Rockin’ The Boat (Part 1)



Rockin’ The Boat: Rock ‘n’ Roll and Race Relations in the Fifties was the extended essay I wrote in my last year of Cégep. The topic of the essay was at our discretion, and I was a young man who wanted to write about rock ‘n’ roll. Being a science student, I had studied neither sociology, history nor music but decided to write in an unfamiliar domain anyways. I consider the result to be one of the strongest and most well-researched pieces of work I have ever written (which isn’t saying much, really.) Being in the middle of exams and a little pressed for writing time, I thought I would split the essay into three parts and share it here.


The 1950s were a time of great dichotomy for America. It was, in one sense, the era of the “silent” generation, dubbed as such by social critics due to the “generally quiescent attitude and the boundless appetite for consumerism1.” Although the post-war “status quo” was largely preserved in these years, there were changes brewing beneath the surface.

For instance, the fifties era brought about a previously unseen “adolescent culture.” According to Robert G. Pielke, “Prior to the fifties, the term teenager simply didn’t exist, for there was nothing to which it could refer.2” Young people were creating their own identity and style, influenced greatly by Hollywood films such as The Wild One (1954) and Rebel Without A Cause (1955)3 and the advent of the new medium: television.

Furthermore, the fifties saw the first glimmer of the civil rights movement with the Brown v. Board of Education trial4. The “separate but equal” philosophy of the South was a facade. According to David Halberstam: “The Southern states were spending twice as much to educate white children as they were black children and four times as much for school facilities.5” They were clearly separate, but far from equal.

Various social and economic factors such as these helped create an environment in which the young people of the fifties were inclined to investigate the music that their parents abhorred, namely race music.

This essay will consider the question of how the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll affected race relations in post-war America. It will be argued that rock ‘n’ roll music helped improve race relations in 1950s America by bringing the people of both races closer together both physically and culturally. To this end, attention will focus on the different factors which allowed rock ‘n’ roll music to cross the “cultural border” of segregation.

The Roots of Rock ‘N’ Roll:

Rock ‘n’ roll legend Chuck Berry once said about music that: “It used to be called boogie-woogie, it used to be called blues, used to be called rhythm and blues…. It’s called rock now.6” Accordingly, the roots of rock ‘n’ roll can be traced back through blues and gospel to the African musical heritage of the American slaves.

The early style of blues, often referred to as country blues, began as songs that slaves would sing to pass the time and lessen the tedium of the work. The songs often involved “calculated repetitions” and “call-and-response” patterns, with one worker taking the “lead part” of the lyrics which the others would repeat7. The music also “emphasized rhythm over harmony”, due in part to the substantial influence of drums in African music.

During and after the First World War, many African Americans moved from the southern cotton plantations to the larger northern cities, bringing the blues with them. There are many reasons for this rapid emigration; some left to escape the ravages of the parasitic boll weevil, others moved in hopes of escaping racial discrimination.

In Chicago, the African-American population grew from 40,000 in 1910 to 234,000 twenty years later8. As African-Americans congregated in these urban centers, musicians began to discover a multitude of distinct regional variations of country blues. As George Learner described: “The Illinois Central Railroad brought the blues to Chicago. With the thousands of laborers who came to work in the meat-packing plants and the steel mills came Peetie Wheatstraw, Ollie Shepard, Blind Boy Fuller, Washboard Sam, Little Brother Montgomery, Blind Lemon [Jefferson], Memphis Minnie, and Rosetta Howard.9” These different styles of country blues came together with city influences such as vaudeville, swing rhythms, and boogie-woogie rolling-bass piano to create urban blues (or rhythm and blues).

Rhythm and blues contrasted greatly with the “more sullen country blues.10” In the years after World War II, urban artists such as Muddy Waters, Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett, Little Walter Jacobs, and B. B. “Blues Boy” King were creating a “rawer, gutsier, angrier”11 sound. They were also incorporating new instruments into their music, such as the electric guitar and the harmonica (largely considered a “toy” instrument before Sonny Boy Williamson.12)

Don J. Hibbard notes that “Rock ‘n’ roll drew heavily upon the rhythm and blues for its substance.13” Urban blues offered “words, phrases, rhythm, instrumentation, a musical organization and a verse structure14” to rock ‘n’ roll. For instance, the emphasis on the “off” beat (second and forth) to form a “pa-BOOM pa-BOOM” rhythm is derivative of the blues. Rock ‘n’ roll also borrows the use of the twelve bar phrase structure (4+4+2+2) and the use of the dominant type 7 chord.

Specialty Markets and Racial Segregation:

A special edition of Billboard magazine in March of 1954 stated that: “the ‘n*gro market’ did not exist in a national sense until about the Second World War.15” When the magazine began charting the “n*gro market” in 1946, it was classified under the term “race music,” which was a commonly used classification for blues records from pre-war companies16. By 1948, most of the major record companies had switched to unsuccessful alternative names such as “ebony” and “sepia.” In June of 1949, Billboard changed the name of the race charts to “rhythm and blues”, which became the commonly accepted term. Despite the name change, the meaning was the same; it was a chart for music in the black community. The other major charts were the “popular music” or “pop” charts, and the “country and western” specialty market.

Of the $189 million dollars worth of record sales recorded in 1950, four major companies collected approximately 75%17. These were the major recording companies: Decca, Columbia, and RCA Victor, with Capitol as a straggling fourth18. Over 5000 independent recording companies shared the remaining quarter of the market, with names such as “Aladdin, Argo, Aristocrat, Atlantic, Chance, Chess, Cobra, Dot, Duke, Dunhill, Federal, Gee, Herald, Imperial, Jubilee, King, Rama, Savoy, Specialty, Stax/Volt, Sun, and Vee-Jay”.

The major companies had the “big name” crooners who topped the pop charts, so they were largely disinterested in the smaller and less lucrative “country and western” and “rhythm and blues” specialty markets19. According to market research, these specialty markets constituted less than 5% of the total, an unattractive concept to a large company20. According to David Halberstam: “They were hardly entrepreneurial; the bigger they were, the more conservative they inevitably were as well.21

By contrast, the independent labels were concentrated almost entirely on the specialty markets. As Billboard reported in April 1946: “Some indies frankly admit they are going to stay out of fields in which the majors do more or less of a token job.22” The smaller independent labels had strong regional ties due to their negligible distribution capabilities23. A successful rhythm and blues album would sell only 400,000 copies.24 As Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records once said: “Sales were localized in ghetto markets. There was no white sale, and no white radio play.” However, being small allowed these labels to be highly innovative. As Robert G. Pielke put it: “For those living on the outside, the prevailing norms weigh less heavily, and sometimes they can be successfully ignored altogether.”

Continued in part 2.

Show/Hide References

→ 3 CommentsTags: ·  · 

3 Responses to “Rockin’ The Boat (Part 1)”

  1. Robert G. Pielke Says:
    April 18th, 2008 at 9:11 am

    Hey….I’ve been quoted!!


  2. Matthew Gallant Says:
    April 18th, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    I enjoyed your book Dr. Pielke, many thanks.

  3. Robert G. Pielke Says:
    April 21st, 2008 at 8:01 am



© 2007-2018 Matthew Gallant, powered by Wordpress.