Episode 69: Rock ‘n’ Roll Music

Welcome to Slow American English, the podcast for learners of American English. I’m your host, Karren Tolliver.

This is episode number 69: Rock ‘n’ Roll Music

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Now for the podcast:


Rock ‘n’ roll music evolved in the USA from blues, jazz, gospel, and country music, among others. It started in the 1940s and 50s, probably in the South. The new music had a strong dance beat and was popular among teenagers.

In 1951, a radio DJ in Cleveland, OH, named Alan Freed began playing this type of music and called it ‘rock and roll’, although he didn’t invent the phrase. It originally came from the African American dialect, and it meant ‘to have sex’. Some historians say that rock and roll music was a rebranding of black music for a white audience. In fact, rock and roll may have played a major role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s because it brought young people from different cultures together. However, at the beginning, rock and roll music was criticized by parents, church leaders, and government officials. They said it was “the devil’s music”.

Generally, rock ‘n’ roll music features electric guitars, bass guitars, and drums. Chuck Berry popularized the electric guitar in the mid-1950s with his hit song “Maybellene”. The rise of rock ‘n’ roll’s popularity coincided with the invention of electric musical instrument technology. It also coincided with the first time in history that teenagers had money to spend. It was a time of economic plenty for the country after WWII, and the invention of radio in the early 1900s helped spread the new music to everyone. Jukeboxes were installed in restaurants, bars, and other public places; if you put in a coin, you could choose a record to play.

Popular rock ‘n’ roll artists of the 1950s included Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley. Recorded-music production companies, known as record labels, multiplied, adding to the marketing of bands and musicians.

In the 1960s, the Motown record label produced many rock ‘n’ roll hits. Owner Berry Gordy, Jr., founded Motown in Detroit, which is also known as Motor City because of the automakers there. Motown promoted many black musical acts, such as Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Aretha Franklin. Today, Motown still produces much of the R&B music in the country.

Later in the 1960s, rock ‘n’ roll began to evolve into different types. Now we usually call all of the types ‘rock music’. Rock music became international, too. In the 1960s, UK groups such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones began to be popular in the USA. People call this the ‘British Invasion‘.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened in Cleveland, OH, in 1986. Every year, the Hall of Fame inducts famous musicians and others who are important to the rock industry. So far, there are 330 inductees. Inductees for 2020 include Whitney Houston, The Doobie Brothers, Depeche Mode, and Nine Inch Nails, among others.

Two magazines are important to rock music: Billboard magazine, published in New York, prints the top-selling songs and albums every week in their famous charts. This is why we say a song “is charting”, “climbing the charts”, or “topping the charts”. Rolling Stone magazine publishes news about the music industry, entertainment, politics, and pop culture.

Note: Visit Patreon.com/SlowAmericanEnglish for FREE bonus material: a downloadable pdf file containing an essay about Motown’s history from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame library.

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That’s the podcast for this time. Slow American English is written and produced by Karren Tolliver. Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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Theme music is written and performed by SW Campbell and used by permission. Find more music by this artist at Soundclick.com/swcampbell.

This has been Slow American English. I’m Karren Tolliver. Thank you for listening.