1950s America often appears to have been a conservative decade. The image of what might be called the “ideal American” circulated widely through the popularity of fifties television shows such as Father Knows Best, The Ozzie and Harriet Show, and other such family programming. The image these programs quietly promoted was that of a white, suburban family life in which gender roles were fixed and difficulties were few. Issues of racial discrimination, Cold War anxiety, and, really, conflict of any substantial kind was left at the door of television’s dream world. Alternately, in that same time period Senator Joe McCarthy’s campaign to stamp out the Communist threat also promoted a vision of the ideal American. But in McCarthy’s case, he established a vision of the ideal American by arguing what one should not be if one wanted to attain such an ideal.
Senator McCarthy used his political position to rail against the possibility of Communists hidden in plain sight, going on to associate Communism with deviant behavior. His list of those who threatened American life included anyone with an interest in Socialist ideas but also artists, homosexuals, labor organizers, and more. Ultimately deemed a witch hunt, McCarthy’s campaign to rid America of Un-American activity was one in which fear of the Other threatened to undo the principles of democracy as many Americans understood them. But in some fashion, McCarthy’s anxieties, extreme in nature, were not his alone. McCarthy’s witch hunt and its seemingly unlikely success as a political effort revealed the intolerance and anxiety about Otherness that was indeed a part of American life. Widespread concerns about the categories normal and abnormal, American and Un-American, insider and outsider revealed themselves across the fabric of the country.
Into that historical moment came Rock and Roll. Rock and Roll included the music of groundbreaking African-American artists such as Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard, whose uptempo, Southern, church-inspired beats caught the attention of both fans and those who worried that in these beats were the seeds of a kind of deviance that might itself be a threat. In that way, it was a time in which the beat became an issue in and of itself. This lesson explores the manner in which the beat in music has at different historical moments become a matter of contestation and anxious scrutiny. In 1950s America, it happened with Rock and Roll. So how does that struggle around a contested issue such as the beat reveal itself, and how is it managed? With Little Richard as a focal figure, this lesson will explore the ways in which the rhythms in Little Richard’s music elicited a strong response from teenage fans but also from pro-segregation forces. Equating the beat with a particular racial spirit and power, pro-segregationists railed against Rock and Roll as McCarthy railed against Communism.
As the lesson unfolds, students will get to investigate some of the ways listeners feel and relate to rhythms, focusing on the language used to describe the beat, and the manners in which rhythms connect to a deeper past and seem to anticipate particular futures. If the beat was a concern in 1950s America, it was again a concern for some, decades later, when Gangsta Rap began to dominate the Billboard charts. How far have we come? And how can we study the past to learn more about the future we’re making and the music we’ll make it with? This lesson gets to the heart of the conflicts that arise as particular rhythms get made, released, listened to, and loved.
How has “the beat” been an object of both celebration and concern in the history of popular music?
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
- Know (knowledge):
- The history of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s campaigns against communism
- Statistics regarding televisions in American households in the 1950s and the significance of those figures
- An understanding of the beat as a contested subject in American life
- About Jim Crow laws and their effects in 1950s America
- About musician Little Richard’s roots and importance as an African-American Rock and Roll musician
- About covers of African-American music recorded by white musicians in the 1950s
- How opposition to Rock and Roll music in the 1950s sometimes focused on the beat and its connection to African-American culture
- Be able to (skills):
- Characterize social, economic, and cultural change over time
- Interpret how public reaction to popular music reflects the social norms and values of a particular historical era
- Analyze statements from historical materials to arrive at a better understanding of the past
- Understand connections between popular culture and the time, place and social circumstances in which it was created
- Integrate and evaluate information presented visually, quantitatively, and orally in diverse media and formats
The Beat Throughout American Popular Music History - Video
The Rev. Jimmie Snow Preaching Against Rock and Roll (1956) - Video
Little Richard performing his hit “Tutti Frutti” in 1957 - Video
Describing the Beat of Little Richard - Video
Pat Boone’s ‘Tutti Frutti' - Video
For additional lesson plan materials, please visit the Lesson Resources at TeachRock.
- Ask your students:
- In music, what is a beat? What do you think of when I say “a beat” or “the beat” in relation to music? (Students may suggest it’s the drums in a song, the rhythm of a song, or the “groove.” One formal definition of “a beat” is: “the organization of sounds and silence in time.”)
- In the montage of music from the 1960s through the present in this clip, in what ways did you hear the beat change? Did it change drastically, or did you hear elements of the beat that remained somewhat constant throughout? (Encourage students to articulate ideas about the beat even if they don’t have formal music language to do so. How does it feel? Did it feel like the early Rock and Roll music was drastically different from later Rock? Or was there a common thread connecting the beats from different eras?)
- Why do you think Jimmie Snow was concerned about the beat?
- Reverend Snow seems to believe the beat is capable of causing something to happen, what do you think he is afraid of?
- Why do you think Snow and others might have been concerned about the effect of the beat on young people in particular?
- Is there a Jimmie Snow in our contemporary world? (Encourage students to consider if any of the media they enjoy has been targeted as unsafe or unfit for young people. How is this like or dislike Snow’s protests?)
- Distribute Handout 1: The Media and Mainstream Culture in the 1950s. Have students read the paragraphs out loud. Help them imagine what many historians have described as the generally conservative cultural climate of the 1950s. Then work through the questions at the bottom of the handout together
- Tell your students that you will now play a song by Little Richard, an African-American performer whose 1955 singles garnered national attention from multiracial audiences. Play Clip 3, Little Richard performing his hit “Tutti Frutti” in 1957. Ask your students:
- How would you describe the beat of “Tutti Frutti”?
- In what ways might you describe Little Richard’s energy as a performer?
- What words did you hear used to describe Little Richard’s beat? What do these terms suggest about how the music was perceived? (Students should recall the beat being described as “contagious,” having a “visceral power,” “tough” and “a pounding you could feel in your chest.”)
- How do you think Jimmie Snow might respond to the terminology used to describe Little Richard’s beat?
- How do you think this music might fit into the idealized family worlds of Leave it to Beaver or Father Knows Best?'
- Considering what you’ve seen so far in this lesson from television in the 1950s, what did Little Richard represent that most Americans were not seeing on TV? (Students might answer: African-American life and music, nightlife, emotional freedom, etc.)
- In what ways might have Little Richard’s popularity, especially his appearances on TV, disrupted nearly century-old Jim Crow laws? (Students might recognize that Little Richard was on TV, therefore he was in the living rooms of white households, despite the rigidly enforced public separation of blacks and whites.)
- How did the White Citizens Council feel about Rock and Roll? For what aspects of Rock and Roll does the WCC express distaste? What do they say about it?
- Why do you think the White Citizens Council focused on the beat of Rock and Roll? (Encourage your students to see how the WCC conceives of the beat as part of its general, racist stereotypes about African-Americans as “animalistic and vulgar.” To the WCC, the beat is black.)
- The White Citizens Council suggested that Rock and Roll would “mongrelize” America. What is a “mongrel”? What do you think the WCC might have meant by this? (Encourage students to recognize that the WCC sees the potential that “the beat” can bring white and black people together in ways they may not be able to stop.)
- Why do you think Pat Boone released a cover of “Tutti Frutti” so soon after Richard released his own version? What purposes do the people in this clip suggest Boone’s cover of the song served?
- Thinking back to what you’ve seen and heard of Little Richard and Pat Boone, what was visually different about Boone’s performance? (Students might observe that there are actors staged around him, all seated, and there is a relaxed “cool” to the performance, no one is sweating, dancing, etc.)
- Would you describe Boone’s beat as visceral or contagious? If not, what adjectives would you use?
- Why might this performance have seemed “safer” to White parents or even Jimmie Snow? Which performer do you think would have been more likely to appear on Father Knows Best?
- Would Boone’s performance have eased the White Citizen Councils’ fears of “mongrelization”? How so? (Encourage students to see that on one hand, to some Boone may have seemed a safe alternative to Little Richard, while on the other, he is assimilating African-American music, which could be called “mongrelization.”)
Ask your students:
- In the midst of concerns over segregation, why do you think “the beat” is what received the most attention from segregationists
- Given all you’ve just heard about the beat from the earliest days of American history until the time of Little Richard, what do you think the beat, as well as the dancing, feelings and reactions associated with it, represented to people like Jimmie Snow or organizations like the WCC? (Encourage your students to consider that, at the time, the association between the beat and black music meant that the beat was a lightning rod for anxieties around race. The beat”seemed to have the potential to bring whatever stereotypes about Black culture a “concerned” White citizen harbored to life. It was contagious, and the WCC was worried about who might catch it.)
Writing Prompt/Structured Debate:
Have students break into two groups (or several units of two groups each). Using the below quotes as a guideline, Group A will argue on behalf of Little Richard and Group B will argue on behalf of Pat Boone. This project will work as either a short position paper or a verbal debate.
- Little Richard: “When ‘Tutti Frutti’ came out… They needed a rock star to block me out of white homes because I was a hero to white kids. The white kids would have Pat Boone up on the dresser and me in the drawer ‘cause they liked my version better, but the families didn’t want me because of the image that I was projecting.”
- Pat Boone: "Here's the bottom line. [In 1955] there were lots of rhythm and blues artists and they were doing well in their genre and they were famous and they had [album sales] charts and everything. The only ones that anyone knows today are the ones that were covered. By the Beatles, by Elvis, by me, by many artists...it introduced them to a far larger audience that they didn't have any access to at that point.”
Photo Credits: Concord Music Group