Gospel, blues, and jazz: The cultural roots of rock 'n' roll

A conversation with Jerry Zolten

Rock 'n' roll hit the scene in 1956 like a burst out of the blue—or, more accurately "a burst out of the blues," explained Jerry Zolten to an electrified audience at last Wednesday's Research Unplugged event at the State College Downtown Theatre.

An associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State Altoona, Zolten is a music historian and the author of the book Great God A'Mighty! The Dixie Hummingbirds: Celebrating the Rise of Soul Gospel Music.

man sits on chair with guitarJames Collins

Jerry Zolten

Using video clips of musical performances to make his case, Zolten described the jazz, blues and gospel roots of rock 'n' roll. He played a video clip for the audience of the Duke Ellington Band. featuring Duke on the piano, along with his exceptional horn section. The trombonists used silver top hats to create a waa-waa sound effect, which Zolten said was copied by later musicians, such as the legendary Jimmy Hendrix and Eric Clapton.

The blues has had an even larger and more direct impact on rock 'n' roll, commented Zolten. For instance, Janis Joplin modeled her entire singing style and stage persona on of Bessie Smith, "the Empress of the Blues."

In the 1920s and 30s during the Great Depression many African Americans migrated from the South to places like Chicago, which became a "Mecca for the blues." Zolten pointed out to the crowd that the Rolling Stones took their name from the lyrics of the song "Mannish Boy" by the blues superstar McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters. Blues from the South had to adapt itself to a Northern urban audience. Explained Zolten, this new form of, "post-war Chicago blues had a tremendous effect on what rock 'n' roll would be."

An attentive audience listened as Zolten described the influence of gospel music on the evolution of rock 'n' roll. A rare video clip of gospel legend Sister Rosetta Tharpe showed her performing hymns while playing the electric guitar. Other groups, such as the Dixie Hummingbirds, modeled their musical style from gospel quartets.

The audience enthusiastically shared their own questions and observations with Zolten. One gentleman commented that while listening to rapper Fifty Cent he heard some familiar gospel snippets. Zolten agreed that gospel has had a noticeable effect on modern day hip-hop. Added Zolten, "The Golden Gate Quartet—a gospel group from the 30s and 40s—would set up a rhythmic backdrop, and rap out a story over the backdrop."

Zolten's visual presentation and his enthusiasm for music history got the Downtown Theatre rockin' on Wednesday and left everyone entertained and educated. In closing, Zolten quoted Eric Clapton's description of blues as, "one man, one guitar, against the world" and said that he hoped we'd take with us an appreciation for the influence of African-American musical culture on the development of rock 'n' roll.

Jerry Zolten, Ph.D., is associate professor of speech communications at Penn State Altoona. He can be reached at

Last Updated October 30, 2006