I’ve got 1955 on my mind this week, mostly because I’m getting ready to teach the Montgomery bus boycotts.
In the popular consciousness of most Americans, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and the boycotts are the “start” of the Civil Rights Movement. That’s a little simplistic, historically speaking. It ignores the deep roots and activities of the Black Freedom Struggle that preceded Mrs. Parks’ refusal to give up her seat. It also ignores the key support structures–like the Women’s Political Council–that made the boycotts possible and, ultimately, successful.
At the same time, the boycotts are clearly a watershed moment in our history. Simply put, everything would be different after 1955. I don’t want to suggest that the history of popular music is as important as the history of our struggles for justice, but, if you think about, popular music was on the verge of its own watershed then, too.
Late in 1955 Sam Philips sold Elvis’ contract to RCA. The next year he’d become a national sensation. Elvis changed the course of music. Part of the story of rock and roll is the gradual assimilation of regional musical styles into an increasingly “national” sound. Another part of it is the growing integration of “white” and “black” musical styles. Elvis was emblematic of both those dynamics. Both were happening without him, to be sure. (Each had a lot to do with the commercialization of music in the 50s.) But both were also catapulted forward when he hit the scene.
That’s how I like to think about 1955 in music–rock and roll on the verge of a major change. Like the history of the boycotts, though, that’s also a bit short-sighted. When you look at 1955 in music, you see all the dynamics typically associated with the “Elvis era” already at play. African American musical styles weren’t as formidable on the Billboard charts, but foundational sounds of what we call rock and roll were already changing the musical world.
Here are some of songs of 1955, both the chart-toppers and world changers.
5. “Sixteen Tons” (Tennessee Ernie Ford)
This was the number one song the day Rosa Park was arrested. It sounds like a Disney movie to me, catchy and well-produced. I think it says a lot about this moment in popular music that a country guy tops the charts with a snappy tune about coal miners.
4. “Rock Around the Clock” (Bill Haley And His Comets)
A former country singer, Haley signed with Decca records and, along with other white musicians, recorded this 12-bar blues song that jumps and swings with the best of the era. As the original theme song to the show “Happy Days” it always feels like the anthem of the 1950s to me.
3. “Flip, Slop, and Fly” (Big Joe Turner)
There are numerous “bridges” between the world of blues, jazz, and rock and roll. Big Joe Turner might be the biggest. This “jump blues” hit, release in February 1955 from the Atlantic label, is proof of that.
2. “Tutti Frutti” (Little Richard)
Little Richard perfected his performance of “Tutti Frutti” as a young man on the “Chittlin Circuit.” A song about gay sex, it was cleaned up for his 1955 recording, but hidden in its history are the roots of rock and roll–Southern, campy, bluesy, and queer. The song was released in December, making his unique style and sound part of the national sound for generations to come. It’s a powerful song.
1. “Maybellene” (Chuck Berry)
Chuck Berry’s first hit single is often called “the first rock and roll song.” When I hear that first little guitar intro, well, it’s sounds like he’s getting ready to let loose a beast. The song, one of the greatest R&B songs ever, is a take off of a country fiddle tune named “Ida Red.” What Berry made it into was a whole new world.
This is a busy time of year for me. I’m barely keeping afloat in a rising sea of work. Much of it is good work, work I enjoy, like teaching and advising. Some of it is exciting work, like my current research project and the exhibit I’m working on. And a good share of it is bureaucratic, the work that never seems to end.
But in the midst of it all, I’m moved by the words of Ramsey Clark. Mr. Clark is still going strong at 89 years. Clark was the Assistant Attorney General of the US under JFK and LBJ (1961-1965), the Deputy Attorney General under LBJ (1965-1967), and the 66th Attorney General of the US (1967-69) under LBJ. He was a champion of civil rights (he supervised the drafting of the Voting Rights Act) who became a staunch antiwar activist, after leaving the Justice Department.
About a year ago, during a Reddit AMA (“Ask Me Anything”), he talked about his slow transformation surrounding the war in Vietnam. He said:
As a citizen, I made one mistake in government, and that is – I worked too hard on the task at hand, on my responsibilities. And didn’t keep up with events that democracy – every citizen has an obligation to keep up with events, like a war. So when I finally looked at it I was appalled. It wasn’t that sudden, obviously.
I remember i had a very close friend named Barefoot Sanders… He was my deputy, until Johnson stole him and took him to the White House. The point was that Barefoot followed the war. And he was tortured by it. And I was just thinking about what i was doing, in the Department of Justice, but we lived about 3 houses away from each other, so we’d drive in and back with each other nearly every single day. And that was my basic exposure to the war. He’d be saying how awful it was. And I was thinking about how awful the Civil Rights Situation was.
The moral is we all have an obligation to be involved in the critical moral issues of our time. And not get so self-absorbed in some other, all-consuming thing.
Democracy depends on that. And as a citizen, you do your duty to be aware, and have an opinion on major political issues that must be made.
Tonight, what Mr. Ramsey said feels especially right.
Before my kids went to bed, I showed them the White House website. I wanted them to see it, to make a memory of what that page looked like on the last night of the Obama presidency. There’s a lot of things this presidency did that I don’t agree with. There’s a lot they did that I do agree with, too.
I don’t put too much stake in any politician. I don’t think they’re the solution to any of our collective problems. But, on the whole, I’m proud that Obama was my president. I’m proud of how he served.
Tomorrow, around noon, there’s going to be a totally different page on that site, one representing a man with whom I have more disagreements than I can count. He doesn’t make me proud; to be honest, he disgusts me and makes me fearful of what the next four years will bring. But here’s the thing: Even though the new president doesn’t represent me or my values he is my president.
I don’t mean that as a rebuke to the #notmypresident folks. I share their values and their feelings. But it is a simple fact that tomorrow this man will be the president of my country.
That gives me both the right and the responsibility to do what I can, as part of a larger community of like-minded folks, to keep him in check and hold him accountable to the values and the issues we care about. Mr. Clark helped remind me of that. We’ve all got a job to do.
So today, as “The Obama Era” comes to an end and another era begins, may this new era be one of community, one of democracy, and one of justice.
As we meet the new year, it’s time for me to revisit my annual “They Made it to ____” post. This post is meant to recognize the careers of three entertainers who are still with us but, because of advanced age or the passage of time, are kind of forgotten. As I’ve said in the past, I think of it as a chance to think “I didn’t know s/he was still alive” before I read their obituary.
A lot of the names I’ve written about in previous years are still around. Folks like Carol Channing (95), Hal Holbrook (91), Little Richard (84), and former “Lollipop Guild” member and oldest living “Munchkin” Jerry Maren (96) deserve some mention here.
There are also quite a few noteworthy stars who are making it to their 80s and 90s and also still maintaining some presence through media, social media, or even their continuing work. Betty White (who turns 95 later this month) probably tops the list . Carl Reiner (94), Dick Van Dyke (91), Jerry Lewis (91), Max Von Sydow (87), and Bob Newhart (87) come to mind. When screen legend Kirk Douglas passed the century mark last month it was also well represented in the news.
So, let me spotlight three Hollywood stars (or “former” stars) who you might be surprised to know are still with us.
Olivia de Havilland (100)
I’ve written about Olivia de Havilland in previous years but I feel she still too big and too applicable to my goal here not to include yet again. Simply put, she just might be the oldest bonafide “star.” de Havilland is one of the stars of the legendary film Gone With the Wind (1939). She won two Oscars for Best Actress–for To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949)–and starred in such classics as Captain Blood (1935) (with Errol Flynn, whom she starred with eight times), Santa Fe Trail (1940), and the campy disaster classic Airport ’77 (1977). She was even best friends with Betty Davis! When she turned 100 last summer there wasn’t much mention of her, I suspect because her stardom is such a distant memory to the present generation. Heres to hoping she makes it to 101.
Henry Silva (88)
Noted character actor Henry Silva is still with us. One of Danny Ocean’s original eleven in the Sinatra-led classic Ocean’s 11 (1960), Silva actually began his Hollywood career as an unbilled player in the Viva Zapata! (1952) before gaining admission into the legendary Actor’s Studio. He was in classics like The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Cinderfella (1960) before leaving the U.S. to start in a slew of “international” films. In addition to television, he also played a tough guy in a lot of movies in the 80s and 90s, including Dick Tracy (1990) and Ghost Dog: the Way of the Samurai (1999). Silva will turn 89 in September.
Doris Day (92)
Singer, actress, and and animal activist Doris Day is 92. [There is some dispute about her birth year. While Day “officially” lists her year of birth to be 1924, a birth record for her has been found listing her year of birth as 1922. The reclusive Day has done nothing to clarify the situation. Of course, it would have been common for stars in her time to lie about her age for the purposes of advertising. Her studio might have committed to a later birth at some early point to make her younger than she was.] Doris Day was a multifaceted talent who was also one of the biggest box-office draws in cinematic history. She acted alongside legends like Carey Grant and Rock Hudson and graced the screen in films like Pillow Talk (1959), Send Me No Flowers (1964), The Thrill of it All (1963), and Teacher’s Pet (1958). Her last film was in 1968. Though I’m not sure she ever “officially” retired, she did in fact do so, at least from Hollywood. She started her animal activism in the early 70s and has been a notable figure in that movement since. Because of her reclusiveness, I’m not sure many folks know she’s still around. Day will turn 93 (or 95) later this spring.