2011 David N. Townsend


Changing the World:

Rock 'n' Roll Culture and Ideology


David N. Townsend

Chapter 1


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All you really need to know about the origins of rock 'n' roll is that it started with slavery. The history books can give you the details; what's important is that rock 'n' roll can be traced in a direct line to an utterly unnatural phenomenon: the forced uprooting of tens of thousands of Africans from their native lands and cultures, and their transplantation to a new world as different from what they had known as black is different from white. Add in the fact that families were split apart, slaves from different tribes were thrown together on the same plantations, and, of course, these reluctant visitors were chained, whipped, imprisoned, and compelled to perform excruciating hard labor for barely subsistence nourishment. Keep in mind that these conditions continued, on this continent, for well over a century, until less than 150 years ago.

I realize that this is hardly news, but sometimes it seems that white Americans have forgotten, or want to forget, that slavery ever existed, let alone so recently as the 1860s. There are any number of ways to put it in revealing perspective. Think of the condition that European culture had achieved by the mid-1800s: the emergence of Impressionist art; the great novels of Hugo, Flaubert, Tolstoy, and Dickens; the intellectual enlightenment of de Tocqueville and Descartes; the revolutionary ferment of Marx. Any average liberal arts student encounters most of these great cultural developments to some degree: the core of modern Western civilization was formulating overseas. Meanwhile, Americans still thrashed fellow humans into pitiful servitude, and treated them legally as no more than personal property. This unavoidable element of our nation's history is ignored over and over by ideological chauvinists who oppose Affirmative Action and civil rights legislation, who decry "reverse discrimination" and claim it is "unfair" to try to force integration or to ameliorate African Americans' disadvantages at the expense of innocent European (or Asian) Americans. ("Hey, my ancestors immigrated in 1912. I'm not responsible for slavery!") That anyone could find in the predominance of poverty within black communities in America anything but the continuing legacy of human bondage is unfathomable, and truly frightening. The only conceivable explanation is that some people keep forgetting about slavery:

"Why the hell are you so bent over and weak?"

"Well, I was a slave for forty years. They beat me twice a week."

"Oh, that's right. I forgot."

Why the hell are so many blacks stuck in hopeless ghetto lives, resorting to drugs, crime, and violence to fill the void of their existence? Because their great great great grandfathers were slaves; their great great grandfathers were illiterate, disenfranchised sharecroppers; their great grandfathers were dirt poor farmers or laborers who moved to Northern cities when the Depression wiped out what meager opportunities remained in the South; their grandfathers were equally poor children of the first ghettos, jobless and uneducated, with no hope for escape; and their fathers found scarcely better chances despite the prosperity of the post-War years, the hope of the civil rights movement, and the slowly emerging sense of unity among African Americans as a race. Many of today's young blacks, of course, cannot look back through a lineage of fathers, grandfathers, and so on, because so many "fathers," themselves often little more than children, disappeared before or soon after their progeny were born. Such is the cycle of deprivation where hope is unknown.

Public policy and individual determination have only dented this tragic legacy; for the majority of African Americans today, slavery's evil scars remain open. Yet the white establishment forgets about slavery, forgets about blacks, really. A "Roots" comes along and poignantly revives the suppressed collective memory for a while, but amnesia soon returns. When a Jesse Jackson persists in underlining the injustice between the races, white America is concerned, or bemused, or insulted, but only occasionally inspired, the way they should be, the way otherwise despairing blacks are inspired. Other countries have endured slavery and pay the price in their own way. In America, slavery was more dominant, more integral to the nation's economic and social fabric than anywhere else, and in the most wealthy and advanced country on earth, slavery's price is the highest of all -- and the bill has not been paid in full.

To understand rock 'n' roll, therefore, we must understand what slavery was, and where it left the sons and daughters of Africans who knew nothing of the European roots of American culture. For slavery provides the perfect rationale, the perfect explanation for why rock 'n' roll should stand apart from other musical forms, as a cultural revolution unto itself. Every society, after all, has its indigenous music, which serves as entertainment, accompaniment to ritual and ceremony, bonding force, story teller, preserver of history. Rock 'n' roll, certainly, is modern American folk music in these respects, successor to Stephen Foster and Cole Porter. But that is only a minor facet of rock 'n' roll's place in American, indeed in world society since 1955, and the larger elements of rock's influence reach far beyond the traditional cultural adhesive status of other folk musics. To solidify this claim, and to explain it, we can point directly to slavery, which forcibly mixed the radically different elements of two cultures in a boiling cauldron (rather than a melting pot), bringing to white, rural, agrarian America a series of rhythmic and vocal traditions that originated on the other side of the planet in Africa, and adding an important spiritual, melancholy, almost fatalistic sensibility that grew up by itself in the slaves' imprisoned souls.

This last ingredient is crucial: they didn't sing the Blues back in Africa. Rock 'n' roll is an African-American hybrid, but its strongest root is the very suffering, and survival, of generations of slaves, who learned how music could help a man to transcend earthly pain for awhile. The Blues sings of sadness, toil, and loss, but the reason for singing the Blues is to relieve the hurt these things cause. The Blues, with its simple, repetitive rhythms and chords and lyrical phrases, provides a comforting communal message that musician and audience can share, as long as they know where the singer is coming from. It's no wonder that Blues singers were so popular during the Depression, especially in the South, among both black and white audiences. It's also easy to understand the strong bonds between the Blues (and later R&B and rock 'n' roll) and Gospel music: from a secular point of view, singing about the Lord lifting you up and singing about the Blues fallin' down like rain are spiritually equivalent acts.

So while the musical innovations brought to America by the Africans involved rhythm primarily, along with new variations on the use of the human voice for both melody and rhythm, their more fundamental contribution to the legacy that was to spawn rock 'n' roll was the use of the music itself for emotional, spiritual purposes. The rhythms especially, of course, figured prominently in this application, because the drudgery of repetitious work -- picking endless bales of cotton, chopping wood, etc. -- could be relieved somewhat by a superimposed musical rhythm. In this way the function and form of the music reinforced themselves. When the Blues evolved into a more general style in the decades following emancipation, the repetitious element remained intact, partly because it made the music easy to learn for folks who had no access to refined teaching or expensive instruments. The spiritual function also remained, but evolved, as the oppression of the slaves transformed into mere deprivation, hopelessness grew into mere purposelessness.

But it is not nearly sufficient to identify black musical heritage from slave work songs through Ragtime, Blues, Jazz, Gospel, R&B, and the like, and simply extrapolate the line further to encompass Rock 'n' Roll. Rock 'n' roll starts from these foundations, but it adds more, and what it principally adds is white America, both in the music and in the audience. White America slowly discovered the endearing, inspiring musical heritage that had become central to African Americans' lives, and, establishing a tradition that is practiced to this day, began to imitate and adapt black music. Thus the hybrid forms arrived; at one time or another, rock 'n' roll has incorporated Country and Western, Swing, Classical, Big Band, Folk, and even Tin Pan Alley musical elements, just as it has incorporated Blues, R&B, and the other indigenous black styles. It would be wrong, therefore, to claim that rock 'n' roll is an inherently "black" music, although clearly without the presence of African slaves and their descendants there would have been no rock 'n' roll to speak of. It's harder to say that without whites there wouldn't have been rock 'n' roll, partly because it's hard to imagine what that would mean in practice--American Apartheid, perhaps: no opportunity for or attempts at cultural integration. But since white America was where all the wealth and power lay, there was never any question that the natural economic evolution of black music--or other arts, or business, or politics--would be toward gaining white favor, if only to share in the pie. White America, on the other hand, must have taken to black music solely because it was enjoyable, since there was no pecuniary incentive in the pre-civil rights era to embrace the relatively isolated, unknown African American culture. In any event, the two groups met and formed the first and strongest cross-cultural art form in America. Rock 'n' roll belongs to that heritage only: the meeting of peoples.

In America, such a meeting on practical physical terms was unique after the Civil War, although the history of international immigration and assimilation in the New World forms something of a precedent for the learning of alien traditions in this country that is probably unheard of anywhere else. To my knowledge, no other country publicly acknowledges St. Patrick's Day, the Chinese New Year, Mardi Gras, Halloween, St. Valentine's Day, all the Jewish religious holidays, and the full spectrum of Christian holidays to anything approaching the degree that the United States does. More than a token recognition of international coexistence, however, rock 'n' roll has become a culture unto itself. It is in fact one of the few uniquely identifiable elements of what can be described as "American" culture: something that does not exist anywhere else in the world except as derived from its American roots. Some other such elements might include our preoccupation with television, professional team sports, and automobiles, and perhaps our capitalist industrial imperative (not that capitalism originated here, but we may have elevated it to an industrial economy sooner and more extensively than other nations). High Tech--whatever that means, presumably industrial applications of post-World War II scientific research, especially in semiconductors and in the physical and biological sciences--may also be a part of American culture, but it is moving and changing so fast across the globe that it is perhaps one of the first features of World culture. If so, it might compete with post-1950s rock 'n' roll (or "rock music" generally) for that honor, since rock has long since moved well across almost all national boundaries.

Lest we forget, it is worth contemplating briefly the other significant historical events between the emancipation of the slaves and the birth of this intercultural infant in the mid-1950s. A couple stand out: World Wars I and II. The first was important, in this context, mostly for indirect reasons, i.e., it set the stage for the second. The time period and circumstances of World War I also brought about rapid developments in the technology of radio communication, whose commercial application starting in the 1920s lay the single most vital industrial foundation for rock 'n' roll's eventual emergence.

Quite simply, prior to radio, there was almost no means of hearing music without being present at its live performance. The occasional exception was for the fortunate few owners of phonographs, and the fortunate fewer among musicians who had their music recorded. Of course, radio and recording technology have been cohabitating since the earliest amateur broadcasters spun classical discs into makeshift transmitters from their garages for neighborhood listeners. Recording is the older of the pair, and recorded music predates the twentieth century, but only with the advent of radio did records obtain the vehicle to become a truly mass medium. Perhaps the oldest truism in what has come to be called the "Recording Industry" is that people won't buy a record unless they've heard it first (especially one by a new group or musician). Radio created a means for people to sample records, and thus the opportunity for record sales to produce significant profits--significant enough by the middle of the century to make millionaires out of a few "recording artists," and to create an incentive for countless small time entrepreneurs to get into the business of finding, developing, and marketing such artists on their own independent record labels.

That radio is the spinal chord in this industry's nervous system is fairly obvious today; what is worth remembering is how relatively new radio is to the history of music. Its dramatic rise as an entertainment medium in the late 1920s, and dominance of American culture in the subsequent two decades before television's ascension, directly and crucially paralleled the transformations and cross-pollinations of musical styles that finally became rock 'n' roll. In a way, although most nostalgic memories of the Golden Days of radio focus on proto-television-type dramas, comedies, news flashes, and advertisements, radio's most enduring legacy may be this musical metamorphosis that began with the inception of radio technology and reached maturity just as radio was giving way to television in America's living rooms. Indeed, even radio's relative fall from prominence as a multi-faceted, universal entertainment source may have spurred rock 'n' roll's success, because with television taking over all the serial and variety programs, there was a lot of spare air time needing to be filled, and recorded music was the ideal, inexpensive choice. During radio's heyday, however, music was only one of a potpourri of selections available along the dial--but it was this very diversity of programming that allowed music itself to evolve. Never before had it been possible for different racial and regional populations to encounter each other's native musical styles without actually venturing out to a live performance, which in the case of the Blues might have meant an impromptu backyard boogie session, or just as likely a spirited gathering behind state prison walls; or in the case of white country music, a hoedown on the farm. In either event, white and black music lovers would not have felt particularly comfortable in the others' environment.

With radio's non-discriminatory access to transmissions from anywhere within the vicinity--which on a clear night can amount to hundreds of miles in any direction--widely diverse groups could meet and learn about each other without having to travel, or to hang out where they were drastically out of place. It was even possible to encounter appealing, unfamiliar music somewhere along the dial and not realize how relatively alien was its source. That is, it was no secret that certain stations or programs played primarily black or "race" music, and more often than not vocal distinctions alone would reveal a singer's ethnicity, but to notice those distinctions one had to be reasonably aware of the other group in the first place, and furthermore one had to be thinking in terms of racial differences, rather than music for its own sake. For many listeners, it was enough to discover something different and exciting on the radio; they could enjoy it without worrying about its larger social significance. And when the "audience" consisted of musicians themselves--people who were interested in developing their own stylistic variations--racial or cultural differences were truly irrelevant compared with the inspiration afforded by a new sound. Imagine how that odd beat, or use of guitar or horns, or that funny lyrical twist or uplifting voice, crackling across the evening airwaves, must have sounded to the musical entrepreneurs of the 1920s and 1930s. Imagine how hearing Blues greats like Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson for the first time affected fledgling composers struggling to adapt their songs to contemporary tastes. Even the Jazz giants of the era--Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and the rest--extended their influence through radio play and record sales, as well as through movies and sheet music distribution, to reach distant audiences that would have been inaccessible otherwise, and their consequent effect upon the growth of such hybrid forms as Western Swing and urban "Jump" Blues was considerable.

Still, the bulk of this musical experimentation was taking place far from the awareness of the general public, at what might be thought of as the "cutting edge" of U.S. cultural development. Most Americans were little concerned with music at all, as the country struggled to withstand the ravages of the Depression, and hurtled once again toward War overseas. What music they did attend to consisted mostly of Hollywood and Broadway show tunes, big band numbers, and the crooning of such emerging stars as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and the Andrews Sisters. Music itself, although always important, was simply not as central an element of average Americans' daily lives as it has been for those of us who grew up in the Rock Era. There were, of course, no "stereos" nor any equipment capable of reproducing music at a quality level remotely approaching live or in-studio sound. Most rock fans, I would guess, would soon tire of the music if the best sound systems they had available were equivalent to 1940s vintage monaural phonographs, or even the best radios of the time. In such an environment, a catchy tune and sing-along lyrics were about the best one could expect to hold a wide audience's interest; it's doubtful that a fuzz-box and Hendrix-style feedback would have made much of an impression. Owning a large record collection, which today is as common as filling a few bookshelves with paperbacks, was for seriously devoted fans only, usually Classical or Jazz aficionados. Life in the 1930s and 1940s just involved other sets of tastes, interests, and priorities for the majority of the population.

And as of December 7, 1941, the principal preoccupation of virtually the entire population became the War. Now here's another topic that a lot of us don't keep in perspective, I think. The War. The entire rock 'n' roll era, the entire rock generation, has been a "post-War" phenomenon, which means that nearly all of us, almost everyone involved with and interested in rock, did not experience and does not remember the War. As the years go by, the percentage of the U.S. population answering to that description grows larger and larger; we've long since been a majority. As a post-War child myself, by about 14 years, I can no better speak from personal knowledge of that period than I can of slavery or the Depression, but I sense--in my parents and grandparents, in the older generation of politicians, businesspersons, retirees, and veterans, in the recollections of books, films photographs, headlines--something of the meaning of the War for those who lived through it. Or perhaps more accurately, I sense the absence of that meaning for those of us who did not know the War.

For America, World War II lasted only 3 years and 8 months: not long from the point of view of one's entire lifetime. To most of us, the memories of any specific four year period of adulthood soon become blurred as we grow and change and encounter perpetual newness through life. Change, in fact, is so constant for us these days that the mid-1970s, say, 1974 through 1978, seem ancient and largely irrelevant to today's world. For those who lived through the War, however, I believe it was different. For two or three entire generations of Americans--school children, young adults, older citizens, all of the 100 million or so people living and aware in this country during the years 1941 through 1945--the War became the most significant, indelible memory of their lives, coloring and shaping and controlling their every thought and perception of the world for all the decades that followed.

This is to say nothing in particular of those who actually fought in the War, and came home injured or heroic or not at all; nor do I refer at the moment to Europeans and their front yard view of the War, nor even to the refugees who fled here from destruction and genocide--all these were naturally changed forever by World War II: they were among its victims. I'm pointing rather to the vast group of Americans who had no direct personal involvement with the Hell-on-Earth occurring overseas, who simply stayed home and did their part, sending off sons and husbands and brothers to fight, buying war bonds, writing letters, running air raid drills, watching newsreels, and hoping that the boys would come home safely. This was by far the majority of Americans: the spectators to the War, the audience. They had no idea, just as those of us who never went near Vietnam have no idea, what the war was really like, in the trenches, the camps, the airplanes and ships. But because they were the audience, and because the show was so absolutely all encompassing, they too were profoundly affected by it, forever.

Four years may be short to present memories, but imagine watching a movie that lasts for four years. A movie that is excruciatingly tense, with thousands of subplots, spectacular heroes and heroines, hideous villains, constant gut-wrenching plot twists, tremendous poignancy, anguish, excitement, fear, and whose ending--cataclysmic and joyous, horrifying and exultant--is uncertain until the very last hours. You go to bed with the latest developments on your mind, you wake up to learn what has happened while you slept, while the four-year movie played continuously. And you have no choice but to watch it, to follow the story, because it is on every screen, covered on the front pages of every newspaper, every day, bulletins flashing from every radio, and everyone around you is watching at the same time. For four years.

Now try to imagine, more than all of this, that it's no movie, it's real life, out there, somewhere: it's colossal evil and immeasurable fear, untold sacrifice and suffering, superhuman heroism, pain and death, glory and triumph, every day, unrelenting, overwhelming. You may not experience any of it yourself (perhaps if you did, it would be easier to cope with, to understand), but you are acutely aware at every breathing moment that it is happening, that its outcome is supremely important to your future, the world's future, there's little you can do to help but you are compelled to join in with everyone else and try, and even when those occasional moments arrive when some nearby distraction (a party? your wedding? your child's birth?) takes your attention away, you only feel all the more inside how insignificant is everything in your life in comparison with what's happening over there, in the War. Try to imagine it, and realize that you cannot possibly begin to imagine it, but know that for tens of millions of Americans, your parents and grandparents, it happened. Don't think for a nanosecond that you've been through anything remotely similar because you haven't, because there hasn't been a World War III: the Koreas and Vietnams and Iraqs are but a blip on the screen by any standard of comparison.

The bottom line on World War II is that modern American (and world) history began when it ended; World War II was the Genesis, the Big Bang, that set in motion all that has occurred in the subsequent decades; nothing since that time is unrelated to the War. So it's all very good to talk about historical trends in American music from a detached perspective: Blues, Jazz, Swing, Tin Pan Alley, Rhythm and Blues, Country, Rock 'n' Roll . . . and, oh yeah, those "patriotic" songs during the War era. But the truth is that life stopped, evolution ceased, and music was swallowed along with the rest of America by the War, and what it spit out afterward was not simply a continuation of what had already been going on before, but a new, different, clean slate: post-War music, or a post-War stage on which to strike up a brand new band.

Because the War generations, you see, were destined to live with the War, and all of its trappings, permanently thereafter. The image of the War would remain vivid in infinite glorifying films, shows, stories, fiction and truth. The music of the era would continue too, in Sinatra and Glen Miller tunes, in Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, in all the stars and sounds that rose to prominence in that time, and whose entertaining provided bittersweet respite from the anxiety and intensity. For the War generation, new music, invented afterward, could serve no purpose, perhaps because there was no purpose left to serve. With War over, there was less reason for these veterans to become passionate, to look for escapes or inspirations; placid, repetitive entertainment, basking in the mellow glow of victory over despair, might be enough. Rock 'n' roll fans and critics tend to deride Tin Pan Alley "crooners" for their slow, syrupy love songs, with no beat and sleepy string arrangements (Joe Piscopo's Sinatra goof is the quintessential rock satire of this style), but I'm not sure we always understand where that audience of "Music of Your Life" listeners is coming from. Why would they need upbeat, loud, exciting, fast music like rock 'n' roll? They had World War II, enough excitement to last a lifetime, thank you.

If we begin to understand that perspective, then we can find some insight into how rock 'n' roll did appeal to the post-War generation. By 1954, anyone who was a teenager was personally unacquainted with World War II; even a 19 year-old had only been ten when it ended, and the younger teens had been infants while the War raged. By the mid-1950s, the Baby Boom--kids born in droves to returning soldiers and their wives, and to the generally jubilant and prosperous population of post-War America--was starting to grow up, and to listen to rock 'n' roll. This vast new chunk of humanity between our shores could not possibly share the feelings and memories of their parents, could not know what the War had meant, and how profoundly it had influenced the older generations. They could not, in truth, share their parents' complacency with the post-War world, peaceful and prosperous and unthreatening as it was in contrast to what came before. If anything, it was the absence of any great challenge, whether war, depression, industrialization, or political change, that spawned the celebrated restlessness of young Americans in the 1950s. The symbol of the generation, James Dean's Rebel Without a Cause, testified to the itching need of teenagers to discover some purpose in their lives. Whereas a decade before, every moment of every day had brought vitally important developments and concerns that affected the entire country, mid-1950s daily life was, on the surface, drab and unchanging. Ike was President for eight years. The Korean conflict and the Cold War were disturbing, but remote and ultimately meaningless to kids.

The situation was a little different for young African Americans, however. Their restlessness did find an outlet, a purpose, in their own home towns: the cause of justice and dignity. Perhaps--and this is only a guess--the presence of an underlying sense of purpose embodied in the emerging black music of the time is what appealed so much to white youth. It wasn't the lyrics, really. The Blues talked of pain, but usually man/woman pain, not social injustice. The newer, upbeat style known as Rhythm and Blues as often spoke of dance ("Good Rockin' Tonight," "Shake, Rattle, & Roll"), or cars ("Rocket 88"), or sex ("Work with Me, Annie," "Sixty Minute Man"), or dreamy love ("Sh-Boom," "Earth Angel," "Sincerely"), as it did of hurt ("Hound Dog," "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean," "Ain't It a Shame"). It may have been that specific words weren't necessary, that the feeling of the music was enough. Black music in the late '40s and early '50s was finding newer and stronger means to express the solidarity felt within the black community, how that community differed from the white controlled world, and how, in truth, African Americans were becoming proud of the difference. Music itself, with a steady, upbeat rhythm, was central to the community identity, and the pleasures and passions of life that blacks expressed through their music may have seemed more immediate and authentic because of the composers' and performers' real sense of alienation. The political purpose of civil rights was only just beginning to surface as a unifying cause among blacks, and it was arguably the tightening of the community through cultural communication that gave rise to civil rights awareness in the first place, not the other way around. Thus, the purposefulness to be found in black music was perhaps no more complicated than the joy with which the made it, the joy of a close-knit people discovering themselves. Most white Americans lacked any sense of group alienation--after all, their "kind" had ruled the land for centuries--but white teenagers, who felt cut off from their parents' past, might have been attracted to black communal expressions because of their own emerging sense of loneliness. Liking black music was tantamount to wanting to join the group.

In any event, the rock 'n' roll legends tell of how it slowly became apparent to a few foresighted record store owners, and then disc jockeys, and then producers, that black music was appealing to more and more young whites, that a new social trend was underway, far from the mainstream of popular entertainment, but not so far that there wasn't any money to be made from it. Sometime in the early 1950s, the term Rhythm and Blues entered the popular lexicon, and a handful of entrepreneurs began trying to exploit the commercial possibilities of this newly defined genre. Hindsight relates that the likes of Alan Freed, Sam and Dewey Phillips, the Bihari and Chess Brothers, and Ahmet Ertegun were visionaries who single-mindedly forged ahead through the doubts and rejection of the traditional radio and recording industry establishment and arrived at the glorious new horizon that they had always perceived before them. Hindsight, however, is usually even less clear than foresight; what is more likely is that these and other pioneers took chances on new music because they had no opportunity to succeed by pushing traditional music. They were outsiders, innovators, small time gamblers without connections into the big time corporations that dominated fields, and they had nothing to lose by exploring new paths. If Sam Phillips could have recorded Perry Como and Nat "King" Cole at the peak of their careers, don't doubt that he would have. In that event, however, it is just as likely that Elvis Presley would have happened upon some other, equally hungry upstart, and history might not have changed too much.

In this sense, the emergence of numerous alternative radio programs and independent labels, and the parallel growth of R&B, is perhaps creditable less to specific individuals than to the general economic health of the nation during the early 1950s. An improved economy created the excess leisure time and spending money that teenagers invested in musical entertainment, and it established the relatively favorable conditions that permitted small start-up companies to enter the marketplace, with low initial costs, and expanding demand that was not being served by the existing, risk-averse and prejudiced giants of the industry. From an economic perspective, in fact, one can make a good case that the popular music revolution of the 1950s is extremely comparable to the personal computer revolution of the 1980s--but that would be a rather dull digression, so I won't pursue it.

Certainly Sam Phillips and company had some vision, however, and more important, they had taste. The founding producers of rock 'n' roll liked the music they created, and were undoubtedly driven in their quest to make it popular by their own enjoyment of what they were doing as well as by the profit motive. It bothers me that Phillips's most well known pre-Elvis observation was something to the effect that "If I could find a white man who sings like a black man, I could make a fortune". Dwelling upon this quote creates the impression of a cynical, racist, dispassionate greed in the man, as if he almost resented having to record black singers. I don't know what Phillips's prejudices might have been, but it's unlikely he was a racist given the business he was in and his role in developing R&B as well as rockabilly performers. His statement was obviously an accurate characterization of the entrenched segregation in the music industry, and an astute analysis of how it was evolving. If it would take a white performer to open the ears of the parochial masses, then that would be (and was) a good thing, since the white audience's new found awareness of this captivating musical form would benefit its original (black) practitioners as much as the white imitators who first spread the word.

Indeed, the endless white covers of R&B numbers like "Sh-Boom," "Hearts of Stone," and "Sincerely" that topped the pop charts in 1953-54 directly helped to "legitimize" R&B as a style (albeit watered down) with a wider audience, and rather than stealing revenues from the original artists, provided a further opportunity for them to prosper as a group. To rock 'n' roll purists, these cover recordings are nauseating, lacking the very soul that makes the originals so enticing, but to the uninitiated older white mainstream, the schmaltzy dilution of rhythms and instrumentation and lily white vocal styles were just close enough to the more familiar Tin Pan Alley sound to be both appealing and unthreatening. As far as a large portion of the white audience was concerned, rock 'n' roll was more plausible as an evolutionary than as a revolutionary concept. The Crew Cuts were no menace to God and Country.

For teenagers, however, restlessness and alienation must have been approaching historic proportions by 1955, for all at once the levee broke, and a tidal wave swept through.


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Disclaimer: This is an unpublished manuscript, made available to the public for your personal interest and reaction. It may not be reprinted, copied, or distributed in any manner, without express permission of the author. I neither ask nor receive any financial compensation for this document. Hence, although I use quotes from several published song lyrics without having obtained formal permission of the copyright owner, there is no violation of copyright, since this document is not "published" or sold in any meaningful sense.