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Thursday, January 19, 2006 | The first song I ever learned to play on the guitar was “Folsom Prison Blues,” so it was nostalgic and fun when the Johnny Cash movie “Walk the Line” won all those Golden Globe awards this week.
But the movie, focused on the artists’ side, skipped over that history from the consumers’ side, from which a fascinating story should also be told, and a movie made.
In the 1950s in Abilene, Texas, typical of towns in the 50,000-population range, there were two radio stations, both AM. FM radio and what came to be called “narrowcasting” were still a couple of decades away. Whatever an Abilenian’s age or artistic preferences, anything he or she heard on radio came from one of the two stations, KRBC or KWKC.
In 1955, at age 12, on those two stations I listened to everything from “Arthur Godfrey” to “Breakfast Club with Don McNeil,” “Gabriel Heatter,” “Farm Bureau,” “Mixing Bowl,” “The Shadow,” and “Mutual’s Game of the Day,” and, of course, music, particularly popular music. Radio was already publishing “Top 10” lists in those days. The top 10 records for 1953 were “No Other Love” (Perry Como), “Til I Waltz Again with You (Teresa Brewer), “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window” (Patti Page), “Song from Moulin Rouge” (Percy Faith), “Vaya con Dios” (Les Paul and Mary Ford), “I’m Walking Behind You” (Eddie Fisher), “You You You” (the Ames Brothers), “Rags to Riches” (Tony Bennett), “Pretend” (Nat King Cole) and “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes” (Perry Como).
If I was lucky, even in Abilene, a couple of times a day I would hear a country song: Hank Williams, Earnest Tubb, the Carters, Sons of the Pioneers. Compared to “No Other Love,” hearing “Your Cheatin’ Heart” was pretty cool. But the really cool stuff was still way in the distance. In 1954, I could hear stations in Oklahoma City, New Orleans and Nashville, whose signal sometimes was very clear in the still-uncluttered sky. On these stations I heard a new, high-energy music coming from people with exotic names like Fats Domino, Bobby Blue Bland, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley.
That’s the way it was in Abilene, Texas, kids living in an adult culture but with a distant suggestion of change. Then came a Friday night in April 1955. For the kids, Friday night was “show night” in Abilene. We went to the 1,000-seat Paramount Theater (admission: 9 cents), the classic Moorish castle courtyard design with night sky overhead complete with stars and clouds. Grade school, junior high and high school kids all sat in their traditional sections that had been staked out years before.
The movie this Friday night was “Blackboard Jungle,” starring Glenn Ford and Anne Francis. The kids knew nothing about the movie; they were only there because it was Friday night. First there was the black-and-white newsreel and the cartoon (“Looney Tunes,” etc.), and then the ornate red curtain came down, in preamble to the feature. The effect was to set up anticipation, and in fact the crowd became quiet. There were two or three minutes of relative calm. Then:
“One two three o’clock four o’clock ROCK
It was music, loud and urgent, and it thundered on into its first verse – “When the clock strikes one, join me hon” – but we all sat, rock-still, stunned, staring at the rising curtain, transfixed by the energy blasting at us from Bill Haley and the Comets. We had heard music like this, coming at us from somewhere else far across the sky. Now we sat in our very own Paramount, with its big speakers and this high-speed music rocketing at us, and for several seconds we were frozen by it. Then we reacted. We jumped up and yelled and the cooler ones got into the aisles and danced. It was a before-and-after moment that no one there would ever forget.
It was the first night in Abilene of a new extension of culture that would become a culture unto itself. The kids who came out of the Paramount that night weren’t the same kids who went in. In “Walk the Line,” that’s what was happening, the other side of the footlights. It changed Johnny Cash’s life, and, even equally so, mine. I tell my students today: you really should have been there, at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.