The 1950s gave birth to a new era of MUSiC that eroded racial and social barriers in the United States. This music was known as rock and roll.
African-American music profoundly affected the evolution of rock and roll. The slave hymns that were sung by fieldhands before the Civil War became the base for the blues, which emerged during the early part of the 20th century. This music was popular among black communities in the South, along with jazz and a form of music known as rhythm and blues. During the 1930s and 1940s, the South was strictly segregated, and no self-respecting white southerner listened to “black music.” At this time, blacks began to migrate to the North in search of new opportunities opening up in the manufacturing industry. These African Americans not only brought with them their personal belongings but also their music.
Teenagers of the early 1950s searching for something to define their generation turned to rock and roll. They did not share the hardships of their parents, who had struggled through the Great Depression and World War II. They looked for an exciting outlet, and they turned to the music of rock and roll performers. In 1954, Bill Haley and the Comets released the first big rock and roll hit, “Rock around the Clock.” This song, with its hard driving beat, drew on the rhythms of black music and catapulted rock and roll into the mainstream of white America. Suddenly, every teen in America wanted to hear more of this music.
Radio stations during this time catered to either black music listeners or white music interests. White teens only listened to those stations that played white singers covering the rock and roll songs of their black contemporaries. Singers like Pat Boone sang black rock hits like Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.” Black artists, outraged at the attempts of white artists to sing their songs, claimed that the music sung by whites failed to deliver the mood and message intended. Still, the recordings worked to the advantage of African-American artists because they gave the music exposure to a previously untouched white market.
One man, Alan Freed, a disc jockey from Cleveland, crossed the race barrier, and played both white and black rock music. It was Freed who first named this new music, coining the term “rock and roll,” which referred to
Buddy Holly and the Crickets performing on Ed Sullivan, December 1, 1957 (Getty Images)
Descriptions of sex in black music. His show received much attention, and, by 1954, he traveled to New York City and expanded his show to include live acts.
In 1954, Elvis Presley changed rock and roll history. Elvis, a white artist from the Deep South, captured the essence of rock. Influenced by the black bluesmen of the South, his style developed around their music. Elvis popularized rock and roll in white suburbia with hits such as “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog.” His voice, typical of black singers, combined with his gyrating moves, made it possible for black music to cross white lines. He also made it possible for other white artists, such as Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, to break onto the rock scene.
Not every home in America welcomed rock and roll. Many parents of those teens who listened to rock music did not approve of the content of the songs. Many of the songs carried sexual overtones and suggested to teens that drinking and smoking were socially acceptable. This led to a number of religious and social groups openly opposing rock and roll. They attempted to stop radio stations from playing rock music by picketing in front of stations or contacting government representatives.
By the 1960s, rock and roll was entrenched in American culture. Its message changed from the importance of having a good time to serving as an outlet for social concerns. Artists like James Brown hit the music scene in the early 1960s, and he attacked racial and social issues in America through his music. British musicians, such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, came to the United States at this time; their recordings have influenced rock music ever since.
Music also became the voice of the counterculture. U. S. involvement in the Vietnam War prompted artists like Bob Dylan use rock music to speak out against the U. S. presence in the war. Other artists, such as Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead, experimented with rock and drugs, giving birth to a new form of music, psychedelic rock, that the youth of the late 1960s embraced. Rock and roll changed not only the sound of music but its content as well.
In 1983 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation formed to create a museum dedicated to chronicling the history of rock and roll’s most influential artists, producers, and other significant industry actors. Designed by I. M. Pei, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened in Cleveland, Ohio, on September 2, 1995. In addition to documenting the history of the musical genre, the museum included special exhibits on inductees, who are selected and honored at an annual ceremony in New York City. The first inductees were honored on January 23, 1986, and included Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, and James Brown. Artists qualify for induction 25 years after the release of their first record, a guideline that nonetheless has failed to shield the museum from charges that inductions are not selective enough and often based upon an artist’s popularity rather than achievements.
Further reading: Charles Brown, The Art of Rock ’n’ Roll (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall, 1987).