One night, my brother and his girlfriend were watching TV when Mick Jagger came on the screen.

“Wait,” she said. “Mick Jagger is a real person?”

“Yeah…” said my brother.

“So that’s what ‘Moves Like Jagger’ is about!”

The Rolling Stones’ cultural relevance has never been lower; as the above anecdote reveals, not all Americans know who Mick Jagger is. (He’s the frontman of the Rolling Stones.) After overhearing this conversation, I got to thinking about the Rolling Stones and what they mean today. I know who Mick Jagger is — impossibly, I feel as though I’ve always known — but when I hear the term “Rolling Stone,” I think of a trio: the Rolling Stones, Rolling Stone, and “Like a Rolling Stone.” And then I wonder: which came first?

As always, Wikipedia proved to be a pretty expedient way to find out. Here is the order, starting with the most recent:

  • Rolling Stone, a magazine established in San Francisco in 1967
  • “Like a Rolling Stone,” a Bob Dylan song recorded in New York in 1965
  • the Rolling Stones, an English band started in 1962

The oldest on the list, the Rolling Stones, were named when guitarist Brian Jones was on the phone with Jazz News — a periodical in which he he’d run an ad for bandmates, an ad that brought him Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. During the phone call, the Jazz News reporter inquired about the name of Jones’ band. Jones looked down at a Muddy Waters EP and saw “Rollin’ Stone,” the name of a classic blues track that few Americans still know. (In a way, “Rollin’ Stone” is to the Rolling Stones as Mick Jagger is to “Moves Like Jagger.”) And he said the band would be called the Rolling Stones.

So before Rolling Stone was “Like a Rolling Stone”; before “Like a Rolling Stone” was the Rolling Stones, and before the Rolling Stones was “Rollin’ Stone.” And some of you know this: Muddy Waters’ song, while more than 60 years old, is still not the originator. The term goes back to the proverb “A rolling stone gathers no moss,” which first was an indictment against the rootlessness that comes with drifting, and later became a statement against the stagnation that comes with refusing to drift.

I’m not sure exactly where I’m going with this, but the minimal research involved has left me with an impression: that the origin of this and countless other things goes back farther than I can possibly intuit; and that the thrill of real investigation — where you have to ask one person, who leads you to an expert, who points you to an answer — is becoming more and more elusive, and Wikipedia gets better by the year.

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