One cannot contemplate rock music without viewing its roots; that being said, its roots cannot be viewed without analyzing their origins in turn, and the political circumstance which shaped their public image.

Derived from English drinking songs, Celtic folk music, German popular music including waltzes and the proto-gospel singing of Scottish immigrants, “country folk” music had been an aspect of American culture since the early days of the Republic, but as it existed in country and not city was rarely recognized by cultural authorities of the day. Further, once new populations became empowered and replaced the old, most of this history was forgotten.

In part, the reason for this was political: the members of society who advanced American popular music as an artform were not of the original Northern European population, nor were they disposed toward thinking benevolently toward the same; further, they needed to invent something which, like advertising throughough the 1950s, presented itself as an oppositional alternative to the “traditional, boring” way of doing things (early advertising extolled the virtues of its products, while later advertising promoted products as part of a lifestyle which had to demonstrate both novelty and uniqueness to have value as a replacement for the traditional, boring, and otherwise effective way of doing things; this transcendence of function for image has fundamentally shaped American character). As a result, the mythos of blues as a solely African-American artform, and the denial of the Celtic, English and American folk influences on both blues and rock music, was perpetrated as a marketing campaign with highly destructive results for all involved.

The blues was not formalized until it was recorded, and at that point in time, a fixed structure was imposed on it based on the interpretations of others. Broadly stated, it used a minor pentatonic scale with a flatted fifth, constant syncopation, and distinctive “emotional” vocal styles. Of all of its components, none were unique, nor was its I-IV-V chord progression unique to the blues. To view it from an ethnomusical perspective, the blues is an aesthetic (not musical) variation on the English, Scottish, Irish and German folk music which made up the American colloquial sonic art perspective since its inception. From a marketing perspective, however, the blues had to be marketed as a revelation from the downtrodden and suffering African-American slaves, so that it might maintain an “outsider” perspective which, to people bored with a society based on money and lacking heroic values, might appear more “authentic” than their own.

When country music was re-introduced to the then-standardized blues form, the result was called rock music. Its primary difference from country was in its use of vocals which emphasized timbre over tonal accuracy, and the adoption of a more insistent, constant syncopated beat. While German waltz and popular music bands had invented the modern drum kit and developed most techniques for percussion, their music and that of their country counterparts in America tended to use drums sparsely, much more in the style of modern jazz bands than in the ranting, repetitive, dominant methods of rock music. However, it is hard to find someone in a crowd of mixed caste, race, class and intellect for whom a constant beat is intellectually and sensually inaccessible, so it was adopted as a convention. Much as the standardization of the blues took diverse song forms and brought them into a single style, rock swept a wide range of influences into a monochromatic form.

Some historical backfill is worth noting here. The Celtic folksongs of Ireland and Scotland had two main influences: the pentatonic drone music of the Basque-Semitic “natives” of the UK, namely Scythians and the diverse groups forming “Picts,” and the Indo-European traditional music which is continued in India today. The melodies, including pentatonic variations of many different forms (many of which include the flatted fifth or modal analogue), are almost contiguous such that a player of Indian classical music and a Celtic folklorist can complete each others’ melodies in the traditional manner. Similarly, pentatonic music also derived from the Indo-European tradition was present in Germany, most notably in the biergartens and public ceremonies requiring simple music that everyone could enjoy. These musics employed improvisation, as did classical playing from the previous four hundred years; when these historical facts are recognized, American popular music can be identified as the marketing hoax that it is.

The consequences of this hoax have been a persistent blaming of white Americans for “stealing” a black form of music that never existed, and in return, a condescension toward traditional forms of music of all races that became identified with, and scorned as, a black form of music. As we shall see, marketing has both shaped the American experience and contributed to longstanding internal conflicts without resolution. In terms of popular music, marketing is important precisely because it insists on standard forms; they are easy to reproduce without requiring any particularly unique talents on the part of performers, producers, marketers or audience. This has caused an increasing simplification of music while marketing has grown correspondingly more savvy and, like American advertising as a whole, has grown away from focus on the product to focus on lifestyle associations unrelated to the product.

However it arrived, blues-country became “rock” in the 1930s-1950s mainly because of technology. Adolph Rickenbacker invented the electric guitar in 1931, and recording equipment advanced from the primitive to the cheaper and more portable units brought on by vacuum tube and then transistor technology. Additionally, microphones improved, especially those which could capture the nuances of voice. Louder guitars and vocals required the simple shuffle beats of blues drumming to gain volume, prompting a revolution in drum kit assembly. As a result, the simple blues-country hybrid became a marketing standard known as “rock ‘n’ roll,” then “rock,” as it was absorbed into the American mainstream. The earliest bands lacked much in the way of style, but wrote complacently harmonizing pieces based on the European popular music of clubs in the 1930s (much of jazz is based upon the same music). As time went on, the stylings – appearance, performance and cultural positioning – of the music became more advanced, and the songs themselves became simpler and more like advertising jingles.

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