Sunday, May 3, 2009

Roots Music, Race and the Fifties: Some Observations

Any attempt to analyze the complexity of popular music in the 1950's invariably comes face to face with the issue of race in American society. In many ways, the explosion of "popular music," propelled by the spread of radio, new teenage audiences and the proliferation of record companies, becomes another important medium in which cultural miscegenation was advancing rapidly. Building on the gains made among black and white jazz musicians, professional athletes (Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby and Boxing) and the integration of the armed forces, the fifties witness an increasing acceptance of African American music at many levels and in all regions of the country. And the Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Topeka, while not achieving integration, sets a tone and helps to create conditions more favorable to cultural integration at popular levels of expression, particularly American popular music.

Popular awareness and widespread acceptance of jazz legends like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Nat King Cole and their association with white jazz musicians make possible the changes that begin in the late 1940's and continue throughout the 1950's. Some early signs of change can be seen in the incorporation of the boogie-woogie style among country music musicians, evidenced by the many Delmore Brother's tunes in the style, such as Panamerican Boogie . Coverage of blues classics also became commonplace, check out the Delmore Brother's Careless Love, originally recorded by Bessie Smith in 1925. Boogie Woogie was also being popularized by other leading white musicians. from Tommy Dorsey in jazz to the popular songs of the Andrews Sisters.

By the late 1940's Jump Blues was having a huge impact and was gaining wider popular acceptance, in spite of resistance at different levels. For example, the term "rockin," popularized initially by Wynonie Harris' 1948 Jump Blues classic "Good Rockin Tonight" , was shunned by many for the sexual connotation of "rockin." Harris did record double entendre songs like "Keep on Churnin" that kept stereotypes alive and resistance as well. Nonetheless, Louis Jordan's more refined brand of jump blues began to crossover into popular white music circles, and appearances with luminaries such as Bing Crosby helped to legitimize him among white audiences. White rock n'roll pioneer Jimmy Cavallo's huge success in the late forties as a dance band on the beaches of North Carolina owed much to Jordan's style, and Jordan would continue to influence musical production in most genres throughout the 1950's. Yet not all Jump Blues crossed over. Much of the material that the almost forgotten jump blues artists Jimmy Liggins and Bull Moose Jackson recorded was just too rough or explicit for popular acceptance at the time, Liggins here and Jackson here and here state their own cases to the conservative climate of the 1950's. Liggins and Jackson were really only carrying on the double entendre tradition that had been alive and well at the inception of the blues recording era, stretching back to the 1920's.

The pioneering work of Sam Phillips cannot be underestimated in this story. Recording black musicians for his young Sun label in Memphis was a labor of love and was complicated by racist attitudes of the period. His adoption of white rockers and virtual integration of the Sun studios in Memphis is remarkable and accelerates the process. Several white musicians who recorded for Sun and who covered black R&B artists speaks to this trend: Hayden Thompson's nifty cover of Junior Parker's "Love my Baby" Elvis covers Parker's Mystery Train and Arthur Crudup's "That's all Right Mama." By the time Elvis covered the Roy Brown version of "Good Rockin Tonight" for Sun in 1954, country musicians were already appropriating the language of blues and jazz musicians, and terms like "rock," "rockin daddy," "cat", "cattin", "hepcat", "jive", and "bop" all reflect a process of cultural amalgamation affecting musicians in the south who began to embrace rockabilly as the cutting edge medium. Charlie Adams' "Cattin Around", Carl Perkins' incredible numbers "Put Your Cat Clothes on" and "Boppin the Blues" , Jack Earls' "Let's Bop" and Lew Williams' "Cat Talk" are good examples that confirm the trend, there are hundreds more.

Although the short lived rockabilly craze (1954-1960) among white musicians can be explained in large measure as commercially driven, I also interpret the movement as symptomatic of the more over arching move toward integration, with music being the means of expression. What I am suggesting is that rockabilly was not merely a fad driven by the dream of ascending to Elvishood. A possible exception would be the Warren Smith classic rags to riches rockabilly dream "Uranium Rock." This gradual move toward cultural integration is evident in the themes found in rockabilly's lyrics, as a discernible move toward themes long present in blues and R&B becomes obvious as thousands of obscure rockabilly records are recorded by small record labels throughout the south and mid-west. Song after rockabilly song attest to this trend in the use of language and lyrical content. Some common recurring themes in rockabilly of the period are sexual prowess, heard in the Elvis' cover "Good Rockin Tonight" and Billy Lee Riley's "Rock With Me Baby" , the related theme of dancing ability, heard in the Johnny Burnette Trio's classics "Rockabilly Boogie" and "Tear it Up" and the transcendent power of the music itself, highlighted in Ronnie Dawson's "Rockin Bones" and Warren Smith's "Ubangi Stomp" . While Dawson's faith in "the sound" almost equates to religious fervor, Smith's voyage to Africa in Ubangi Stomp can be read as metaphor for incursions into black R&B sounds. One thing is for sure, these cats did find rhythm's promised land, and it wasn't just a fad, as Smith makes clear in the finale: "I'm going Ubangi Stomp till I roll over dead."

During the heyday of rockabilly, adoption of African American language, dress and musical expression all coincide for a short time, and it's not coincidental this happened during the country's first move toward integration. Interestingly, rockabilly suddenly declines, or in the case of Ricky Nelson and Johnny Burnette is tamed, and by 1960 is quickly replaced by the more syrupy and schmaltzier sounds of the Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon and former rockabilly queen Brenda Lee. I will attempt to situate rockabilly's sudden demise in a future post.

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