Joseph Burns, a rock historian at Southeastern Louisiana University, thinks that “That’s All Right Mama” by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup is the first rock and roll song:
“An argument can be made for and against every song mentioned,” he said before adding “That’s All Right Mama” is a better fit than all of the other tunes.
This song came out in September 1946 as a rockabilly piece with a blues melody line over top.
“It’s sung with power, may contain the first guitar solo break, and, as a remake, became one of Elvis’ first singles,” Burns said.
The origin of the term “rock ‘n’ roll” is straightforward, he believes.
“It started as a nautical phrase meaning the movement of the boat up and down and back and forth,” Burns said. “Sometime in the late 1800s to early 1900s, gospel and jubilee music co-opted the term and used it to mean being rocked and rolled in the arms of the Lord. In fact, the first recorded use of the term in a song was ‘Camp Meeting Jubilee’ in 1916.”
You can listen to “That’s All Right Mama” here.