Week 6: The continuities between the 1950s and the 1960s

May 15, 2020

For this blog post, I will be sharing a portion of my essay draft. This week I have been reading about the 1950s and their connections with the 1960s:

When I went into this project, I assumed that the protest spirit that so well encapsulates the sixties was born of the sixties, unique to the period. This could not be further from the truth, however.

Reading Todd Gitlin’s The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage has allowed me to realize that the anti-establishment sentiment embodied by the anti-war and the Black Power movements was present in the 50s as well (fundamentally). 

We can see this in the beat movement, which championed a removal from society. Jack Kerouack’s book On the Road and the writing of Allen Ginsberg would provide much of the fuel for this movement – in their expressions of the value of separating oneself from the materialism dominating America at the time. We can owe the rise of the New Left and later the Counterculture to the beats, bohemians, and remains of the Old Left, which scattered the cultural landscape of 50s America. Among these movements ranked individuals who denied the “affluence” of the 1950s, whose purposeful removal from mainstream life reflected the conformity, bomb drills, inequality, and fear of nuclear war that it came with. Todd Giltin uses the word affluence to describe the sense of prosperity associated with 1950s America, because “rich” would naturally imply the existence of a “poor” America, and this inequality did not receive enough attention at the time. The word affluence has no inherent opposite.

Rock ‘n’ roll’s rise during this time would pave the way for the “youth upheaval of the late sixties” (29). A DJ from Cleveland named Alan Freed would introduce the genre, creating a radio show in 1951 for R&B music that he called “rock ‘n’ roll.” It is important to note that Rock ‘n’ roll would take and learn from Black musicians like B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters (whose music was termed rhythm and blues in the late 40s), repackaging their style in the form of white musicians to appease the racist leanings of “affluent” America. The radio would enable the songs of Black musicians to spread and become popular, but the fact remains that Elvis, Buddy Holiday, and Jerry Lee Lewis can root their fame in blues music. 

This rock ‘n’ roll nonetheless encouraged deviation. It espoused youth and encouraged emotional expression with every whoop and groan. Gitlin claims that the “entrepreneurs of popular culture” sought out aberrant writings and made these ideas marketable to adolescents. To be an outsider was to be mainstream – and this was the case for the counterculture as well, whose aesthetic was employed by advertisers to sell jeans, clothes, cars, and other products (according to music journalist Pat Thomas). Fifties teenage culture, inspired by the cool defiance of James Dean and Marlon Brando and the raw emotional power of rock ‘n’ roll, would establish the precedent for the youth culture of the sixties. The generational conflict between baby boomers and their parents would thus begin in the fifties, not the sixties. This conflict would only become political with the sixties.

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