The Birth of Rock: Planting the Seeds of Protest and Social Change
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The Birth of Rock: Planting the Seeds of Protest and Social Change

Although most American kids of the 1950s had grown up with Elvis, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis, their mounting confusion about the state of AmericaÂ’s social scene as the 60s dawned wasnÂ’t sufficiently represented by these early rockers. Socially-conscious college kids were searching for music that addressed their concerns about the status quo that by their thinking had long been in dire need of reform. Folk music--traditionally the voice of social issues--was the most logical.

As the 1950s came to close and Elvis Presley was proclaiming his “Black” roots in one of the first rock songs, “A Big Hunk O’ Love,” a strange phenomenon was occurring that for many radio listeners hardly went unnoticed. 

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s recording of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” recorded with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, not only made the Billboard charts but shot up with a bullet (and eventually received a Grammy).  A hymn originally called “Say Brother, Can You Meet Me” but known as “John Brown’s Body” to anti-slavery advocates of the Civil War, this unlikely song found its way to teens’ record players all across America. 

Undoubtedly, Elvis’ rock 45 single lay side-by-side with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's song of protest in countless record stacks across the US. 

And while this phenomenon may seem somewhat incidental in the small scheme of things, coupled with the fact that one of the most popular TV shows that year was The Rebel, an American Western about the adventures of a young Confederate Army soldier named Johnny Yuma (played by Nick Adams) who roamed the West haunted by his memories of the Civil War (that would run until 1961), these events were actually indications of big changes to come.  Looking back, it becomes apparent that what had been generational moral differences harbored by American youth were beginning to surface in popular culture.  And of course, music would become the perfect vehicle.  Or in a sense, already had.

Though not under most of the Black record-buying public’s radar, in 1958 the folk group The Kingston Trio released their version of the old folk song “Tom Dooley,” the story of a Civil War veteran hanged for murdering his faithless sweetheart Laura Foster, in Wilkes County, North Carolina. 

Becoming a cross-over hit that reached #1 on the Billboard R&B listing and appearing in the Cashbox Country Music Top 20, the song was an indication of where the hearts and minds of American youth were headed.   And although most American kids had grown up with Elvis, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis, their mounting confusion about the state of America’s social scene wasn’t sufficiently represented by these early rockers.  Socially-conscious college kids were searching for music that addressed their concerns about the status quo that by their thinking had long been in dire need of reform.  And folk music--traditionally the voice of social issues--was the most logical.  And by 1961, social change materialized in the form of one Robert Zimmerman, a man with a voice later described as like “sand and glue.”

References:

Rock: A History of Social Change, T. C. Carr

The Rock Revolution, A. Shaw

Thumb via: http://lvfms.org/guitarlogo2.jpg  with my deep appreciation

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Comments (9)

Interesting and enjoyable read. Thanks Sir

Ranked #1 in Music

Thank you kindly, good sir!

my son grew up with rap music, shows the generation gap

Dear James, your knack for research and in-depth referencing is unrivaled here in factoidz; without flattering, a rare gem. Devoured this write up and did enrich my knowledge this morning. Am definitely voting this one up.

Ranked #1 in Music

Thanks for your continued support Carol and Daniel. Much appreciated.

I love music and the history of it is very interesting.

Ranked #1 in Music

I'm glad you find it so, Sandy!

Punk rock especially is about protest although the words are sometimes missed by listeners who consider it mostly noise.

Ranked #1 in Music

There appears to have always been protest music, it's just more prominent in certain eras than others.

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