the artist is ‘black’ rather than describing the music. This is a travesty of the term and its original application, since rhythm’n’blues was the earliest widespread term used for what became known as rock’n’roll. Few people know that in 1955 when Bill Haley and his Comets broke the mould they were described as the top ‘rhythm’n’blues’ performers in the USA. For this reason, I describe myself as a ‘rock’n’roller’ or even a ‘rocker’ although those two terms no longer seem fashionable anymore.
If there’s one thing rock’n’roll music did in the 1950s apart from entertain the world, it was to contribute to the hastening of the fall of the racial apartheid that disfigured – and continues to disfigure – the USA. I say with Chuck Berry : ‘Hail, hail, rock’n’roll! Deliver me from the days of old.’ (which is ironic, to some extent, seeing as we teds generally miss many things from the 1950s).
People today would be a little less racist if they said ‘black music’ rather than using the term ‘rhythm’n’blues’ the way they do, because – on a subjective level – that is all that is meant by the term nowadays …
As for ‘rockabilly’, the term is correct enough in a strict original 1950s sense, for either a rockin’ music with a country (aka ‘hillbilly’) tinge, or else for actual rock’n’roll played by people who happened to be from a ‘rural’ background (admittedly both pejorative in the actual American usage of the 1950s). But its generalised use has fostered an unnecessary exclusion of the black contribution to rock’n’roll, the pioneers of the genre, so you see the problem. There is nothing wrong in saying you like ‘rockabilly’ in the derived sense of a particular subset of rock’n’roll you like (guitar, bass, drums optional, without piano or sax), just look at the appropriation of the insulting term ‘nigger’ by Black Americans. However, the truth is that the term ‘rockabilly’ displaced ‘rock’n’roll’ during the 1970s not for racist reasons but because ‘rock’n’roll’ – as well as ‘rock’ – had become so thoroughly bastardised in their use by that time for any guitar-dominated musical group that fans had trouble in differentiating modern-type guitar groups from 1950s-style rock’n’roll groups ; plus the fact that ‘rockabilly’ trips off the tongue far easier than ‘rock’n’roll’ …
Rant over. I’ll end this piece by saying : ‘Keep on rockin’!’
POSTED July 2021