Vital Signs

Rockin’ in the 50’s

When the mode of music changes, Plato remarked, the walls of the city shake.  When the mode of music changed back in the 1950’s, the denizens of Plato’s Pad—sorry, but there are so few opportunities to get in an allusion to The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis these days—and their peers saw more fingers than walls shaking: The music they were listening to, their elders admonished, was guaranteed to rot their minds as surely as soda pop would rot their teeth, and poodle skirts their morals.

Rewind a generation, and parents were shaking their fingers at their offspring, too, this time for listening to crooners such as Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby.  But the music of the 50’s was different, for it had come bubbling and surging up from a source guaranteed to scandalize: the southern countryside, the one inhabited by poor blacks and poor whites whose musical traditions met and merged and, in some minds, miscegenated, producing jazz, country, blues, and now rock ’n’ roll.

There is a wonderful scene in Taylor Hackford’s 1987 film Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll in which three battle-hardened veterans of the culture wars—Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Little Richard—reminisce on how the music they helped introduce commanded the censorious instincts of millions of parents, for if the 45’s that were in view in white suburban homes were by the...

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