Rock and Roll Music
Popular music in America during the First World War lacked perspective in representing the contemporary social, political and cultural scenarios. The words as well as melody were far from capturing the despair and internal turmoil people were experiencing in times of international threats and domestic economic crisis. The language of popular music focused too much on things that had nothing to do with the troubled reality. Under these circumstances, Rock and Roll emerged as being a musical representation of counter-culture movements that spread rapidly across the youth in the United States and also in many European countries. First used by Alan Freed, the Cleveland disc jockey in 1951, the Rock and Roll genre was originally an innovative variation of blues and American country music. However, any such rigid limitation should not be imposed on this vast and one of the major genres of popular music. Rock and Roll also borrowed elements from the more melodious European gospel and choir music, just as it thrived on the heavily accented beat common to the rhythmic pattern of its predecessors (The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll, 2009). This paper is going to critically analyze the impact of Rock and Roll music in its nascent, along with its growing influence in shaping social as well as intellectual outlooks on culture, freedom and many other related aspects.
Throughout the 1940s, 50s and the early 60s, the American society was going through a radically disturbed phase because of the continuous state of war on both the international and domestic fronts. It was the gruesome realities of the First World War that compelled the common mass to forsake education and other modes of intellectual nourishment for the sake of survival. In the years that ensued, the ordinary people had to drop out of educational institutions in the wake of unprecedented economic crashes resulting in a state of economic emergency. Consequently, people developed an attitude which was least congenial for breeding fantasy – a recurring element in the then popular music. The world of music too had to find for itself a suitable form that would enable the mass to relate to what they had been facing up to in reality. The void and frustration in general gave rise to the hippie culture and student uproar, asking of the society to explore the futuristic visions of a system that no longer functioned as effectively as it should have (Roszak 178). The new rebels overtly disproved of the technocracy that prevailed in the 1940s. This system of governance not only constricted the voice of the nation, but also exercised an unequivocal favor for technology in each aspect of political maneuver. As a result of this nationwide trend, even the folk singers of America, including Pete Seeger, were banished from performing in public.
An increasing dependency on technology along with parallel impositions on conveying communist ideologies prepared the ground for a revolutionary change in the world of music. It was around the 1950s that Rock and Roll espoused the intellectual utterances of a self-liberated generation. Roszak argues in The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition that the upcoming hippie generation and the student fundamentalists collaboratively opposed to the technocratic regime which was basically “sluggish and consensus-and-coalition politics” (Roszak 2). Moreover, the leftist ideologies also drew their attention, especially within a social dichotomy in which only two classes existed: the rich and the poor. Excessive reliance upon technology prevented the wellbeing of the poorer class and fed the idea of artificial perfection. Roszak quotes Jacques Ellul:
“Technique requires predictability and, no less, exactness of prediction. It is necessary, then, that technique prevail over the human being. For technique, this is a matter of life and death. Technique must reduce man to a technical animal, the king of the slaves of technique. Human caprice crumbles before this necessity; there can be no human autonomy in the face of technical autonomy.” (Roszak 6)
As for music, this hypothetical notion of perfection served as a departing point from the existing genres. Since Rock and Roll music had its origin in Afro-American blues and jazz roots, which are absolutely free and negotiable in form, it matched the wavelengths of the dissenting population in the United States of America. The very attitude of Rock and Roll music does not tally with masking one’s own opinion or subversion. Numerous substrata have evolved since then in the world of Rock and Roll, each having a cult signature of its own. Ranging from the beat generation spearheaded by Alan Ginsberg to the counterfeit identity of the psychedelic rock music, all the substrata have a definitive bearing on the evolution of Rock and Roll. The rise of counter culture clearly divided the US mass in two distinct divisions – the disillusioned, rebellious youth and the confused lot of elderly people.
One of the main challenges Rock and Roll music had to encounter in its early days was to rise above the traditional musical practices. It was not an easy task, especially with the political surveillance on artistic expressions of any form. Moreover, there was, and still is, a basic difference in the social setup of America from that of Great Britain. In the American society, the onus lies heavily on the young brigade to see to progressive changes, whereas the British society is more austere in accepting radical viewpoints. Now Rock and Roll being typically an American concept was not at all confined to land of origin. The new sound traversed to England and other European countries through the charismatic persona of Jerry Lee Lewis, one of the early pioneers of Rock and Roll tradition. His immense contribution to rock music was duly acknowledged in 1986 when he was inducted into the prestigious band of influential musicians by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His signature style incorporated rhythm and blues, gospel, boogie-woogie and country music. It might be noted that these were the very components that were being improvised upon to produce the new sound. This new sound was turned into an attitude which was uncompromising and always ready to break the existing rules. Jerry Lee Lewis’ frequent deviation from the established order of music into unexplored territories earned him both fame and occasional criticisms. He openly flouted the so-called Christian ecclesiastical traditions and played a boogie-woogie version of a popular gospel, much to the wrath of conventional Christians. Elements of counter culture, characteristically identified with sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, have been reflected time and again in Jerry Lee Lewis’ singles such as Great Balls of Fire and Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On. These two songs can be treated as mediums of cultural transmission in that the puritanical suppressions gave way to a liberated analogy.
In relation to the thesis questions and also to what we have touched upon so far, it is imperative that we should endeavor to define culture for the sake of understanding the overwhelming impact of Rock and Roll tradition on modern music. Culture is a composite of acquired knowledge and inherited elements. It can be defined as a “body of learned behaviors common to a given human society” (Washington State University 2009). Hence, there is always a predictable element involved with cultural oneness within a given societal structure. In other words, members of a particular society are bound by an unwritten agreement that they should behave in a certain way, so as not to defy the existing codes of conduct. Rock and Roll, by definition and implementation, clearly dismissed this sort of obligation and announced its arrival with a fervent spirit of liberation.