Rock ‘n’ roll is a much-born child—it’s had as many births as democracy—so you’ve got a wide range from which to pick your favorite birth event, depending on what historico-aesthetic argument you want to make. My own all-purpose pick is Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” (1937), but there’s a great rationale for Wynonie Harris’ “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (1948), which jumps up Roy Brown’s 1947 version by adding gospel handclaps to the song’s boogie-woogie base. I like the idea that handclaps give us a crucial final breakthrough on the 2 and 4 beats. (The 2 and 4 emphasis is there in “Sweet Home Chicago.” We’d be seriously tempted to clap if it were played a little faster.)
Actual handclaps are common enough in pop music, but far more common is the emulation of handclaps by rhythm patterns and percussion sounds. The standard boom-chick-boom-chick pattern of bass drum and snare drum (snare on the 2 and 4) sounds like a call-and-response with stomping, perhaps, the call and clapping definitely the response. The snare hits are doing your clapping for you. This is most obvious when the tempo is in a sweet spot for wanting to clap, as in Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” (an alternative gospel song).
Clapping is an interesting issue in a sneaky way. Superficially it’s the same act for all of us and very infectious and sociable, but there’s also that imponderable of power between your own two hands, out in front of you. How hard or percussively will you clap? Will you match the other clappers, or go louder or softer? At the top of the scale, there could be a world-shaking thunderclap; at the bottom, the deadly silence of abstention. It’s left up to you what you mean by clapping to a far greater extent than in singing along. You’re making your togetherness with others a unique physical event by throwing your hands together in a particular way. The intensities and intentions of clapping could be very diverse in any clapping group.
Neil Diamond’s “Cherry Cherry” is a great clapping song because it features all these points.
(1) In “Cherry Cherry,” quite unusually, the handclaps aren’t just an added touch—they’re the sole percussion carrying major stretches of the song (carried over from the original demo, we’re told). The song asserts (rightly) that handclaps are the essence of the beat we want.
(2) The singer plays interestingly with the call-and-response logic of clapping on 2 and 4. In verse pattern B, his lines start by avoiding 2 and 4 and then home in on them, as though mapping his route to the rendezvous with Cherry. Call meets response, especially on 2. Here are the words the second time through:
[Clap points in caps:]
No CLAP I CLAP won’t tell A soul where WE’RE going TO
Girl CLAP we CLAP do whAT-ev-er WE want TO
(3) The line “Girl we do whatever we want to” confronts us with the uncertainty in all romantic projections: What does the object of desire actually want to do? Are the two clapping hands of love-excitement, his and hers, meeting squarely? (The female background vocals supplied by Diamond’s songwriting colleague Ellie Greenwich prompt us to consider Cherry’s own perspective; in this section she sings “Dat dadadadat dat dat dadat,” sounding quite revved up.) For that matter, what does he want? He’s just jiving—his girl’s “outasight,” and so forth. It’s likely that neither of them really knows anything, but nevertheless there’s fleshly contact (clapping is slapping flesh together) and passion and joy. A vibrant reality trembling with indefinite, irresolute personhood—a great teenism. What does this clapping mean? Gotta try it and see.
 Kids, this is a phenomenological claim. I’m not saying you have to try slapping flesh together; I’m saying it feels like you have to try it.