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Far Out 40: The story of rock ‘n’ roll via a playlist of its Black pioneers


Nina Simone once said, “funk, gospel and blues is all out of slavery times, out of depression, out of sorrow,” and that isn’t just some championed utterance by a much-loved artist, it stands up to the test of musicologists. The tale of modern music and rock ‘n’ roll, in particular, is one that had its extraordinary origins in the harrowing reaches of the slave trade. It is this fact that exemplifies how rock ‘n’ roll, from the outset, speaks of empowered unity. It etched itself as gilded poetry written in the margins of one of the darkest pages in history and gave triumphant voice to people bloodied but unbowed.

During the abhorrent slave trade, roughly 12 million people were shipped predominantly from West Africa across the Atlantic. Therein their voodoo ancestry was stripped, and new religions were enforced upon them. However, it is a mark of the spiritual fortitude of those that suffered that their heritage was upheld in its own way, and now there are echoes of it in what is arguably the most celebrated religion of them all—the enrapturing of modern music in all of its glorious guises. In some ways, rock ‘n’ roll is the reverberating sound of solidarity and unification that the dispossessed Africans brought about.  

Catholicism was forced upon them, but rather than drown out the Vodou tunes; it merely formed a fusion. The drums and rhythms may well have been abandoned out of necessity, but Gospel songs became a fusion where Vodou and hymns met. The same sense of profound exultation was present, and the drums were vocalised in the chants and incantations of singalong songs of soul salvation. And these chants were of vital importance. As the legendary Lightnin’ Hopkins once explained…

Under the blazing Texas sun, perched on a raised bench, sporting a golden shirt and a cream woollen cardigan, clearly prised from a sheep that took enormous pride in itself, sits Lightnin’ Hopkin. He has his dogeared guitar tucked under his arm and an attitude so cool that he was probably giving off a light spring breeze. Sat alongside him is his trusted Centerville, Texas companion Billy Bizor, staring down dotingly at his monolithic mouth organ. 

In front of the two workaday Michelangelo’s of blues music are two young white boys sat cross-legged in the grass. It is unclear what exactly this congregation is, how it came about, or essentially what will happen. Through modern eyes it seems inexplicable – ‘where are the ticket stubs, security and stage separations?’ – music simply doesn’t happen in that natural and organic way anymore. However, Hopkins thought nothing of spilling his soul out for a spellbound audience no matter how big, small, old, young, rich or poor; he simply dished out his talent like the warming balm of the sun on a cold winter’s day. In fact, he once put it to words when he said, “People have learned how to strum a guitar, but they don’t have the soul. They don’t feel it from the heart. It hurts me. I’m killing myself to tell them how it is.” And before these two awestruck young lads, Hopkins tells the tale of Mr Charlie’s Rolling Mill…

… “Once in the country there was this little boy and he stuttered,” Hopkins casually begins. It is a story of a pariah who left home after it became clear his mother couldn’t understand his stammering ways. Out on the road with a meagre flower-pack full of possessions and a spiritual sack-full of woes, he wandered his tired legs up to a dingy outbuilding called The Rolling Mill that belonged to Mr Charlie. The boy stammered his way towards asking Mr Charlie if he had a place for him to stay. Mr Charlie told him he could stay in his Rolling Mill shack down the road so long as he sees to it that his stove never catches fire. The boy agrees and Mr Charlie tells him he never wants to hear from him again unless there is ever a fire. One day the boy is in the Rolling Mill and the place catches aflame. He races his way up to Mr Charlie’s house to tell him about the blaze. As the boy struggles to spell out the problem in his failing words, when Mr Charlie stops him and says, “Look here boy, if you can’t talk it, then sing it,” at which point Lightnin’ Hopkins strums his guitar and bursts into song…

The story is one that forms an allegorical mirror to the tale of the blues. When those suffering on plantations couldn’t speak, they had to learn to sing. It is this encrypted meaning and the humanised expression of the blues that elucidated the vital necessity of music, both as a means of communication and as a soulful vessel to exultation.

It wasn’t just expression on a personal front either. Not only did the messages extolled have an encrypted meaning, but they also spoke of an exchange and the collectivism that came along with it. It would be wrong to reduce the 12 million who suffered to the single blanket term of ‘slaves’ and it is important when it comes to changing the white written rhetoric of history to redress this. Within those 12 million, were individual voices, a wellspring of different cultures and a slew of different ideas. These all came together triumphantly in the communicative force of music and empowered each other. 

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Nowhere was this mishmash of cultures, sounds and spirit more profound than in Congo Square. Situated in the heart of what is now befittingly called Louis Armstrong Park, just north of the French Quarter, this fabled spot is where African slaves would gather when they were permitted Sunday’s off. This foregathering was enforced by 1817 when the city mayor of New Orleans specifically selected the square as the only “gathering ground” permitted.

Imagine, if you will, how such a joyous cacophony in the heart of the bubbling chic New Orleans, could cause the eruption of modern music to burst into song. Jazz, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll came roaring from the swirled mixing bowl of the square, surrounded by crooked tupelo trees, serpentine dust roads and the giant clay ball moon that seems to be a few miles closer to the delta than the rest of the world, presiding in the hot sultry evening air, all leering in to catch the sweet sound of celebration despite dower circumstance. You might have a blues guitarist on one bench, someone singing hymns on another and a drummer on the next one. Great swinging jams might erupt as music from all corners coalesced into one.

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Therefore, if music is, in its own, a religion—a sort of ceremony geared toward the greater good and breaking free from circumstance towards some cloud nine, then it seems fitting that one of its final developing chapters involves a face-off of sorts. Nowadays, Rockstar are viewed as outlying rebels, and that rebellious spirit has its origins in the hardy folks who pioneered it. In short, when hard times hit, a buskers open guitar case was competing for the same kindness of strangers as the pastor’s collection pot. Thus, blues players like Robert Johnson were decreed as being in league with the devil. Rather than turn against this, Johnson and co embraced it and gave rock ‘n’ roll its daring spirit. 

Later artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Chuck Berry would channel this spirit in a sonic sense, speeding up the blues and rattling the rafters of concert halls. And with that came the birth of rock ‘n’ roll as we now know it. They braved slings and arrows to make their voices heard and did it with such bravura that it simply had to catch on. 

Sadly, as we learnt from a recent interview with Roger Wilson, those slings and arrows continue. The cold hard data of the modern industry displays the uncomfortable truth that 73% of all Black music professionals have experienced and in the UK their earnings are lower on average (£1964 per month vs £2459 for white professionals) among a string of other startling facts.

“At music college, I was certainly the subject of some unwholesome comments by faculty staff,” Wilson recalls. “Racism doesn’t just stop because you work in a different industry. It was perhaps a little more sophisticated – you might have overheard someone saying, ‘what are you doing here?’, implying that you were not of the right standard to be joining them on a studio session. I certainly got that question asked of me directly a few times in the early days.” It is up to us to remedy that to ensure that music can finally become the illuminating platform of equality and unity that it has always strived for. 

The music of rock ‘n’ roll pioneers:

  • ‘Me and the Devil Blues’ by Robert Johnson
  • ‘Death Letter Blues’ by Son House
  • ‘Devil’s Gonna Git You’ by Bessie Smith
  • ‘Didn’t It Rain’ by Sister Rosetta Tharpe
  • ‘Hound Dog’ by Big Mama Thornton
  • ‘Dead Drunk Blues’ by Ma Rainey
  • ‘Woke up This Morning’ by Lightnin’ Hopkins
  • ‘The Sky is Crying’ by Elmore James
  • ‘Glory of Love’ by Big Bill Broonzy
  • ‘When the Levee Breaks’ by Memphis Minnie
  • ‘You Never Can Tell’ by Chuck Berry
  • ‘Tutti Frutti’ by Little Richard
  • ‘Mannish Boy’ by Muddy Waters
  • ‘Jack I’m Mellow’ by Trixie Smith
  • ‘Crazy Blues’ by Mamie Smith
  • ‘Match Box Blues (4446)’ by Blind Lemon Jefferson
  • ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ Lead Belly
  • ‘Some Day Baby’ by Lonnie Johnson
  • ‘I Got the Cross the River Jordan’ by Blind Willie McTell
  • ‘Tupelo’ by John Lee Hooker
  • ‘Going Down’ by Freddie King
  • ‘Smokestack Lightnin’’ by Howlin’ Wolf
  • ‘Boys, You’re Welcome’ by Mississippi John Hurt
  • ‘I Don’t Know’ by Ruth Brown
  • ‘See See Rider’ by LaVern Baker
  • ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ by Big Maybelle
  • ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’ by Jimmy Reed
  • ‘Help Me’ by Sonny Boy Williamson II
  • ‘Moon Blues’ by Otis Spann
  • ‘Two Bugs and a Roach’ by Earl Hooker
  • ‘Sloppy Drunk’ by Jimmy Rogers
  • ‘I’m a Woman’ by Koko Taylor
  • ‘Nervous Man Nervous’ by Big Jay McNeely
  • ‘Might Mighty Man’ by Roy Brown
  • ‘My Very Good Friend the Milkman’ by Fats Waller
  • ‘Pretty Thing’ by Bo Diddley
  • ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’ by Albert King
  • ‘Jambalaya (On The Bayou) by Fats Domino
  • ‘Shake, Rattle & Roll’ by Big Joe Turner
  • ‘Mean Old World’ by T-Bone Walker
  • ‘Hit or Miss’ by Odetta

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