A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America

By Grace Elizabeth Hale | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
Rebel Music: Minstrelsy, Rock
and Roll, and Beat Writing

I don’t want no other love.
Elvis Presley

If J. D. Salinger had set his coming-of-age novel The Catcher in the Rye half a decade later, Holden Caulfield would not have needed to wander New York City looking for an alternative to phoniness. By the mid-fifties, rebel sounds filled the air. The tinny speakers of the new televisions buzzed with the speech of segregationists angry at African Americans’ demands. Streets in Little Rock, Montgomery, and elsewhere rang with shouts and barks and sirens, voices speaking through bullhorns, and the footsteps of large crowds. And everywhere middle-class kids lived, black-sounding music blared its shouted vocals and fast beats: on televised teen dance shows, at screenings of the new teen films, and on the transistor radios and portable record players blasting in suburban bedrooms. Within this defiant cacophony, ringing out in contradiction to an image of America as a place of rising conformity, middle-class white kids learned that rebellion sounded black.

In the mid-fifties, as the historian Brian Ward has argued, no place in Jim Crow America was more racially integrated than the airwaves. The year of the Brown decision, a song recorded by a black rhythm and blues group from the Bronx called the Chords appeared on Billboard magazine’s white pop chart. Before “Sh-boom,” other records had occasionally crossed over from the hit lists reserved for songs by black musicians. But something was different about this song’s success. “Sh-boom” started a stampede. Young

-49-

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