What’s Wrong with Rock? (2): The Negro Influence

It was the music of the American Negro which brought about rock ‘n’ roll! This fact becomes very clear as we trace the origin of rock music. But in addition to the evidence presented to you in our consideration of this subject in the two previous installments of “What’s Wrong with Rock? ‘ ‘ we would like to further drive this point home with a number of quotations from other sources:

“In a very real sense rock was implicit in the music of the first African brought to America.” 1)

“Throughout the twentieth century the music that has flowed from the black community has been the dominant influence in American music. The most recent example of this influence has been the rock ‘n’ roll revolution, which continues to dominate popular musical expression in America.” 2)

“Today, we can hear this echo of Africa (rock ‘n’ roll) which welled up through the bloody experience of American blacks, all over the world.” 3)

“. . . rock is a direct, straight line development from the blues. . . . It was only when white kids started playing the music (R&B) in the early fifties that they began calling it something else. . . . Nashville called it ‘nigger music’ when Elvis Presley first exploded out of Memphis in 1954, and wanted nothing to do with it.” 4)

“Little Richard . . . was the reason that much later everyone realized there wasn’t one thing in those feverish rock years that wasn’t copped straight from what was then known as ‘race music’.” (R&B) 5)

Having established the fact that rock ‘n’ roll finds its main source in the American black, we need to be cautioned lest we jump to wrong conclusions. What we need to see is this: the problem with the origin of rock music does not lie in the fact that it is to be found in the music of the American Negro but rather that it is to be found in the music of the American Negro who remained essentially pagan, or, who has slid back [sometimes temporarily] to pagan ways. What’s more, not only Christian blacks but also many middle and upper-class, more educated, blacks have, especially in years past, looked upon the music which led up to rock ‘n’ roll with disapproval and even embarrassment, considering it to be a disgrace to their race. This is an important point and one we feel needs to be made and supported before we move on to the beat – the musical aspect – of rock D.V. next time.

As you and I well know there will be black brothers and sisters singing the song of the Lamb in heaven with us: “out of every nation, tribe and tongue” Christ gathers His church. But it is not the music of our black fellow-saints in Christ we are speaking of in our consideration of the origin of rock. Among blacks as well as among whites a distinction can be made between sacred and secular music. We are aware that this subject is a complex one especially in the case of black music. There is the connection between rhythm and blues and gospel, for instance, the powerful rhythm they often have in common. and the drifting in and out of the church by the musicians and singers of both types of music. There is the fact that black religious music often has an element of protest in it. There is the difficulty of defining “soul” in this context. Nevertheless, without going into any great depth, we will attempt to clarify this issue somewhat, and we will do so by quoting some comments and opinions from a number of sources-mostly Negro-first from a general, and then from a Christian perspective,

“Jazz, in its initial stages, was the secular music of the American blacks. ‘ ‘ 6)

“The underworld milieu of gamblers, gunmen and whores . . . is the same one that brought forth the earliest urban blues. ” 7)

“The average Negro family did not allow the blues, or even the raggedy music, played in their homes. The earthy blues were considered to be sinful songs. ” 8)

“Ragtime pianist Luckey Roberts recalls that by the early 1900’s’ the blues were not allowed to be played in the parlors of many ‘decent’ Negro homes.” 9)

“The performing tradition (of ragtime) . . . was associated with all the lowlife images of the sporting district, and with some reason . . . . It was a fast-paced life stimulated by drinks and drugs. People who died of drug over-dose, of syphilis-deaths in their early twenties were not uncommon for this sub-culture. ” 10)

“Eubie Blake (a black jazz pianist) around 1900: ‘I’m in there ragging. . .out of ‘Traumerei’ on the organ and my mother opened the door and laid down the law, ‘Take that ragtime out of my house! ‘ ” 11)

“Jelly Roll Morton’s grandmother kicked him out of the house when he was fifteen for playing in Storyville. She loved music. but said people who played in such places were bums, and she didn’t want him to be a bad influence on his sisters .” 12)

“Blatant, abandoned, full of driving energy and imagination, often outrageous, inventive, this was a music calculated to shock the sensibilities of genteel America. This was the kind of music that resounded in . . . notorious pleasure places. . . . ” 13)

“Pianist Henry Rages, . . . was, in one of the unfortunate jazz traditions, an enormous drinker. . . .” 14)

            “ . . . with his music and dance . . . the Negro projected . . . a powerful sensuality, his pain and lust, his love and hate, his ambition and his despair. The Negro projected into his music his very Body. ” 15)

“This (R&B) was music that middle-class and upper-class black society tended to look upon as disreputable.” 16)

“The practice of couple dancing – which had become the rage in the (eighteen) sixties and the scandal of most rural areas towards the close of the nineteenth century – stimulated the worldly folks (emphasis mine) of the Negro community to create the far more erotic dances of blues and jazz . . . involving freely sensual movements . . . . Dancing in this way the ‘Devil’s chillun’ of the Negro community defied the (black) preacher and his respectable following.” 17)

(Comparing the blues to spirituals) “. . . the emphasis was less on man’s relation to God and his future in God’s heaven, and more on man’s devilish life on earth.” 18)

“Unlike gospel, blues is not a music of transcendence its equivalent to God’s grace was sex and love.” 19)

“Calling jazz an ‘agency of the devil’ the pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church in New York said in 1926: ‘Jazz, with its . . . appeal to the sensuous, should be stamped out.’

“In 1939 the Pittsburg Courier, a Negro paper, received many letters protesting the ‘swinging’ of Negro spirituals. The secretary of the Antioch Missionary Baptist Association wrote . . . : ‘We . . . protest this insidious evil. Music as it is now sung, in gin shops, dance halls, on records . . . is truly a disgrace to the entire race!’ A music teacher in an Alabama high school for Negroes wrote: ‘The sacrilegious desecration of our spirituals . . . is entirely wrong and out of place!’” 20)

“In 1958, in an airplane in which fire broke out, he (R&B/rock singer Little Richard) fell on his knees promising God he’d give up ‘the devil’s work’ and devote himself to the gospel if he survived.” 21)

Finally, to quote something pertinent to the attitude of both individual black church member and congregation of more recent years (late 1960’s), a few paragraphs from the book “Listen to the Blues” by Bruce Cook:

“Annie Pavageau, widow of a jazz bassist of some reputation, used to play and sing the blues some . . . . ‘I was a young woman when I was playing and singing the blues, I wasn’t a church member at that time, not even a church goer. ‘

Does she still play the blues? She shook her head emphatically, ‘No’, she said, ‘I just like church music, religious music. I don’t like blues and I don’t play it any more at all. I quit. I didn’t believe I could play all that ragtime music and still serve God in truth and spirit.’

I asked about her husband’s relation to the church. Was he accepted by the (Baptist) congregation? ‘Sure’, she said, ‘the congregation would accept a blues singer or player as a member of the congregation – if he give it up . . . . You can’t serve God and Mammon, too. Everything that doesn’t pertain to God is sinful.’

Annie Pavageau had made quite plain an attitude among blacks of which many whites are completely ignorant…The official attitude of the black church…is that the blues is the Devil’s music. It is not just the music alone that they are against…the blues is roundly…condemned by the black church because of the way of life it represents – the milieu of hard drinking, loose sex, and quick violence in the city bars and country juke joints where the music is played. And the black church as a conservative, stabilizing force in the community, has been fighting against this way of life right from the start…”

These comments, made over a period of time from the late 1800’s to around 1970, seemed to us to be helpful to keep from generalizing and to get a more complete and accurate picture concerning the matter of the Negro influence on rock ‘n’ roll.

Next time, the Lord willing, the BEAT!


1) Robert Palmer, Rolling Stones Illustrated History of Rock ‘n’ Roll

2) John Rublowsky, Black Music in America

3) Ibid., quoting Eldridge Cleaver

4) Bruce Cook, Listen to the Blues

5) Lillian Roxon, Rock Encyclopedia

6) John Rublowsky, Op, Cit.

7) Bruce Cook, Op. Cit.

8) Willie (the Lion) Smith, Music on my Mind

9) Nat Hentoff, Essay in the book “American Music” by Charles Nanry

10) James Haskins, Scott Joplin – The Man who Made Ragtime

11) Frank Tirro, Jazz – A History

12) Ibid., quoting Buerkle and Barker! Bourbon Street Black

13) John Rublowsky, Op. Cit.

14) Barry Ulanov, A History of Jazz in America

15) John Rublowsky, Op. Cit., quoting Eldridge Cleaver

16) David Ewen, All the Years of American Popular Music

17) Alan Lomax, Folk Songs of North America

18) Barry Ulanov, Op. Cit.

19) Greil Marcus, Mystery Train

20) Morroe Berger, Essay in the book, “American Music” by Charles Nanry

21) David Ewen, Op. Cit.