The 1950s Was A Watershed In The
Evolution Of Popular Music In The
The emergence of Rock in fact heralded
the beginning of a social youth revolution
in Western society, and elements and
variants of Rock remained dominant in
Western music right up until the 1990s.
But what was Rock saying? What was
its emergence reflecting about Western
society? Exactly what was it challenging?
Was it challenging a generation or the
system itself? Indeed, was Rock in the
1950s - politically conservative or
To answer this, we need to first place this
era and this music into its political
context. We need to first look at the
politics of the era, both internationally and
domestically, and the dominant political
culture in the West. And of course, by
the West we mean the UK, Australia and
Blue Suede Shoes
Cold War 1945 - 1991
Competing Ideological, Political,
Economic and Military Blocks
'The Cold War'
The Cold War was the form of conflict
following on from the Second World
War which ended in 1945.
There were many elements and sides to
the Cold War but basically it concerned
two blocks locked in extreme hostility to
one another - these two blocks were the
Eastern or Communist bloc - and the
Western or US Capitalist block.
What Was The Cold War Over?
Basically it was a clash between two
competing ideological, political and
The Cold War had a distinct profile -
consisting of 4 elements:
*A Bipolar World
*Non-Direct Conflict - but Proxy War
*Extreme Ideological Antagonism - in a
competition for the hearts and minds
of the people.
*A 'Zero-Sum Gain' world.
Domestic - US Politics
In the US at this time, there was a
curious mix of political and economic
affairs occurring. Under the Truman
administration, the US had emerged
victorious from the Second World War,
and many millions of troops returned
stateside. In the 1950s, under President
Eisenhower, the economy was very
much booming. However, the US was
also soon at war in Korea.
So in effect, in the US there was a
booming economy, and capitalism at its
best and brightest. In the US - the victors
of the War, White Americans were doing
very well - but not necessarily black
Americans. It was the time of James
Dean, of cars and washing machines,
and all sorts of luxury consumer goods.
But Afro-Americans continued to be the
isolated under class in US society and a
civil rights movement was soon
challenging the dominant white
So overall, in this era the US was a
contradictory society - as was its music.
While it had an international democratic
project many would say it was
undemocratic at home. Overall, it was a
culture gripped by fear mentality - a
conservative culture under the
Republicans. A culture gripped by a
fear mentality as the US competed in the
Cold War with the Communist world.The
people, while well off, feared Communist
expansionism and nuclear war with much
of this fear fed by 'McCarthyism'.
McCarthyism - The Documentary
McCarthyism - The Documentary
Civil Rights During The 1950s
The US political culture was very much
conservative - some would say
hysterically so. It was wracked by
hysterical anti-communism whipped up by
junior Senator McCarthy who to serve his
own political ambitions charged that the
US government and all its institutions
were riddled with communists who were
also throughout US society. As a result,
the US was torn by many witch hunts, as
was Australia, and as a consequence
free thought in the US appeared
Musically at this time, in the early 1950s,
Popular Music was mainstream and soft.
Explicitly political music was somewhat
black listed as was also black music
itself. It was an era of extreme social
conservatism. An era of old family values,
of split marital beds, of heavy censorship -
the era of US containment - a containment
to uphold the status quo and as such a
constraining of change in Western Culture
- of holding the line - of conservatism-
after all any change was seen as
In Australia, there was also a fear of
Chinese communist expansionism and as
such Australia entered into the ANZUS
Alliance with the US which saw the
steady Americanization of Australian
society which Rock n Roll spearheaded.
Under Prime Minister Menzies, Australia
too had very much a conservative
political culture. It was a time of
economic boom but very much a
conservative political culture just like
within the US. As such, the climate in
both the US and Australia was one of
irrational fear of communism, with all the
social and legal ills that produced.
All through the 1950s the underground
music movement known as `Folk’
developed. This movement consisted of
obscure artists recording for small,
independent labels. When a lull in public
enthusiasm for RnR developed in 1957,
the major labels tried introducing slick,
commercial versions of Folk music.
Capitol began recording the Kingston
Trio in 1957, and Harry Belafonte’s
success with RCA dates from 1958.
These and other artists were so
successful that weekly TV variety shows
produced around Folk and pseudo-Folk
styles began to appear.
The emergence of Folk indicated a basic
contradiction in the US. A country that
professed to be so democratic but
harboured so many socio-economic
inequalities. Much of these inequalities
were highlighted by Woody Guthrie, who
highlighted the woes of the working
man, and the farmer on the land.
Pete Seeger - Where Have All The Flowers Gone?
Harry Belafonte - Banana Song
Woody Guthrie - This Land Is Your Land
The Kingston Trio (below)
THE KINGSTON TRIO
Elvis Doing 'Blue Suede Shoes'
Elvis - Blue Suede Shoes
The Fashion and Style of Rock n
The fashion and style of the Rock n Roll
era as introduced by Elvis and others was
all its own. Indeed, it has been said that the
teenager was invented in this period. The
'Presley Generation' made and took on a
new style all of its own - with its own
modes of dress, talk, music and film genres,