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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 7 The Sixties
Richard Taruskin

The unprecedented freedom of action of the younger generation, amounting in some ways to virtual economic independence, was by the dawn of the 1960s a recognized fact of life not only in American society, but in all the affluent societies of the world. That power was a direct consequence of affluence. Long before it was an independent social or political force, youth was an independent market force. And like any powerful consumer force it was catered to (or, depending on one's attitude, exploited). The two consumer domains that catered most importantly to youth, both of which underwent transformation during the sixties along with “youth culture” itself, were those of clothing fashion and entertainment, chiefly music.

Now that our area of special interest has been named, it must remain our focus. For the first time in this book (and look how late it comes!) we will trace a bit of the history of “popular” music—music disseminated for commercial profit, not primarily through literate media—in its own right, not solely in terms of its appropriation by the literate culture that is our primary subject. The reason we must do this now is that the popular music associated with the youth culture of the sixties became a transforming force affecting all other musics, even as it aspired on its own to usurp their status. Seen in this way, sixties popular music enacted a “revolution” similar to that ascribed to the period's activist culture and “counterculture,” for both of which it provided the indispensable soundtrack.

As a preliminary attestation, consider the most momentous countercultural event of all: a free music festival held in August 1969 on a farm near Woodstock, New York—about fifty miles north of New York City—and attended by upwards of half a million hippies and their sympathizers. It was are markable, and never duplicated, spectacle of nonviolence to offset the events of 1968, and its memory kept the spirit of the youth movement aliveintothe1970s. (And yet every attempt to recapture it—notably the Altamont Festival organized later that year near San Francisco, where members of a motorcycle gang disrupted the proceedings with violent acts that led to at least one highly publicized fatality—was, conversely, symptomatic of the movement's entropy and decline.)

The first music that was aimed expressly at a youth market was that of the “crooners” or male microphone singers of the 1940s, whose up-close, almost whispered style reminiscent of “pillow talk” appealed irresistibly to adolescent girls (“bobby-soxers”) in the throes of discovering their sexuality. The most successful of them, Frank Sinatra (1915–98), began his career as a “big-band” jazz singer but reached an early peak of popularity as a soloist singing “ballads,” soft, slow, intimate songs in which he modeled his style on that of Bing Crosby (1904–77), who in turn had appropriated some of his signature techniques from the performance practices of African-American blues singers. These included singing on consonants, decorating the tunes with improvised appoggiaturas and slurred melismas, and distending the rhythm, chiefly by delaying stressed syllables.

Sinatra's career as a ballad crooner lasted from around 1940 to 1947, encompassing World War II (when audiences at home were disproportionately female) and the immediate postwar years. After a prolonged slump he made a comeback in the mid-1950s and remained a popular entertainer for the rest of his life, but no longer as a performer appealing primarily to a youth audience. For by then the youth market had been cornered by a style known as rock ‘n’ roll, “the live wire,”1 in the nostalgic words of the sociologist Todd Gitlin, one of the main “sixties” historians, “that linked bedazzled teenagers around the nation—and quickly around the world—into the common enterprise of being young.” Gitlin's words were well chosen. Far more than any previous popular music, rock ‘n’ roll made an exclusive appeal to youth. Indeed it is fair to say that it was, at least in part, a style calculated to irritate and antagonize the older generation, and was often marketed expressly as a means of widening the generation gap. Thus, unlike virtually all previous popular music, it was the opposite of family entertainment. It was socially divisive as well as uniting, and in its own way it fostered elitism. It was, in short, a kind of modernism. Gitlin's recollections are droll and to the point:

Parents who winced, like mine, “How can you stand that noise!” also helped define what it meant to like rock; if there had ever been any doubt, “that noise” now meant, “Something my parents can't stand.” To the question, “How can you listen to that stuff?” the teenager answered, in effect: “I've got what it takes, and you, the old, the over-the-hill, don't.”2

Precisely, in other words, what the devotee of Wozzeck implied when coolly confronting the objections of the traditional operagoer, or what total serialism implied in its affront to neoclassicism. As “the sixties” approached, the modernist discourse was beginning to turn generations against one another in more fundamental ways than taste, but taste remained the emblem. In this way, rock ‘n’ roll was a genuine harbinger of the culture of the sixties.

The terms “rock ‘n’ roll” and “teenager,” as a matter of fact, were nearly coeval. The widespread use of “teenager” or “teen” to mean a person between the ages of thirteen and nineteen was a product of the postwar economic boom. In one of those paradoxes that the sociologist Daniel Bell summed up in the phrase “the cultural contradictions of capitalism,”3 the independent identity of teenagers, and their economic and cultural freedom, were proclaimed most effectively by the clothing and entertainment markets that most powerfully manipulated and exploited them.

Credit for coining the term “rock ‘n’ roll” was claimed by Alan Freed (1921–65), a Cleveland disk jockey. His was a new profession that arose when situation comedies and live variety shows deserted radio for the new medium of television, leaving empty air time to fill with nonstop recorded music. Radio stations began pitching their musical offerings to “niche” markets. Freed had the inspired idea of purveying recordings of black performers (known as “race” records when their sales were confined to urban ghettos) to a white youth audience. By the early 1950s such music was being marketed under the less demeaning rubric of “rhythm and blues,” or R&B. It was essentially blues and gospel singing enhanced by a driving percussive beat, and had been thought too raw and uncultivated for dissemination on “mainstream” (white) radio.

Freed proved that, given a euphemistic name that further camouflaged its ghetto origins, it was indeed marketable—and then some!—as dance music to white suburban teenagers eager for a badge of identification as members of the “youth culture.” The success and dissemination of the new genre were facilitated by technology: cheap, highly portable transistor radios that enabled fans to carry the music around with them everywhere. Freed's claim to have coined its name has been disputed: some historians trace the term “rock ‘n’ roll” back to rural “Holiness” churches in the deep south as early as the 1920s, when congregations “rocked and reeled” to the antecedents of rhythm and blues, the actual black-American church music that set the words of the gospel to syncopated blues melodies accompanied by guitars, trumpets, and drums. But Freed had the courage—or the commercial savvy—to play R&B recordings by black performers like Ray Charles (1930–2004) and James Brown (1933–2008) while his imitators mainly played “covers”—remakes of R&B songs by white singers who toned down both their insistent rhythm and their often frankly sexual lyrics.

The Music of Youth

fig. 7-2 Elvis Presley, 1957.

Even the covers, however, retained enough recognizable “race” content to inspire a backlash from white supremacists. That racial provocation, added to a rhythmic insistence that evoked a virtually irresistible kinesthetic (= sexual?) response, made the music controversial whether designated R&B or rock ‘n’ roll, and whether performed by blacks or by whites. Frank Sinatra, commercially threatened as well as morally affronted by it, told a Congressional investigating committee in 1957, “Rock ‘n’ roll smells phony and false,” and that “it is sung, played, and written for the most part by cretinous goons.”4 But the same provocations also allied the music willy-nilly with the progressive politics of the civil rights movement. Never before had a commercial music carried so much heavy cultural and political baggage.

The most successful rock ‘n’ roll performer by far was the Mississippi-born singer and guitarist Elvis Presley (1935–77), who did more than any other individual to establish the music, in the measured words of the New Grove Dictionary of American Music, “as a youth culture and the symbol of teenage rebellion.”5 He made his first records in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1954, the year of the Supreme Court's desegregation decree. He achieved nationwide fame in 1956, when his manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, negotiated a contract with RCA Victor, a major label with coast-to-coast distribution, and he made the first of his three appearances on the nationally broadcast Ed Sullivan Show, the most popular television variety program of the day.

More frankly than any previous white performer, Presley consciously cultivated a “black” style, which, although it played into invidious racial and sexual stereotypes (amplified by suggestive body movements that earned him the nickname “Elvis the Pelvis”), greatly magnified his allure with young white audiences of both sexes, and spurred the movement, alarming to many, toward what Gitlin memorably called “cultural miscegenation.”6 It created a dilemma for liberals who deplored the culturally alien music their children were listening to even as they reacted with indignation to the violent racist backlash the civil-rights movement had spurred. Unconscious (or at least unacknowledged) racial and sexual anxieties were fused, and further widened the generation gap. The third time Elvis the Pelvis appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, the producers made a concession to parental disquiet and showed him only from the waist up. Cutting off his lower body turned him in effect into a castrato, and invested him with all the subversive allure those manufactured uncanny beings had evoked two centuries before.

And yet whatever the rebellious solidarity that teenagers felt for rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s, it usually gave way to traditional rites of passage, particularly for white affluent males who could afford higher education. College remained a gateway to “adulthood,” in musical taste as in other areas of culture. Surveys by sociologists showed a consistent pattern. Young men who had listened through high school to the “Top Forty”—rock ‘n’ roll songs plugged on the radio and ranked in popularity according to sales figures for records—renounced them on reaching college in favor of three “adult” musical categories: classical, jazz, and “folk.” Colleges and universities actively abetted the change by administering courses, often required, in “music appreciation,” which acquainted the leaders of tomorrow with the classical canon and encouraged their identification with it. Jazz history was sometimes offered as an elective, but more commonly jazz was fostered on campuses, along with classical music, through performing organizations and by officially sponsored concerts.

“Folk” music also received sponsorship from campus concert bureaus, but the term is somewhat misleading. In the present context it designates not the work of actual “folk” singers (by definition unpaid amateurs who sang as a by-product of, or an accompaniment to, their daily working lives) but rather that of professional musicians performing popularized arrangements of folk songs (or composed folk-style songs) from around the world. The folk group that commanded the widest following at first was the Weavers, a quartet of singing instrumentalists (on guitar, dulcimer, banjo, recorder, etc.) who came together in 1948. The group's best-known member, Pete Seeger (b. 1919), was the son of Charles Seeger (1886–1979), an eminent musicologist and composer long identified with left-wing politics. Professional folksingers were from the beginning associated with labor and social protest movements.

The Weavers fell victim to the anti-Communist blacklists of the McCarthy era, but not before they had established a successful entertainment model that attracted imitators who kept the “folk” genre alive into the sixties, when several charismatic solo performers began to appear, including Joan Baez (b. 1941), Bob Dylan (originally named Robert Allen Zimmerman, b. 1941), Judy Collins (b. 1939), and Joni Mitchell (b. 1943). Except for Baez, these singers sang material of their own creation in addition to traditional music, in effect blurring the line between “folk” and “pop.”

The Music of Youth

fig. 7-3 Bob Dylan in the 1960s.

A taste for “folk” singers or groups remained an indication of political commitment. Although groups like the Kingston Trio (formed in 1957) or Peter, Paul, and Mary (formed in 1961) cultivated a more clean-cut “collegiate” image than the Weavers and steered clearer of overtly controversial material, their songs continued to broach social issues. Peter, Paul, and Mary identified strongly with the antiwar movement, included Pete Seeger songs in their repertoire, and cut a couple of hit records in 1963 that carried messages that were widely interpreted as radical. “Puff, the Magic Dragon” (1963), nominally a children's song, was read (mainly by nervous politicians) as a metaphorical endorsement of the emerging drug counterculture; and “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963) was a Bob Dylan song that warned—or could be read as warning—of the consequences if the civil rights movement were thwarted: “How many years can some people exist before they're allowed to be free?” The line between “folk” and commercial popular music became more and more permeable. Paul Stookey, the “Paul” in Peter, Paul, and Mary, started out as a rock ‘n’ roll guitarist, and continued to draw on the style of playing in which he was trained. But the absence of percussion, and the eschewal of electric amplification, effectively distinguished the “folk” from the commercial product, and lent it an air of “authenticity” on which folk performers particularly traded. Authenticity, the romantic notion that music is, and must remain, true to itself (that is, to its origins) and aesthetically “disinterested,” and that musicians sincerely express their individual personalities, was of course also a major selling point for jazz and classical music, at least as distinguished from commercial pop. But calling it a “selling point” already exposes its illusory (if not downright deceptive) premises.

It was, however, the basis on which that mandatory change of taste that accompanied college enrollment through the 1950s depended. If taste in music was to define one's mature personality, that music had to be regarded as authentically personal in its own right. And along with the issue of personal authenticity went the corollary phenomenon that sociologists observed. No one opted for all three “adult” tastes; at least one had to be rejected, since a sense of personal identity depended on discrimination as well as identification.


(1) Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1987), p. 37.

(2) Ibid., p. 42.

(3) Cf. Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 1976).

(4) Quoted in Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave, Anti-Rock: The Opposition to Rock'n’Roll (New York: Da Capo Press, 1993), p. 46.

(5) Ken Tucker, “Presley, Elvis (Aaron),” in New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Vol. III (London: Macmillan, 1986), p. 624.

(6) Gitlin, The Sixties, p. 39.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 The Sixties." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-007002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 The Sixties. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-007002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 The Sixties." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-007002.xml