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What’s “Rockabilly” and Who Were All of Those Rockers?

08/26/2010

I was an astute twelve year old in Richmond at the peak of the rock-and-roll craze in the late 1950s. I loved Elvis (I had an Elvis hat), Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and many more, even Danny and the Juniors (“Rock and Roll Is Here To Stay”). But I don’t remember the term “rockabilly,” or 90 percent of the artists who are featured in the VHS’s show Virginia Rocks! The History of Rockabilly in the Commonwealth. I knew Gene Vincent, and I later discovered Patsy Cline, Roy Clark, and Wayne Newton, and, locally, Jess Duboy, in their post-rockabilly careers. How did I miss all those other guys, and why is the term “rockabilly” new to me?

The exhibition teaches that rockabilly was one type of rock-and-roll—the type that was particularly popular in Virginia. It explains that Elvis Presley invented rockabilly by bringing together black music and hillbilly (“blues and bluegrass”). I can understand that concept; the fact that “hillbilly” is part of the term “rockabilly” is a pretty good clue. But in the 1950s in Richmond—at least over the radio and on television—what Elvis sang was called “rock-and-roll,” not “rockabilly.”

Why then was the term “rockabilly” used? What better way to find out than to turn to the recordings? Two of the sixty-one in the show actually make reference to “rockabilly”—or almost do. One is “Blue Baby Boogie” (1957) by Gene Simpson & the Rockabillies. Surely the Rockabillies must have been experts on “rockabilly.” Gene starts off by telling “little gal” that “if you’ve got a new heartache . . . Boogie your blues away.” He then calls out what sound like square-dance instructions. Hillbilly and black music are thereby mixed. The other song is Carl Tyndall’s “Hillbilly Rock” (1966), which pleads that hillbilly music be allowed to survive when Gene Vincent and the other national rock-and-rollers, along with The Beatles, have stolen the stage. He questions why “the people’s going hog-wild over Vincent rock-n-roll” (“why I can’t see to save my soul”). Carl wants to “sing, sing, sing,” and “dance hillbilly music up and make it hip again.” What should we conclude? That hillbilly music was a strong component of Virginia rockabilly and that Virginians didn’t want to let go of that heritage. The exhibition shows that it wasn’t just Virginians in the southwest who felt that way, but Virginians across the state.

Now to the other question—how could I have missed those guys? The answer is simple. I wasn’t old enough to go to the night spots throughout Virginia and see them in person. That’s the way they were heard the most. They put on quite a visual performance—as lively as Elvis did. Fortunately, we have a video in the show that lets us all step back in time to see what we missed.

Come see the show. Admission is free. It’s a wonderful opportunity either to reminisce or to learn.

Do I get it yet? Tell me what points I still don’t understand about “rockabilly.”

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Don permalink
    08/26/2010 4:02 pm

    William: “Rockabilly” is hardly an obscure word (there is a Rockabilly Hall of Fame in Nashville and several books that chart the history of rockabilly music). But it didn’t come into wide use until later, when European fans began to revive the music in the ’60s and ’70s. Have you read the liner notes to the accompanying CD box set, also called “Virginia Rocks!”? It will explain a lot. Full disclosure: I co-wrote the notes and helped the Blue Ridge Institute to research the exhibit. Enjoy the show!

  2. Amy Martin Wilson, Lynchburg, VA permalink
    09/20/2010 3:12 pm

    Mr. Rasmussen and Don: I highly recommend Mr. Rasmussen purchase a copy of the CD box set “Virginia Rocks.” The liner notes alone (more like a booklet) are worth the price of the CD set, and it will answer a lot of questions for Mr. Rasmussen, and as Don said, explain a lot. Full disclosure: Al Wilson of the Dazzlers is my husband’s brother, and I was the one who put Roddy Moore onto the Dazzlers when the notion of a Rockabilly exhibit at Blue Ridge Institute was just a thought rolling around in Roddy’s head. Though I am sure Roddy would have heard of the Dazzlers sooner or later, as they were very well known in central and southwest Virginia in the late ’50s and early ’60s.

    From page 18 in Virginia Rocks!, the History of Rockabilly in the Commonwealth, I quote: “As of 2009, the Dazzlers were the only known Virginia rockabilly band still performing with all the original members from the 1950s.”

    • 09/24/2010 2:50 pm

      Thanks. I have the CD set, I’ve read the notes, and I’ve listened to the music a lot. I am well informed now. Had that CD been available in the 1950s, no doubt I would have listened to it then even more. One of my points was that at the time, this explosion of music throughout Virginia was not very visible to a young person, when the national figures were highly visible. I’m glad the exhibition has brought light to the issue.

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