Define rock ‘n roll.
I started reading the dictionary when I was four years old, so I grew up very aware of definitions. And “rock ‘n roll” is a hard term to define.
Before pandemic, I went on a trip overseas. When I came back, the customs officer handed me my passport and said, “Rock ‘n roll”. When I think of rock ‘n roll, a law enforcement professional conducting official business is almost the opposite. The concept, like “cool”, got drained of meaning by commercial culture.
Originally, the term comes out of gospel — “Rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham” — but church ain’t rock ‘n roll. It first started to get widespread use in music we wouldn’t fully identify with it today. Before ’57, “rock ‘n roll” and “rhythm and blues” were interchangable.
Listen to the original version of “Louie Louie”, by Richard Berry and The Pharoahs. The song became the national anthem of rock ‘n roll, but Berry’s version has a smoothness instead of an edge. It was on its way to being forgotten if The Kingsmen and Paul Revere and The Raiders hadn’t scored hits with their interpretations years later.
In jazz, there’s an unofficial group of songs, called “standards”, you’re expected to know by heart. A jazz “jam” session usually isn’t improvised — they’re playing “I Got Rhythm”, “Heart and Soul”, and so on.
I put together a playlist of rock ‘n roll standards. They have a lot in common, but very little is the same between all of them. They were all written between 1955–65, and they all sound like they go together. But other than that you can’t say anything about the whole group: it’s not all one race, one gender, all city or all country.
It’s a mix — the melting pot — that’s what makes it exciting. It borrows the best from all the cultures.
It’s American music. Listen, the constitution doesn’t say you have to like this music to be a citizen. But I think it would be tough to love America and not like this very essential part of its history at least a little bit. This is top-shelf, pure and uncut _feel-good_ music. Do you not like feeling good, even a little, sometimes?
Maybe that border cop was right. Maybe we should make it part of our national definition. The thing all the in-crowd and outcasts, mainstream and minority, oldtimers and newcomers can agree on.
God Bless America, and God Bless Rock ‘n Roll.