Major Antedating of "Rock and Roll"

Gerald Cohen gcohen at UMR.EDU
Mon Jul 8 02:09:00 UTC 2002

        Fred Shapiro's spotting of "rock and roll" in the 1946
_Billboard_ article provides an interesting piece in the "rock and
roll" puzzle, but I
don't believe it necessarily demonstrates that "rock and roll" was
already designating a genre of music, as, say, "rhythm and blues" did.
        The first clue is the isolated nature of this "rock and roll"
attestation in direct reference to music. If it designated a genre of
music in 1946, at least an occasional attestation in this or the
following years might be expected to turn up.
        Also, "rock and roll" already existed in reference to
vigorous (sometimes pulsating) movement. Milton "Mezz" Mezzrow's 1946
autobiography _Really the Blues_ (p.107) tells: "Dave Tough...was the
only white drummer I ever heard outside of Ray Eisel, who had
mastered that South Side beat.  My mouth flew open wider than a
trapdoor and Dave, bobbing up and down like a piston, rocking and
rolling with a rhythm that wouldn't quit, grinned back at me."
        There is also a story plausibly bringing "rock 'em and roll
'em" back to 1927. I present it in my _Studies in Slang_, vol. 4,
1995, pp.68-69 (part of my article "Material For The Study of 'Rock
and Roll'," pp. 61-73). In a 1986 letter to me a lady named Jane
Robinson wrote:
        " the summer of 1927, when I was seventeen years old, I
was visiting my mother's family in Philadelphia.  My boy-cousin, a
year or two older than I, bragged one morning about the night before.
'I was in a place where they really rock 'em and roll'em!' he said. I
have never forgotten."
        In a follow-up letter she clarified how she was certain of
the year and then added in response to my query: "'...really rock 'em
and roll 'em.' I'm sure he was not referring to music. Rather, he was
boasting how rough and tumble the place had been -- with noisy,
tough, low-class people."
        Now back to the 1946 _Billboard_ attestation ("...It's right
rhythmic rock and roll music that provides plenty of
inspiration...Backside builds on an infectious bouncy beat"), I
believe the reference of "rock and roll music" here is to a lively,
bouncy, pulsating beat.  And considering that "rock" and "roll" in
the jazz tradition both refer to copulation, the pulsating-beat
reference would not be unexpected.
        I therefore believe that Alan Freed still deserves credit for having
coined "rock and roll" in the sense we now use it. He was no doubt
familiar with the words "rock and roll" from the 1948 second
best-selling rhythm and blues record "Good Rockin' Tonight," which at
one point contains the brief lyrics (shouted out): "Rock and roll
around."  In any case, he was seeking a racially neutral term for the
music he was playing ("rhythm and blues" implied music that would
interest primarily a black audience). "Rock and roll," with its
implication of vibrant, pulsating music, fit the bill.

Gerald Cohen

>The earliest citation in the OED for "rock and roll" as a type of music is
>dated 25 Dec. 1954; this citation was contributed by me.  A few years ago
>I sent an antedating from early December 1954 to the OED.
>Now I have found a much earlier citation, establishing that music from the
>"race"/rhythm and blues milieu was called "rock and roll" substantially
>before Alan Freed popularized the term in the early 1950s:
>1946 _Billboard_ 22 June 33  JOE LIGGINS AND HIS HONEYDRIPPERS ... _Sugar
>Lump_ [title of album being reviewed] ... It's right rhythmic rock and
>roll music that provides plenty of inspiration in Joe Liggins's "Sugar
>Lump." ... Backside builds on an infectious bouncy beat.
>Fred Shapiro

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