Nerds like to argue about the first rock and roll song. There’s no definitive answer. But it’s older than most people think it is. Way before Elvis Presley stepped into Sun Studio. Maybe before he was even born.
A few weeks ago I was thinking about Sister Rosetta Tharpe and some of the unheralded founders of rock and roll. Or under-heralded anyway. Tharpe had a big hit with Lucky Millinder and his orchestra in 1942 with a song called “Rock Me” but I learned that she had released a version in 1938 with just her and her guitar. 1938! Wow, right? I started wondering how far back we could go and find stuff that could reasonably be considered rock and roll.
Pretty far, it turns out.
Of course, I have long subscribed to the Billy Joel method of genre classification: Hot funk, cool punk, even if it’s old junk, it’s still rock and roll to me.
So I made a playlist. One song per year without repeating artists. My criteria were straightforward: The song had to be good, preferably featuring guitar, ideally with sinful lyrics in some manner or other. Bonus points if they mentioned “rocking” and/or “rolling.”
I sought out stuff that combined elements of country/hillbilly with blues/race music and vice versa: the musical miscegeny achieved by marrying those two deeply American forms together.
These were the guiding principles for the pre-Elvis years anyway. After that, it got wigglier.
But there are so many great songs released every year. How do you pick just one? It’s hard. It’s frustrating. And it’s painful to leave off songs and artists you love and you know are important.