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.

So it should come as no surprise that there was a small women's corps in the rockabilly army. The women chronicled in Welcome to the Club mostly shared the same poor Southern backgrounds as their male counterparts, and, as the snatches of film and kinescope images from the 1950s make clear, all of these women were working the same vein of hillbilly rhythm and blues as their male counterparts. And they were doing it with the same passion and energy. The problem was that a significant part of that energy was sexual, and the world was not ready for open expressions of female sexuality.

That may be why Brenda Lee, who was safely pre-pubescent, became the only one of these women to break through on the pop charts. Janis Martin came close with her self-penned "Drugstore Rock and Roll," but her career was cut short by an early pregnancy. It would be another 30 years before Chrissie Hynde was able to put "mom" and "rocker" in the same sentence.

THE GREAT LOST treasure of this bunch is Wanda Jackson. A journalist once described her as a nice young lady who happened to have a "really nasty voice." She's a nice older lady now, but the voice has held up remarkably well. In a just world, she would be enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, perhaps right next to the leering visage of Jerry Lee Lewis. And her contributions to rock and roll weren't solely musical.

Early in Welcome to the Club, Big Al Downing starts to appear as an onscreen commentator. What's he doing here? I wondered. Downing is an African-American country-and-western singer, the other one after Charley Pride. But I didn't know that he had any connection to rockabilly, and his presence wasn't explained at first. Later we learn that, in the old days, he was the piano player in Wanda Jackson's touring band. Yes. A Southern white woman was traveling around America in the Jim Crow days with an integrated band. And, at last, Downing gets to tell his story. They were playing a cowboy roadhouse in Wyoming. When the club owner saw Downing, he said, "You have to keep him off the stage. Either you play without him, or you don't play." Downing says he was preparing to pack his stuff and wait outside. He didn't want to put the singer on the spot. But Wanda Jackson put her foot down. "If he goes, I go," she said, and another whites-only outpost was, at least temporarily, integrated.

Though no one knew it at the time, that rockabilly moment, along with many, many others, helped to change America for generations to come. Thanks, Wanda.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

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