Lesson 1 – africa to afro-american, spiritual, gospel, blues,

Lesson 1 – Africa to Afro-American, Spiritual, Gospel, Blues, Country, Rhythm and Blues, Elvis, and The U.S. in the 1950’s.


Reading: Rock and Roll: A Social History, Chapters 1, 2, 3, and 4

Students are encouraged to repeat the listening examples (located in the Listening Links for Lesson 1 folder) as necessary.  It would be counterproductive to listen to this great music only once.

You may want to open another tab or two to access the Listening Links for Lesson 1 and the Music Characteristics To Listen For pages to have them available while you respond to the Lesson #1 Questions.

Lesson 1 Questions:

1. The roots of rock and roll are clearly African-American in origin. Much of the indigenous music from West African cultures features musical characteristics that are prevalent in rock and roll. Listen for musical characteristics in the recording of Ba-Benjelle Pygmies from Central Sub-Saharan Africa.  The variety of timbres (tone quality or colors) present in many sub-Saharan African singing voices range from rounded, to guttural, without vibrato, raw, and grainy.  Buzzing sounds (buzzing timbres) are prevalent in many of the instruments used in the countries and culture groups of sub-Saharan Africa.

Open the Music Characteristics To Listen For page and list any of the musical characteristics you happen to hear in this incredible Pygmy selection.  Beyond a mere listing of the characteristics, describe and respond to what you are hearing.


2. Listen, compare, and contrast the following two Spirituals below.  How are they different?  What do they seem to have in common?  List and describe any musical characteristics you notice in these recordings.

Shout All Over God’s Heaven – The Fisk Jubilee Singers

Roll, Jordan Roll – The Fairfield Four


3.  Click on the NPR (National Public Radio) video below to view, to listen, and to provide a music observational response to these two famous gospel quartets who are actually related to each other – The McCrary Sisters, and The Fairfield Four.  Are there instruments accompanying these singers or is this performance “a cappella?”  What patterns (rhythmic or song form structure) do you notice in this performance?

Rock My Soul – a spiritual song performed in a Gospel manner by The McCrary Sisters and The Fairfield Four (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.


4. Listen and respond to the W.C. Handy composition St. Louis Blues as performed by The Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith. On this recording of the Classic Blues style, Bessie is accompanied by Louis Armstrong on Cornet and Fred Longshaw on the Reed Organ. Describe this music–what mood is being conveyed here?  As you listen, list and describe any musical characteristics you recognize.

5. Compare and contrast St. Louis Blues from question #4 and Traveling Riverside Blues by Robert Johnson. How are they different? What do they seem to have in common?  List and describe characteristics you notice in the music.  As you listen to Traveling Riverside Blues, performed by the great Country or Delta Blues artist Robert Johnson, notice how Robert Johnson typifies the extremely personal approach of the Country/Delta Blues artist as evidenced by his adding to (adding one extra beat), or deleting from (dropping one beat) the 4/4 time of each measure of music.  He does not do this to all the measures, but rather to just a selected few purely as a means of communicating his art.  Maintaining strict 4/4 time coupled with the twelve-bar harmonic progression of the blues is secondary to the personal expression of his voice and guitar.  Additionally, because this music is just Robert by himself on guitar and singing, he does not have to worry about keeping a stable 4/4 meter or a steady tempo as he would if he was playing with other musicians in a band.


Urban Blues is a post World War II musical development. As African-Americans migrated north, the basic Country/Delta blues style mixed with the jazz rhythm section of piano, bass, and drums. Additionally, the musicians “plugged in,” as amplification of the guitars, vocals, and the harmonica became standard. 

6. Describe what you notice happening in each of the following Urban Blues songs:

a) Baby How Long? – Howlin’ Wolf

b) I’m In The Mood – John Lee Hooker Notice how Hooker’s vocal timbre serves as a model for, and a direct influence on, Jimi Hendrix.

c) Hard Loser – Muddy Waters

d) Wake Up Old Lady – Lightnin’ Hopkins

e) When My Left Eye Jumps – Buddy Guy

f) Sweet Sixteen – B.B. King


7. List some of the characteristics of Blues music that have directly influenced and been co-opted into rock and roll.


8. What are the given name, brand name, and model of the specific electric guitar played by the late great urban blues artist B.B. King?


9. What instruments did Muddy Waters put together to form his Chicago-based Urban Blues band?  What connection is there between this particular Urban Blues instrumentation and the instruments used in rock and roll music?


10.  Click below to view, listen, and describe what you are viewing and hearing as Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933) – composer, singer, and “white bluesman” performs three of his own compositions in this “short” for Columbia Pictures Studio in 1929.

“The Singing Brakeman” (1929) – a short film featuring Jimmie Rodgers singing “Waiting for a Train”, “Daddy and Home”, and “T for Texas” (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.


Beginning in the 1920’s with Jimmie Rodgers’ mix of yodeling, folk, blues, and “hillbilly” country; on into the 1930’s with singer, songwriter, fiddler, band leader, publisher and Grand Ole Opry icon Roy Acuff; Country Music started to shift from small ensembles of instruments (string bands) and/or singers such as The Carter Family, to that of the “solo singer-with-band” set up. This resulted in the post-World War II “honky-tonk” style featuring one of the greatest country performers and composers of all time-Hank Williams (1923-1953).

As Billie Holiday did so eloquently in Jazz, Hank also had the ability to communicate his art in a most personal manner. Both of these musical giants transcended the norm by singing with just the right balance of emotion and intensity, delivering it, as if each song were being sung just for you.

11. Describe the musical activity in each of the following selections recorded and composed by the great Hank Williams:

a) Your Cheatin’ Heart

b) Why Don’t You Love Me

c) I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry 

d) Move It On Over

Hank Williams’ songs have been covered by numerous artists representing many styles of music. He is, therefore, another major influence in the development of rock and roll.


12. Prior to labeling it Rhythm and Blues (R&B) in 1949 by Billboard, what was the categorical name used by the music industry for music recorded by African-American (Black) artists?


The tremendous significance of rhythm and blues vocalist Big Joe Turner toward the development of rock and roll is indisputable.

13. Listen to and describe what you are hearing in Big Joe Turner’s 1954 rhythm and blues recording of Shake, Rattle and Roll.

14. What early rock and roll musician stated, “I felt that if I could take, say, a dixieland tune and drop the first & third beats, and accentuate the second and fourth, and add a beat that the listeners could clap to as well as dance, this could be what they were after”?

15. Bill Haley’s musical style featured watered down rhythm and blues lyrics, country and western instrumental playing, and a stage routine designed to “grab” his audience. His “meteoric rise” to popularity, and hits like “Rock Around The Clock” all pointed toward a long career in rock and roll. Yet, as fast as his ascendancy was, “there were no more American hits after 1956.” Provide reasons why this happened to Bill Haley.  As you write your response, listen to his recording of the song See You Later, Alligator.


Coming from the same musical lineage as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Memphis Minnie before her, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton (1926-1984) is yet another example of how the Blues and the entire African-American experience is unquestionably fundamental to the art form we are studying in this course.

Big Mama Thornton was the original artist to record (and claimed she was the composer of the song too) the classic tune called Hound Dog. A legal battle began, and the court sided with composers Lieber and Stoller, thereby keeping Big Mama Thornton from ever receiving any of the sizable royalties the song has accrued through numerous cover versions since her original version was recorded in 1952.

16. Listen, compare, and contrast these two versions of the song Hound Dog.  Which version do you prefer and why?

a) Hound Dog – Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton

b) Hound Dog – Elvis Presley


17. Elvis Presley from “hillbilly ignorance to celebrity,” was a most complex human being.  List some of the influences (musical and non-musical) that directly shaped and contributed to his performance characteristics. For example: What effect did African-American gospel revival meetings have on the music and performance style of Elvis Presley?

18.  After writing about what influenced Elvis in question 17, now list and comment on the product of those influences–Elvis Presley’s own performance characteristics which established the “Elvis sound.” Describe the musical activity you hear in each of the following selections by “The King” Elvis Presley:

a) (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear

b) I Want You, I Need You, I Love You

c) Heartbreak Hotel

d) All Shook Up


19. Describe the political and social climate in the United States during the 1950’s. Additionally, list some of the prevailing social attitudes among middle-class white adults during the 1950’s. How did these “attitudes” effect their response to the sudden presence of rock and roll music in popular culture?

20. Name the “big three” Major Record companies who controlled the prevailing pop music industry in the early 1950’s.

21. What are/were “indies” “Independent Record Companies?  List three of these Indie Record companies that were active in the late 1940’s through the 1950’s.  What impact did these indies have on the recording industry and rock and roll music in general?

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