Today's episode we start at the very beginning.  Like, literally, the very beginning...

Full Transcript

This is Deep Tracks: the show where we give you the entire history of rock music through podcast-sized chunks every week. I am your incomparable host, Doug “The Doc of Rock” McCulloch. And no, no one calls me the “Doc of Rock,” I just like how it sounded…

One of the strangest experiences I’ve had as a parent was coming home one day to find my 14-year-old son on the website for our local chapter of the KKK. It’s probably the first time a parent has preferred catching their child on an adult website. Now, I should probably add some context. In fact, when I first told him I would be sharing this story in my podcast, he said, “Okay, but you do tell them I’m not racist, right?” So I will affirm that my son is not a closet white supremacist or anything like that. In fact, the reason why he was on that website was because we had just recently watched the movie Selma, which had come out a year or two before in 2014. The movie is about the voting rights marches that took place in 1965 in Alabama from the cities of Selma to Montgomery. The movie opens with four young black girls being killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham by a bomb set by the Ku Klux Klan. The movie goes on to tell the story of other events that culminate in the protest marches that arise and are led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., but the thing that stuck with my son was that opening scene of those four little girls being blown up simply because of their skin color. He sort of became fixated for a while on trying to understand how such hatred could exist. He knew about the existence of racism, of course, but the movie somehow brought it home in a way that he decided to do some independent research. A quick side note before I continue with my story: this experience would culminate in my son finding and then calling the number for our local KKK chapter and actually having a…civil-yet-firm conversation with him about racism and bigotry. I should probably have my son on as a guest sometime so he can talk about that, but I still shake my head at the guts of this little high school freshman to evangelize his values to an adult stranger from a world and background diametrically opposed to my son’s.

Okay, but enough “proud dad” boasting. I’ll move on to the point of this story.

There was a video on the website that had about 4 or 5 Klansmen sitting in front of the camera, giving what I guess you could call their mission statement. I remember all of them were wearing their hoods, and a few had the full-on robes and everything, but there was one guy in the middle who didn’t have any of the robes on. He had the hood, but then it was just a t-shirt and jeans below that (which I guess is maybe “Friday casual” for the Klan). Anyway, the t-shirt he was wearing had a heavy metal band’s name and logo on it and I couldn’t stop staring at that t-shirt. Now, I honestly don’t remember the name of the band he had on his shirt—and even if I did, I’m not sure they’d appreciate me mentioning them in this context anyway—but what I do remember thinking is, this band he loves probably wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the very people he hates so much. And that’s what we’re going to talk about today, is the African roots of rock music.

The title of this episode comes from the Chemical Brothers 2001 song of the same name, which draws heavily on sampling from the track entitled “Drumbeat” by Jim Ingram, released in 1974. Now, I think most people out there understand that rock music is the love child of white Country & Western and black Rhythm & Blues. But I think most people also don’t really know what that means or how that shakes out in the history of the music. So, we’ll first look at the African and African-American musical wellsprings—which eventually culminate in the creation of Rhythm & Blues—and then in a later episode we’ll look at the white folk-music wellsprings. From there we can examine the estuary where these two streams mix together and, like Swamp Thing emerging from the radioactive soup that would give him both his powers and his curse, rock will be born!

I might’ve been mixing some metaphors back there.

Anyway, If I were to make a family tree for rock music, it’s parents would be Country & Western, and Rhythm & Blues. If we were to then follow the family line up the Rhythm & Blues side, we would find the blues (and we’ll talk more about that distinction in a later episode); the blues were born from the field hollers and work songs from black sharecroppers and railway workers just after the Civil War. Keep following that family line and we would see Spirituals and Ring Shouts. We can keep going further back and we cross the Atlantic back into Africa.

Nearly half of all African slaves came from Western and West-Central Africa. The modern-day countries you’d find on a map would be Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Angola, Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon. Their music would change over time after being brought to the Americas, but the DNA would always remain the same.

The trip across the Atlantic was filled with unspeakable horrors and appalling conditions, followed by a lifetime in a foreign land filled with more unspeakable horrors and appalling conditions. As Dan Carlin put it in his Hardcore History podcast, just one day in the life of these slaves would be enough to give any of us PTSD, let alone a lifetime of it.

With that in mind, music became many things to the African slaves. It was a coping mechanism—a way for them to bring a piece of home with them and find community with others sharing a similar fate. It was a way to communicate—many cultures throughout Africa have a centuries-long tradition of passing information through music, as well as using imagery and metaphor in music to share hidden messages, convey double meanings, and so on. It was also a way to assist with working in rhythm with one another, and to pass the time—something almost all of us still do to this day. How many of you pull up a Spotify playlist or one of those lo-fi study music channels on YouTube in order to listen to some music while you do some homework or house cleaning or any number of mundane tasks? I still remember as a kid going on long road trips with my family, and my mom leading us in singing songs in order to combat the boredom of sitting in a car for hours on end.

Now, I mentioned musical DNA earlier. What I mean by that are musical elements that remain within the music even after it evolves and forms into new species. If humans can talk about things like “lizard brain,” then we can look at modern rock and see things like… call and response, syncopation, and coded messages.

The first of these elements, “Call and Response,” is Essentially when one performer or groups of performers plays or sings first, followed by a second part. Often this happens in the form of a single song leader giving the “call” and an ensemble of performers giving the response, but it manifests in a lot of different ways and, of course, evolves with the music. In the blues it is often seen as a singer gives the call and then the response comes from his or her own guitar. We can also see this as an exchange between two instruments.

To get an idea of what call and response sounds like in its native context—before the blues, before rock—let’s listen to some music from the Nyamwezi of Tanzania. Now, I know Tanzania is not anywhere near any of the regions I listed earlier for the slave trade, but I nevertheless like this example because, for one thing, it’s very audibly clear who’s doing the call and who’s doing the response, and then other thing is, like it because the song’s title is “Yabulele Hiyari ngoma,” which in English is, “This Hiyari dance is very foolish,” which, I don’t know why, that title just makes me smile. I should add, also, a disclaimer that I do not speak any language other than English, so I will apologize in advance for any unintentional butchering of Swahili or Sotho (soo-too) or…well, anything outside the English lexicon. I’ll be trampling all over many more languages in the course of this podcast, I’m sure. Anyway, here’s the example:

Here is another example from an Ulimba dance song called, “A Kalukwamba musiku zimito yalula,” which translates as, “It is the Days That Change the Man.” Another great title—I’m not sure I grasp it’s full meaning, but either way it sounds deep. I also like this example because the recording, which comes from a field recording made in 1949, has degraded quite a lot, so that it sounds like the xylophone part is being played through some effects pedal or a filter. I kind of want to sample it and use it in a lo-fi song or something. Anyway, here’s a snippet of this example:

In both of those you hear a single caller, or songleader, with a group of people as the respondents. We can see this similar type of call and response in songs like:

• “Boys Keep Swinging” by David Bowie

• “Jocko Homo” by Devo

• “My Generation” by the Who

A great example of how call and response commonly appears in blues music is in Crossroad Blues by Robert Johnson (and yes, we’ll be talking a lot more about this song and this artist next episode). In this example, you can hear what I was talking about earlier with the musician doing his own call and response between his voice and his guitar—something that you can hear in almost all blues, and even in blues-based rock music like in this example from Red House by Jimi Hendrix. “Red House” by Jimi Hendrix (incidentally, this song is a great example of how Call & Response is most commonly featured in blues music)

And finally, when it’s happening between two instruments, a great example would be this ionic team-up performance of “The Thrill is Gone” by Gary Moore and B.B. King. There are portions of the song where their two guitars are talking, but they’re not really taking turns in a “call and response” sort of way. It’s more conversational: one is in the foreground while the other takes the background, creating moments of counterpoint. But then here, we get some legit call and response and first one guitarist plays…and then the other copies him…and then the next lick is played…and the other guys copies him…but you notice they’re giving their own little flavor to it each time so that it’s not an exact copy, but more like a collaboration on the same idea. A really famous instance of this in bluegrass music (which we will also talk more about in a later episode) is in the iconic scene from the movie, Deliverance, where Ronnie Cox’s character plays “Dueling Banjos” with that kid on the porch.

But that’s the only part of that movie I want to talk about.

Another important element from African music that has come to shape almost all of American popular music—especially jazz—is syncopation. Syncopation is basically when the emphasis is give on the “weak” part of the beat, rather than the “strong” part. In this example that I threw together in my music software—Logic Pro—you’ll hear the drums playing “straight,” on the beat, while the guitars play off the beat—syncopated:

And finally, hidden messages. This is something that becomes a big deal in blues, and especially in hokum blues, which we will also talk about later. The roots of this practice we can see in a lot of the old slave Spirituals. Spirituals are a form of Christian music that used Biblical symbolism to merge sub-Saharan African musical traditions with the experiences of being a slave. Images of Moses leading the Israelites to the Promised Land and crossing the River Jordan were particularly common. Spirituals were perhaps most famously used as a means of secret communication for the Underground Railroad. They would actually give directions and other information through the words of songs so that, quite often, when the white masters heard what they thought were just some happy slaves singing, was actually so much more. As Arthur Jones put it in his book Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of Spirituals: “…the singers successfully masked their rage with the manifest image of death, safely deceiving the slave holder into believing that his docile and passive slaves were again dreaming of heaven but thankfully loyal in the present to his unrelenting demands for service. Skillfully, the singers affirmed their inner loyalty to a legitimate, heavenly master, but also announced their determination to take up arms against the earthly master.” There’s a pretty good article on Medium that talks about the Underground Railroad’s use of hidden messages in music, which I’ll link in the show notes. One of the examples the article talks about is the song “Wade in the Water,” the lyrics of which speak on the surface about the act of baptism and Bible figures such as Moses. But, as it says in the aforementioned Medium article says, “Legend has it that ‘Wade In The Water,’ which used Biblical imagery to evade suspicion, was used by Harriet Tubman to tell fugitive slaves how to avoid capture. If they thought they were being followed, hiding in the water would conceal them and throw bloodhounds off their scent. ‘Moses’ refers to Tubman herself, who led hundreds from slavery into freedom on the Underground Railroad.”

Spirituals would eventually give birth to Gospel music, but for our purposes, we will make particular mention of how their vocal inflections are part of the DNA of blues music. And that’s where we’ll pick up next episode: the birth of blues.

Until then, you can access a transcript of this episode on my website,, where you can also sign up for my newsletter and gain access to the show notes, more resources for any rabbit holes you’d like to go down in your own research, as well as some fun merchandise designed by yours truly.


  • The field recordings from this episode all came from SAMAP (South African Music Archive Project).  A fantastic resource for exploring many traditional musics of the African continent!
  • The Jazz History Tree has a great page about Call & Response, with examples.
  • And here is a great article on Call & Response on MasterClass.
  • The World Music Archive has a great entry on Malian music, with some great links of various Malian musicians, including the Tuareg band, Tinariwen.
  • Here's the link for that Medium article about the Underground Railroad that I mentioned.
  • Links and resources on the music and musical traditions of the African slaves can be found at
  • Another great resource on the music of the slaves: African American Cultural Narratives.
  • Smithsonian Folkways has tons of archived performances of folk songs.  You can access "Wade in the Water" in its archive here.