Essay, Research Paper
“Rock and Roll is an economic thing,” says “pop” singer Jo Stafford, quoted in Billboard, October 13, 1958. “Today’s nine-to fourteen year old group is the first generation with enough money given to them by their parents to buy records in sufficent quanities to influence the market. In my youth if I asked my father for 45 cents to buy a record, he’d have thought seriously about having me committed.”
A teenager growing up in the prior to the end of WW II was forced to take life fairly seriously. Males were expected to join the services or to go out get a job, help support his family or a new bride. Women were expected to meet a man, marry and have children. College was for a select few. Teens had limited freedom, not much economic power and little influence in decisions made by the older generation. In the 50’s, expectations for teenagers changed. With a booming economy, parents could now help their children achieve more then they themselves had. More parents insisted they finish high school and paid for them to go to college. The parents generation had gone through both a depression and a world war that made them acutely aware of the most important things in their lives; the people they loved most and their happiness. As a result of these new attitudes, youngsters began receiving allowances and had free time after school. They began to have more fun and became less serious then prior generations. The new liberalized culture allowed teenagers to make decisions for themselves and that were often at odds with their parents. Music was one of the first places where these decisions were apparent. Before WWII a teen’s exposure to music was limited to radio and an occasional record purchase. The adults decided what music would be allowed in the house. The music of the parents was “white” music, like that of Tin Pan Alley or melting pot black music adapted to white tastes, such as swing or the blues. Juvenile delinquency, at that time, was on the rise and was played up by the media. Befuddled parents thought that eternal damnation was just around the corner, and the new music was a fat target. Yet, as with many things the more the music was attacked the more popular it became. A “generation gap” was formed as teen dress, beliefs, pastimes, social morals, and speech patterns differed from their parent’s generation. Alan Freed coined the term “rock and roll” in 1952 and it caught on a giving teens a focus and making the music more acceptable. White teens with more money became the focus of marketing strategies.
White and black teens were now opting for more interesting music played by “cool” black cats. So many white teens were drawn to the music that “cats” soon meant white kids who liked black music. Leiber and Stoller, probably the most important songwriting team of the 50s rock and roll era were cats. Both had grown up with and around blacks, which allowed them an understanding of black perspectives that few others had. White performers like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc drew white teens to black musical styles. Poor black teenagers, who grew up in urban areas, made doo-wop part of their lives because it was already part of the culture. It was a participatory activity for many and the idols were neighborhood residents rather than national heroes.
“Rock and Roll, characterized by it’s pulsating drums, repetitive chord progressions, stepped up tempos, and loud guitars, provided. American teens of the 1950’s the perfect excuse to dance crazy new dances, and wear wild new hairstyles. Thought only a fad, Rock and Roll continued on to become one of the world’s most popular and recognizable music forms.” Rolling Stone
With the end of WW2, the conflict that had bound all Americans together, regardless of race, had been resolved and individual citizens were suddenly free to pursue individual interests without guilt. Polarization of the races and class once again overwhelmed the country. The music reflected the state of affairs of the society. Big Band music lost direction and emphasis was placed on the vocalist.
“We’ve set up a 20-man committee to do away with this vulgar, animalistic, nigger rock and roll bop.”
- Alabama White Citizens’ Council member
White middle class fears of communism and a new independent -minded black society emerged simultaneously. Since they both threatened the status quo, any cross-cultural performance took on the appearance of being subversive. This totally restricted black music flourished while white music languished of its self imposed limitations
In the hands of black innovators Country blues bands became urban and electric. Gospel music begat doo wop. Big bands splintered into smaller groups. Some into be bop, others into rhythm and blues progressions of the big bands called R&B. All rooted, they cross pollinated and resulted in musical hybrids.
America in the early 50s was a deeply divided country, on the verge of hysteria about communism and digging more deeply into the national wellspring of racial mistrust and hatred. Rosa Parks hadn’t demanded her seat on the bus and it would be few more years before the Supreme Court would rule against segregated schools and three more years before the National Guard would put it into effect in Little Rock. It was easy to see how Negro music was threatening and white teenagers would find it adventurous. It brought them together on the dance floor. Post World War II was a prosperous and confident America. Middle class white Americans began flocking to the new suburbs in pursuit of their dreams. There were found nice houses in pleasant neighborhoods where there was no need to lock ones doors. An ideal atmosphere to raise children with neighbors functioning much as an extended family. The TV show “Here Comes the Nelsons ” typified the family of the fifties. The songs of the early fifties reflected this and were generally had light melodies, sweet lyrics and wholesome singers. Innocent and inoffensive “feel-good” tunes, which genuinely reflected the mood of post World War II America. Artists like Pat Boone, Rosemary Clooney and Perry Como dominated pop charts. To people that had suffered through The Great Depression and World War II this music didn’t seem bad at all. Yet, all that white American complacency could not hold back the vitality of Black R&B music, so a whole new sound emerged – Rock and Roll.