The history of rock ‘n’ roll and its myriad “firsts” is about as convoluted and controversial as things can get when it comes to determining who originated what, when, where and why. Ask five different rock ‘n’ roll scholars what the first rock ‘n’ roll song was and you’ll likely get five different answers ranging from songs from as early as the mid-’20s up through the early ’50s. Part of the problem is that there isn’t necessarily a line of delineation as to when rock ‘n’ roll became rock ‘n’ roll, as the disparate elements that came together to make the sound of what is commonly thought of as the genre were in existence for decades prior to its ’50s heyday.
It’s easy to argue that what was considered rock ‘n’ roll in the wake of Elvis Presley and others was really nothing more than white-washed (literally) R&B with a mix of hillbilly music for good measure. The fact of the matter is, the music of black artists playing jump blues and similar forms in the ’40s doesn’t sound all that much different from what would be labeled rock ‘n’ roll in the next decade. Considering that the music itself relied on the same basic I-IV-V chord progression within a 12-bar blues format, the similarities are plain as day. The difference is the culture within which each came to the greater public attention, one in which race played a deciding role in who would receive credit for having done what.
Of course it’s easy to be a revisionist historian, looking back over the whole of the spectrum of popular music, hoping to pinpoint an exact starting point, and this is why the discussion has become so heated in recent years. Indeed, rock ‘n’ roll historian Ed Ward went so far as to title his attempt at a comprehensive overview of the form The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1: 1920-1963. Bringing together everything from minstrel shows to Delta blues to hillbilly music to elements of jazz, what we now think of as rock ‘n’ roll is little more than a jumbled gumbo of popular American musical styles. In other words, there is no definitive starting point or original artist responsible for the movement as a whole; rather, there is only those who helped popularize rock ‘n’ in their own time, namely during the ’50s.
Author (and PopMatters contributor) James A. Cosby’s Devil’s Music, Holy Rollers and Hillbillies: How America Gave Birth to Rock and Roll recognizes the ongoing — and ultimately pointless — debate as to the music’s origins, providing a sort of musical and cultural genealogy that brings together bite-sized chunks of musical trivia generally scattered across myriad sources and placing it within its representational cultural context. By cutting through the speculative nature of those looking to put a name on the first, Cosby’s approach helps provide a historical context to show how and why certain styles and performers won out over others.
From the esoteric early ’20s blues that utilized the term “rock” and/or “roll” within their lyrical context through the Pentecostal “holy rollers” to the more well-known, widely recognized originators such as Presley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, Cosby attempts to weave together the disparate narrative threads into a coherent whole. It’s an ambitious undertaking, to be sure, but Cosby has a way of distilling the most significant elements of each era and laying out the simple facts without getting into a lot of snobbish speculation. His approach is at once readable and interesting in a way that appeals to both those who claim to know it all and those who think rock ‘n’ roll started with Elvis Presley (spoiler alert: it decidedly did not, and Elvis would’ve been one of the first to admit as such).
Without any sort of overarching operating thesis, Cosby instead plays the role of impartial observer, citing those who’ve obsessively pored over the minutiae of rock ‘n’ roll and penned densely-structured think pieces on everything from why Ike Turner’s role in the formation of rock ‘n’ roll has been largely overlooked (hint: it might’ve had a little something to do with the way he treated his wife, Tina) to why or why not Elvis Presley was a racist cultural thief who simply took black music and made it acceptable for a white audience. While not adding much to the over discussion of the history of rock ‘n’ roll, Cosby’s work allows for a greater, more concise contextual analysis as the cultural, political and societal factors behind the emergence of the idiom in post-war America.
In this, Devil’s Music serves as both a fine primer on and overview of the ongoing debates surrounding the origins of rock ‘n’ roll, its primary architects and the complex series of racially motivated factors that went into the music’s cultural ascendency and troubling historical legacy. Cosby makes sure to give no one short shrift, going into great detail on the evolution of early blues through the minstrel and traveling medicine shows, Delta blues through to the hillbilly music that borrowed just as much from the blues as rock ‘n’ roll ultimately would and beyond. It’s far from comprehensive, but instead offers a concise look at the often confusing history behind one of the biggest musical movements of the 20th century.