Which Came First, The Chicken or the Guitar? - Genre Week


Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Rock and roll has become as predominant in people’s vocabulary as peanut butter and jelly. If someone were to ask ten different people exactly what rock and roll is, they would most likely receive ten different answers. But everyone is familiar with the general sound of the genre and do not think twice about the significant meanings of the three words that sum up the plethora of music confined within its walls. Just as everything else, they have their origin. The chicken always comes before the egg.

The roots of the term go all the way back to the 17th century as sailors described their ships in rough seas as “rocking and rolling” over the waves. It then found its way into music in the early 20th century when artists such as Chick Webb and Buddy Jones threw the famous words into their lyrics, but still did not symbolize a certain style of music (Webb produced swing music and Jones had more of a western style). It wasn’t until the 1940’s that the term “Rock and Roll” was used more widely by Rhythm and Blues artists. Musicians who used the term in their lyrics were playfully alluding to the act of sex, but the term was still lacking reference to any specific genre of music.

In 1951, the chicken finally decided to lay its egg. Straight out of Cleveland, Ohio, a disc jockey by the name of Alan Freed became one of the first people to start playing a mix of different styles of music to multi-racial audiences. Before then, Rhythm and Blues was played on its own channels. White audiences did not have much access to this style of music, and people widely referred to Rhythm and Blues as “race music.” Freed broke down the barriers by introducing new styles of music to a larger audience, summing up everything he played on his station as Rock and Roll.

It has been sixty years since the birth of the term Rock and Roll and as everything else in life, the term has evolved. The chick hatched from the egg, grew up, and laid new ones. Now Rock and Roll houses all of the sub-genres that have been born from it. 

The early ’60s and late ’70s saw the birth of Heavy Metal with the rising prominence of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. The exact origins of how the term for the genre came to be are unknown. The first usage of the words “heavy metal” in popular culture were from the Beat generation author, William S. Burroughs in his books The Soft Machine  and Nova Express[1] An unverified claim by the manager of The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Chas Chandler stated on a PBS series titled “Rock and Roll” that it was first used, in the context of music, in a New York Times review of one of their shows. The first verified usage of the term, however, was in a Rolling Stone article about the band Electric Flag[2]. Afterwards, “Heavy Metal” would pop up here and there in different articles describing the music in question planting seeds of a new term for a new style of music, eventually resulting in the genre we know and love today.

New eggs continued to hatch, resulting in, among others, Glam Rock, New Wave and Grunge. The term “Grunge” was first used in 1981 by Mark Arm, a Seattle-based singer for the band Green River and Mudhoney. He wrote a letter to the Seattle local magazine Desperate Times about his thoughts on his band at the time, Mr. Epp and the Calculations in which Arm described the music as “grunge.” With the explosion of the use of the term describing the Seattle music scene, Arm has never accepted being the inventor the word. It was already being used to describe different music groups in Australia[3]. But his use of grunge in Desperate Times sparked the beginning of describing something new developing in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and grew on to define a generation of music.

What will be the next genre to revolutionize the sounds we listen to? Musicians like Southern California’s Jefferson Washington are continuing to experiment with different styles to break up the monotony of popular music. Washington combines elements of the Mississippi Delta blues from the early twentieth century with West Coast sounds from the 90’s and today, creating a genre that has not yet been coined. With the technology of music recording advancing to the point that everyone has access to record an album from their living rooms, the experimentation of sound will grow exponentially, creating sub-genres of sub-genres. The chicken laid the initial egg. The egg created an army.

Written by Zach Ehren

1. Burroughs, William S. Nova Express. New York: Grove Press, 1964. Pg. 112
2. Gifford, Barry. Rolling Stone, May 11, 1968, p. 20.
3. True, Everett (January 20, 2001). “No End in Sight: Mudhoney Is Alive and Well”.
4. “The Stranger (newspaper)” The Stranger. Retrieved 2009-07-11.