By Thomas J. Edwards–
America lurched into the 1950s trapped in a cold war with Joe Stalin’s Soviet Union and the specter of Communism wafting over the U.S. government with Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy trying to root out communists in the State department (he would eventually be proven right although the term McCarthyism would forever be associated by the political left with ruthlessness). As the country inched toward war in Asia, the prospect of a peaceful existence for a generation trying to put the horrors of World War Ii aside and build a new life was fading rapidly as man’s newest invention of mass destruction, the Atomic Bomb and its sibling the Hydrogen Bomb, hovered over the landscape and absorbed the world’s attention.
The 1950s doldrums were liberated when a new form of music burst onto the scene, lifting the post World War II generation of teens from the dullness and plodding of a war-weary country, its children hiding under their school desks somehow to escape atomic incineration. A musician from Highland Park, Michigan emerged in 1952 to the tune of Rock Around the Clock. The new rhythm of Bill Haley and his Comets woke a new generation, the spirit of which would last well into the 21st Century.
A parallel move by a group made up largely of Columbia University protégés, to become known as the Beat Generation, emerged in mid-decade. The flowering of Beat literature and poetry, coupled with its free-wheeling lifestyle, complemented the new music scene and both set the stage for a social revolution that would rise in the 1960s.The last of the core Beat group that assaulted the nation’s senses with “Howl” in 1955, poet Michael MccLure, died at 87 May 6 (Lawrence Ferlinghetti remains but he was not part of the Beat’s cross-country odyssey).
Soon after Bill Haley hit the music charts sending the crooners of the 1940s scrambling to catch up, another even more rockin’ sound crept out of the Memphis, Tennessee environs. The seductive sound and body movements of Elvis Presley would set millions of teen female hearts aflutter, make millions of teen boys jealous, and anger millions of parents and an army of religious objectors. Elvis was followed closely by Jerry Lee Lewis, who gave rock and roll its oomph!
But it was Little Richard Penniman from Macon, Georgia who would set the 1950s on its head and mark the rock music genre as a social game changer. Little Richard’s musical genius at the piano, his lyrics, gender-bending persona and flamboyance, and his shrieks gave the new art form its character, an identification that became massive. Coupled with the Beat energy, the music and literature/poetry defined the generation.
That generation moved on and Little Richard with it. He performed almost until the end — his last performance in 2014 when he was 81 and he died at 87 on May 9. Little Richard’s and Michael McClure’s deaths at the same age almost simultaneously in the midst of a global pandemic are somehow very fitting. They were central figures in lending more joy and excitement to life in the 1950s generation and beyond. That generation somehow has died with their deaths, at a time when the country has been forced into an interminable malaise comparable to the 1950s, a boredom abetted by three generations adrift in a sea of political and personal hatred that the poetry of music, literature and life they gave birth to has been unable to penetrate.