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Rock 'n' roll and "moral panics" - Part One: 1950s and 1960s

February 20, 2017

Dr. Steve Williams, associate professor of sociology, gives us an abridged history of rock 'n' roll and its association with social climates and social movements. The following, in his own words, covers the decades of the 1950s - 1960s. In part II we'll talk about the 1970s - 1990s.

There's been this association that music, whether it's jazz or rock 'n' roll, it has an element of danger, and a little bit of coolness that's associated with that danger, which has created moral panics.

Stanley Cohen, a sociologist and criminologist, coined the term "moral panics." He used it when he was talking about the mods and the rockers, (two youth subcultures) in England in the early 60s. They had rumbles with the rockers, the subculture that was into early American rock 'n' roll, whereas the mods were into more cutting edge R&B and the new British rock 'n' roll. They had fights, and the British media glommed onto that and probably made it scarier than it actually was. Stanley Cohen said this was an example of moral panic - where respectable adult society is freaked out by something new in culture. Usually that new thing in culture is associated with young people and perceived threats to its cultural identity.


For a while there were about 10-year cycles of moral panics. The first one was the mid to late 50s when rock 'n' roll was first sort of invented. Rock 'n' roll is not just an American invitation, but it's an African American invention. If you look at basic rock 'n' roll, the fundamental formula is basically African American blues with a little more speed and electricity. Then you add bass and drums, and suddenly you've got something new. It was originally done by black musicians, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, etc. It very quickly got co-opted by white musicians as well, and it became, and pretty much has been ever since, a white phenomenon - rock 'n' roll.

One of the moral panics associated with the first wave of rock 'n' roll was the fear of race mixing - that young black and white kids would get together over this music that had a rhythmic, primitive, sensuous beat. Suburban moms and dads are freaked out about their daughters hanging out with young black men listening to sexualized music. There's a long ugly history in America over the fear of race mixing and of lynching black men because of their perceived desire for white women. To have young, teenage white girls in America screaming to someone like Little Richard as he's singing "Good Golly Miss Molly, you sure like to ball. When you're rocking and rolling, can't hear your mama call." That was brand new in the American experience and it freaked a lot of people out. It was a moral panic about sexuality and race mixing.

Rock 'n' roll sort of calmed down at the end of the 50s. A lot of things happened sort of simultaneously. There was a terrible plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens. Elvis Presley went into the military for a while and wasn't making music. When he did come back, he was a little bit out of step and wasn't quite the same. Jerry Lee Lewis got in trouble for marrying his 13-year old cousin and was ostracized. His record company and radio stations weren't supporting his music any more. In 1959 or 1960, it seemed like rock 'n' roll almost disappeared. Mothers and fathers could breathe a sigh of relief as their kids listened to Brenda Lee and Neil Sedaka - "safe" white teen idols with glowing white teeth.


By the mid-60s, things started percolating, young people started to listen to folk music a bit more, people like Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez and later, Bob Dylan. Folk brought in greater lyrical content to rock 'n' roll. So now, instead of a basic two-minute love song, you could have songs about just about anything.

You had the British invasion in 1964. Young British kids were listening to American rock 'n' roll and R&B and are forming their own bands. In the 60s, you had all these amazing new British bands: The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who, etc. Now there's the idea of the self-contained band. Instead of having songs written for them, and using studio musicians, now they were writing their own lyrics and music. They played all their own instruments and toured as a group, which meant they controlled what they're expressing. Combine that with folk music expanding lyrical content and suddenly you have a whole new set of fears. Things were being expressed in ways they weren't before. Now, not only was there suggested sexuality of rock 'n' roll, there's an actual free love movement.

There was more talk of actual drugs, so instead of the suggestion that someone might be on pills or smoking pot, now they are very overtly making psychedelic music. The Beatles were admitting in interviews that they did LSD. A Harvard psychology professor, Timothy Leary told people to "tune in, turn on and drop out." You had Jefferson Airplane in 1967 singing about "feeding your head" and smoking caterpillars. Suddenly the drugs and sexuality were overt.

Music started to connect to other social movements, like the civil rights movement. This was also a time of the second wave of the women's movement, and you had music connecting to those ideas. You had music connecting to the general hippie counterculture - free love and rejecting materialism and adult "square" society.

There were four things coming together in the 60s: the second wave of the women's movement, continuation of the civil rights movement, the counterculture in general and the anti-war movement. The anti-Vietnam movement was not as strong in the beginning as people think, but it did happen, especially after the bombing of Cambodia. That started off all these protests of these young people shutting down campuses, and the calling out of the National Guard, the shooting and killing of four students at Kent State University and two at Jackson State University.

It's always the students. When you look at social movements around the world, so many of them are led by university students. Students were given a sense of community by the music they thought was their music. Fifties music was their music but 60s music was even more so. They knew it was being made by the musicians, themselves, who weren't much older than them. Expressing ideas for the first time that had never been expressed in music before.

Coming up, Williams will talk about rock 'n' roll moral panics in the 1970s through the 1990s.

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