1950s was an era when rock ‘n’ roll was strengthening its hold on the society, but it was also an era that was fueled by racial discrimination. Regardless of segregation being illegal during this era, it was nonetheless tangibly apparent within society, and rock ‘n’ roll, which was born from the influences of African-American rhythms, blues, and melodies, was under scrutiny. This paper will aim to describe the racial climate of the 1950s and what part Rock ‘n’ Roll played in it, while also explaining how tensions arose when record companies exploited black performers, bleached the rock ‘n’ roll music, and promoted white rock ‘n’ rollers.
There are various historically momentous events that took place in the 1950s which contributed in fighting the segregation problem within the country. Rosa Parks was one of the people refusing to adhere the degrading roles the society and governments tried to force upon her, she “was arrested for refusing to comply with a municipal ordinance requiring her to yield her seat on a bus to a white passenger” (Altschuler). What Parks went through ignited Montgomery Improvement Association, lead by Martin Luther King Jr., to promote a national campaign that acknowledges the discriminatory acts that are consistently done towards the African-American population, and to collectively make a revolutionary movement that will consist of absolutely no violence. King provided a way of fighting the government, having their voices be heard, and make history for the African-American population without the need of having to resort to violence. Soon after, the buses within Montgomery, which is where Parks got arrested, were nearly empty, with the African-American population going out of their ways to ensure they don’t ride on the bus. “On December 20, 1956, the Supreme Court gave the civil rights movement another victory, striking down segregation in public transportation” (Altschuler). Although this was a victorious accomplishment and finally a movement towards the right direction, segregation was still the driving force within the White population.
Little Rock Central High School went into history books with its refusal of admitting nine black students to its school. Although it was common for schools to segregate during this era, Little Rock Central High School had special attention towards it because when the nine black students had come to the school, there was a mob of soldiers there, not to protect the black children from the threatful and aggressive manners of the white students, but the white students from the possible dangers that the black students can cause. President Eisenhower, who was at first unfaithful in trying to change the minds of Americans on the matter of segregation, provided the nine students with the Arkansas National Guards and paratroopers from the 101st Airborne to accompany them throughout the year (Altschuler). While reading this, one is curious of the actual coverages of these scenes, and so, I had delved into further research regarding the Little Rock Central High School.
Within YouTube I was able to find a disturbingly sad video of Elizabeth Eckford sitting amid a white population who is yelling at her some of the most derogatory terms, and offering to lynch her, while she only sits there with her head down, nearly defeated from the fight she consistently gives, until she was helped from the frightful situation by an elderly white lady (Little Rock Nine – Elizabeth Eckford). Although segregation is still alive today and can be seen in how the black population’s crime problem is enlarged in society’s eyes through the manipulation of media and politics and how authorities feel as if it’s okay to murder an innocent black man, it was truly disturbing to see the extreme amount of hate in the eyes of the white people wanting to attack Eckford, and it lead me to understand the type of sick animal segregation is, and how alive it was during the 1950s.
Rock ‘n’ roll was directly under the scrutiny and attack of those who supported segregation; people were aware of how rock ‘n’ roll was born from the blues, rhythms, beats, and melodies of the African-American culture, and the White population, media commentators, and public figures were afraid of race mixing due to the appeal rock ‘n’ roll has to the public. White teenagers were so attracted to rock ‘n’ roll that they sought African-American clubs they can enjoy the music in, and concert halls and concert venues didn’t mind having a mixed crowd. After all, rock ‘n’ roll was the music that attracted everyone. However, the segregating population wouldn’t have any of it, and would organize riot for such concerts. For example, Nat King Cole, who isn’t even a rock ‘n’ roll artist had been attacked during his concert due to an organized plan of doing so. It wasn’t even about the music anymore, but whether it was a black artist promoting the music or not.
Unable to deny the threshold rock ‘n’ roll had on the society, radio stations, government authorities, and concert venues began to promote white rock ‘n’ rollers only, and begin the process of bleaching the rock ‘n’ roll genre. Covers played a significant role in the bleaching of rock ‘n’ roll music; radio stations insisted on playing white covers of original rock ‘n’ roll songs created by African-Americans. Among the numerous examples given in the book, I found the most offensive of stealing from the African-American style of rock ‘n’ roll was the cover of “Tweedle Dee” by Georgia Gibbs. LaVern Baker had created such a beautiful masterpiece, such a delight to the ears, and after Georgia Gibbs’ coverage of the song, she had silently faded into the background. Baker was only one of the many black artists who had to face the discrimination of radio stations not ever playing their songs as soon as a white cover of it was available. Not only were these white singers taking the lyrics of songs sung by many such as Baker, they were also stealing their styles and the way they sang the song.
As rock ‘n’ roll had begun to climb the top of the Billboard charts, there was a collective hope by the African-American culture that thanks to music, perhaps the world will finally become color-blind. It’s unfortunate how instead of becoming color-blind, the white population took advantage of the situation by turning something of the African-American culture to something that is white and bleached. It obviously is okay for white people to sing rock ‘n’ roll and perform covers of rock ‘n’ roll songs, but it’s unethical and immoral for people to overshadow others on purpose due to their race, not give them credit when deserved, and ultimately use their own work of art against them.
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