Rock \'n\' Roll & 20th Century Culture

Rock ‘n’ roll and 20th Century Culture

According to Philip Ennis, rock ‘n’ roll emerged from
the convergence of social transformations which resulted
from World War II (Ryan 927). Despite its pop culture
origins, rock music is arguably one of the strongest
cultural factors to develop in this century. Artists such as
Lennon, McCartney and Dylan defined the emotions of a
generation and, in the last decade, it as even been
acknowledged by members of the establishment which it hoped
to change as a major influence in the country. In order to
understand how rock went from a sign of rebellion to a
cultural icon, it is necessary to understand where it came
According to Albert Murray, the African-American
musical tradition is “fundamentally stoical yet affirmative
in spirit” (Star 3). Through the medium of the blues,
African-Americans expressed a resilience of spirit which
refused to be crippled by either poverty or racism. It is
through music that the energies and dexterities of black
American life are sounded and expressed (39). For the black
culture in this country, the music of Basie or Ellington
expressed a “wideawake, forward-tending” rhythm that one
can not only dance to but live by (Star 39).
Although he later denied that he ever said it, Sam
Phillips-the man who discovered Elvis Presley-is reputed to
have said, “if I could find a white man who had the Negro
sound the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars”
(Decurtis 78). Certain radio stations would not play the
work of black artists in the segregated America of the
1950s. But, nevertheless, rock ‘n’ roll was an art form
created by African-Americans. Little Richard, whose songs
“Tutti Fruitti” and “Long Tall Sally” became hits only after
white-bread versions were made by Pat Boone, said, “It
started out as rhythm and blues” (Decurtis 78).
Through Elvis Presley, rock ‘n’ roll changed the face
of American music, and influenced a whole generation’s
political philosophy. Composer Leonard Berstein once said,
“He introduced the beat to everything and changed
everything-music, language, clothes; it’s a whole new social
revolution-the 60s come from it” (Wattenberg 6B). To his
credit, Elvis embraced rhythm and blues not as a from to be
imitated, but as a form to honored and interpreted
(Wattenberg 6B) and, as such, helped to break down the
barriers between white and black music. Time and again
Presley acknowledged his debt to black artists in public
statements despite the fact that this was a practice which
carried professional risks in the 50s (Wattenberg).
Rock ‘n’ roll music came of age in the sixties which
was a period in the nation’s history when a young generation
expressed their anguish and sense of alienation to the
country’s social establishments by searching for new answers
to the age-old questions concerning the meaning of life, the
value of the individual, and the nature of truth and
spirituality (Harris 306). The classic rock music which was
created during this period gave form and substance to this
search. Songs such as “My Generation” by the Who recorded
the keen sense of alienation that young people felt from the
past and the “Establishment” and it also showed the keen
sense of community they felt among themselves.
Classic albums such as the Beatles’ “White Album,” the
Who’s “Who’s Next,” Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited, and Pink
Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” capture what was essential
about the time because they were both a result of that time
and because they helped to produce it by reinforcing the
younger generation’s feelings of alienation and separation.
Although the distinction is somewhat fuzzy, rock music
is not exactly the same as rock and roll. Rock ‘n’ roll
brings up memories of two-minute, Top 40 “singles” of the
fifties era. Drawn directly from black rhythm and blues,
these simple songs featured three-chord harmony and a heavy,
pulsating back beat which was produced by accenting the off
beat. It was musically revolutionary and socially
threatening, but the lyrics to these songs were generally
insignificant and usually downright silly (Harris).
In the early sixties, folks musicians began to appear
who were drawing upon a different tradition, namely, protest
singers such as Woody Gutherie and Pete Singer. Artists like
Joan Baez and Bob Dylan created songs with serious lyrics
but without the rhythm, tempo and drive of rock ‘n’ roll.
Rock music was created when the serious lyrics of folk music
were incorporated into the rhythm, beat, and tempo of rock
and roll and then used as a vehicle for social commentary.

Bob Dylan
Born Robert Zimmerman in 1941, Dylan originally modeled
his music on that of Woody Gutherie. After the debut of his
second album, he emerged as the voice of his generation, and
an emotional