Everything Has To Start Somewhere
Rockabilly… even the word is enough to conjure up images of slicked back hair, big double basses being slapped around, and hordes of teenage fans fainting at the mention of Elvis, but before we launch this bus off into this real-gone world of rock and roll there is an important question that we have to ask; namely, where did all this music come from? I mean, it can’t possibly be true that one day a Carl Perkins just wake up and say “I’m going make a great new style of music” right? Well, the short answer is no, that’s not true. The truth is actually a lot longer and more complicated than one might expect.
So what I’m going to do here at the start of this tour through the land of rockabilly is give a rather brief explanation of what rockabilly is and where it comes from. To do this I’m going to have to go back quite a bit further than the fifties when rockabilly all began to somewhere much earlier. I’m talking about the blues.
The blues is a style of music that originated with the black slaves who were brought over to America who mixed Western traditions of folk music with African beats and chord structures to create an expressive genre that was playable on almost any instrument. That’s all well and good I hear you say, but how is it relevant to rockabilly music? Well, that’s a pretty simple question: much of blues music is based around a structure called ‘the twelve bar blues’ and rockabilly music pretty much stole this structure and used it on every single song ever.
For an example of what I’m talking about here’s a couple of tracks by blues artists which use the basic twelve bare blues structure:
Champagne and Reefer – Muddy Waters
Dead Shrimp Blues – Robert Johnson
Don’t Throw Your Love On Me So Strong – T-Bone Walker
Great! Now that we’ve had a listen to these three tracks we can (hopefully) hear the similarity in the basic underlying chord structure. This is because all three of them are examples of the twelve bar blues. Now I’m going to play three tracks by some rockabilly artists and we should be able to hear the same twelve bar blues being played just sped up a little bit.
Blue Suede Shoes – Elvis Presley
Slippin’ And Slidin’ – Buddy Holly
Gonna Ball – Stray Cats
So, from this we can hear one of the major pieces that make up the rockabilly puzzle, and you’re probably thinking to yourself, “yeah, that does sound like pretty much every rockabilly song I’ve ever heard.” But then again you might be thinking that, while a lot of rockabilly songs fit into this twelve bar blues chord structure, there are quite a lot that don’t fit.
If you’re thinking this then you are correct; not all rockabilly songs fit into the twelve bar blues. No, some of them fit into a completely different style of African-American music that was hijacked by white boys to make popular music, namely Doo-Wop.
Doo-Wop, like twelve bar blues, is a chord structure that was created by black musicians for a specific style of music, but in the fifties white people generally didn’t buy black records, and so white guys found ways to use the black music in white music. Let’s have a listen to some black Doo-Wop music and some rockabilly tunes and see if we can hear the similarities.
If I Didn’t Care – The Inkspots
Paper Doll – The Mills Brothers
Now, let’s listen to some rockabilly tracks that use the same chord progression,
Blue Moon – Elvis Presley
Trying To Get To You – Roy Orbison
And here’s another one which might be a little bit more difficult to hear the Doo-Wop in, but I assure you it is there.
Walk Like A Zombie – HorrorPops
Of course, the Doo-Wop progression is not quite as common as the twelve bar blues in rockabilly music, but you do often get a glimpse of it whenever a band decides to do a slow song.
Now, up ‘til now this might all seem like the rockabilly guys just ripped off a whole bunch of black music and called it original, and to some extent that’s true, but rockabilly really isn’t just a rehashing of the twelve bar blues and doo-wop. No, there’s something more to it than just that, notably the incorporation of country (or ‘hillbilly’) music to these blues and doo-wop riffs to make a distinct style of music.
Country music is actually incredibly important to the formation of the rockabilly scene, and many of the original rockabilly artists were actually country artists before they switched over to the world of rock. You can hear the influence of country music all the way though rockabilly, from the name of the genre itself which blends the terms rock and roll and hillbilly, to the vocal hiccupping or blowouts, to the slapping double bass sounds. For example, listen to this track by renowned country artist Hank Williams paying particular attention to the double bass and strumming pattern of the guitar:
Hey Good Lookin’ – Hank Williams
And now listen to this out and out rockabilly track by Gene Vincent
Frankie And Johnny – Gene Vincent
If the country music influence wasn’t readily apparent, then you probably weren’t listening hard enough, but if you really want something that will show the connection then just listen to these next two tracks.
Jambalaya – Hank Williams
Jambalaya – Jerry Lee Lewis
So from all of this we can see than rockabilly took it’s form from a whole host of different influences ranging from the blues to country and western music, not to mention all of the influences I didn’t talk about such as gospel and boogie-woogie and the Bo-Diddley beat. But, the main thing to take away from today’ stop on the rockabilly roadtrip is that rockabilly as style of music has a rich and complex history and was born out of a mish-mash of disparate genres that somehow managed to blend together and become the amazing swinging rhythms we all know and love today.
To conclude I am going to leave you all with this wonderful track which is credited as being the first rockabilly song of all time. There is probably some room for debate surrounding this, but even if it’s not the original rockabilly track it’s pretty darned close.
It’s also worth mentioning that this particular track is in twelve bar blues with a country style slap bass line and boogie-woogie style guitar playing. Enjoy!
Blue Suede Shoes – Carl Perkins
Well, that’s it for rockabilly roadtrip today, but this bus will be travelling all through the week until next Friday when we’ll stop off at the legendary Sun Studios.
- Rockabilly (vintagerox.wordpress.com)
- Rockabilly Heaven! (oliviasaraleach.wordpress.com)
- Ratrods Stay True to the Scene, Rockabilly and to Themselves (onemusiccity.wordpress.com)
- Thunder Bay Rocking strums, drums and a blazing sax (netnewsledger.com)
- Content Birthday Elvis: Why Do Rockabilly Singers All Sound Like Elvis Presley? (ufmoeiel.wordpress.com)
- Top Rockabilly Parties (snolasco.com)