In the 1950s, country music came into its own before rock-n-roll took off in the 60s while jazz and classical music continued to innovate. To one extent or another, all of these forms of music drew from roots that were planted firmly in rural America.
For instance, the country music of the era evolved from tunes played and sung in the rural hollows of the Appalachian Mountains. Those songs, in turn, evolved from old English, Irish and Scottish folk songs. As Anglo and Celtic immigrants began to move from the North into the Appalachian valleys, they picked up songs, rhythms and instrumentation from the African-American moving up from the South. For instance, the banjo was originally an Arabian instrument that migrated to west Africa first and then to America with the slave trade. The slaves recreated the instrument, began playing for their masters and neighbors and eventually the mistral show was born. Country musicians recognized the percussive qualities of the banjo and adopted it to their genre.
Eventually, this genre became known as “old-time music.” It experienced a revival in the early 1960s when folklorists, like Alan Jabbour, began recording the singers still living in isolated communities and bringing their music to urban audiences. Jabbour later became the founding director of the Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
In another example of rural roots for popular music, one of the hallmarks of gospel music – and in turn, soul, R&B and rock-n-roll – is the call-and-response form that has direct roots to the African-American slave history and tradition. Repetitive farm tasks, like hoeing a field or chopping wood, were easier to accomplish and more enjoyable if a leader could get the others into the rhythm of the song. A field boss would call out a phrase and the workers – or later, the backup singers – would respond by repeating or elaborating the phrase.
In the 1950s, country music was on the verge of breaking through to wider appeal. Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry became a destination for country fans finally able to travel after wartime restrictions and millions tuned their radios to WSM radio every Saturday night. Other rural radio stations across the country changed their formats and play lists to country songs. Hank Williams recorded his biggest hit, “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” in 1952, only to die three months later on New Year’s Eve of alcoholism and undiagnosed spina bifida. Roy Acuff, Eddy Arnold, Gene Autry and, later, Johnny Cash were other popular male stars.
Kitty Wells was one of the first women to break the gender barrier in country music and to address the sexism inherent in the industry, in her own way. She recorded “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels” in response to a popular Hank Thompson hit that accused married women of wandering. Wells influenced Loretta Lynn – who said she wouldn’t have begun her own career if she hadn’t heard Kitty sing – and generations of female artist who followed.
Closely related to country, folk music also mined its rural roots during this era. Bob Dylan, for instance, took his inspiration from the life, music and political stance of Woody Guthrie who was born in the small rural town of Okemah, Oklahoma. Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, and Peter, Paul and Mary all were concerned with the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and other liberal causes. Their popularity opened up new audiences for Pete Seeger, Odetta, Lead Belly and Harry Belafonte. Their audience was mostly liberal and urban but their music was traditional and rural.
In the 1950s and 60s, the mass migration of African Americans out of the South continued. Black sharecroppers came North for industrial jobs, and they brought their music with them. This migration had a tremendous influence on blues, jazz, R&B and rock-n-roll.
For instance, one of the most popular routes of black migration was from Mississippi to Chicago. The rich tradition of Mississippi Delta blues came with the immigrants and added spice to the cauldron of Chicago music. For instance, Muddy Waters was one of those who settled in Chicago. He began to play jazz clubs with his brand of blues. He added piano, electric guitar and drums to the traditional blues guitar and created what some called “urban blues.” In turn, Muddy was a heavy influence on Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones.
By this time, jazz had evolved far beyond its blues roots and was thought of as urban music. Big bands of the 30s still played around the country although their popularity was slipping and it was harder to pay all the members of a big band. Jazz pioneer Louis Armstrong was able to continue touring and recording around the world. Alto Saxophonist Charlie Parker left big bands in Kansas City to come to New York and ended playing in smaller ensembles. With trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Thelonious Monk, drummer Kenny Clarke and others he helped establish the frenetic style of bebop. Miles Davis took that virtuosity of bebop and cooled it off a little. And then Dave Brubeck and his cohorts on the West Coast cooled it off even further with songs like “Take Five” and “Time Out.” But even Brubeck took the time to record his own tribute to the rural blues roots of jazz.
Then came rock-n-roll. Rock came to dominate the airwaves, ears and imaginations of the Baby Boomers, and many of the performers came from rural areas or small cities in the middle of the country. Elvis Presley, for instance, was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in the middle of cotton country. Buddy Holly came from Lubbock, Texas, and Janis Joplin was from Port Arthur, Texas.
Rock-n-roll in the 50s and especially the 60s was a rich, dynamic and varied movement. A full history is beyond the scope of this web site. The music captured the range of emotions and concerns of the 60s generation. At times, the performers seemed to both lead and follow its audience into new forms of expression. Many of the songs expressed the outrage of those protesting the war and what many saw as the stultifying culture of their parents.
In part, rock became so popular simply because of the numbers involved. From 1946 to 1960, the number of high school teenagers ballooned from 5.6 million to 11.8 million in the U.S. This generation had more money and leisure time than any previous adolescent generation. The Beatles, the Stones, the “British Invasion” bands, Dylan, the Band, the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Santana, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Byrds, Hendrix, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Jackson Five, other Motown artists, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, James Brown, Steve Miller, Johnny and Edgar Winters, the Allman Brothers, Canned Heat, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, the Doors – all of these performers captured the spirit of the times.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that in August 1969, a decade of musical development culminated at a place called Yasgur’s Farm outside of Woodstock, New York. “The Woodstock Music and Art Festival” drew almost 500,000 people out of the cities for three days of music, drugs, rain and mud. Remarkably, few people were injured despite challenging conditions. The violence of he Altamont Festival was still to come, but for that weekend half a million kids just wanted to get back to the land and away from the craziness of their urban lives and the Vietnam War.
Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2007. A partial bibliography of sources is here.