Well, where would rock’n’roll be?
Without ya immigration or migration
Where would rock’n’roll be?
Well, there may not have been no country
May not have been no blues
No melting pot down in New Orleans
Well, that’s a hell of a thing to lose.
John Lewis and his Rock’n’Roll trio (2019 Migraine records).
Rockabilly Against Racism
The founding of a campaign called Rockabilly Against Racism, inspired by Rock Against Racism, and the 2019 decision of the biggest international rockabilly gatherings to ban the Confederate flag have the potential to drive out hardline racists from one of the last cultural corners they lurk in.
The rockabilly scene has mostly prided itself on being apolitical – an escapist hideaway from the social and political divisions and hardships of the day.
It has been this very apolitical nature – even to the point of imagining a supposed depoliticisation of one of the principal symbols of white supremacy, the Confederate flag – that has sometimes allowed racists to congregate on the fringes without sufficient challenge.
Racism and rockabilly should be mutually repellent concepts, and yet racism has long been entwined with the rockers’ scene – but so has antiracism. Racists have no culture of their own but often attempt to colonise and distort cultural scenes they have no business being part of.
The campaign to drive racists out is a battle to save the soul of the rockabilly scene.
Black and white = dynamite! The roots of rockabilly
What is rockabilly? Definitions are contested. At its broadest the term rockabilly encompasses the whole spectrum of 1950s style rock’n’roll.
At its “purest”, rockabilly specifically describes the hillbilly and up-tempo rhythm and blues fusion that emerged from the Sun Records recording studio in Memphis in the early 1950s. The early recordings of “the Hillbilly Cat” Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins et al and the short-lived explosion of such music across the US in the years that followed (before being overtly suppressed by horrified conservative forces).
The very suppression, re-emergence and continuation as an almost underground subculture has enabled the rockabilly scene to retain a ‘rebel’ image defiant of fashionable trends.
Brando’s rebel biker character in the 1953 film The Wild Ones coincidentally sums up this apolitical rebellious spirit nicely: “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” “Whaddaya got?”
Definitions are problematic. A broad definition of rockabilly to include all up-tempo popular music of the 1950s clearly encompasses a broad spectrum of distinct musical styles; doo-wop, boogie-woogie, rhythm and blues, western swing etc. A narrow definition sometimes almost arbitrarily excludes pioneering black artists.
If Jerry Lee Lewis is included, you can’t exclude Little Richard. If you include Buddy Holly how can you exclude Bo Diddley or Chuck Berry? The narrowest definition confines it to upright bass and guitar and vocal whoops and hiccups of hillbilly when combined with a fast paced rhythm and blues.
Rockabilly arises out of a fusion of black with poor white dance music brought into one small recording studio and then exploding across the US.
Rockabilly is a sexually charged raw rhythm, impossible without challenging segregation. That is precisely why conservative America was so shaken.
An affront and challenge to racial segregation is embedded within the very roots of the music and within its rebelliousness.
Buddy and Richard
Buddy Holly’s journey into rock’n’roll is illustrative. The young Buddy was intent on pursuing a career playing country and western. He performed hillbilly music during the day but tuned in to radio channels playing “race records” – especially rhythm and blues – at night. Never the twain shall meet.
In 1955 he got a gig supporting the “Hillbilly Cat” and witnessed the rules being broken. Wild fast and furious hillbilly propelled by a driving rhythm and blues beat with the young Elvis blending the vocal styles of black rhythm and blues and white hillbilly.
The impossible had become possible. Buddy wanted a bit of that, and the Crickets were born.
Little Richard’s entry into rock’n’roll provides an example from another angle.
The self-declared “King and Queen of Rock’n’Roll” began his recording career with beautifully crafted soothing rhythm and blues.
On the live scene he was playing raucous sexually suggestive homoerotic songs in clubs sharing the stage with trans performers.
With the emergence of rock’n’roll, Little Richard saw a commercial opening for his more upbeat and “flamboyant” material. Re-writing Tutti Frutti to tone down the sexual content and then re-recording it at an even more fast pace and with wilder vocal expression he soon secured chart success (albeit initially in the case of Tutti Frutti via the adulterated cover version by conservative America’s clean-cut answer to rock’n’roll, Pat Boone).
Prior to the rockabilly/rock’n’roll transgression, music was largely segregated in the US. Artists would listen to output across the racial barriers and would often cover each other’s songs – but in distinct “racial” styles – rhythm and blues, blues or gospel; or country and western and hillbilly.
The radio stations were segregated. Rock’n’roll crossed the divide with records simultaneously topping both the rhythm and blues and the country and western charts.
This reflects the reality of shared cultural experiences of poor white and poor black folk. Rock’n’roll then propelled black artists into the bedrooms of middle class white teenagers. None of this negates the degrading impact of racism but is an expression of a defiant interracial mixing.
Teddy Boys and rock’n’roll in Britain
The Teddy Boy look arrived in London in the mid-1950s, with styles evolved from “Edwardian” fashion first appearing in Saville Row, the famous bespoke tailoring street. This style was aimed at affluent types who wanted to flaunt their wealth in the face of post-war austerity.
The style was taken up by working class youth probably inspired by the Zoot suits worn by black US servicemen on nights out.
Teddy Boys pre-dated the arrival of rock’n’roll on Britain’s shores. I once worked with a former East End Teddy Boy back in the 1980s, who told me: “We wanted to be gangsters. We wanted to show off, we were peacocks. Not many of us liked American music.”
Teddy Boy gangs were linked with violence – often against each other as rival gangs fought. The association with rock’n’roll was simply that Teddy Boys were youth gangs and rock’n’roll appealed to youth.
Not all Teds liked rock’n’roll – and not all rock’n’roll fans were Teds. The reported ripping up of cinema seats and ensuing fighting with police by Teds at showings of Rock Around the Clock linked Teds, rock’n’roll and violence together in newspaper reports.
Between 29 August and 3 September 1958 the west London area of Notting Hill was subject to sustained racist violence stirred up by organised fascists. Police records released in 2002 show that police chiefs at the time downplayed the racist motivation of the rioters and withheld evidence of an overt organised racist dimension from reports given to Britain’s home secretary.
The organised fascists of both Oswald Moseley’s Union Movement and Colin Jordon’s White Defence League had been active in the area before the riots and mobilised to capitalise on them in the aftermath.
The riots were not a spontaneous eruption of Teddy Boy violence but an organised mobilisation by hardline racists whose agitators had been selling the fascist Union Movement’s newspaper.
The media largely focused on Teddy Boy involvement rather than on fascist agitation, and police accounts show that Teddy Boys were involved in the extreme racist violence.
But not all the rioters were Teddy Boys and not all Teddy Boys were racist. But Teddy Boys were now associated with both rock’n’roll and racism.
Whenever rock’n’roll has been associated with racism there have been those within the scene who have challenged racism.
First to release a British rock’n’roll record was Lonnie “King of Skiffle” Donegan with his up-tempo cover of Rock Island Line.
Donegan used his influence to confront racism through his involvement in the Stars Campaign for Interracial Friendship (SCIF). SCIF was in many ways a forerunner to Rock Against Racism and was set up directly in response to the Notting Hill riots.
1970s – Return of the Teds
Apart from a few diehards, Teddy Boys all but died out after the 1950s, and rockabilly music largely vanished into the past. Through the 1960s rock’n’roll fans were more likely to be biker rockers wearing leathers.
In the 1970s a rock’n’roll revival was prompted in part by the import into Europe of lesser-known rock’n’roll and of forgotten rare rockabilly records unearthed in the US.
A corrupted form of the Teddy Boy look was adopted as a uniform for the subculture.
It was in the 1970s that the Confederate flag emerged as a supposed symbol of the genre – since rockabilly had emerged in the Southern States of the US.
A feature of the UK revival was the emergence of rockabilly bands playing original material. This included Shakin’ Stevens and the Sunsets (Stevens went on to be a chart topping mainstream pop star in the 1980s) and Crazy Cavan and the Rhythm Rockers. Both bands were from Wales.
The former cut their cloth often performing at benefit gigs connected with the Communist Party – their manager was a committed Communist.
In 1976 the “March of the Teds” brought 1,000s of Teds onto the streets of London to protest at the lack of authentic rock’n’roll on radio (they got their radio show).
They were led by the self-styled “King of the Teds”, “Sunglasses Ron”, who was known to wear a swastika on his bootlace tie.
In 1977 a second march took place in Manchester. A contingent from London arrived wearing swastika armbands. They met up with a mixed-race Manchester contingent and a frank exchange of views ensued!
Another feature of late 1970s Teddy Boy violence was Teds attacking punks. Teds tend to recall a series of punk provocations.
Rockabilly artist Levi Dexter recalled in an interview that punks had torn down a Confederate Flag from a well-known Ted haunt in Essex; “They took it as racist, but to us it represented rockabilly music as the rock‘n’roll of the south. It stood for rockabilly rebel.”
In 1979 a band called Matchbox appeared on Top of the Pops to perform their hit Rockabilly Rebel with lead singer Graham Fenton sporting a Confederate civil war uniform.
While British Teds included racists in their midst, in France a 1980s mixed-race rockabilly scene saw rockabillies often engage in street fighting with racists.
The emergence in the late 1970s and early 1980s of “neo-rockabilly” bands such as the Shakin’ Pyramids, the Polecats and Buzz and the Flyers brought raw rockabilly to the attention of a younger generation.
The new rockabilly fans rejected the Ted uniform; these were mostly school kids who couldn’t afford drapes. They were also happy to absorb a punk influence. “Sunglasses Ron” hated them.
Today the rockabilly scene remains in good health worldwide including a rockabilly resurgence especially among the Latino community in Los Angeles.
It is a fact that Teds and Rockabillies have often worn the Confederate flag without racist intent.
But the flag has nothing to do with the music or the scene; it cries out, “Racists welcome, antiracists not welcome.” Time to get rid.
I’ve heard people claim the use of that flag is about southern pride and rebellion, not racism. I don’t buy it. A real rebel doesn’t need a flag – they make their own.
And that’s what the Rockabilly Against Racism sticker is for us – a new flag. We needed to set ourselves apart and let everyone know that while we celebrate the sound and style of the 1950s, we’re not living in the past. We’re taking that classic 1957 Chevy and putting a hybrid electric engine in it. Vintage sounds, not vintage values.
—- Mighty Joe Castro (of Mighty Joe Castro & the Gravamen)
Keith Crane is a Rockabilly fan and an active trade unionist