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Digital Subscriptions > Vintage Rock > Nov/Dec 2019 > ROCK’N’ROLL AND RACE

ROCK’N’ROLL AND RACE

America was riven by racial conflict when rock’n’roll breached the colour line, uniting black and white youth in a precursor to the hard-won equalities of the civil rights movement. Vintage Rock looks at the music’s relationship to race

The advent of rock’n’roll in stiflingly conservative 50s America, caused a generational rift, pitting parents against their children, principally on the battleground of morality. The songs were loaded with sexual innuendo, the performers were raunchy and rebellious, and the whole thing was, well, just a little too black. But this new cultural phenomenon also brought together previously polarised youth on both sides of the racial divide, and arguably made the country more inclusive. And it absorbed the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley into the mainstream, putting them on an equal footing with their white contemporaries.

Of course, without the influence of so-called black music, there would have been no rock’n’roll in the first place. Jazz, blues, boogie-woogie, swing and R&B all stoked the sound that shook America out of its post-World World II torpor. Fats Domino, discussing rock’n’roll’s origins during a 1950’s television interview, said it was “nothing but rhythm and blues, and we’ve been playing it for years down in New Orleans”. Or, as Robert Palmer clarified in a 1990 Rolling Stone piece, “As far as Fats Domino was concerned, rock’n’roll was simply a new marketing strategy for the style of music he had been recording since 1949.” Essentially, what happened was, white America got hip to R&B, infused it with some country blood and conceived the hybrid of rock’n’roll. In doing so, white America legitimised this trope of black American culture, assimilating it into the national culture, and, in celebrating some of its pioneering figures, made possible, on a fundamental level, the erosion of racial boundaries by opening up a dialogue between the races.

DON’T FORGET, THE Jim Crow Laws – which mandated separate but equal status for black Americans – were still active and would remain so until 1965. These laws required public schools, transportation and places to have autonomous facilities for white and black Americans. Change was coming though, albeit incrementally. In 1954, state-sponsored school segregation was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States. The lobby for civil rights was gaining momentum. Membership of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) increased. And the world was outraged by the 1955 barbaric murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till – for allegedly wolf-whistling at a white woman – who was badly beaten, had one of his eyes gouged out and was shot in the head before being thrown into the Tallahatchie River. America was being forced to reckon with the racism at its dark heart. Rock’n’roll was a part of this reckoning, causing white Americans – certainly younger white Americans – to reassess the relationship with their black compatriots. A sort of healing had begun.

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About Vintage Rock

In this issue of Vintage Rock we reveal our definitive Top 100 Rockabilly Tracks from classics of the genre through to lesser-known gems in the catalogue. With Halloween upon us, this issue we brush aside the cobwebs to step inside the spooky world of ghoul-rock pioneer Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and David West navigates his way through the zombie-loving ranks of Psychobilly with the help of The Sharks' frontman Alan Wilson and Dutch psychobilly giants Batmobile. 60 years on from it's release, Randy Fox investigates this month's classic album, Bo Diddley's big-selling second offering Go Bo Diddley, we hear from 21st century roots rockers The Delta Bombers who discuss their new material, and David Burke looks into the fascinating story of Hank Ballard, the rhythm and blues mastermind behind The Twist. Much more inside too, including the Jive Aces' Summertime Swing live, news – including an upcoming Netflix animation with Elvis cast as a spy, and all of the latest music reviewed! Enjoy the issue!