100barrelhouse: The First Rock ‘N Roll Record, Part 1

Little Wonder Records

A few months ago, I came across a long list of records from as early as 1916 that were contenders for the title ‘First Rock N Roll Record’. A closer look at the artists and songs mentioned revealed they were each one of them seriously considered. I did know that the genre’s origins are still a topic of hot debate between those who believe it’s an amalgam of white and black traditional styles from the southern US and those who are of the opinion it’s a populist, white twist to Rhythm & Blues. But I genuinely thought it was decided that either Elvis’ “That’s Alright Mama” or Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock”, both from 1955, first introduced, or at least popularized the genre to the general public. I had no idea there are 63 songs, spanning five decades that all, in some measure, deserve an honorable mention in the search for the true Rock ‘N Roll pioneer. Though even The King himself once said Rock ‘N Roll was here a long time before he came along.

It made me want to learn more about these records. I will be talking about my findings in chronological order in (hopefully) regular posts. I will be going by the list on the Wikipedia, so it might not be complete, but it’s more than enough to get me started. I know many-a book has been expertly written on the subject, but why read those when you can give my simplistic, amateur-ish attempts at tackling the matter a glance?

Here it is, the oldest record to get a shot at the title:

Who, what, wear, when?
“The Camp Meeting Jubilee” was distributed by Little Wonder Records in 1916 and was sung by an unnamed quartet. Little Wonder Records were the first company to make records cheaply – around 10 cents a record – which made them accessible to all layers of society. Little is known of the artists, because they were mostly uncredited on these discs. All we know with some certainty is that they’re four black men.

Why was it in the running?
It is in the list because it is the first on record to mention the phrase ‘rocking and rolling’. Morgan Wright over at HoyHoy.com tells us that the term has been around for centuries and can be found in literature as far back as the 17th century. It was originally a nautical term that described a ships swaying motions. Eventually, it came to be used in black American spirituals. “Rocking” was the word used to describe the feeling when the spirit got a hold of you. So before 1947 the only people rockin’ and a-rollin’ were black gospel singers. The lyrics in question:

We’ve been rockin’ ‘n rolling in your arms,
Rockin’ and rolling in your arms,
Rockin’ and rolling in your arms,
In the arms of Moses.

Why did it come up short?
Since it was used in a religious sense it’s far removed from the Rock ‘N Roll as Alan Freed (contrary to popular belief he didn’t coin the phrase, but he regularly used it on his popular radio show, cementing it as the name for the exciting new youth-oriented music) meant it, which has sexual and rebellious connotations. It ushered in a new era where kids rule popular culture and decided their interests and lives are totally seperate from their parents’. So rocking and rolling in the arms of Moses just won’t do, I’m afraid.

Listen to the very poor quality original recording of the song. It’s an endearing spiritual that has nothing to do with the later musical genre. Nonetheless, simply being the first to mention the words on vinyl was enough to make it into the history books. I love the idea that families sat around and listened to this record, because it sure sounds peculiar to my modern ears – fun and fascinating but definitely odd. In the middle of the song it’s suddenly religious question and answer time, which is as amusing as it is educational. I so love the reaction to ‘did you ever hear tell of the devil?’. Brrrrrrrr…

Male Quartet – Camp Meeting Jubilee

Next time on 100barrelhouse: Trixie Smith’s 1922 record “My Man Rocks With Me (With One Steady Roll)”.