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Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ’n’ Roll

An essential work for rock fans and scholars, Before Elvis surveys the origins of rock ’n’ roll from the minstrel era to the emergence of Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, providing a broader and deeper analysis of rock music’s antecedents than any previous book. Dispelling common misconceptions, it locates the roots of rock more in hokum songs and big-band boogies than in Delta blues, points out that white artists embraced African-American styles long before rock ’n’ roll appeared, and notes that rock precursors included not only obscure figures such as Hardrock Gunter and Sam Theard but celebrities such as Gene Autry and Ella Fitzgerald.

Until now, rock ’n’ roll has largely been viewed as a bolt from the blue, an overnight revolution provoked by the bland pop that preceded it and created through the white appropriation of music that had previously been played only by and for blacks. Before Elvis describes the gradual evolution of rock through ragtime, boogie-woogie, swing, country music, mainstream pop, and rhythm-and-blues, revealing how different genres influenced one another. The book explores the absorption of blues and boogies into jazz, pop, and country music as well as the assimilation of country and Caribbean music into rhythm-and-blues.

The development of rock ’n’ roll can be heard in successive versions of songs such as “Keep A Knockin’” and “The Train Kept A-Rollin,” which were first recorded before the advent of rock. “The Train Kept A-Rollin” can be traced back to an earlier song, “Cow-Cow Boogie,” which in turn is derived from “Cow Cow Blues,” a piano boogie first recorded in the 1920s that is based on the 1915 composition “Trilby Rag.”

Written in a style both accessible to the general reader and acceptable to the serious academic, Before Elvis is a vital resource that will stand the test of time. The book will stimulate healthy controversy by challenging cherished myths of rock ’n’ roll history and questioning conventional notions about the genesis of rock. With courses on rock history proliferating at colleges across the country, classroom appeal should be especially strong. And thanks to the Internet, readers can virtually listen along.



Considering that rock ’n’ roll is little more than fifty years old, its origins are remarkably obscure. For all the books, magazines, newspaper articles, movies, radio and television programs, websites, college courses, and even museums devoted to rock ’n’ roll and its exponents, few attempts have been made to trace the roots of the music back much further than the end of World War II, less than ten years before the emergence of Elvis Presley.