This is one of those songs that makes me wonder how different my life might have been had I heard it when I was a kid. I mostly knew Bill Haley and His Comets from the Happy Days theme song “Rock Around the Clock” (read my blog about it here), but my Mom didn’t have any of their records so I didn’t know many of their other songs.
I wasn’t familiar with “Birth of the Boogie” until a few years ago when I was writing my thesis about rock and roll and race in the music’s first two decades. I was immediately fascinated by it, not only because of its ridiculously catchy beat but because it clearly states that this music has roots in Africa. That’s pretty bold for 1955 America. Racist white folks hated this music from the first beat they heard because they knew it was black music, and here’s a white dude like Bill Haley playin’ this crazy shit and proudly declaring that it comes from Africa!
Released less than a year after Brown vs. the Board of Education ruled that separate was not equal, “Birth of the Boogie” announces straight away that the music that had taken over the youth of America was started by black people.
Down in Africa many years ago
There lived a little fella named Zulu Joe
He took his tom-tom great big stick
And that was the birth of the boogie lick
So, there you go! Bill Haley is telling you, right there on a record in 1955, that this music started in Africa. I am always amazed by white people who dispute this.
A few years ago I was at a lecture at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum that focused on rock music during Viet Nam. The presenters were playing various song clips and talking about the artists who directly or indirectly addressed the war and domestic issues like race relations and poverty, and after playing some Jimi Hendrix a white man in the audience raised his hand to ask a question, even though it was not time for that yet. “Why are you trying to push the black agenda here? This isn’t why we came tonight,” he told her. We all started groaning and wondering what the fuck his problem was. The presenter—a white lady—was a bit taken aback by his question and said she had no agenda. The man said a few more ignorant words and then the presentation continued.
The next artist we heard was James Brown. Suck it, racist!
I tell this story to illustrate how much obliviousness is still out there about whose music this rock and roll really is. It’s funny that in the beginning many people were angry about “race music,” and now so many people believe the whitewashed (pun intended) version of history that claims Alan Freed created the music and the term rock and roll. Of course, he was instrumental in popularizing this new sound in the North, but he did not invent the sound or the name of the music. He never claimed to have done those things, and he was frequently called nigger-lover because of his support for the music and its black fans.
There was no one person, really, who actually “invented” rock and roll. Most scholars consider the Ike Turner-penned Jackie Brenston song “Rocket 88” as the first rock and roll song. And while it absolutely sounds like early rock and roll (Little Richard clearly lifted that opening piano bit!), I always think of the other rhythm and blues, country, and straight up blues musicians who were out there at the time. I think of Louis Jordan. Robert Johnson. Woodie Guthrie. Bob Wills.
Certainly the white guys I mentioned had an influence on rock and roll. And Bill Haley and His Comets were a bunch of white guys who were influenced by black music, and they in turn influenced a bunch of other musicians, white and black. “Birth of the Boogie” proves, both in its lyrics and sound, that what makes this music great is the beat. And no matter your race or where you think this music came from, you can’t not tap your toes when you hear it.