How Rock N’ Roll Broke Racial Boundaries: A Moral Panic

A musical genre which went on to induce moral panic for the sake of equality

Chuck Berry, an African-American musician and one of the pioneers of Rock N’ Roll. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer

The 20th century was home to the largest array of advancements in human history, and music was without a doubt a factor. The emergence of new genres of music during this time period had profound impacts on society which continue to this day, including the overcoming of segregation and improvement of racial boundaries.

While a wide range of music genres were introduced during the 20th century, the emergence of Rock ’n’ Roll music and the moral panics which ensued are among the most significant of these movements. The uprising of Rock ’n’ Roll is significant due to the fact that it was among one of the first major music genres of the time to take influence from African-American styles of music.

The roots of Rock ’n’ Roll, which is widely regarded as occurring in the Southern United States, is comprised of a unique blend of musical styles, taking elements from gospel, swing, jazz and blues music, which were widely African-American genres.

This early form of the genre was known as Rockabilly music, and its African-American roots were clear; according to the University of Southern Indiana,

Rock ’n’ roll is not just an American invitation, but it’s an African American invention…It was originally done by black musicians, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, etc. It very quickly got co-opted by white musicians as well, and it became, and pretty much has been ever since, a white phenomenon — rock ’n’ roll.

The African-American roots of Rockabilly music (and eventually its evolution into the wider-known Rock ’n’ Roll genre) would play a key role in its widespread popularity, which will be discussed at-length. Additionally, with cities being home to a mix of races, whites and blacks were living within the same environment, and this resulted in the styles of music between the two races beginning to feed off each other, which was the start to major race mixing among music.

Rockabilly music, the early form of Rock ’n’ Roll, was emerging, and its inspiration from various African-American music styles was significant. The 1950s saw the widespread popularity of Rock ’n’ Roll music — even before its popularity became widespread, whites knew of its African-American roots, and spread fear. According to Clifford Williamson of The Conversation:

Even before the arrival of Elvis Presley’s gyrating pelvis, fears about Rock ’n’ Roll were brewing from the transgressive collision of Afro-American rhythm and blues, white youths, and sex — all during the fraught racial politics of 1950s America.

Sure enough, the fear became more apparent when Rock ’n’ Roll music became a hit, across the United States and the world. Although traditionally an African-American genre, as discussed, the style quickly became a hit among white teenagers during the time, largely due to the emergence of prominent white Rock ’n’ Roll musicians such as Johnny Cash and, of course, Elvis Presley. According to Erika Doss of the University of Notre Dame:

Elvis’s debut on The Ed Sullivan Show on September 9, 1956, “drew an estimated 82% of the American viewing public (54 million people), who watched him gyrate to ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and ‘Love Me Tender’.

At this point, it was becoming increasingly clear that Elvis and the Rock ’n’ Roll genre was becoming an icon of society during this time, and while many embraced it, many did not.

Elvis’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956 was watched by 82 percent of Americans.

What followed was two varying viewpoints: what many called an innovated genre of music, others called a threat to American nationalism and white culture, and a moral panic ensued. Since Rock ’n’ Roll contained African-American styles of music, and in fact, its roots were almost entirely such. According to the University of Indiana:

One of the moral panics associated with the first wave of rock ’n’ roll was the fear of race mixing — that young black and white kids would get together over this music that had a rhythmic, primitive, sensuous beat. Suburban moms and dads are freaked out about their daughters hanging out with young black men listening to sexualized music…That was brand new in the American experience and it freaked a lot of people out.

White parents feared their children listening to this music and becoming engraved in the so-called “black” culture. It was so important for them to continue to promote segregation in a time where it was so prominent, and was in fact, sadly, a way of life.

Elvis openly acknowledged the African-American roots of the genre he is now called the king of, and by performing such music, he was openly promoting race mixing. Again according to Doss:

Elvis [had an] undeniable appropriation of African-American rhythms and sounds, his own acknowledgement of lessons learned from black musicians, and his personal commitment to racial and cultural integration.

Despite this, however, white parents and older folks still feared Elvis and his “sinful” Rock ’n’ Roll music. The rejection of Rock ’n’ Roll music due to its mixed-race nature was not limited to parents, however; according to Jon Savage of SAGE Journals, in 1956:

Rock ’n’ Roll was banned in the Californian town of Santa Cruz, where, after a concert by Chuck Higgins and his Orchestra, city authorities called it ‘detrimental to both the health and morals of our youth and community’.

Elvis wasn’t only feared and vilified for his promotion of race mixing, but also his sexualization. During his peak, he “soared to teen culture adoration and critical rebuke with an explosive and explicitly sexual performance style…others dismissed him as a ‘whirling dervish of sex,’ [but] Elvis’s sensual and erotic image accelerated his popular culture”, again according to Doss.

Elvis was arguably the most prominent Rock N’ Roll musician, and he often openly acknowledged the genre’s African-American roots.

Parents were now fearing the rise of Rock ’n’ Roll music due to both its African-American roots and Elvis’s sexualized performances, fearing that it would turn their children and the youth of America into minority-accepting sexualized deviants. The emergence of Rock ’n’ Roll generated “a moral panic about sexuality and race mixing”, according to the University of Indiana, and was a nightmare for its opponents during the 1950s.

Like most moral panics, the fear that ensued with the emergence of Rock ’n’ Roll was short-lived, dying out by the end of the 1950s. However, music would go on to generate more moral panics over the course of the rest of the 20th century, with the advancement of rock music and the British Invasion during the 1960s, classic rock during the 1970s and 1980s, and the emergence of punk rock and grunge music during the 1990s.

Nonetheless, it is fair to say that the uprising of Rock ’n’ Roll music, which began with Rockabilly, was a major catalyst of musical advancement in human history and a major step in the breaking of racial boundaries. The African-American roots of the genre and its promotion by prominent artists such as Elvis Presley allowed people of all races to enjoy the music.

While this was heavily fought against by both white parents, leaders of government — as with the genre’s banning in Santa Cruz — and other eminent figures, the popularity wave of Rock ’n’ Roll was too great to counter, leading to it becoming a staple of music and a prominent player in the breaking of racial boundaries.

Chris is a writer and publisher who travels America, and loves doing it. He also loves pizza, video games, and sports, and can tell you a thing or two about each. Follow him on Medium to be informed of new articles.

Sources utilized:

  1. Doss, Erika. “Chapter 5: Shrines and Pilgrimage in the Modern World: New Itineraries into the Sacred.” Shrines and Pilgrimage in the Modern World: New Itineraries into the Sacred, by P.J Margry, Amsterdam University Press, University of Notre Dame, 2011, pp. 123–142.
  2. History.com Editors. “Elvis Presley Makes First Appearance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show.’” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 9 July 2019, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/elvis-presley-first-appearance-the-ed-sullivan-show.
  3. Savage, Jon. “Demonising Those Teenage Dirtbags: The Current Moral Outcry over Drill Music Is so Last Century. Adults Have Been Scared about What the Kids Are Singing for Decades.” SAGE Journals, SAGE Journals, 20 June 2018, journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0306422018784511.
  4. University Communications. “Rock ’n’ Roll and ‘Moral Panics’ — Part One: 1950s and 1960s.” University of Southern Indiana, University of Southern Indiana, 20 Feb. 2017, www.usi.edu/news/releases/2017/02/rock-n-roll-and-moral-panics-part-one-1950s-and-1960s/.
  5. Williamson, Clifford. “Music Has the Power to Rock the State, but Youth Movements Will Find the State Always Bites Back.” The Conversation, The Conversation, 12 Jan. 2017, theconversation.com/music-has-the-power-to-rock-the-state-but-youth-movements-will-find-the-state-always-bites-back-70917.

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