“Punk ain’t no religious cult,
Punk means thinking for yourself
You ain’t hardcore ’cause you spike your hair,
While a jock still lives inside your head”
– “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” Dead Kennedys, 1981
The infiltration into various 1970s/80s rockabilly and punk scenes of incongruous racist and homophobic ideologies served to despoil those interests and threatened to destroy them. And while similar noxious perspectives are in the drastic minority in current communities, that they exist to any degree is cause for concern.
In 1970s England, the punk scene was partially hijacked by the facists of that country’s neo-Nazi National Front. Nazi skinheads also attached themselves to the social phenomenon that was not their own. (Effective opposition was mounted by non-racist punks and Skins.)
Similar elements plagued in 1980s California punk and international rockabilly circles.
To the extent that bigoted thinking may lurk in some quarters of the current rockabilly scene, it is not at all consistent with the subculture but flatly oppositional to its defining spirit of defiance and freedom.
Examining the meaning of rockabilly’s 1950s’s origin points up the style’s innate foreigness from divisive hate agendas. And it underscores those philosophies’s ill-fit in contemporary neo-roots musics communities.
Rock’n’roll was born from a multiplicity of racial and cultural idioms including r&b, hillbilly country, blues, bluegrass and gospel. Proudly embracing that taboo diversity, it thrust its middle finger into the aghast mug of stilted, button-down propriety. (I speak here of the raw, original item, and not subsequent, commercially-cultivated replicas.)
It acted as a socially-unifying component of the growing Civil Rights movement, and brought people together on the dance floor just as others would unite at polling places.
Not to paint too rosy a picture. It wasn’t the entire solution but it did help spark the crucial process. And its service in helping to usher away racial segregation should not be forgotten.
Remember, too, that among the rhetorical brickbats hurled at the burgeoning form by Officialdom were non-veiled racial ones like “jungle music.” Rock’n’Roll History Online observes that the late 50s/early 60s White Citizens Council in Birmingham decried the “race-mixing” potential of the upstart sound’s “raw, savage tone.”
Unfortunately, humanity being at times illogical, some golden-era rank-and-file fans probably clung to existing prejudices. And it is not impossible that this or that original rocker might have held regrettable racial views.
But the law of probability can be applied positively, too: Given numerical quality, there surely were gay 1950s rockers (even if pressures in that day precluded openness.). With increased social acceptance, gay rockers are today visible in the scene, Blues shouter Candye Kane being just one example.
Together with the booming Latino rockabilly fan base, that bespeaks increasing progress toward demographic diversity. All good news.
Still, despite manifest reasons against it, there may yet breathe some degree of intolerance in some sectors of today’s rockabilly scene.
One wonders if individuals who today indulge racial and sexual bigotries — all the while thinking themselves as “of the rockin’ scene” — understand that they are reflecting rock’n’roll’s early critics, and not its true pioneers.
CMT.com recalls the 1960s touring travails faced by legendary singer Wanda Jackson, whose band included pianist/vocalist Big Al Downing. Despite sometimes hostile, racist accomodations and managers, they creditably rocked on.
And one does wish people would stop adorning neo-rockabilly items with the Confederate/Slavery South Stars and Bars — it predated the music’s birth by about 100 years, and is the natural symbol of choice of some distinctly foul and un-rock’n’roll racist interests.
“You think Swastikas look cool,
The real Nazis run your school
They’re coaches, businessmen, and cops,
In a real Fourth Reich, you’ll be the first to go”
The racially-segregated world longed for by the Stars and Bars Confederacy would inhibit the multi-racial development of rock’n’roll. Real rockabillies were the enemies of that order. They acted in rebellion against then-prevailing strictures.
The phenomenon of the individual daring to think for her or himself and rebelling against imposed values undergirds today’s authentic rockabilly community, just as it fired the original.
By the way: The caution to exercise intellectual independence and not uncritically accept proffered viewpoints? It also applies to the piece you’ve just read.
DC LARSON, of Iowa, is CD Review Editor for Rockabilly Magazine. Among his freelance credits are Goldmine, Blue Suede News, No Depression and Rock & Rap Confidential. This piece originally ran on his blog, http://www.dclarson.blogspot.com.