When thinking about early rock and roll, a few names come to mind: Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Ray Charles. These are just a few of the many iconic figures that shaped the music industry in the 1950s and 1960s. Elvis Presley’s song, “Jail House Rock” was the second best selling single worldwide during that 1950s. This song was just one of several of his songs that made it to the top 100. In 1956, Elvis Presley became “the first artists to have nine singles on the Hot 100 at one time” (“1950s Music Decade Overview”, n.d.). By 1959, rock and roll accounted for 43% off all record sales.
In the mid 1950s, a new genre of music came about and instantly caused controversy. This genre was called Rock and Roll. Why did rock and roll bring about controversy? The term rock and roll “was a blues slang term for sex” (Media &Culture). Adults worried about the bad influence that this genre may have on the younger generations. Although rock and roll was controversial, it had a positive impact on society. Rock and roll was not like any other style of music; it merged many cultures together. The merging of cultures did not just affect the music industry, but it caused a cultural shift throughout America. No other music genre has “ever had such a widespread impact on so many different cultures as rock and roll” (Media & Culture). In the 1950s, rock and roll helped bring together racial cultures, geographical cultures, and the sacred and secular.
The early style of rock and roll is said to be the first “integrationist music”. It merged the black sounds of blues and gospel with the white influences of country, folk, and pop (Media & Culture). Rock and roll is one of the few music styles to come from such a mixed background with so many diverse influences. In the early 1900s, southern blacks began to migrate to northern cities in search of work. Their migration helped spread different styles of music. The main style of music that started to spread to the north was blues, which was strongly “influenced by African American spirituals, ballads, and work songs” (Media & Culture). By the 1950s, music artists began to cross over the racial boundaries. Now, there were white artists singing blues songs and black artists singing country songs. There were no more racial boundaries in music. This was the beginning of breaking down the boarder between white and black cultures.
Rock and roll’s merging of cultures did not stop at race. It also played a roll in merging various geographical cultures. The country and city’s geographical boarders began to blur during the rise of rock and roll. The term rockabilly refers to a sound that was created when country music was combined with southern gospel and blues (Media & Culture). The mix of music styles helped the songs appeal to a much bigger audience. During the early twentieth century, there was a difference between the music that was heard in the urban areas and the rural areas. The urban cultures listened to rhythm and blues, also known as R&B, while traditional rural music was white country or western. Many songs that were popular on R&B charts began to cross over onto the pop charts during the late 1950s. People were starting to listen to a variety of music styles, rather than just the one style that was prominent in their culture. Now, after several decades, rural and urban music continue to mix. Along with music, other aspects or rural and urban culture continued to merge. The boundaries between these two cultures have blurred together with the help of rock and roll.
Another way that rock and roll helped merge different geographical cultures can be seen when looking at the North and the South. Along with merging rural and urban influences, rock and roll also combined northern and southern influences. During the 1950’s the South was producing a lot of the popular blues, R&B, and rock and roll music. The popularity of the South’s music helped bring life back to the southern culture, which has been damaged after the Civil War. As blues became more popular, the North began to make it a part of their culture. Blues music was viewed as being a southern style, but after it was absorbed by the North, blues music was seen a style amongst all cultures.
Elvis Presley was one of the most popular musicians during the 1950’s. Elvis Presley was from the rural south. As his popularity began to spread, he was able to bring southern culture to the north through his music. A record producer, Sam Phillips, said that Elvis had a distinct feature that made him standout; he was a white man that sounded like a black man. This distinct feature made his voice appeal to a bigger audience and allowed him to sing a variety of different styles. With the help of Elvis, poor white southern mannerisms and behaviors were being pushed into the mainstream culture. The northern and southern cultures began to merge and become more similar.
Most Americans saw the blurring of boarders between racial and geographical cultures as a good change. Rock and roll also merged the sacred and the secular; however, this was not viewed and a positive. When rock and roll came about during the 1950s, adults immediately began to worry. They claimed that rock and roll was a bad, almost satanic, influence. Because rock and roll confronted sexual identity and other subjects that contrasted the moral norms, it was questioned. The boundaries between sacred and secular was blurred when Ray Charles “converted an old gospel tune he had first heard in church and a youth” into one of his signature songs (Media & Culture). This song was called “I Got a Women”. Ray Charles is just among many artists who turned gospel songs into rock and roll.
When people heard these gospel songs turned into rock and roll, they were outraged. Rock and roll had a negative connotation. Many were convinced that rock and roll was “devil’s music”. Even some of the artists who sung these rock and roll songs were convinced of its’ evil nature. People became even more outraged by the merging of sacred and secular in 1957 when Otis Blackwell “turned an apocalyptic biblical phrase into a sexually charged teen love song” (Media & Culture). This song rose all the way up two number two on the pop charts. Because of the controversy that was brought by his song, “Great Balls of Fire”, many radio stations banned it. Although many were appalled by Otis Blackwell’s song, it did not stop the merging of the sacred and the secular. In our society today, there is not as much anger about the merging of sacred and secular. Many churches even play rock and roll style Christian songs as a way to appeal to the younger audience.
In the 1950s, rock and roll was a new style of music that was unlike any style before. This genre was formed by combining blues, country, and gospel music. Because rock and roll combined a variety of aspects from a variety of cultures, it helped spread different aspects of each culture. A cultural shift was seen in America when rock and roll helped bring together racial cultures, geographical cultures, and the secular and the sacred. The effect that rock and roll has had on American society is shocking. Looking at these effects brings up a question: how is the music we listen to today affecting out society?
1950’s Music Decade Overview. (n.d.). Retrieved March 15, 2016, from http://www.rockmusictimeline.com/1950s.html
Campbell, Richard, Christopher R. Martin, and Bettina Fabos. Media & Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015. Print.