Mary McDonough, “On The Road To The Promised Land: How The NAACP, The Black Church, And Rock Music Helped The Civil Rights Movement”

I don’t want to pick nits with this article.  For those who lived through or just after the times rehearsed in this article, there it little that is either new or insightful.  So that leaves me with a couple options.  The first is to note that McDonough tries to answer the question, “What was the first real rock and roll song?”  She offers Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight”, Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man”, and Jimmy Preston’s “Rock The Joint”.  She never mentions the song most scholars believe is the real harbinger of things to come: Ike Turner and Jackie Breston’s “Rocket 88”:

The violence inspired by Blackboard Jungle spread not only across the US.  In Great Britain, gangs of youths dressed in leather called Teddy Boys would either storm theaters or buy up as many tickets as possible for the sole purpose of rioting when Bill Haley & The Comets came on, loud as thunder.

While the roles of Fats Domino, Little Richard, and especially Chuck Berry can never be underestimated, it was when Elvis Presley, with his combination of sex appeal, natural charisma, singing African-American rhythm and blues while moving like a black singer, arrived first on the Dorsey Brothers TV show, then later on The Ed Sullivan Show and Milton Berle’s variety show, his hips cropped so as not to influence all those impressionable youth that things got interesting.  Risque songs, played loudly so people could dance suggestively is exactly what white America thought of African-Americans.  When a handsome, talented young white truck driver did the same thing, people sat up and took notice.

It wasn’t just the popularity of African-American music among white youths; that was something that had been around since the 1920’s.  It wasn’t just the attempted appropriation of rhythm and blues by the major labels (think Pat Boone’s version of “Tutti-Frutti”, a song based upon southern graffiti for gay black men to meet); that, too, had been around since the first “Jazz” recording performed by The Original Dixie Land Jazz Band, a group of whites.  It was, rather, the refusal of Elvis Presley to tone down what far too many considered the “blackness” of his performance that created social and cultural controversy.

By the time of The Tami Show the author mentions at the beginning, racial tensions within the Civil Rights Movement, and the musicians who supported it, had become clear enough.  When Sam Cooke recorded “A Change Is Gonna Come”, in many ways it signaled that African-Americans were taking back the momentum of the cultural push for racial desegregation.  Cooke, originally a member of an African-American spirituals group, had gone mainstream with ballads like “You Send Me”.  All the same, his roots in the African-American Church pushed him to make a statement, which he made with this song:

None of this meant that white artists of good faith and honest intent were no longer welcome.  I think it does, however, demonstrate that, as the movement for racial justice progressed and became more radical, this became expressed both in the music as well as the rhetoric (it wasn’t too long after this that H. Rap Brown told a crowd in Towson, MD that “Violence is as American as cherry pie,” a truth that is as uncontroversial as where the sun rises in the morning, yet scared most of white America half to death).  Rock and roll, rather than being a key ingredient in the social, political, and legal changes around race, rather reflected the fact that, at this historical moment, there would no longer be a retreat.  Furthermore, by 1964, that movement had radicalized not only African-Americans, but young whites as well, who began to see the war in Vietnam as something that might well pose a threat to them as well.

None of this is to downplay the role desegregated music played in the push for racial justice.  It is, rather, to note that the matter is not as clear-cut as the author insists.  While the wide acceptance of African-American music among predominantly white audiences, then among desegregated concert audiences certainly seemed to pose a threat to the dominant white supremacy, I would contend these were more effects of a dominant ethos among the younger generation, black and white, that the time for righting centuries of racial injustice, had come and would no longer be stopped, even in the face of firehoses, police dogs, and murder.

Overall, this article reads far more like a good introductory paper in an upper-level undergraduate history class rather than anything else.  One also would have wished for more discussion of the music itself, both as cause and effect – as well as, say, Chuck Berry’s arrest under The Mann Act for transporting a white woman across state lines for immoral purposes – as part of the story.  Finally, I think the co-opting of rock and roll in the early 1960’s, until the arrival of The Beatles, is an important part of the story of how the record industry attempted to dampen the fires of social and racial unrest through the production of beautiful, slick, and largely politically irrelevant music.

Underground, however, artists like James Brown were creating a style of music and performance that spoke to African-Americans, their lives, and their experiences.  By the late 1960’s, a scary anthem could appear that was beautiful, danceable, and heard as a threat to whites every bit as dangerous as H. Rap Brown’s statement about violence.