Did White People Really Steal Rock Music from Black People?

Little Richard was one of the pioneers of rock n' roll music
Little Richard was one of the pioneers of rock n' roll music

The claim that white people "stole" rock music from black people is becoming increasingly common. The argument is that rock music derived from black music forms but was then popularized by white artists like Elvis Presley. Now it is true that many of the white artists who popularized rock music were influenced by black artists. But how accurate is the overall claim that white people "stole" a genre "invented" by black people?

Even when America was segregated, black and white musicians frequently interacted and influenced each other

"Rock-and-roll performers like Ray Charles and Chuck Berry were fans of and strongly influenced by country music. Black performers regularly performed songs by white songwriters like Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Some even covered country hits—especially at King records, where African-American producer Henry Glover oversaw both R&B and country divisions. Rock and roll wasn't black music, and it wasn't white music; it was an integrated form drawing from other integrated forms including country, country blues, R&B, boogie woogie, jump blues, Western swing, and more. America's pop-music marketing categories are often shamefully segregated, but the music itself has never been."
-- The Atlantic, Getting Elvis's Legacy Right

According to Wikipedia:

"The foundations of rock music are in rock and roll, which originated in the United States during the late 1940s and early 1950s, and quickly spread to much of the rest of the world. Its immediate origins lay in a melding of various black musical genres of the time, including rhythm and blues and gospel music, with country and western."

They cite "Birth of Rock & Roll" by Richie Unterberger as a source. What might jump out here is country and western. Isn't that a white genre? Mostly yes. Again according to Wikipedia:

"The origins of country music are the folk music of mostly white, working-class Americans, who blended popular songs, Irish and Celtic fiddle tunes, traditional ballads, and cowboy songs, and various musical traditions from European immigrant communities."

Wikipedia citing "Country Music U.S.A" by Bill Malone and Jocelyn Neal says:

"Immigrants to the Southern Appalachian Mountains of North America brought the music and instruments of Europe along with them for nearly 300 years."

However, Wikipedia also lists the blues genre as a partial influence in the development of country and western. Still, it's clear that rock n' roll was a fusing of both black and white styles of music.

The point about European immigrants bringing their instruments with them is important. After all, the types of instruments available will influence how musical genres evolve. The musical instruments most closely associated with rock music are the guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, piano, electronic keyboard, and drums

  • Guitar - the guitar has it's origin in Spain. The electric guitar was first patented by a white American named George Beauchamp
  • Bass Guitar - a white American named Paul Tutmarc is credited with developing the first bass guitar
  • Piano - the invention of the piano is credited to Italian Bartoloeo Cristofori
  • Electronic Keyboards - Frenchman Georges Jenny developed an early form of the electronic keyboard called the Ondioline. Harold Rhodes, a white American, is credited with developing the first digital piano
  • Drums go all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia. The ancient Greeks and Romans used drums. Americans Indians used drums. Africans have historically used them. This is an instrument with multiple origins.

European immigrants to the United States brought musical styles with them that went on to influence the development of rock n' roll
European immigrants to the United States brought musical styles with them that went on to influence the development of rock n' roll

Without black created genres like gospel, jazz and blues we wouldn't have rock. But without European folk music we wouldn't have rock either. And without many of the instruments brought from various parts of the world, genres like rock, jazz, blues and folk wouldn't have evolved the way they did.

Songwriters, of course, played an important role in the evolution of American popular music as well. Jews were important contributors. The Contemporary Jewish Museum had an exhibit called "Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations" that explored how black and Jewish musicians worked with and influenced each other. An album released to coincide with the exhibit featured African American artists like Billie Holiday, Johnny Mathis and Eartha Kitt covering Jewish songs. An editorial on the CD explains that:

"...indeed, most general histories of American Popular Music even turn on the synergies of African-American & Jewish creativity, influence, and exchange, be it Tin Pan Alley, Klezmer, the Yiddish Theater, jazz, or R&B."

The song Maybellene written and performed by the African American rock n' roll trailblazer Chuck Berry is an example of how black and white musical styles and musicians intermingled. Maybellene was adapted from an Appalachian fiddle folk tune called Ida Red. The earliest recordings of Ida Red were by white folk acts. Berry's adaptation came from a recording by white Western Swing musician Bob Wills.

Maybellene was produced by the Polish American duo Phil and Leonard Chess. The Chess brothers produced several rock n' roll, R&B, soul and blues tracks. Many prominent black artists like Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, Etta James and Bo Diddley were signed to their label Chess.

What do you think?

See results without voting

All of this highlights the difficulty of trying to place racial copyrights on musical styles that evolved over many decades. During these time periods black and white musicians were exposed to each others musical styles and instruments. These musicians often admired and emulated each other.

It shouldn't be a surprise that so many genres were born in America when you consider that whites from many parts of Europe and blacks from many parts of West Africa brought their own musical styles and instruments with them. Without this melting pot, many of the genres that dominate popular music all over the world today wouldn't exist.

More by this Author


Comments 10 comments

Mark 4 months ago

White acts stealing from black acts assume those black acts existed in a vacumm something not posible in the diverse musical landscape of the early/mid 20th century. Blacks were trailblazers a lot of genres so it's probably why people are like they must have invented it then. But that ignores what these acts were listening to and who they worked with. The Chuck Berry example is a good one. Between the folk song it was based on and the white producers, there was plenty of white input that went into it's creation even if Chuck was the one to sing and write it. If you look just at someone's face, it's easy to see them as an inventor because you don't see who's behind them or who's influencing them. Donna Summer, the Queen of disco, was black. Her two main producers and co-writers were white guys. Donna was hugely important in her own career and music. But so were these white guys Moroder and Bellotte who worked with her on so many albums.


Uncle Benny 4 months ago

"Chuck Berry was one of the pioneers of rock n' roll music" all right ... but the guy in the photo is Little Richard.


Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 4 months ago from California Author

Uncle Benny, Thanks for the correction. I originally had a picture of Berry there and then switched to Little Richard but forgot to change the caption.


MH 4 months ago

I've seen allegations that country music was stolen from black people even though it's mostly Celtic in origin. Do people who makes these allegations honestly believe the white majority had no musical heritage of their own to contribute to the growth of popular music???


spartucusjones profile image

spartucusjones 4 months ago from Parts Unknown

I agree that the origins of rock is a blending of different styles which originated from different cultures. I don't think one race has a copyright on rock & roll. Where the discussion gets more tricky is the subject of culture appropriation. There was a time period during segregation where music and the music charts were also somewhat segregated. Because of this white artists would record a tune originally done by a black artists, and they would have a hit on the pop charts and get a played on mainstream radio, while the black artists was regulated to the R n' B charts and mainly got played on black radio stations. I could understand why some black artists might have felt a bit disrespected and cheated. But it is a stretch to say that rock is the sole creation of the black community (even though they made an important contribution that shouldn't be overlooked).


Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 4 months ago from California Author

spartucusjones,

Black artists absolutely were cheated at the time. They did a lot of work but often got little glory. I can definitely see why the idea of whites stealing rock is so prevalent even if the claim doesn't stand up to scrutiny.


Kevin 3 months ago

Spatacus's comment is spot on. Black artists were less successful due to segregated radio so labels preferred to sign white artists. But the whites artists who were inspired by black artists were inspired by white artists to. And those black and white artists were inspired by other white and black artists. Its an oversimplification to say that blacks were the only inspirers and whites the only inspired. But between black frustration and white guilt that's how thinkpieces on the topic end up being written.


JayPa 2 months ago

I don't want this to seem like I'm downplaying the struggles of black people. But black singers did enjoy plenty of chart and financial success. Blacks made up about 12% of the American population and had around 15 to 20 percent of the big hits even in the early 60's which was the time most of us think as the beginning of modern popular music. In the 70s 80s and 90s blacks often had close to half if not more of the big hits. Many of the biggest popular music stars even today are black. When your 12 or 13 percent of the population but having 20 to 50% of the big hits that's amazing success. If blacks made big contributions but enjoyed little success I could see why there would be anger over white artists gaining influences from black artists. But that hasn't been the case. Whenever this debate comes up I always feel confusion about what the issue is supposed to be but many people complain blacks haven't enjoyed enough success considering their contributions. But if you make up 12 to 13 percent of the population but having 20 to 50 percent of the hits how is that not enough. How few hits should the white 70% be having before people think there's fairness? 10% maybe? How is that fair.


Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 2 months ago from California Author

JayPa,

I did a piece on the decline of black artists in pop music in recent years. I looked into what percentage of #1 hits were by black artists over multiple years. I was surprised at how successful black artists have been in pop, having 80% of the #1 songs in 1995 as an example. I think black success in popular music may be underestimated to a certain extent. Although much of that black success was in genres like soul, R&B, pop and disco.

The interesting thing about rock as a genre is that it's largely male and white. There were plenty of black acts who served as influences in the 1940's through the 1960's but few became superstars themselves. That's why white people rapping is so controversial. The fear is that if too many white people rap, blacks will be shut out of a genre they created.

Many young whites, Latinos and Asians are listening to rap. It's part of the popular culture all races and nationalities of kids are exposed to. Young people all over the world see rap as a way to express themselves but are often being told you can buy this, listen to this, pay for concerts with this style of music. But don't express yourself that way if you aren't the proper color. And rock music is often used to justify that way of thinking. I don't think that's fair at all but I understand where those feelings come from.


NateB11 profile image

NateB11 6 days ago from California, United States of America

Interesting breakdown of the cultural influences that made up what became Rock music. I've thought for a long time that Rock music and American music generally is made from a combination of cultures.

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working