Race, Genre and Rock and Roll

America has always been a land of change and progress. For better or for worse, Americans, using the fighting spirit that has been engrained in them since the nation was born, are always exploring the boundaries of what is in order to see what can be, and using what they have at their disposal to make that evolution happen. An ideal example of this is can be seen in the birth of the all-American musical genre of Rock and Roll.

In the process that ultimately created this music, the racial situation, culture, and general atmosphere of the United States changed, and would indeed never be the same. In this essay, these factors will be discussed in detail. Social Context and Cultural Environment of the “Pre-Rock” America When discussing what Rock and Roll is, and what it did to America, it is important to first understand the situation in America in the years leading up to the “birth” of Rock and Roll.

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Indeed, America was greatly changed in the years immediately following World War II; having helped many other of their international neighbors in saving the world from the plagues of Nazism and Fascism, young Americans were emboldened by the experience, and were excited about the seemingly bright future that lie ahead. The US experienced one of its largest economic and populations booms in its history, as veterans of the war came home and started families, built homes, and purchased that ultimate symbol of power and independence, the automobile (Cooper, 2000).

In the midst of all of this progress, there still was the burning urge to relax and enjoy life, as backyard barbeques, parties, and family events became a top priority in the nation. However, this comfort and stability would turn out to be short-lived, as other problems soon emerged that held the potential to disrupt the nation once again. First did the problem of The Cold War, the growing tension between the US and the then Soviet Union, with both nations possesses the types of weapons that could quite literally destroy the planet itself.

On the domestic front, the tensions between black and white Americans grew, as the minority blacks fought to gain equality and their fair share of “The American Dream” (Hochschild, 1995). This served to put up a racial barrier between two groups of Americans on the basis of race. This barrier would have to be addressed if the nation were to move forward. Racial Barriers- Black and White Americans The race issue in 1950s America, combined with international challenges, led to a great deal of strife within the nation.

Blacks and whites were kept separate as a matter of law and culture- for all of the promises of liberty and justice for all that one can see in the American Constitution, the document that set the framework for the rights of everyone, blacks were forced to live in substandard housing, were discriminated against in work opportunities, and found that theaters, restaurants, public transportation, and even public water fountains were many times designated for “whites only” and woe to the black who sought to break those rules, as legal charges, violence, and even death awaited them if they tried to assert their rights as American citizens.

Due to the imposed segregation that existed between American blacks and whites, each racial group built their own culture- music, values, and traditions. For whites, this meant a musical tradition of popular or Pop Music for the urban and suburban youth, and Country Music for those who lived in rural parts of the nation. Different types of music, but all strictly intended for whites to be sure.

For blacks, there likewise were musical genres that were all theirs- the moving and rhythmic songs of the Gospel tradition, the mysterious and complex music that would come to be known as Jazz and something else that was completely unlike anything that anyone had ever heard before- Rhythm and Blues. Ironically, these musical barriers would serve as bridges between the cultures, and the conduit through which a new musical genre would flow. Musical Barriers- Rhythm and Blues, Country and Pop Genres

Whether the music of blacks and whites respectively caused divides between the races initially, or the music sprung from the separation of those races themselves, as was mentioned earlier, there were definite musical genres that were popular among distinct racial lines. The music that would eventually become Rhythm and Blues actually had its roots in the darkest corners of the African continent. From the 1500s to 1800s, approximately ten million Africans were brought across the seas to the Americas to be manipulated into slavery (Mattern, 1998).

It became apparent that these African men, women and children were meant to generate money. They were meant to work harsh labor, yet they were no longer meant to have a voice. This is where their music becomes significant; through their music, it took much less time for the black race to prove that they were not unlike the rest of humanity; in fact, they did have a voice, and a haunting one. Included in the mass of faceless slaves, the boats entrapped a large number of griots.

A griot was an African version of the European wandering minstrel. They spent their lives traveling from village to village, playing the role of a musician, storyteller and wise man. They typically carried an instrument similar to a guitar or banjo (DeCurtis, 1992). These traveling storytellers soon had a chilling, and sad story to tell- one of forced labor, abuse, and the breakup of families at the hands of cruel American overseers whose only interest was in the labor they would produce, and not what was in their hearts and souls.

From that sort of folk music came what would soon be referred to as Blues or Rhythm and Blues music. Blues music originated in the cotton fields of the southern United States where the majority of the slave hands were put to work. The earliest folk-blues were sung by nameless African-Americans living and working in the South’s cotton belt in the late 1800s. Eventually, these songs would be adapted and performed by whites, in many cases dressing up in exaggerated costumes as a satirical version of the black people, in what was known as a Minstrel show.

These Minstrel shows gave whites their glimpse into the culture of the black slaves and their heritage-before and after slavery changed their lives forever. Now that whites had a better understanding of, and interest in, the culture of blacks, other shows would bring blacks and whites closer together-enter the Medicine show. Medicine shows became popular around the turn of the 19th century. They became the first shows to feature and entertain both white and black Americans.

This was possibly the most influential in respect to race relations; perhaps for the first time, both the blacks and whites were finally agreeing on something-music. At least for the present, the whites still retained some forms of music that were strictly theirs; in the tradition of the black griots who sang of their heritage and told stories of their history, the American Folk singer used music to tell the tales of the early days of the nation, and these tales/tunes became part of the popular culture.

Eventually, these Folk tunes evolved musically into primitive music that was played and sung in the rural areas of America, picking up the name Country music (Meisel, 1999). In time, there were those who say that Country music became “the Blues of the white man”, because of its depiction of hard living, broken hearts and lost loves, but at this time exclusively from the viewpoint of the white Americans who sang them, and listened to almost exclusively by white audiences.

After World War II, the festive atmosphere in white America led to the creation of fast, happy music with catchy lyrics and a strong, driving beat, which set the tone for many parties and good times among young whites in the cities and suburbs of America (Gracyk, 1996). This music was something unlike anything else that anyone had heard before. It can be said that the positive experience that whites had with Pop music emboldened them to expand their musical horizons.

By the late 1940s, whites would take the chance to journey to the black neighborhoods to listen to the Blues music that they had heard so much about, and even later, black and white music would blend, leading to the birth of Rock and Roll. Exactly how this birth came about is an interesting story of culture, race relations, and a major event in American cultural, musical, and racial history. Where Did Rock and Roll Begin? The previous segment of this paper discussed how black music and white music remained separate initially, but eventually, blacks and whites would explore each other’s musical styles.

Because of this exploration, there started to emerge on the musical scene a genre of music that no one had heard before- by mixing elements of Blues, Pop, and Country, the black performers in America began to produce a new form of music with a driving beat, catchy lyrics, and something that one could dance to, but with a harder edge than the Pop music of earlier times that gave rise to such sugar coated songs for white teenagers as “Hot Diggidy”, sung by the very conservative, and very white Perry Como (Altschuler, 2003).

Basically, the squeaky-clean Pop tunes that the white teenagers were being spoon fed simply were not providing what the audience wanted, but this strange new music, for those whites who had heard it, fit the bill exactly. However, for all of the cross-over between blacks and whites in the days of the Minstrel shows, the races still remained divided in many areas, and for white teenagers to buy records by black performers or go to live performances by the same would be out of the question.

A solution to this problem, albeit a temporary one, came in the form of white artists recording their own versions of these new black songs. A classic example of this came when one of the originators of the new black music, Little Richard, scored a huge hit with “Tutti-Frutti”, a fast, catchy song with a driving beat and a fast piano, courtesy of Little Richard himself (Chappell, 1997). While some white teenagers had heard this version of the song and absolutely loved it, it was unacceptable by the racially segregated society, as it was in America at that time, to have white teenagers listening to black artists.

Therefore, along came a version of “Tutti-Frutti” for the white kids, performed by the milquetoast singer Pat Boone, providing a safe, but somewhat boring, version of the song for the whites to enjoy. The line between blacks and whites in regard to this new music would not last forever; after many cases of black songs being re-recorded by whites for white audiences, those whites who were exposed to the black music began to consider the possibility of white singers performing in the style and tradition of blacks.

A key event in this process came on a steaming hot day in the summer of 1954, when a Memphis truck driver named Elvis Presley recorded a birthday gift for his mother, a tune by Big Momma Thornton entitled “That’s All Right Mama”, a bluesy tune that told the tale of free self expression and doing what one wanted to do, which is exactly what young Elvis did when he “dared” to record a black artist’s song in the style and sound of the black performer (Coates, 2005).

Through a course of events, Elvis’ recording was played on Memphis radio stations, and new revolution in music began, as white teenagers enmasse were exposed to something that for some of them, had never been heard before. Soon, countless white artists were smashing racial barriers and recording songs in this new style, and white America could not get enough. Stars such as Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others would emerge on the scene-all white artists.

Moreover, the popularity of the music allowed black artists access to white audiences like never before, but make no mistake- the music was invented by the blacks (Chappell, 1997). For all of the popularity of the new music, it still did not have a name in its early days, but this too would change shortly. When asked to explain the music to an inquisitive reporter, famed radio personality Alan Freed is reported to have said “I can’t explain it to you, but it rocks and rolls” (Altschuler, 2003) and the name Rock and Roll stuck, and continues to do so to this very day.

With Rock and Roll firmly in place in America, and its ever growing popularity, it was inevitable that the new genre of music would affect America in many ways, and become a major occurrence in American history. Therefore, it is useful to take a closer look at exactly Rock and Roll’s “craze” affected America directly. Effects of the Rock and Roll Craze in America Rock and Roll had many effects on many different areas of American life and culture, and the opinion of this of course varies depending upon whom one would ask about it.

Socially and culturally, although the battle for equality between blacks and whites in America would rage on for many more years after the birth of Rock and Roll, the music not only opened up new opportunities for black performers to reach white audiences and vice versa, but also led to better relationships between blacks and whites in society overall. Perhaps, it would not be a stretch to say that Rock and Roll was the first step toward a desegregated America. American youths, energized by Rock and Roll, began to wear flashier clothing, hairstyles, and used a new jargon in their language.

The people were truly transformed by the music. Of course, American parents were concerned about the effects of Rock and Roll on the youth, and attempts were made to ban the music, but the music would eventually triumph and continues stronger than ever in the 21st century. Conclusion Rock and Roll quite literally changed America, and since its inception, has shaped popular culture. Loved by many, hated by some, but heard by all, it continues today to set the tone for the lives of billions of people around the world. In closing, perhaps the most important thing that can be said about Rock and Roll is this—it truly changed the world.