The American Historian

20th Century American History

White Teenagers, Black America, and Rock & Roll in the 1950s

American Cultural History in the 1950s

American teenagers of the 1950s had more free time, social interaction, and disposable income than ever before in American history. Within these newfound freedoms, white teenagers could experiment with their youthfulness like never before within the context of American culture, leading them to experimentation with black America’s rhythm and blues music. This profoundly satisfying and rebellious music, in turn, led to black America’s creation of rock and roll music driving forward a new cultural relationship in American society. These white and black Americans flocked to rock and roll concerts throughout the 1950s only to be met with segregation ropes keeping them apart by societal norms of the time. These juveniles did not care about segregation and hated being told how to behave by authorities. Their resistance led to teens tearing down segregation ropes where fully integrated concerts caused great alarm to the general public. Police frequently shut down concerts, and college campuses refused to allow the bands on campus fearing integration, riots, or destruction of property. Movie theaters across the country also courted juveniles as teenagers themselves became the subjects of feature films throughout the decade. The resentment between younger and older Americans compounded throughout the decade as teenage behavior became the focus of hundreds of newspaper articles, books, journal articles, and films. Everyone was concerned with the American teenager of the 1950s.

How did just ten years after World War II did the newspapers find constant complaining about the “bad teenagers,” rock and roll music, and the societal decline that had councils and preachers alike up in arms? How did popular music evolve so fast, over such a short period of time considering the previous four decades of slow beat, wholesome styled music? How did the new volatile, sexual, and implicit lyrics come to dominate the airways? How did America’s religious institutions, colleges, and local governments respond? Why did America’s youth feel so discontent? How did black culture take the first step toward the new relationship with white youth? How did radio stations and record groups initially respond? Why did rock and roll briefly go out of style in the late 1950s only to see a strong resurgence in the 1960s? Should the 1950s be seen as a decade of promise or as it has been traditionally seen as an abhorrent decade of the conservative bourgeoise?

Teenage couples without shoes dancing at Carlsbad High School “Sock Hop.”

Context

The 1950s are often known for many other themes such as the Cold War, the dull decade of the nuclear family, the conservative decade, the rise of the suburbs, etc. Other major innovations in American society cannot be ignored either, such as the introduction of the McDonald brother’s fast-food startup, Korvette’s department store, which had been famous for undercutting prices of its competitors, or just simply the microwave dinner. The American family life changed throughout the 1950s from how the family had dinner, how they shopped for necessities, and how they raised their children. While all of this innovation from technology and business changed America’s landscape, adults were still firmly attached to their upbringing of the 1930s and 1940s. The result was Americans in the suburbs who shared a community telephone line, personally knew the mailman, and were acutely aware of any issues within these expanding suburban neighborhoods, and experienced the resulting growing pains together.

(The Film Grease – Image “1959”)

Where does it fit within academia?

The investigation into the American teenager of the 1950s is an opportunity to search for a new origin to the traditional academic view considering the 1950s to be a dull decade placeholding for the upcoming monumental changes of the 1960s in terms of politics, culture, and race in American society. This work will fit within the larger context of cultural history for the period and among important historical analyses from Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumers’ Republic, Nancy Hendrick’s Daily Life in 1950s America, and Richard Aquila’s Let’s Rock to explore the relationship of American teenagers with race relationship between white and black society, music, and television.

Shopping in the 1950s

What do we hope to uncover?

Research will consist of hundreds of newspaper articles and dozens of other primary source books and articles written about teenagers during the 1950s to address the societal problems they faced. Other scholarship from business history to political history will also be required to formulate the larger context from which these historical persons acted with the society they lived. This research hopes to find a new thread linking together white teenagers with black America before the civil rights movements of the 1960s, giving merit to a novel idea that conservativism drove the change, not radicalism. Through culture, not politics, American society had become integrated. It was due largely to the new generation of teenagers that bucked against the current society’s constructs to chase after their own individuality while being enabled by their conservative family’s and family structures.

Why Me?

After earning a Master Degree in 18th century cultural American history, the door flung itself wide-open for new opportunities. During the Ph.D. coursework at Liberty Universty, an opportunity presented itself to research the Fender Musical Instrument Company. The 1950s became the center stage with Fender electric guitars begninning to be seen on television across the country. The crowds these guitars and their artists attracted were just teenagers and the question presented itself clearly. What was the relationship between white teenagers, black America, and rock & roll?

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