How Did Rock Music Change America

Precisely how rock ‘n’ roll got its name probably never will be definitively answered, but there can be no doubt that it entered popular usage thanks to a disc jockey named Alan Freed, a “wild, greedy and dangerous man” who was, in the mid 1950s, “the dominant nighttime personality on radio in New York City.” Almost exactly half a century ago he changed the name of his show to “Rock ‘n’ Roll Dance Party” and began to plug the music of black rhythm-and-blues performers as well as the young whites who began to copy and reinterpret their work.

The rest is history, not a blip on the pop-cultural radar screen but a development of major importance in 20th-century American, and eventually world, history. Thus we now have, in Oxford University Press’ ongoing series called “Pivotal Moments in American History,” Glenn C. Altschuler’s account of rock ‘n’ roll’s formative years, the decade immediately following the Second World War. Its three predecessors in the series cover the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education, the stock market crash of 1929 and the battle of Antietam, which is to say the editors, the distinguished historians David Hackett Fischer and James M. McPherson, put rock ‘n’ roll in rarefied company.

They are right to do so. “How Rock ‘n’ Roll Changed America,” as Altschuler’s subtitle puts it, really should be phrased as a question rather than a declarative statement because the exact nature of its influence is not easily pinned down, but it surely ranks with the movies and television among the most important developments in 20th-century America. Inasmuch as that was the century in which pop culture shoved high culture aside and became (to borrow a pop-cultural slogan) the heartbeat of America, it must be viewed in a far larger context than historians traditionally have been willing to accord such matters.

If a strong case can be made (and it can) that the most important American of the 20th century was Walter Elias Disney, then by the same token the Founding Fathers (along with a few Mothers) of rock ‘n’ roll must also be given their place on history’s stage.

This is what Altschuler attempts to do in “All Shook Up.” He is a something less than riveting prose stylist, and it’s not likely that many readers familiar with the music and literature of rock ‘n’ roll will find much here they don’t already know, but the books in this series apparently are intended to be syntheses of primary and secondary sources rather than ground-breakers. This Altschuler accomplishes capably. He also gives overdue recognition to a number of people, some of whom made absolutely wonderful music that deserves rediscovery not only because of its undeniable influence upon the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and others, but also for its intrinsic merit.

These men and women created and performed within the genre of rhythm and blues as well as its several sub genres. R&B came into being soon after the war as “a distinctive musical genre, drawing on the rich musical traditions of African-Americans, including the blues’ narratives of turbulent emotions, and the jubilation, steady beat, hand clapping and call and response of gospel.” It “tended to be ‘good time music,’ with an emphatic dance rhythm.” Its most famous performers were and still are Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, but there were innumerable others.

R&B is the essential link between the blues, jazz and swing and all the forms of rock that developed in the 1950s and thereafter as whites began to “cover” to borrow, copy and often homogenize black music. Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and other, far tamer white musicians Bill Haley, Pat Boone, Ricky Nelson couldn’t have done what they did without the black foundation to build on.

In sex as in other matters, “the influence of rock ‘n’ roll was not always pivotal.” Altschuler correctly notes that though it did affect attitudes toward race, “the civil rights movement would have unfolded much as it did without rock ‘n’ roll.” But in other aspects of 1950s America, its influence was important:

“To a significant extent, a distinct teenage culture, with its own mores and institutions, did develop during the decade. A catchy and insistent rock ‘n’ roll led the way by encouraging boys and girls to resist the authority of parents, be more sexually adventurous, and learn from their peers about what to wear, watch, and listen to, when to study, and where to go on Saturday night. With the development of a separate market for teenagers, differentiation based on age became more pervasive and permanent in American culture and society. The values of young men and women were by no means fully formed, nor were they necessarily all that different from those of their parents. But in increasing numbers these young people were unwilling to be policed or patronized. As the ’50s ended, the vast majority of baby boomers had not yet become teenagers: rock ‘n’ roll and the youth of America had history (and demography) on their side.”

What all of this means is still being debated, not least because it is still very much a work in progress. It is useful, though, to be reminded that this work didn’t begin when Elvis slipped into his blue suede shoes or when the Beatles landed in New York. Like just about everything else in American popular culture, its roots are deep, old and sometimes very, very hard to trace.