The momentous changes in popular culture from 1945 can’t be written about until a little history of the previous 15 years is discussed. There were enormous political, social, economic and geographical upheavals in the world during the first decades of the 20th century. As a result, popular culture in post-war America simply exploded and it was breakthroughs in technology and music that lit the wick (Erenberg, 1999).
Back to 1930s
The economic misery caused by the ‘Great Depression’ of the 1930’s would be felt particularly hard in the USA. The stock market crash of 1929 had coincided with crippling drought and rural dust storms, blowing precious topsoil away and decimating arable land (Reinhardt & Ganzel, 2003). Agriculture came to a stand still. Now people living in the farming communities as well as the cities were jobless, starving and penniless. John Steinbeck in his novel ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, even though a fiction, is cited as accurately painting a bleak picture of rural America at this time (Unknown, 2003) (Steinbeck, 2006). It was particularly hard for the African-American due to the scourge of racism and segregation (Giordano, 2014). Music was an important part of life especially in rural areas and dancing was important to the social cohesiveness of depressed rural communities (Reinhardt & Ganzel, 2003) (Hornbeck, 2012).
American cities in the late 1930s saw the rise of jazz and blues artists. Young groundbreaking musicians like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie filled the clubs and dance halls in Harlem. The popularity of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra and the touring dance orchestras kept growing (Erenberg, 1999) (Smith, 2003). In rural areas however, a new form of music, influenced by jazz but with its roots in country music, was hitting the country dance halls.
They called it Western Swing and it seems to have had its origins in Texas and was fathered by the likes of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys (Tribe, 2006). This upbeat, crazy, free-form music was heard every night in every town across the ‘Dust Bowl’, as the depressed rural areas of America had become known (Worster, 2004) (Gregory, 2014). Then came the Second World War, and at its end, advances in technology would shape musical history for decades to come (Jordan, 2010).
1945 – Let the good times roll
World War 2 finally came to an end on the 8th of May 1945, when Adolf Hitler committed suicide (Mawdsley, 2009). This end was the start of the great post war boom times. Peace had brought a renewed vigor to American industry. The automobile industry successfully converted from producing war machines back to producing cars. New industries such as aviation and electronics grew quickly (Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, 2013). Along with a housing and ‘baby’ boom (76.5 million babies were born between 1945 and 1964) the US standard of living was on the rise (US Department of Commerce, 2014). Personal incomes increased by 293% (Altschuler, 2003). All of a sudden young people had a ‘disposable’ income. Born into a nation that had been suffering from a terrible economic depression and drought then torn apart by war, they naturally wanted a release. They wanted ‘good-times’ and could afford it. They wanted cars, relationships and music. (Aquila, 1989)
In Manhattan, as in other cities around the US, music became a focal point for social change. Venues up and down the infamous 52nd Street closed and reopened as dance halls, once a ‘hot-bed’ of traditional African-American blues and jazz suddenly became a ‘cool’ place to ‘hang-out’ (Burke, 2008). With the influx of these new young fans that wanted to dance, not sit and listen, jazz had mixed with dance orchestras and spawned the Big Swing Band era and then the ‘jitter-bug’ craze (Young & Young, 2010). In the rural areas however, they were gathering on the weekends in barns and halls, still dancing to their beloved country music and Western Swing (Tribe, 2006).
Musicians everywhere would soon start to use two things that would change music forever. Incredibly, both invented by a single man working out of his garage.
1948 – The Birth of Multitracking
Popular jazz guitarist Les Paul began tinkering with the idea of an amplified guitar in the mid 1930s but it wasn’t until 1942 that he succeeded in designing and creating the worlds first truly electric guitar; the eponymously named ‘Les Paul’ guitar that’s still made and played all over the world today. However, he was soon about to change musical history again. After years of experimentation Paul created the first multi-tracked recordings. First using wire and acetate and later on magnetic tape, Les Paul would revolutionise the music industry and help create the entertainment mass market of the future (Shaughnessy, 1993).
In his garage Paul would record his incredible guitar playing. He experimented with a number of different recording techniques and coined phrases that are still in use today such as ‘sound on sound’, ‘over dubbing’ and the ubiquitous ‘echo effect’. His breakthrough came in 1948 with a recording of the song “Lover”. It featured his amazing guitar work repeated and harmonized over a number of individual recordings or ‘tracks’. This method of layering a recording, while being able to hear the previous tracks so as to keep in time, became known as overdubbing and had never been done before. All music up until this day was recorded live as a single performance and nearly all monophonic. It wasn’t long before Paul was creating 24-track recordings and producing huge hits like “How High the Moon” with the amazing vocals of Mary Ford (Shaughnessy, 1993).
Although Les Paul invented the process of multi-tracking, it was Ross Snyder who invented the Multi-Track Tape Recorder. Snyder was a special projects manager working at Ampex in the 1950’s (Milner, 2011). He was interested in how the new sound-on-sound recordings were created using the current technology in single-track tape machines. He noted the fact that Les Paul used several machines to affect his unique recordings, over-dubbing one to another to build up his tracks. This technique caused a loss in quality as the original track was lost to its copy.
It was from this thought that the Ampex ‘Sel-Track’ 8 Track tape recorder was developed and by 1955 studios everywhere where using it. 7ft high and running 1” tape it was a monster of a machine. Now you could record 8 tracks and play them back simultaneously with no loss of quality (Bartlett & Bartlett, 1999).
1952 – Rock Around the Clock
Soon musicians and artists were recording thousands of new albums each month and new industries formed around them. High Fidelity Stereo Recording studios and record stores sprang up everywhere. New radio stations all across America were playing records of African-American jazz and blues artists while others played country singers and western swing bands. Music was fast becoming a new boom industry. Entertainment management companies and artist agencies began opening their doors. New venues were opening by the hundreds (Hull et al., 2011).
Recording Artists were touring the land, selling out venues across America and their recordings sold in thousands. Teenagers were dancing to both black and white artists who were gaining in popularity. There was a mix of musical styles and extraordinary changes in social behaviors and culture. Then suddenly from this milieu came a middle aged country yodeler and western swing artist who took the back beat out of western swing, mixed it with the African-American jazz jitter-bug and created Rock and Roll.
His name was Bill Haley and together with a jazz guitar picker and a western swing drummer and a country bass player formed The Comets. With their very first recording for Decca in April 1954 they produced ‘Rock Around The Clock’, still cited as one of the biggest selling ‘rock’ singles of all time (Fuchs, 2011). Bill Haley and The Comets set the scene for the coming momentous changes in youth culture and paved the way for the early African-American rock and roll artists such as Little Richard and Bo Diddley but also created a path for Elvis Presley and the vast tapestry of music throughout the decades to follow.
In America the 15 years of national hardship from 1930 to 1945 were caused by many factors from economic to environmental, political to social. In 1945, with the ‘Great Depression’, the horror of the ‘dust bowl’, and WW2 over, life returned to normal. Then came vast technological improvements and the meeting of African-American blues and jazz with country music. The standard of living rose dramatically, old regimes were falling. Racism and segregation were being fought and questioned. There was a growing social need for release, for joy.
Rock and Roll gave them that release and from 1955 onwards forged its way into popular culture.
Milner says in his book that, ‘Although Les Paul designed the ‘solid body’ electric guitar in 1941 and produced a working version by 1942, by the time it was ready for mass production by Gibson in 1952, Leo Fender had already mass produced the Fender Broadcaster four years earlier in 1948, thus beating Paul to popular credit for the invention’. Les Paul bought an Ampex ‘Sel-Track’ for $10,000 in 1952 and continued to record some incredible guitar work. He died in 2009 aged 94 still playing his beloved ‘Les Paul’ signature ‘solid body’ electric guitar (Milner, 2011).
Arguably, the worlds first rock and roll song was the 1948 recording of ‘Move it on over’ by Hank Williams. While Bill Haley was still singing yodelling ballads, Hank has ‘cool’ band of electric instrumentation and using a drummer who played ‘the back beat’ for the first time on record.
Altschuler, G.C., 2003. All Shook Up: How Rock ‘n’ Roll Changed America. Oxford University Press. standards of living in the 40’s – ersonal income stats.
Aquila, R., 1989. That Old-Time Rock & Roll: A Chronicle of an era 1954-63. Urbana: University of Illionois Press.
Bartlett, B. & Bartlett, J., 1999. On-location Recording Techniques. Taylor & Francis.
Burke, P.L., 2008. Come In and Hear the Truth – Jazz and Race on 52nd Street. Chicago, Illinois, USA: University of Chicago Press.
Erenberg, L.A., 1999. Swingin’ the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture. University of Chicago Press.
Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, 2013. The Postwar Economy: 1945-1960. [Online] Available at: http://countrystudies.us/united-states/history-114.htm [Accessed 15 July 2014].
Fuchs, O., 2011. Bill Haley – Father of Rock and Roll. GeInhausen, Germany: Wagner Verlag GmbH.
Giordano, R.G., 2014. Social Dancing in America. [Online] Available at: http://testaae.greenwood.com/doc_print.aspx?fileID=GR3352&chapterID=GR3352-481&path=books/greenwood [Accessed 15 July 2014].
Gregory, J.N., 2014. “The Dust Bowl Migration” Poverty Stories, Race Stories. [Online] Available at: http://faculty.washington.edu/gregoryj/dust%20bowl%20migration.htm [Accessed 16 July 2014].
Hornbeck, R., 2012. The Enduring Impact of the American Dust Bowl: Short- and Long-Run Adjustments to Environmental Catastrophe. [Online] Available at: http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/hornbeck/files/hornbeck_dustbowl.pdf [Accessed 12 July 2014].
Hull, G.P., Hutchison, T., Strasser, R. & Hull, G., 2011. The Music Business and Recording Industry (Google eBook). Routledge.
Jordan, , 2010. Family, Farming, and Military Service at Darvills, Viginia, 1965-1967: An Application of Methodology in Community Studies. [Online] Available at: http://scholarscompass.vcu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3304&context=etd [Accessed 12 July 2014].
Mawdsley, E., 2009. World War II: A New History. Cambridge University Press.
Milner, G., 2011. Perfecting Sound Forever: The Story of Recorded Music (Google eBook). Granta Books.
Reinhardt, C. & Ganzel, B., 2003. Farming in the 1930s. [Online] Available at: http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe30s/life_01.html [Accessed 12 July 2014]. 1930’s rural socoal landscape in America.
Reinhardt, C. & Ganzel, B., 2003. Farming in the 1940s. [Online] Available at: http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe40s/life_01.html [Accessed 12 July 2014]. Rural social landscape in america in the 1940’s.
Shaughnessy, M.A., 1993. Les Paul: an American original. W. Morrow.
Smith, K.E.R., 2003. God Bless America: Tin Pan Alley Goes to War. University Press of Kentucky.
Steinbeck, J., 2006. The Grapes of Wrath. USA: Penguin Group. First published in 1939.
Tribe, I.M., 2006. Country: A Regional Exploration (Google eBook). Greenwood Publishing Group.
Unknown, 2003. Farm Labor in the 1930s. [Online] Available at: https://migration.ucdavis.edu/rmn/more.php?id=788_0_6_0 [Accessed 16 July 2014]. Volume 9 Number 4.
US Department of Commerce, 2014. United States Census Bureau. [Online] Available at: http://www.census.gov [Accessed 12 July 2014]. Facts and figures used in writing this essay.
Worster, D., 2004. Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s. Oxford, London, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
Young, W.H. & Young, N.K., 2010. World War II and the Postwar Years in America: A Historical and Cultural Encyclopedia, Volume 1 (Google eBook). ABC-CLIO.