The Rockabilly Movement

During the month of March, PBS affiliates will be airing a documentary called Welcome to the Club—The Women of Rockabilly. Directed by independent filmmaker Beth Harrington, the film focuses on four women—Wanda Jackson, Brenda Lee, Janis Martin, and Lorrie Collins—who, in the 1950s, labored alongside Elvis, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis on the Southern front of the cultural revolution. Say you've never heard of them? Well, that's sort of the point.

In the official histories, the feminist movement of the late 20th century began in the mid-1960s, among young women in the civil rights movement who had grown tired of typing, making coffee, and running the mimeo machine while the guys planned the revolution. But too few historians have noted that the political events of the civil rights years were prefigured (in ostensibly apolitical form) by the rock-and-roll revolution of the mid- and late-1950s. Several years before the lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides, black and white young people, and their musicians, were challenging, bending, and even breaking the Southern color line. Rigid gender roles began to bend as well. Leave aside the blatant androgyny of Little Richard and just look at the colors and frills on the other male singers. And check the hair. At a time when the flat-top represented the American male ideal, the rockabillies wore coiffures worthy of French royalty.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2002
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