Bullhorn of the Damned: The Evolution of Rock

BY SAM GILLON                                                       

MUSIC EDITOR

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Image courtesy of Rolling Stone

Rock n’ Roll is genre of music that has captivated audiences and challenged musical norms for the last 80 years. But what is it about the genre that makes us so enamoured with it? Is it the lively melodies and relatable lyrics? Is it the guitar work that simultaneously manages to be smooth like butter and as sharp like the knife we cut it with? Or is it the safety and nostalgia of hearing those songs our parents used to play in the car when we were kids? More than likely, it is a combination of these things and many others that gives rock such particular sticking power. But at its core, rock is powerful the same way all art is powerful. It has, and always will, handed a bullhorn to the downtrodden so that anyone can shout about their demons. 

And while that primal scream of human emotion is often masked in the bravado, public personas and off-stage antics in which Rock is mired, the genre’s roots come from very modest beginnings. According to legend, a poor African American man from Mississippi went to a dusty crossroads and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the devil teaching the man the blues. That man was named Robert Johnson. After the alleged deal, Johnson recorded the first 29 blues songs ever, and then died one year after his second and final recording session. These songs are known for their soulful sound and melancholy subject matter. Songs such as “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Love In Vain” despairingly address the  domestic upheaval of the Great Migration masked in a love song. Painful stuff. But his songs have been recorded and discussed at length by more famous rockstars like Keith Richards and Eric Clapton. And while it is improbable that Johnson actually sold his soul to the devil, his life became something of a folk story to many southerners who would be influenced by his music long after Johnson had died. His delta blues would grow, evolve, and even be stolen by artists for the rest of the century. 

Those American Folk stories would also find a place in Rock, with performers like Bob Dylan and John Lennon borrowing heavily from American “Hillbilly Music” by performers like Woodie Guthrie. Guthrie and his guitar, famously adorned with the phrase “this machine kills fascists,” would release covers of “The House of the Rising Sun” and other folk songs which which injected themselves into the genre.

When the soulful stylings of the blues met the overly polished, up-tempo melodies of hillbilly music, rock was born. The melancholy lyrics of the blues was something that many people, of all walks of life, could identify with. From the downtrodden blue collar worker in Liverpool to the racially, sexually and politically diverse world of America, everyone could find something to like about rock. If you want to just let go and have fun with friends, the melodies are catchy and strong enough to fill in for pop songs. Mod Club on Tuesdays should be proof enough for that. But when you need something visceral to comfort you like only a sad song can, rock can fill the void. For it’s collection of artists, “rockstars” have long tackled issues from personal anguish to politics. The Rolling Stones “Gimme Shelter” and Neil Yonge’s “Ohio” address American President’s actions to the Vietnam War domestically and abroad, respectively. Only last week, the Prophets of Rage released “Hail to the Chief”… a song which opposes professional bully Donald Trump with every note. Songs like “Beth” by Kiss tell the tale of man torn between his love of music and his duty to be with the woman he loves. Jack White’s “Carolina Drama” explores broken families. Lou Reed’s “Heroin” dresses addiction, and Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” (famously recorded by the Nine Inch Nails in 1994) addresses mental health. 

What makes rock great is that it can be the pit you wallow in until you can stand up again, or it can be the catalyst of monumental change. Rock brought 500,000 people to Bethel, NY in 1969. It puts social issues on the radio for everyone to hear, and it could even be argued that the Moscow Music Peace Festival brought down the Berlin Wall in 1989. Today, access to the internet has given each of us a bullhorn to shout through. Furthermore, other genres of music, namely hip hop, have taken up the mantle of social change through music. But rock has history on its side, and whether we want to dance or demonstrate, its a genre that will always stand with its listeners.