‘n’ Roll & 20th Century Culture Essay, Research Paper

Rock ?n? roll and 20th Century Culture

According to Philip Ennis, rock ?n? roll emerged from

the convergence of social transformations which resulted

from World War II (Ryan 927). Despite its pop culture

origins, rock music is arguably one of the strongest

cultural factors to develop in this century. Artists such as

Lennon, McCartney and Dylan defined the emotions of a

generation and, in the last decade, it as even been

acknowledged by members of the establishment which it hoped

to change as a major influence in the country. In order to

understand how rock went from a sign of rebellion to a

cultural icon, it is necessary to understand where it came


According to Albert Murray, the African-American

musical tradition is ?fundamentally stoical yet affirmative

in spirit? (Star 3). Through the medium of the blues,

African-Americans expressed a resilience of spirit which

refused to be crippled by either poverty or racism. It is

through music that the energies and dexterities of black

American life are sounded and expressed (39). For the black

culture in this country, the music of Basie or Ellington

expressed a ?wideawake, forward-tending? rhythm that one

can not only dance to but live by (Star 39).

Although he later denied that he ever said it, Sam

Phillips-the man who discovered Elvis Presley-is reputed to

have said, ?if I could find a white man who had the Negro

sound the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars?

(Decurtis 78). Certain radio stations would not play the

work of black artists in the segregated America of the

1950s. But, nevertheless, rock ?n? roll was an art form

created by African-Americans. Little Richard, whose songs

?Tutti Fruitti? and ?Long Tall Sally? became hits only after

white-bread versions were made by Pat Boone, said, ?It

started out as rhythm and blues? (Decurtis 78).

Through Elvis Presley, rock ?n? roll changed the face

of American music, and influenced a whole generation?s

political philosophy. Composer Leonard Berstein once said,

?He introduced the beat to everything and changed

everything-music, language, clothes; it?s a whole new social

revolution-the 60s come from it? (Wattenberg 6B). To his

credit, Elvis embraced rhythm and blues not as a from to be

imitated, but as a form to honored and interpreted

(Wattenberg 6B) and, as such, helped to break down the

barriers between white and black music. Time and again

Presley acknowledged his debt to black artists in public

statements despite the fact that this was a practice which

carried professional risks in the 50s (Wattenberg).

Rock ?n? roll music came of age in the sixties which

was a period in the nation?s history when a young generation

expressed their anguish and sense of alienation to the

country?s social establishments by searching for new answers

to the age-old questions concerning the meaning of life, the

value of the individual, and the nature of truth and

spirituality (Harris 306). The classic rock music which was

created during this period gave form and substance to this

search. Songs such as ?My Generation? by the Who recorded

the keen sense of alienation that young people felt from the

past and the ?Establishment? and it also showed the keen

sense of community they felt among themselves.

Classic albums such as the Beatles? ?White Album,? the

Who?s ?Who?s Next,? Dylan?s ?Highway 61 Revisited, and Pink

Floyd?s ?Dark Side of the Moon? capture what was essential

about the time because they were both a result of that time

and because they helped to produce it by reinforcing the

younger generation?s feelings of alienation and separation.

Although the distinction is somewhat fuzzy, rock music

is not exactly the same as rock and roll. Rock ?n? roll

brings up memories of two-minute, Top 40 ?singles? of the

fifties era. Drawn directly from black rhythm and blues,

these simple songs featured three-chord harmony and a heavy,

pulsating back beat which was produced by accenting the off

beat. It was musically revolutionary and socially

threatening, but the lyrics to these songs were generally

insignificant and usually downright silly (Harris).

In the early sixties, folks musicians began to appear

who were drawing upon a different tradition, namely, protest

singers such as Woody Gutherie and Pete Singer. Artists like

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan created songs with serious lyrics

but without the rhythm, tempo and drive of rock ?n? roll.

Rock music was created when the serious lyrics of folk music

were incorporated into the rhythm, beat, and tempo of rock

and roll and then used as a vehicle for social commentary.

Bob Dylan

Born Robert Zimmerman in 1941, Dylan originally modeled

his music on that of Woody Gutherie. After the debut of his

second album, he emerged as the voice of his generation, and

an emotional critic of racism, injustice and war (Foner;

Garraty, 1991). Dylan?s song ?Blowin? in the Wind? was

practically the unofficial anthem of the sixties? civil

rights struggle. He expressed the terror of a generation

that grew up in the shadow of nuclear destruction in ?A Hard

Rain?s A-Gonna Fall? written just after the Cuban missile

crisis. His lyrics incorporated wild, poetic images-one

piled upon another-using Dylan?s unique phrasing which has

recently gained him notice as a serious poet.

Recently more then 400 fans of Bob Dylan gathered at

Stanford University to hear ten noted experts comparing the

legendary rock composer?s cultural achievements to those of

Keats, Becket, Tennyson, Shakespeare and Milton (Goodman

PG). Dylan began his career as a earnest folk singer in the

early 60s, but ?went electric? in 1965. During his career,

he has written and performed songs whose ?serious subject

matter? has taken popular music into previously uncharted

territory (Goodman PG).

Christopher Ricks, a professor at Boston University and

a T.S. Eliot expert, in analyzing Dylan?s ?Not Dark Yet?

found it ?saturated? with references from Keats? ?Ode to a

Nightingale? (Goodman PG). Ricks concluded his analysis of

Dylan?s work by saying that the 56-year-old composer was

comfortable with notions of his own mortality (PG). Intimate

friends of Dylan feel that the academics ?think too much?

concerning the meaning and literary references of Dylan?s

text (Goodman) and that the music should be taken at face


Rock becomes part of the establishment

One of the last acts of the Reagan administration was

to ?embrace the aging, tattooed body of rock ?n? roll? (Star

39). All through the 1980s, conservative elements in

America?s cultural landscape were assimilating the rock

culture and making it their own. This took many forms such

as the rise of Christian rock, the pilfering of ?Born in the

USA by Bruce Springsteen, and a very well-publicized

Republican enthusiasm for Neil Young (Star 39).

In the 80s, rock completed the transition from

rebellion to being sanctioned by authority. The

establishment?s embrace of rock gave rise to some

interesting scenarios. For example, Willie Nelson got stoned

admiring the view from the White House roof during his visit

during the Carter administration. Nancy Reagan and Michael

Jackson admired each other?s gloves during his visit to the

White House (39).

Starr suggests that the conservative embrace of rock

has to do with the fact that they know a profitable export

when they see one (39). William Bennett, who is reported to

have once dated Janis Joplin, and other conservatives have

expressed the opinion that rock music is the sound track of

American freedom. As if to signal that the transition was

complete, a 21-year-old, punkish MTV v-jay appeared at a

right-wing political action conference in Washington where

she reportedly urged the crowd to ?start beating up the

liberals? (Star 39)

It is ironic that rock music which began as an

expression of a generation?s alienation and rejection of the

society?s established institutions has evolved into a

capitalistic institution itself which has, in turn, been

embraced by the establishment. One would suspect that the

universe is sending a message to a generation of aging

Hippies not to take themselves, or their politics, too


Decurtis, Anthony. ?Is Rock ?n? Roll a white man?s game??

Time (1996): April, p. 78.

Foner, Eric; Garraty, John A. (1991) The Reader?s Companion

to American History. New York: Houghton Mifflin


Goodman, Dean. ?Dylan fans get tangled up in academic

views,? Reuters (1998): February, p. PG.

Harris, James F. ?Listen to the music: the meaning of

classic rock,? The World & I, Vol. 11, 12 Ed.

(1996): December, pp. 306.

Ryan, John. ?The Seventh Stream: The emergency of rock n

roll in American popular music,? (Book reviews)

Social Forces (1994): March, p. 927.

Star, Alexander. ?Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and

Meaning in American Popular Music? (book reviews) The

New Republic, Vol. 210. (1994): May, pp. 39-42.

Wattenberg, Daniel. ?Elvis as force for social change has

sadly been forgotten,? Rocky Mountain News. (1997):

August, pp. 6B.


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