What is the Most Important Innovation in the History of Rock ‘n’ Roll?

Musicians, historians and critics tell us what they consider to be the greatest game changers for the industry

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In this Round Table, five musicians and historians, brought together by Zócalo Public Square, weigh in on what inventions propelled the rock revolution in America.

At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Bob Dylan plugged in his electric guitar live for the first time—and an audience expecting acoustic folk songs booed through “Like a Rolling Stone.” Rock already had changed Dylan, and Dylan would go on to change rock ’n’ roll. But Dylan’s break from tradition was neither the first nor the last in rock history. In fact, Dylan’s musical revolution drew on an already long-established history of trailblazers and innovations in rock, which have made the genre itself possible.

So, the question is a worthy one. What are the most groundbreaking innovations in American rock 'n' roll history?

Revolutionary radio

For the first two-thirds of the 20th century, America was an apartheid nation. But there was something that didn’t obey Jim Crow laws or that foolish concept of a society that is “separate but equal”: the air.

We can’t regulate the air, and radio travels through the air.

Governments couldn’t legislate what you listened to in your home.

After dark, suddenly you could hear voices from all over the place, voices you couldn’t hear during the day. Growing up, I thought of this as magic time. You could hear WLAC in Nashville all the way from Tallahassee to the Canadian border.

Imagine you’re Bob Zimmerman, a high school kid in Hibbing, Minnesota. There isn’t a single black person in town. But at night, up in your room, you hear the music of black America on WLAC. You want to hear more and know more. And that desire eventually makes you want to become Bob Dylan.

And even earlier: Imagine you’re a black kid living in segregated St. Louis. You listen to the Grand Ole Opry on WSM out of Nashville and hear the voices of old, weird America. And so you grow up steeped in the white traditions of country music. That’s why, when you grow up and become Chuck Berry, all those great rock ’n’ roll songs have a narrative tradition borrowed from white country music.

When those different kinds of music met—country and western (white) and rhythm and blues (black)—something new was created: rock ’n’ roll.

The music provided a metaphor for society: two things kept apart and thought so different could, in fact, be joined. When joined, something better resulted. It was a kind of integration.

The walls came tumbling down. Separate was inherently unequal.

So think of radio as the most subversive medium. It played a huge and often unheralded part in igniting a social revolution. Not all walls have tumbled, of course, but we made a good start.

William McKeen is the author of eight books and the editor of four more. His most recent books are Too Old to Die Young and Homegrown in Florida. He is working on a book about the Los Angeles music world of the 1960s. He teaches at Boston University.

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