When it comes to the key events that helped to create the societies that emerged in America and the West at large in the post-war years, and specifically since the 1960s Counterculture, the 1950s are of considerable relevance, with 1955 being arguably of special significance in this respect, as Charles Ealy, author of a 2005 article Seeds of Change Sown in 1955, published on the 26th of November 2005 in The Dallas Morning News, cogently argues:
‘The Fifties are popularly remembered as a period of shiny complacency, but in reality, American culture was being shaken to its core by mid-decade. In 1955 alone, the nation sat up and took notice of Elvis and rock 'n' roll […] It saw the rise of teen culture, with James Dean representing youth alienation in East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause […] "It's a crucial year in a crucial decade in so many ways," says Christopher Sharrett, a professor of communications and film studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. "I think the year represents the increasing discontent of Americans during a period of great prosperity and expansion" after World War II. It's easy to overemphasize one year such as 1955 and not see history as a continuum, historians say. But "we begin to see major cracks in the plaster of American culture," Dr Sharrett says.’[i]
1955 was the year in which Rock and Roll started making serious incursions into the mainstream of popular music[ii] thereby helping to ignite the Rock and Youth revolutions to come, with Chuck Berry reaching number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in July with Maybellene, and Bill Haley & His Comets’ Rock Around the Clock becoming the first rock and Roll record to reach number that same month; while Little Richard would reach number 21 with Tutti Frutti, featuring its celebrated Rock and Roll battle cry of ‘awopbopaloobopalapbamboom!’, in October.[iii]
The previous March had seen the release of Richard Brook’s film version of Evan Hunter’s semi-autobiographical novel Blackboard Jungle, featuring Rock Around the Clock, which had initially been recorded by Sonny Dae And His Knights, over the opening credits and beyond. Unlike Dae’s easy going original, complete with tasteful Jazzy guitar solo, Haley’s ferocious version was remarkable for its earth-shaking sense of urgency[iv]; and it could be argued that the world would never be the same again following its inclusion in Blackboard Jungle.[v]
Then in August, Sun Records of Memphis, Tennessee, released a Rockabilly cover of Mystery Train, written by Junior Parker and recorded as Little Junior’s Blue Flames in 1953, by Elvis Presley, Scotty and Bill, featuring the so-called King of Western Bop[vi] who went on to become not just the dominant artist of early Rock and Roll, but one of the most momentous cultural figures of the 20th Century.[vii]
On the 30th of September, James Dean died in hospital following a motor accident aged 24, with his third and final film, Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause, emerging a little under a month after his death, and Dean’s luminously beautiful image, captured in innumerous charismatic photographs, has never dated nor been truly surpassed in terms of its status as an icon of tortured rebelliousness.[viii]
One of the last of the year’s major revolutionary events took place on the 7th of October at San Francisco's Six Gallery at 3119 Fillmore Street, when about 150 people gathered to witness readings by Philip Whalen, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, with Kenneth Rexroth serving as MC, and Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Lawrence Ferlinghetti forming part of the audience. Ginsberg galvanised the audience with excerpts from his epic poem Howl, destined to become the defining poem of the nascent Beat Generation, while Kerouac, almost completely unknown at the time, emitted rhythmical cries of encouragement[ix], until the entire audience joined in.[x] Two years later, Kerouac’s On the Road, a semi-autobiographical novel based on his time on the road from 1947 to 1950, much of it with Cassady, famously named Dean Moriarty in the novel, would secure his reputation as the movement’s prime mover, even while the self-styled Canuck from Lowell, Massachusetts, was not a natural rebel, given his working class origins and lifelong Catholic faith.[xi]
In a remarkable article entitled Youth in a Delinquent Society written for the Trotskyist Fourth International in the Fall of 1955, its author, Joyce Cowley, was at pains to emphasize the general conformity of American youth in the mid 1950s, while also making it clear that cautious conservatism was far from being the total picture, and that there had been a sharp rise in crime since the onset of the decade. Additionally, she made the point that the nature of the crimes committed during this period were of a shocking gravity that had been relatively uncommon in the U.S. in more recent decades. In support, she alluded to various phenomena which are all too familiar to those of us who came to maturity in the 1960s and beyond, including the abuse of narcotics, and acts of gratuitous cruelty and violence, from teen gang rumbles to the senseless sacrifice of innocents.[xii]
Yet far from being some kind of crime highpoint, 1955, or 1955-’60, marks the point crime started to exponentially rise in both the US[xiii] and Western Europe.[xiv] At the same time, standards of sexual morality were being slowly subtly undermined in America and the West, thereby anticipating the full-blown sexual revolution of the succedent decade, as Kenneth Cmiel has affirmed:
‘[…] sexual mores were becoming less rigid inside mainstream society in the 1950s, a prelude for the next decade. The counterculture of the mid 1960s was only picking up on debates already under way in mainstream society.’[xv]
However, the 1960s would not truly burst into life until the onset of Beatlemania, and specifically the Beatles’ invasion of America in February 1964 which occasioned what David Kapp has called ‘a cataclysmic cultural shift’[xvi] within the U.S. More or less concurrently, yet far from the Pop mainstream, Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ from the January 1964 album of the same name seemed to herald the Counterculture like some kind of a clarion call[xvii], although Dylan himself refused the label of generational spokesman[xviii], while some nine months later, the era of student protest began via the Free Speech Movement, when students at the University of California, Berkeley, elected to protest against a ban on on-campus political activity.[xix] Then on June the 14th, Colorado-born and Stanford-educated Ken Kesey, author of the best-selling One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, set off on a road trip from his home in La Honda, California in the company of an ever-mutating band known as the Merry Pranksters. Destined for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, they did so on a luridly painted former school bus (‘yellows, oranges, blues, reds’[xx]) named Furthur, and it is significant that Neal Cassady, known by the Pranksters as Speed Limit[xxi], did most of the driving, given that the entire trip had been inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Yet, when Kesey finally met Kerouac in New York, the one-time king of the Beats had little to say to the new king of the nascent ’60s Counterculture.[xxii]
The first of the notorious Acid Tests is believed to have occurred in Soquel, California, on the 27th of November 1965 at the rented house of Prankster Ken Babbs, known as Intrepid Traveller[xxiii]; with the second arising on the 4th of December in San Jose, at which the Warlocks, formed from the remnants of a jug blues outfit named Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, played for the first time as the Grateful Dead. These LSD-fuelled events, variously enhanced by such phenomena as day-glo décor and psychedelic light shows, as well as the outlandish costumes of Acid Test revellers[xxiv], could be said to have demarcated the point at which the Beat Generation mutated into the Hippie Movement. While Allen Ginsberg became a kind of father figure for the Hippies, his friend Jack Kerouac wanted no part of them[xxv], and in the year the Counterculture attained what many believe to have been its apogee in the shape of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair of August 15-18, 1969[xxvi], Kerouac died following a massive abdominal haemorrhage related to years of chronic alcoholism, his dear friend Neal Cassady having predeceased him by only a matter of months. Cowboy Neal had died in hospital early the previous year after having been found unconscious on rail tracks just outside of San Miguel de Allende in Mexico’s central highlands.[xxvii]
Some half a century after the first Acid Test, and six decades following the Six Gallery reading, and any relevant internet search will produce article after article proclaiming the moral decline of America and the West at large, consequent on other forms of decline such as the traditional family, and traditional notions of right and wrong centred on the West’s ancient Judeo-Christian foundations.[xxviii]
Moreover, there are those Christians, who are of the belief that these are the last days prior to the return of Christ[xxix], as depicted in Matthew 24:
‘But as the days of Noah were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.’[xxx]
Yet, in the preceding verse, Christ makes it clear that apart from God the Father, no one knows the precise day and hour of his return:
‘But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.’[xxxi]
While there is divergence of opinion among them with respect to the prophetic timeline, these believers unanimously maintain that the millennium to come - hence their status as premillennialists - will constitute the literal reign of Jesus Christ during which, to quote from a recent podcast by Chris Fluitt of Redemption Church of Plano, Texas, ‘There won’t be sickness, disease or anyone born with deformity […] There will be no oppression. No more racism. Social, political, economic or religious oppression.’[xxxii]
The revolutionary changes that distinguished the 1960s, which had themselves been significantly incubated in the preceding decade notably via the Beat Generation[xxxiii] despite the latter’s general conformity, were ultimately co-opted by the mainstream of Western society[xxxiv], where they set about significantly impacting not just the end of the century world, but that of the early 21st[xxxv], a world, as previously mentioned, many see as being in a state of terminal moral decline, with the situation liable to only worsen as the millennium gathers momentum; while others, quoting from Scripture, offer hope that this same world might be returned to life and health by a revival of the moral values rooted in the West’s traditional Christian heritage.[xxxvi]
[i] Charles Ealey, Seeds of Change Sown in 1955 (Dallas: The Dallas Morning News, 2005).
[ii] Larry Birnbaum, Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Lanham, Toronto and Plymouth: The Scarecrow Press, 2013), p. 11.
[iii] John Covach, What’s That Sound: An Introduction to Rock and its History: 2: The Birth and First Flourishing of Rock and Roll (New York City: WW. Norton and Company, Inc.).
[iv] Klaus P. Fischer, America in White, Black, and Gray: A History of the Stormy 1960s (New York and London: Continuum, 2006), p. 66.
[v] Alex Frazer-Harrison, Blackboard Jungle: The little movie that rocked the world (Calgary: The Calgary Herald, 2015).
[vi] Max Décharné, A Rocket in My Pocket: The Hipster’s Guide to Rockabilly (), p. 36.
[vii] Scott Schinder and Andy Schwartz, Icons of Rock: An Encyclopedia of the Legends Who Changed Music Forever (Westport and London: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008), p. 2.
[viii] Fischer, pps. 66-68
[ix] Paul Varner, Historical Dictionary of the Beat Movement (Lanham, Toronto and Plymouth: The Scarecrow Press, 2012), p. 265.
[x] William Hjortsberg, Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2012).
[xi] James Terence Fisher, The Catholic Counterculture in America, 1933-1962 (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989), p. 220.
[xii] Joyce Cowley, Youth in a Delinquent Society (Fourth International, 1955), pps. 115-119.
[xiii] Eli Lehrer, Crime and Economy: What Connection? (WashingtonD.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 2005).
[xiv] The Routledge Handbook of European Criminality, ed. by Sophie Body-Gendrot, Mike Hough, Klára Kiresy, René Lévy and Sonja Snacken (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2014), p. 111.
[xv] The Sixties: From Memory to History, edit. by David Farber (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1994), p. 275.
[xvi] David Kamp, The British Invasion (New York: Vanity Fair, 2002).
[xvii] James E. Perone, Music of the Counterculture Era (Westport and London: Greenwood Press, 2004), p. 98.
[xviii] American Countercultures: An Encyclopedia of Noncomformists, Alternative Lifestyles, and Radical Ideas in U.S. History: Volume One-Three, edit. by Gina Misiroglu (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), p. 811.
[xix] The Free Speech Movement (Oakland: Calisphere: University of California, 2005).
[xx] Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (London: Black Sawn, 1989), p. 66.
[xxi] Wolfe, p. 74
[xxii] Wolfe, p. 94.
[xxiii] W.J. Rorabaugh, American Hippies (Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 2015), p. 55.
[xxiv] Ed McLanahan, Famous People I Have Known (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2003), p. 166.
[xxv] Barry Miles, Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats (London: Virgin Books, 2010), pps. ix-x.
[xxvi] James E. Perone, Music of the Counterculture Era (Westport and London: Greenwood Press, 2004), p. 183.
[xxvii] Peter Ferry, Searching for Neal Cassady in San Miguel de Allende (Chevy Chase: World Hum, 2010).
[xxviii]Dennis Prager, America’s Accelerating Decay (New York: National Review, 2015).
[xxix] Hunt, Dave McMahon, T.A., Revival or Apostasy? (Bend: The Berean Call, 2015).
[xxx] Matthew 24: 37 (King James Bible Online).
[xxxi] Matthew 24: 36 (King James Bible Online).
[xxxii] Chris Fluitt, Afterlife 2- Millennial Kingdom Reign and Rapture Reward (Plano: RedemptionChurch).
[xxxiii] Jerry Carrier, Tapestry: The History and Consequences of America’s Complex Culture (New York: Algora Publsihing, 2014), p. 134.
[xxxiv] Sarah E.H. Moore, Ribbon Culture: Charity, Compassion and Public Awareness (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), p. 101.
[xxxv] Zoë Corbyn, The Long Summer of Love (Washington, D.C.: The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2017).
[xxxvi] Alex Parker, America Needs a Christian Revival (RedState, 2018).