I’ve been teaching a course on popular music this semester. This is not the first time I’ve taught such a course, but each time I teach a course like this one, I take the responsibility and pleasure of doing more research.
Lately, I’ve been captivated by Wanda Jackson, who despite her nickname as Queen of Rockabilly, has been essentially unknown to me until recently. I think her career has been very important for the history of popular music in the U.S. and beyond, with wider societal implications.
In the Swing Era, mainstream female pop vocalists were generally expected to present a demure image, concentrating on romantic songs, not sexy party songs. Of course, there were many exceptions to this. Cole Porter’s lyrics present all sorts of double entendres, and mainstream artists did not shrink from singing witty sexual-themed songs like “Let’s Do It.” But for the most part, the white establishment in the U.S. expected its female pop stars of those days to be or at least appear to be chaste and traditionally feminine.
But some way into the 1950s, things changed drastically. And to understand the importance of the change, we need to consider the history of relations not only between the sexes but also between the races in the United States.
Since at least well back into the 19th century, white Americans have been fascinated with black music. This reflected itself in the mockery and imitation of African-Americans by minstrel troupes, but also figured in the use of mistrelsy as a form of subversion directed at the European-oriented elite. Around the turn of the 20th century, ragtime was seen as the new modern music of a new century of technology and invention. Shortly thereafter, jazz was featured in the segregated speakeasies and clubs during and after Prohibition. And finally, swing became the mainstream music of the country and well beyond in the 1930s and 40s. Segments of the conservative white establishment considered all of these forms of basically black music to be threats to conservative white values at the time. I quote from page 62 of the 2nd Edition of American Popular Music: From Minstrelsy to MP3 by Larry Starr and Christopher Waterman, which I use for my course:
“A survey of articles published in the New York Times…reveals a pattern of association between jazz, social dancing, and various forms of `deviance,’ including alcohol consumption, indiscriminate sex, effeminacy, suicide, bestiality, insanity, and indigestion[!] In a[n]…elaboration on these themes, quoted in the Times in 1934, a religious authority asserted that `jazz was borrowed from Central Africa by a gang of wealthy international Bolshevists from America, their aim being to strike at Christian civilization throughout the world.'”
But as shrilly as previous styles of black music had been criticized by white conservatives, probably none of them changed white society in America as radically as the leading-edge popular music of the 1950s would.
The recording industry decided early on to segregate their marketing, with most records directed to a general (essentially white) audience and other records, called “race records” (renamed “rhythm and blues” records in the late 40s) performed by and for blacks, while still other records were directed toward an audience of “hillbillies” from Appalachia and the rural South. But in the 50s, these designations started to break down. For the first time, the blues became completely mainstream – probably the most mainstream it’s ever been, before or since, with the possible exception of the 60s and early 70s – and with it, attitudes toward sex roles and relations between the sexes that had been standard fare in old-time African-American blues were introduced to an entire generation of rebellious white teenagers, over the not very effective resistance of skittish censors and concerned parents.
And while Elvis – in many ways, almost a white black man, in that he understood the blues to the core of his being, through countless hours of his childhood spent in the black part of his home town, Tupelo, Mississippi – was the man who burst onto the scene with his “Elvis pelvis” and lyrics as suggestive as the censors would allow him to get away with, his friend, Wanda Jackson, was if anything an even more radical departure from previous expectations when she turned from a sweet adolescent country singer into a sexy young rockabilly queen. While the traditional double standard always left some room for naughty bachelors, white society had trouble accepting a sexually demanding or aggressive woman as a role model to celebrate. Wanda Jackson was in that sense the bold pioneer for all the aggressive female rock stars who followed in her footsteps.
Check out this 1950s performance of “Hard Headed Woman.” It’s funny, but notice how in-your-face Jackson is. Her singing is powerful and gravelly, and the lyrics she sings, in the hands of a woman, are a celebration of the dangerous power of female sexuality over men, “ever since the world began.” A similar point is made in this 1950s performance of “Cool Love.” Complaints about men not being able to satisfy them had been a staple of female blues artists since at least the days of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, but even in this comparatively tame form, it had to have been a striking departure for white audiences to see this cute white girl telling her man what to do.
So when people tell you that the 1950s were such a conservative decade, it might pay to point out that the total embrace of black music by young white audiences – whether they called it the blues, R&B or rock ‘n’ roll, it was really the same music – may have had something to do with changes in attitude that helped lead to increasingly successful pushes toward integration between the races and sexual and women’s liberation that, while always facing fierce resistance, did a lot to give the 60s its flavor.
And there’s at least one more way in which Jackson embodies a change in society. As a child of 1937, Wanda Jackson predates the baby boom by almost a decade, but she had her greatest popularity in the 1960s, a time when young people were told: “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Well, the baby boom generation is a lot older now, to the point that an ad campaign a few years ago featured a man wearing a shirt with a “Never trust anyone over 70” legend. So whereas it was hard to imagine any elderly man or woman being a pop music star of any kind in the 1960s and 70s, Wanda Jackson is still touring and recording today, at the age of 74. Here she is, singing “Fujiyama Mama” – a 1953 #1 hit in Japan – in 2006.
And lest you should think Ms. Jackson is only performing her 1950s and 60s hits for an old crowd, today, take note of the fact that she released a new album in 2011 that was well-received by many critics and enjoyed her first ever charting on the Billboard Hot 200 LP chart, peaking at No. 58. Rock on, indeed!