Rock ‘n Roll has a Southern Accent

Rock ‘n Roll may be the most significant cultural export in American history.  There is no doubt that American culture, for good and bad, has had an enormous impact on global culture, and Rock ‘n Roll is one of our most iconic contributions.  Around the world, people don’t hear Rock ‘n Roll and think of Switzerland or Brazil or Thailand.  Rock ‘n Roll is purely American, and by that, I mean Rock ‘n Roll is purely Southern.  It even has a Southern accent.

For confirmation, simply read the list of ingredients.  Rock ‘n Roll is about two-thirds Rhythm & Blues and one-third Country music.  The Country music portion of Rock ‘n Roll is loaded with Folk music, Southern Gospel, and even a little Bluegrass, and we know those types of music are clearly Southern.  The Rhythm & Blues portion of Rock ‘n Roll is loaded with the Blues, Boogie Woogie, and Swing music – the Blues come from Mississippi, Boogie Woogie comes from Texas, and Swing comes from Atlanta.  Before going any further, some might be confused as to what connection Rock ‘n Roll has with Swing music, and it all goes back to the drummer.  The basic Rock ‘n Roll drum feel that emphasizes the backbeats of two and four is unquestionably a Swing band drum beat.  Plus, every generation of drummers learned how to play the drums using the previous dominant style.  The Rock drummers of the 90’s grew up playing Led Zeppelin and The Who from the 70’s.  The Rock drummers of the 70’s grew up playing The Beatles and The Rolling Stones from the late 50’s and early 60’s.  And Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts grew up playing Swing band music from the 40’s, as did all of those early 50’s Rock ‘n Roll drummers.  There is very little difference between the drum feel of Chuck Berry’s Rock ‘n Roll and Chick Webb’s Savoy Swing.

While many full volumes already have been written about Rock ‘n Roll, this particular contribution will be limited to its early creation and development, which was necessarily Southern.  Wait a minute.  That’s a pretty big supposition to start this whole mess.  Why did Rock ‘n Roll HAVE to be Southern?  Couldn’t it easily have come from Boston or Des Moines, or from Warsaw or Berlin, or even Saigon or Hong Kong?  Absolutely not.  No way, Jose.  The social conditions that existed in Dixie in the 1950’s and provided the spark to ignite Rock ‘n Roll in the first place were unique to the South, and simultaneously almost indecipherable to anyone from outside the South.  That’s why so many non-Southerners miss the mark when it comes to Rock ‘n Roll.  If there was ever a phrase that captured the moment best, it would be, “you had to be there.”  And that is the ultimate key to Rock ‘n Roll, which was never about rebellion, but more about reconciliation.  I guess maybe it really was about rebellion in the North, but it in the South, Rock ‘n Roll was definitely all about reconciliation.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read and heard about Elvis being the so-called “magic bullet” that sparked the birth of Rock ‘n Roll, because he was the white boy that sounded black.  Black music of the 1950’s was highly favored among white American teenagers, but wasn’t selling.  It took a boy with white skin to provide the marketable legitimacy that Rock ‘n Roll needed to take off and be profitable.  In other words, because Elvis was white, it was socially acceptable to buy his music.  Only a Yankee could come up with something so utterly ridiculous, and try to explain something they don’t understand with something else they don’t understand.

I have written about this before, but it bears repeating here, because this is the true crux of the matter when it comes to the birth of Rock ‘n Roll.  The most significant difference between the South and the rest of the country is that in the South, although groups of people may not get along with each other and may clash and have their differences, frequently the people within the groups get along perfectly fine.  They know each other, they work together, go to church together, they’re neighbors.  They have built relationships with each other, and they see eye-to-eye on a lot of face-to-face issues, and they are rightfully happy with that arrangement.  However, outside the South, that situation is exactly reversed.  Although groups of people may be technically cooperative, the individuals within the groups don’t have anything to do with each other, and can’t even relate to each other.  On a personal level, they avoid each other.  In America, this phenomenon is most significant when it comes to race.  For Yankees, it’s all about race, but for Southerners, it’s all about culture.  In the North, black and white are significantly different races.  In the South, our culture – no matter if it’s black or white – is uniformly Southern.  We eat the same foods, we talk the same way, and we sing the same music.  We grow up sharing the same culture, and that is a highly significant concept in the understanding of anything and everything that comes from the South, including Rock ‘n Roll.

If Elvis were truly unique (the white boy that sounded black), then Rock ‘n Roll would have died right there.  The fact is, Elvis clearly was NOT unique.  Oh, he may have been unique to Yankees, but his “unique” sound was the sound of the whole South.  That raunchy, “black” sound that marked Elvis’ style was unquestionably the sound of everybody in the South.  Everybody automatically sounded like Elvis without even having to try – no matter if they were black or white.

Take a moment and think about every Rock ‘n Roll pioneer you can name.  And I’m talking about “pioneers” exclusively – the people who created Rock ‘n Roll, not the ones who capitalized later – and think about where they came from.  Here, let me get you started.

Elvis Presley – Mississippi

Chuck Berry – Missouri

Roy Orbison – Texas

Jerry Lee Lewis – Louisiana

Johnny Cash – Arkansas

Fats Domino – Louisiana

Carl Perkins – Tennessee

Buddy Holly – Texas

Little Richard – Georgia

J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper) – Texas

Gene Vincent – Virginia

Bo Diddley – Mississippi

Chubby Checker – South Carolina

Booker T. and the M.G.’s – Tennessee

Had enough, yet?  I could continue, but I think you get the point.  Rock ‘n Roll clearly has a Southern accent.

About Tom Daniel

Tom Daniel holds a Ph.D in Music Education from Auburn University. He is a husband, father of four cats and a dog, and a college band director who lives back in the woods of Alabama with a cotton field right outside his bedroom window. His grandfather once told him he was "Scotch-Irish," and Tom has been trying to live up to those lofty Southern standards ever since. More from Tom Daniel

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