Memphis disc jockey and promoter Sam Phillips helped launch rock ‘n’ roll in 1951 when he recorded a cars and girls song “Rocket 88,” by the black group, Ike Turner and His Kings of Rhythm. The recording’s fuzzy chords and bad amp did not stop the improvised boogie- woogiesong from topping the R&B charts. Almost by a fluke, the
mishaps with their car and frustration with that night’s events provided the context for this award-winning song and set the stage for a white cover artist who became a legend in his own right: Elvis Presley.
It was 1954, and given the politics of segregation prevalent at that time, Phillips felt that Elvis, a white ballad singer, would be the face that would secure an enduring place for this music in mainstream pop. Elvis, who had been recording another song in the studio, was on break and improvised black composer Arthur Crudup’s That’s All Right. Phillips then knew that he had found his “white boy who sang colored.”
Elvis wasn’t the first or only rocker—there were Buddy Holly, Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, and others—but his “white face” on rock ‘n’ roll helped propel its popularity on an unprecedented scale. The race barrier that had blocked blacks from fully participating in and getting credit for many of the rock ‘n’ roll hits of the 1950s and 1960s began to disintegrate, and the integration of black music into white culture accelerated the civil rights movement that profoundly changed U.S. society.
Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll
7.3.4 Music of Dissent 1. Objective: Outline the dissent traditions of U.S. music
The folk revival of the 1960s and 1970s fused entertainment with a political agenda whose centerpiece was the anti-Vietnam war movement of that era. Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, veteran folk artists, were joined by Bob Dylan, perhaps the most prolific song writers of the last 60 years, and the trio, Peter, Paul, and Mary. Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and Judi Collins were prominent female artists whose songs were an integral part of many protests against the war.
Political messages and patriotism had infused music as part of a strong military
tradition pre-dating the Civil War. For instance, Stephen Foster’s Nothing but a Plain Old Soldier, written in 1863, revived George Washington’s glory. The Battle Hymn of the Republic roused popular support for the U.S. military, as did Over There in World War I. Later, The Ballad of the Green Berets was written as a tribute to the heroism of soldiers in Vietnam.
Much later, the Dixie Chicks’ controversial mix of music and politics put them in a bad light among George W. Bush loyalists. In 2003, when support for the Iraq war was high, Texan Natalie Maines, the group’s lead singer, told a London audience that she was “ashamed” that President Bush was from Texas. Listener outrage prompted some anxious station managers to ban the Chicks. In 2006, when anti-war sentiment rose, the group’s Not Ready to Make Nice opened 28th on Billboard’s Hot 100.
Classic rockers Pearl Jam added to the anti-war revival. Its song World Wide Suicide opened with a newspaper casualty report. Neil Young’s track Let’s Impeach the President took the anti-war songs to a new high. The songs of Paul Simon, as part of Simon and Garfunkel, date back to the Vietnam era, and he released the anti-war album, Surprise, in 2006. Presidents also capitalized on the power of popular music to rally public support, including Franklin Roosevelt with Depression-era Happy Days Are Here Again and George H.W. Bush with Paul Simon’s Boy in the Bubble, an allusion to the economy.
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