Research Colloquia: Playing it straight

Rock ’n’ Roll, Ska, and the Swung- to Straight-Quaver Shift – with Dr Sam Flynn, Lecturer in Analysis and Popular Music.


This paper is a transnational study of Black rhythm in the Americas.

Scholarship on popular music privileges ‘American’ music, overlooking the fact that America is not one country but two continents. This paper counteracts nationalistic tendencies by interrogating an overlooked rhythmic transformation of popular music through the lens of both the United States and Jamaica.

A corpus analysis of 535 chart hits from 1950 to 1965 establishes that a shift from swung- to straight-quaver subdivisions occurred in the popular music of both nations by 1961. This rhythmic transition contributed to the development of two national styles: US rock ’n’ roll and Jamaican ska.

Focusing on Little Richard and Prince Buster as case studies, the paper demonstrates three musical influences on this swung-to-straight shift: African-American boogie woogie, African-Caribbean musics, and the ‘metric malleability’ of rhythmic patterns such as the ‘oompah’ percussion of colonial marches.

Finally, the paper challenges the received wisdom that the rhythmic shift represents countercultural revolution in the United States and postcolonial independence in Jamaica by exposing the marginalisation of Latinx Americans and Chinese Jamaicans in these narratives.

How to join

The event will be held online, please note that registration not required. Join the event via Zoom at the start time.