The American popular music landscape of the 1940s—both during and after the War—appeared, prima facie, to be unthreatening to either the far right or concerned citizens more politically inland. Yes, Frank Sinatra was causing a stir amongst young “bobby soxers”, but his songs, like those of his star peers like Perry Como and Rosemary Clooney, were largely unprovocative and apolitical. Extreme-right groups previously on the front foot had been knocked back into the margins, too, the defeat of fascism in World War II cowing them from espousing a comparable ideology.
Even the upstart black music of the decade, best represented in the R&B and jump blues that emerged from jazz and swing, was released on independent black labels, played on black radio stations, and reached predominantly black audiences. “No white people fooled around with this kind of music,” according to Art Rupe, founder of Specialty Records. Out of sight, out of (white) minds, this music was called “race music” for a reason.
Yet, even then, there were indicators of trouble ahead that would reawaken the forces of the far right. With its hypnotic rhythms, energy, and sex appeal, race music did not stay within its race for long, increasingly appealing to white teenagers seeking respite from the dull white crooners dominating the radio airwaves. As professor John C. Hajduk comments, “When r & b’s appeal to young whites skewed familiar boundaries of cultural propriety, hints of hidden, dangerous ideas took an even more scarifying form.”
Whereas the mainstream major labels were content to put out placid pop unlikely to rock any boats, the black indies took the kind of risks that led to subsequent rock ‘n’ roll explosions. Songs like Bull Moose Jackson’s “Big Ten Inch Record” (1952) and the Dominoes’ “Sixty Minute Man” (1951) used sexual innuendo to push “familiar boundaries” and their racial aspects—in both sound and origination—posed additional concerns on the right. Some labels, like Chess Records, even had Jewish businessmen—Leonard and Phil Chess—at the helm!
Independent of the independents, young Americans generated their own generation gap, guaranteed to cause conflict. The War created social upheavals, with absent parents leaving space for teenagers to find their own voices and culture. Moreover, it was not lost on those teens that the War had been fought to preserve democracy, and many were determined to perpetuate its values, even if they clashed with the more traditional prejudicial ones demanded from the right.
In January 1945, New York Times Magazine published “A Teen-Age Bill of Rights”, based on a study conducted by the Jewish Board of Guardians in New York. It proposed “The right to question ideas” and “The right to a ‘say’ about his own life.” Youth started to put inalienable rights under scrutiny, and their demands for fairness, racial tolerance, and freedom of expression were often antithetical to the expectations of adults and authorities. Music journalist Jon Savage recognizes the economic sway that underscored these moral demands, stating, “The postwar spread of American values would be spearheaded by the idea of the Teenager…embodying the new global society where social inclusion was to be granted through purchasing power.”
The inevitable adult backlash was most vociferous on the far right but manifested in denunciations from the mainstream, as well. What the kids saw as just having unruly fun, adults came to call “juvenile delinquency”, a catch-all term for all kinds of expression. R&B, with its sexually suggestive “leerics”, “jungle” rhythms, and pied piper appeals, was charged with dragging (white) youth into dens of iniquity rife with alcohol, drugs, and untamed emotions—dog-whistled by racists as code for lower-class black culture. They cited events like The Moondog Coronation Ball, put on by DJ Alan Freed in 1952. Often credited as the first major rock concert, it only lasted one song when violence and mayhem broke out at this overcrowded Cleveland event.
Disorder plagued subsequent concerts and the showings of rock-related films like Richard Brooks‘ The Blackboard Jungle (1955) and Fred F. Sears’ Rock Around the Clock (1956). Adult worries became such that even the dances for R&B and rock ‘n’ roll set off alarm bells. By the end of the ‘50s, the twist was banned across the land and beyond, alerting authorities about the sexual powers of its moves in countries as far-flung as Malaysia and China.
Far-right groups shared and exploited regular adult citizens’ anxieties, strategically steering fears by relating the music’s lyrics, sounds, dances, and subcultures to ubiquitous worries about communism and the developing civil rights movement. A chain of causation narrative was created on the right: rock music was the brainchild of communists and Jewish conspirators; it was invented to indoctrinate young people with immoral thoughts and subversive ideas; it dragged white youths into a maelstrom of activism, racial mixing, and general decadence.
Under particular scrutiny were the rock package tours that included the following: white alongside black performers, some performing together; white and black audiences mixing together, some uniting in dance by breaking the separation ropes inside venues; and white teenage girls swooning over black adult artists like Johnny Otis, Wynonie Harris, and Nat King Cole. Furthermore, critics observed that the civil rights sit-ins and freedom rides testing segregation were being driven by the same young and young adult participants consuming the new music—black and white.
As rock ‘n’ roll grew and spread globally, the objections of American far-right groups like the Ku Klux Klan filtered into the mainstream, assisted by a sensationalist media insistent on covering every rock-related controversy. This circular flow of hysteria gave the far right’s critiques more credence and its proposed solutions more currency, creating a cancel culture aimed at all outlets of rock: records, dancing, and concerts. Bans were predictably common across the Deep South, home to many far-right organizations, but so were they in the UK, where the BBC—later regarded as a bastion of liberal permissiveness by conservatives—also flexed its censorious muscles on seemingly innocuous materials.
In 1953, the BBC banned the sentimental “Answer Me“, recorded by David Whitfield and Frankie Laine, and “Crying in the Chapel” by Lee Lawrence, after protests by religious groups. Listening to these songs today, it is a mystery how either could have been objectionable to anyone. Paranoia about the growing rock menace reached such proportions in the UK that in 1960, Miss Cynthia Arkle of the British Safety Council persuaded the BBC to ban the car crash ballad “Tell Laura I Love Her”, by Ricky Valance, because it was—she claimed—hampering road safety efforts. UK teacher Mary Whitehouse, a future right-wing citizen arbiter in the Arkle mold, was undoubtedly watching and learning.
Perhaps the most insidious example of rock censorship was the so-called “Payola” scandal the US Congress responded to in 1959. Supposedly an investigation into corrupt pay-for-play deals between record labels and radio stations, John C. Hajduk argues that “the real target was music that led young people to question outmoded concepts of race, class, and sex long promoted by mainstream cultural institutions”. These concepts were particularly interesting to unelected groups like the Ku Klux Klan and Citizens’ Councils, who assumed responsibility for further hampering any progression towards a rock ‘n’ roll nation.
Riddled by a combination of tax liabilities, leadership scandals, and declining membership, the national Ku Klux Klan dissolved in 1944. Two years later, an organization that was a shadow of its former self reemerged. Although still allied to the same racist agenda and to the same techniques of intimidation, violence, and propaganda to enact it, the “third” Klan was a splintered entity, with 14 separate groups claiming its mantle in 1965. As a result, it lacked the centralized authority and mass support that had once enabled it to successfully coerce and co-opt popular culture at will. Without the financial ability to finance its own record labels and bands anymore, the new Klans turned their attention to preventing others from exercising their freedom of musical speech, particularly that which offended their ideological beliefs.
Burdened by an image problem lingering from its previous decline and fall years, the Klan rebranded itself in the form of White Citizens’ Councils across the South. Started in Mississippi in 1954, the Councils boasted 60,000 members by the next year. Like the KKK to which they pledged allegiance, Councils protested and self-promoted around the racial concerns of the day. In the ’50s, that meant integrating public schools in the wake of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, black voter registration, and the movement of black citizens into white districts. Unlike the KKK, the Councils publicly disavowed terrorism to address these developments. Instead, they presented a front of respectability within communities, removing the white hoods and robes and using more legitimate channels for change. For example, in Louisiana in 1956, local Citizens’ Councils pressured the State Legislature and Governor Earl Long to pass a state law prohibiting interracial dancing, social functions, and entertainment.
Nicknamed the “hoodless Klan”, “country-club Klan”, “scrubbed up cousin of the Klan”, and “uptown Klan”, Citizens’ Councils included some of the most influential figures in southern communities—businessmen, judges, elected representatives, police chiefs, and religious leaders—thus, violence was usually reserved as a last resort for enforcing segregation. As rock ‘n’ roll started challenging Jim Crow laws and traditions, Councils were ready to meet those challenges. Asa Carter, the founder of the North Alabama Citizens Council (NACC), used the new music culture as a wedge issue with which to wage war on immorality, miscegenation, and communism.
For Carter, rock ‘n’ roll was part of a conspiracy he traced from youth fans back through the NAACP and to its (supposed) communist benefactors. Its aim, he claimed, was to “mongrelize America”. To prevent such an outcome, Carter embarked upon an anti-rock campaign focused on the jukeboxes that had become a fixture of youth gathering places; by 1955, more than half a million were in use—one for every 300 people. Intent on removing what he called “immoral records in the new rhythm”, Carter sought to capitalize on the growing number of well-publicized complaints being made about sexually implicit songs. Although his mission to fight this manifestation of juvenile delinquency was met with sympathetic ears, coin music operators did not take kindly to the removal of money-making hits. In a case of capitalism triumphing over censorship, step one of the NACC’s campaign largely failed.
Frustrated, Carter set to resorting to the kind of tactics more familiar to the KKK: intimidation and violence. Picketing mixed-race concerts and pressuring venues to cancel them had become standard practice by the mid-‘50s. When Nat King Cole was scheduled to perform at the Municipal Auditorium in Birmingham in April 1956, Carter saw an opportunity to garner greater attention to the cause.
As the son of a preacher father and choir director mother, Cole was the kind of wholesome crooner mainstream America had embraced as unthreatening, even desirable. The trouble, though, was that that embrace and desire were being enthusiastically expressed by white teenage girls—and Cole was a black adult male. Incensed by the effect the sex symbol singer was having on these vulnerable youths, Carter gathered five of his segregationist friends from nearby Anniston and sent them to the show to cause trouble and create headlines. As directed, the five thugs stormed the stage, one punching Cole, before security intervened.
Although the singer managed to return to finish the concert, the Citizens’ Council had achieved its goals: receiving national attention for its grievances while making it clear that rock ‘n’ roll and race mixing would not be accepted without resistance in the American South.
“Citizens’ Councils”. Wikipedia. Downloaded 21 July 2023.
Crampton, Luke, and Dafydd Rees. Rock & Roll: Year by Year. DK Publishing. 2005.
Hajduk, John C. Music Wars: Money, Politics, and Race in the Construction of Rock and Roll Culture, 1940-1960. Lexington Books. 2018.
“Ku Klux Klan”. Wikipedia, downloaded 21 July 2023.
Savage, Jon. Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture. Viking. 2007.