When the mode of music changes, Plato remarked, the walls of the city shake. When the mode of music changed back in the 1950’s, the denizens of Plato’s Pad—sorry, but there are so few opportunities to get in an allusion to The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis these days—and their peers saw more fingers than walls shaking: The music they were listening to, their elders admonished, was guaranteed to rot their minds as surely as soda pop would rot their teeth, and poodle skirts their morals.
Rewind a generation, and parents were shaking their fingers at their offspring, too, this time for listening to crooners such as Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby. But the music of the 50’s was different, for it had come bubbling and surging up from a source guaranteed to scandalize: the southern countryside, the one inhabited by poor blacks and poor whites whose musical traditions met and merged and, in some minds, miscegenated, producing jazz, country, blues, and now rock ’n’ roll.
There is a wonderful scene in Taylor Hackford’s 1987 film Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll in which three battle-hardened veterans of the culture wars—Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Little Richard—reminisce on how the music they helped introduce commanded the censorious instincts of millions of parents, for if the 45’s that were in view in white suburban homes were by the likes of Pat Boone, the ones the kids kept under their bobby sox in their dresser drawers were by these decidedly dangerous, decidedly nonwhite types.
That knowledge roused the censorious instincts of Squaresville’s cultural commentators as well. Wrote the muckraking journalists Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer in their best-seller U.S.A. Confidential, only bad behavior and social collapse could come from the “tom-toms and hot jive and ritualistic orgies of erotic dancing, weed-smoking, and mass mania, with African jungle background” that rock ’n’ roll so clearly represented. Moreover, they added,
Many music shops purvey dope; assignations are made in them. White girls are recruited for colored lovers. . . . We know that many platter-spinners are hopheads. Many others are Reds, left-wingers, or hecklers of social convention.
Disk jockeys across the land, they concluded, were responsible for two things: getting young people to cross the color line, and enslaving the entire young generation to the Mafia.
The authors did not elaborate on how Italian-American organized crime figured into the equation, but they were right about a couple of things, for even a blind pig turns up an acorn from time to time. For a time, rock ’n’ roll did indeed help break down ethnic barriers and racial divides, and musical venues in most cities, even in the deepest South, were integrated long before lunch counters were. (The barriers went back up in the early 70’s, oddly enough, when FM radio and eight-minute-long songs became the norm. The Chambers Brothers notwithstanding, that was the stuff of white acts, not black ones, and unintended apartheid was the result: Motown on AM, the Mahavishnu Orchestra on FM.)
The work of rock ’n’ roll against segregation was slow and not without cost. In 1957, Frankie Lymon, then 14 years old, danced with a white girl of the same age while singing “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” on Alan Freed’s television show Rock ’n’ Roll Dance Party; afterward, he received death threats, and ABC dropped the program. For his part, Chuck Berry served prison time for a supposed violation of the Mann Act that, one prosecutor later admitted, was really punishment for causing white girls to swoon by means of the duck walk. Berry had taken great pains to make his music ethnically neutral; as he explained, “I stressed my diction so that it was harder and whiter. . . . It was my intention to hold both the black and white clientele by voicing the different songs in their customary tongues.” His efforts paid off early, in 1955, when his song “Maybellene” simultaneously hit the number-one spot on the “race,” pop, and country-and-western charts.
Yet rock ’n’ roll music only helped along a process that had begun a generation before, with the modern quest for civil rights whose origins arguably lie in the 1930’s. World War II accelerated its pace, not only by showing that all men bleed red but by mixing people from many walks of life and different parts of the country together, with musical as well as sociological effects. Indeed, although the roots of rock ’n’ roll can be traced to the 1920’s—listen to Henry Thomas’s song “Bull Doze Blues,” from 1928, and you will hear Canned Heat’s “Goin’ Up the Country” from 40 years later—its more immediate origins are from the late 1940’s, when Leo Fender developed an affordable solid-body electric guitar to propel the sound of interracial rebellion into unsuspecting living rooms everywhere.
Rock ’n’ roll took a while to build force, and it required the first wave of the baby-boom generation and that cohort’s weekly allowances to become big business. In the summer of 1955, for instance, Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” topped the charts, but every other song in the Top 10 was of the light-pop variety: Mitch Miller, Kay Starr, Tennessee Ernie Ford. Two years later, in the week I was born and the first boomers hit adolescence, Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up” reached number one, and even if the insipid Pat Boone took second place, the rest of the acts in the Top 10 were certifiable rockers. Debbie Reynold’s “Tammy” reigned briefly in the fall of that year, only to be rudely replaced by the likes of Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis, and from then on, even if middle-of-the-road pop enjoyed the occasional success, rock ’n’ roll ruled.
But what sort of rock ’n’ roll? Not the dangerous kind—not toward the end of the 50’s. The satirist Tom Lehrer had it right when he lampooned “rock and roll and other forms of children’s music,” for if the chart-toppers were seditious, they were so in the same way that Mad was seditious—goofily. The walls of the city shook at “All Shook Up,” to be sure. But then Elvis went into the Army, and, as John Lennon put it, rock died. Consider the tunes that hit the top of the pops in 1958, 1959, and 1960: “At the Hop,” by Danny and The Juniors; “The Chipmunk Song” and “Witch Doctor,” by David Seville; “Tequila,” by The Champs; “The Battle of New Orleans,” by Johnny Horton; “Alley Oop,” by the Hollywood Argyles; “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” by Brian Hyland; “The Twist,” by Chubby Checker; “Mr. Custer,” by Larry Verne; “Teen Angel,” by Mark Dinning. Apart from the last tune (a morbid classic), if such tunes had a Marxist element, it was of the Groucho and Harpo variety.
The carefree 50’s, a decade far less gray than The Organization Man and Come Back, Little Sheba would have us believe, gave way to the careworn 60’s, when the first boomers came of age and the walls really did begin to shake. Rockers began to take themselves seriously, and rock died again, to be reborn only with punk, which looked back to the 50’s for inspiration. Fingers shook again, but civilization survived—as it did a generation earlier, and as it may even do once Paris Hilton, Lil Wayne, and Madonna are done with it today.
Indeed, contemplating the current scene, Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater,” another number-one hit from 1958, looks positively Homeric, even if it does lead to hopheadedness and hullabaloo.