Did White People Really Steal Rock Music from Black People?
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.
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?
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.