1950s: Music and Youth Culture

By star guest on 28 Jul 2011

In support of our Fabulous fifties late event on 11 August , part of the Story of London Festival, at the Museum of London. DJ’s and recording artists, the Broken Hearts, have provided us with an insight into the influences on and the music from the time which will be showcased on the evening.

The 1950s were a time of societal change and new beginnings. The decade began with austerity measures, rationing and reconstruction still governing many large Western urban spaces. Simultaneously in the UK, old class structures were beginning to be broken down as affluence grew and a new consumer culture was born, heralded by the rise of the teenager.

Popular social histories often tell us that the teenager was born in the sixties – the decade in which a miniskirted Twiggy dominated the press, photographed by the ‘Terrible Three’ – Terence Donovan, Brian Duffy and David Bailey – who were credited with capturing the London YouthQuake in it’s full Swinging glory. But in reality teenagers and early 20-somethings had been running amok since the Bright Young People of the 1920s – the notorious party set that included Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford and Cecil Beaton amongst its notables.

The 50s certainly had much more to do with the mid-century Youth Revolution than it is often given credit for.

Mary Quant opened her first shop, Bazaar, in 1955. Colin MacInnes penned the homage to the teenager, Absolute Beginners, in 1958 and it was published the following year.

While across the Atlantic Elvis’s gyrations were terrorising parents and putting teenage girls in an adolescent fervour from his first single in 1954.

Stylistically, most people associate the 1950s with the full-bodied glamour of stars like Marilyn Monroe, the squeaky-clean domesticity of Doris Day and the ingénue innocence of Sandra Dee. But it wasn’t all aprons and cherry pie. Feeling alienated by mainstream culture, tiny pockets of resistance were forming throughout the States and the UK, who used their musical and sartorial choices to show allegiance to the burgeoning social tribes they were creating.

Much as the Kitchen Sink dramatists were showcasing working class life in theatres throughout the UK, groups such as the Teddy Boys and Bikers were demonstrating that not everyone conformed to the societal ideal of a suburban nuclear family.

Through a period that included the rise of the Cold War, McCarthyism and the acceleration of the Space Race in the States and the Festival of Britain and a coronation in the UK, these groups acted as a very visual indicator that not everyone wanted to live like characters in ‘Pillow Talk’.

We wanted to reflect the diversity of musical styles and culture in the 50s with our playlist, and as such we’ve chosen to include not only chart-topping Crooners like Frank Sinatra and rock ‘n’ roll numbers like Elvis’s first single with Sun Records – a pivotal moment in music history – but also Calypso from Trinidad and Highlife from Ghana, which illustrate the waves of migration that were happening around the globe. Music, as with any art form, mixes influences and cultures. We hope our playlist reflects this.

Jean and Dinah – The Mighty Sparrow 

Nothing says summer like Calypso, and we rarely play a set without including it in some form.

An amalgam of music from different countries, it originated in Trinidad and Tobago but has African and European roots.

Essentially it’s about telling stories; it evolved as a way of slaves communicating when they were forbidden to speak, and through the early 20th century was used to spread news around Trinidad and Tobago. As such it often features social commentary and even battles between Calypsonians, best known as the Calypso Monarch competitions during Carnival.

The most important title, the Road March, has been given out every year in Trinidad and Tobago since 1932. The Mighty Sparrow was one of the seminal Calypsonians of the twentieth century, he was crowned Calypso Monarch no fewer than eleven times and Jean and Dinah won him the first of eight Road March titles. Truly a track of its time, it follows the story of the desperation of prostitutes in Trinidad following the closure of American military bases post-War (a subject also dealt with the previous decade in Rum and Coca Cola penned by Lord Invader and turned into a hit by the Andrews Sisters). Despite the controversial subject matter it became an international hit in 1956.

Fujiyama Mama – Wanda Jackson

Known as the Queen of Rockabilly, Wanda Jackson is a hugely influential recording artist and a strong female voice at a time when early rock ‘n’ roll was dominated by men. As a child Wanda was taken to concerts by artists like the early Western Swing pioneer Spade Cooley, which helped to shape her particular brand of country-tinged rock n’ roll. Her prolific career spans the past 60 years (she started recording in High School) and she’s still going strong – we supported her a couple of year’s ago at the since-closed Luminaire club in Kilburn and we still have the signed record box to prove it. She was often billed alongside Elvis (and even dated him for a time in the mid-50s) and she was also a forerunner to country artists like Dolly Parton; throughout the 50s her mother often designed her extravagant stage outfits, leading her to claim she was the first woman to put “glamour into country music” – an association that lasts to this day! Fujiyama Mama is definitely our top Wanda track, and we’re not alone – it even reached number one in Japan, despite its slightly tenuous lyrics linking Mount Fuji to the atom bomb.

Bloodshot Eyes – Wynonie Harris   

Charismatic singer Wynonie Harris was one of the major proponents of Jump Blues, a style characterised by an up-tempo beat, screeching horns, saxophone solos and witty, outrageous ‘jive’ lyrics. This harder, wilder form of Swing music evolved after WWII and was one of the main precursors to rock ‘n’ roll. We love to play Wynonie Harris on our radio show (Peppermint Candy on Jazz FM)  as his irascible personality really comes through in his songs. Bloodshot Eyes is no exception!

Matilda – Harry Belafonte 

We did mention that we’re big Calypso fans! The 1920s and 30s are known as golden age of calypso but it became internationally popular during the 40s and 50s. During this time Calypso had a huge influence on British music due to the large influx of West Indian families moving to the UK.

The first ship to arrive was the Empire Windrush in 1948 that brought nearly 500 passengers from Jamaica. Excitingly for us, onboard the ship were two pivotal Calypso musicians, Lord Beginner and one of our favourites Lord Kitchener who helped to popularise the music.

In the States, it was Harry Belafonte who did the same job. His commercial take on Calypso (which was actually more often than not variations of Jamaican Mento folk music) burst into the charts with his 1956 album Calypso. One of our favourite artists of all time, his tunes never fail to get people onto the dancefloor when we’re DJing. And not only is his music incredible, he continues to be an inspiration in the political arena too. He’s been heavily involved in Civil Rights and Humanitarian activism as well as being a vocal critic of American foreign policy under the Bush administration. This is his first single, Matilda, from 1953.

The Lady Is A Tramp – Frank Sinatra        

Big Band Swing was America’s most popular form of music right up until WWII, when wartime shortages made it nearly impossible to keep large bands on the road. But this did not signal the end of Swing, and singers such as Frank Sinatra – who had started out singing with Big Bands – went on to taste international success as solo artists. By the late 1950s, Ol’ Blue Eyes was denouncing rock ‘n’ roll as being “sung, played, and written for the most part by cretinous goons.” In 1957 he hit back with his album A Swingin’ Affair featuring this gorgeous rendition of The Lady Is A Tramp.

Blow a Fuse (It’s Oh So Quiet) – Betty Hutton  

You might well recognise the name of this track as it was a hit for Icelandic singer Bjork in 1995. However the song actually started life in 1948 with a totally different name, Und jetzt ist es still, recorded by German-Austrian singer Horst Winter. It was then covered in 1951 by Hollywood movie star Betty Hutton, who recorded it in between filming ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ and ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ with Charlton Heston! Betty’s version is probably our favourite of the three – have a listen and see which you prefer.

Jump Jive and Wail – Louis Prima     

Louis Prima’s exuberant personality comes across in everything he turned his hand to and he had an incredibly varied career, from writing the Swing classic Sing Sing Sing in 1936 to famously voicing  King Louie, the orangutan in Disney’s The Jungle Book. Jump Jive and Wail, an ode to the joys of simply letting rip and dancing, was used in a 1998 TV commercial for The Gap and is one of our favourite ever songs.

Sunday Mirror – E.T. Mensah
Highlife, one of the first fusions of African and Western music, originated in Ghana in the 1900s and incorporates everything from calypso to jazz and swing. It’s an incredibly uplifting and inviting mix and is a real favourite of ours. The trumpeter and bandleader E.T. Mensah became known as the King of Highlife, and in 1948 he formed the Tempos who became the most popular and important post-war Highlife band with fans all over Africa and Europe. Sunday Mirror is one of his hits from the early 1950s and is all about the joys of buying the Mirror newspaper on a Sunday!

That’s All Right – Elvis Presley, Scotty & Bill

 When Sam Phillips launched the Sun Record label in 1952 little did he know he was making music history. The year before he recorded arguably the first rock ‘n’ roll record (although this is a contentious issue), Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats – who included song composer Ike Turner – and by the middle of the decade blues pioneers like Howlin’ Wolf and B. B. King were recording there regularly. In 1954 a young Elvis Presley was in a recording session with Scotty Moore and Bill Black when they began jamming a cover of a song written a decade before, That’s All Right. Phillips was impressed and it became the single that would launch the career of the best-known rock ‘n’ roll artist of all time. While it didn’t earn him a number one (this would come two years later with Heartbreak Hotel after he moved to RCA), or even a place in the national charts, it was a raw, early incarnation of the musical form that would go on to dominate the decade.

This is just a few of the selections that the Broken Hearts have chosen, to hear them all be sure to book your tickets for our Fabulous fifties event here (external link).

We are also looking for your song suggestions to play on the night as well, why not suggest via a  blog comment your favourite fifties track to be added to our Spotify playlist here (external link)?

Keep up to date with the Broken Hearts by following them on Facebook and Twitter.

6 thoughts on “1950s: Music and Youth Culture

  1. Steven Morrissey says:

    Love this, fantastic mix of musical styles, Keep up the good work.

  2. tom says:

    …and let’s not forget Duane Eddy and the Theme from Peter Gunn! played on a cricket bat – and yes I did want to grow up to be Jet Harris!

  3. Derek says:

    So many wonderful songs. Some of my favourites –

    A white sport coat (and a pink carnation) The King Brothers
    All shook up Elvis
    Blue suede shoes Carl Perkins
    Cool water Frankie Laine
    He’ll have to go Jim Reeves
    I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter. Billy Williams
    Lay down your arms Anne Shelton
    Love letters in the sand Pat Boone
    On a slow boat to china Emile Ford & The Checkmates
    Peggy Sue Buddy Holly
    Save the last dance for me The Drifters
    School day Chuck Berry
    See you later alligator Bill Haley & his Comets
    Sixteen Tons Tennessee Ernie Ford
    The Tennessee Waltz Patti Page
    The Yellow Rose of Texas Mitch Miller
    Whatever will be (Que sera, sera) Doris Day
    Young love Tab Hunter

    1. John Joyce says:

      Thank you Derek, we have added “a white sport coat (and a pink carnation)” by The King Brothers to our playlist for our 50s event on Friday http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/London-Wall/Whats-on/Events/FeaturedEvents/LateMOL.htm

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