Where the Term “Rock and Roll” Came From

Classic Rock GirlToday I found out where the term “rock and roll” came from.

The word “roll” has been used since the Middle Ages to refer to, among other things, having sex: “Let’s go for a roll in the hay”; “Rolling under the sheets”; etc.  The word “rock”, again among other things, has been used since at least the 17th century as a term meaning “shake or disturb”. A couple hundred years later, this had also spread to black gospel singers using “rock” to refer to being shaken in a spiritual sense, as in spiritual rapture (rocked).

By the early 20th century “rock” had morphed somewhat to being used as a slang term by black Americans referring to dancing to music with a strong beat, principally rhythm and blues- at the time called “race music” or “race records”.  The specific 1922 slang definition of “rock” was something to the effect of “to cause to move with musical rhythm”; it also had strong sexual overtones when used in this way.

Around this same time, these two terms, “rock” and “roll”, had naturally merged together, forming a double entendre, typically referring to very suggestive or scandalous dancing as well as simply having sex, depending on how you looked at it.  One example of this is the 1922 song “My Man Rocks Me, with One Steady Roll”.

Another early reference to the term “rock and roll” was a 1935 J. Russel Robinson lyric from Henry “Red” Allen’s Get Rhythm in Your Feet and Music in Your Soul,

If Satan starts to hound you, commence to rock and roll.  Get rhythm in your feet and music in your soul…

At this point, the phrase “rock and roll” was relatively well known among black Americans.  This particular tune was also later covered by quite a few popular white musicians, such as Benny Goodman, which may have helped spread this phrase somewhat.

The term got its biggest global boost through a Cleveland, Ohio disk jockey named Alan Freed.  Freed played early forms of rock and roll (mix of rhythm and blues and country music, primarily) on his radio show and called the mix “rock and roll”, a term he was previously familiar with from race records and songs such as “Rock and Rolling Mama” (1939) and “Rock and Roll” (there were three songs named this in the late 1940s).

Freed was encouraged to call this mix of music “rock and roll” by his sponsor, record store owner Leo Mintz, who was trying to boost sales on race records by getting white shoppers to buy them.  Race records weren’t very popular at the time among white people, but by re-branding the music “rock and roll”, the music quickly became extremely popular among teenagers of all ethnicities, largely thanks to this and Freed’s radio show, The Moondog Rock & Roll House Party.  (Incidentally, classic style “race records” were in the process of being re-branded around this same time to “Rhythm and Blues”, thanks to famed music journalist and producer Jerry Wexler.)

In any event, Freed’s show was also the primary reason why Cleveland was chosen for the location of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the 1980s.  When deciding between cities, the selection board chose Cleveland owing to Freed having played a significant role in popularizing rock and roll music and the branding the style of music “rock and roll”, though he obviously didn’t coin the term itself, as noted previously.

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Bonus Facts:

  • A similar brand of music to “rock and roll” was “rockabilly”, which was a style of music that was a cross between country music, rhythm, and blues (as was rock and roll), but leaned more heavily on the country side of things, instead of the rhythm and blues side, and was played primarily by white musicians.  The term itself is a portmanteau of rock (from “rock and roll”) and “hillbilly”.  Popular rockabilly artists included Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash.  The influence of rockabilly music is clearly seen on early British rock and roll, particularly in the case of the Beatles.
  • Country music was originally called “hillbilly music”.  In the 1940s, Ernest Tubb helped re-brand this type of music “country music”. Tubb: “‘Hillbilly, that’s what the press use to call it, ‘hillbilly music.’ Now, I always said, ‘You can call me a hillbilly if you got a smile on your face.’ We let the record companies know that they were producing country music ’cause we all come from the country.”
  • One of the first songs credited for starting the rock and roll craze was the song “Rock Around the Clock”, by Bill Haley & His Comets.  The song wasn’t terribly successful at first, but was used a year after its release in the movie Blackboard Jungle.  This spurred it on to becoming one of the biggest music hits in history, at the time, and helped introduced rock and roll to mass audiences throughout the planet.
  • The word “rock” is thought to have Celtic origins and comes to us through the Old English “rocc”, meaning “stone or obelisk”.
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  • i thot it had something to do with rocking (musically, of course) and rolling (as in rolling a joint)

  • I have heard that the phrase “rock and roll” has the same roots as delta blues. Apparently in the 1800’s (and for some time after) almost all freight in the Mississippi delta was delivered by paddle steamer. The african american work teams that loaded or offloaded these boats used to sing while they worked to make the work easier and keep a general rhythm. Everyone working in time caused boats and floating jetties to bob in a predictable way. “Rocking and Rolling” was a technique that enabled a single man to offload heavy items such as barrels of liquid or large bales by himself by literally rocking and rolling the items. The popularity of the technique caused the phrase to be used in many of the labourers songs, which then penetrated the musical meme and has survived to this day.

  • Bessie Smith’s 1929 “I’m Wild About That Thing” was another early lyrical reference that includes the phrase “Come on and rock me with a steady roll”.

  • I don´t think this is quite correct.

    The term rock and roll comes from the english word rock with the same meaning as in “rocking chair”.

    We know there is also the word rock meaning “stone”, but it has a different etimological origin, coming from latin ROCCA through old french ROCQUE.

  • ” Freed’s show was also the principle reason why Cleveland was chosen,” “principal”, please; there were no principles involved…of that I am sure. OTOH, why don’t you just say “main” instead of using a multisyllabic word. Otherwise, great.

  • Hi, I thought this would interest you from 1838, it is from a travel book which describes briefly the characteristics of U.S. hotels.


    The word “rock”, as a verb, is being used in its classic form, in connection with a public music performance, in this case by ladies. Note how the account suggests, not impropriety on their part, but abandon, that they would sing with joy in public just as they would in their own domicile.

    I believe this shows that the term is very old and well pre-dates R&B and the musical context of the early 1900s. The word is put in quotation marks to show it is slang but the usage is very connected again to the context today.

    Like many expressions, its use is very old and the sense hasn’t changed that much but became narrowed in use, restricted to a specific context for whatever reason. For this reason it seemed unfamiliar in the 1950s.

    Gary Gillman, Toronto.

    • That meaning was not used only during that time. It was being used before white People came to America, but in another language that’s older than the English and Latin world meaning. The words in this thread is the explanation of today’s meaning. The music it self was and is still today a creation of blacks, which came from Blues music. These are facts not someone trying to convince people by using culture appropriation to justify that they had something to do with the make up of the music . Especially when you come from a past history of people who have no rhythm. This feed is part True and Part False. Blues Jazz Rock & Roll, Soul, R&B, Music are all Black created music , which was popular before our white brothers and sister understood what blacks were playing. The songs that whites were listening to were ,How Much is That Doggy in the window. It is easy to prove this though our history other than some body trying to find an explanation from past history, which they have no documented proof, until the 19th – 21st century, where they finally have an understanding of words in there own language. The proof of what I am explaining is in our history. The oldest language on the planet has these words in it as well. The proof is find out who are the oldest people on the planet. Then look up there History and it will show that certain words fall under the same category, However, as time went on we found different letters to advance the English and Latin words and languages. So this story is Part True and Part False.