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A year in music: 1950, visionaries in the vanguard

Singer/songwriter, Alan Lomax joined his father, John Lomax in 1933 and they colloborated in compiling "American Ballads and Folk Songs" and "Our Singing Country." (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images) - Credit: Corbis via Getty Images

As a new decade began, two men were at work, behind the scenes, on projects that would revolutionise music.

MEMPHIS, TN – CIRCA 1957: Photo of Sam Phillips (Photo by Colin Escott/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images) – Credit: Getty Images

The wartime decade was finally being left behind as Britain hit mid-century, and the future was coming fast. The eight London New Towns had already been designated and were symbols of a promised post-war British utopia. The shape of everyday life was changing. Sainsbury’s opened the first American-style ‘self-service’ supermarket in Croydon in July, the launch of the Kenwood Chef food processor marked a new era in domestic mod cons and Elizabeth David’s A Book of Mediterranean Food hinted at a food culture revolution. The birth of the package holiday, when entrepreneur Vladimir Raitz sent 11 tourists to a campsite on Corsica on a government-surplus Dakota DC3 in May also indicated a broadening of horizons.

While the world events of 1950 were tumultuous, with Indian independence, the outbreak of the Korean War, the founding of the Stasi in East Germany and the passing of the first apartheid laws in South Africa, the French foreign minister’s proposal for a European Coal and Steel Community was the first step towards the European Union and a genuine healing of Europe’s war wounds.

Popular culture favoured the young in 1950, and leisure was in. Listen With Mother was the first daily programme for children and made the Berceuse from Fauré’s Dolly Suite synonymous with childhood. Andy Pandy and the Eagle comic debuted, as did Schultz’s Peanuts, to rather more longevity than Crusader Rabbit, the first animated television series. England made their World Cup debut. The England cricket team losing the Test Match at Lord’s to the West Indies by 326 runs was celebrated in the calypso song Victory Test Match by Windrusher Lord Beginner.

His song General Election documented the February 1950 record turnout at the ballot box, when Labour saw their majority slashed but hung on to power and Communist MPs were ousted.

Music was moving more slowly than events. The crooners, vocal groups, big bands and country stars of the previous decade were still in charge of the charts, and the US charts were decidedly anodyne (the British singles charts wouldn’t start life until two years later).

Vocal groups were in, as The Andrews Sisters’ I Can Dream, Can’t I? spent four weeks at No.1 and The Ames Brothers got their first chart topper with Rag Mop. The mega-hit of the year was Nat King Cole’s smooth as silk Mona Lisa, the theme to the Alan Ladd film Captain Carey, U.S.A. It was the hit of the summer and bagged the Oscar for Best Original Song the following year.

Patti Page’s monster hit Tennessee Waltz spent 13 weeks at No.1 on Billboard’s Most-Played in Juke Boxes chart from December. Page was symbolic of the ongoing country-pop crossover, and country star Red Foley’s Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy, about “a little ball o’ rhythm” who “pops the boogie woogie rag”, became a pop chart-topper early in the year. Its hillbilly-boogie sound was a clear rock and roll precursor and an early sign of where popular tastes were heading.

The hand-slapped rhythm of Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy was novelty hit stuff, and gimmicky tunes did well on the US charts in 1950. The year began with Gene Autry still at No.1 with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, while Eileen Barton’s April No.1 If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake was her only major hit, although its success saw it also recorded by Georgia Gibbs, Benny Strong and His Orchestra, Art Mooney, and Ray Bolger and Ethel Merman that year. Teresa Brewer launched her career with the faintly ridiculous but maddeningly catchy Music! Music! Music!, while the US release of Carol Reed’s film noir The Third Man put Anton Karas’ zither-based theme song at No.1 for an incredible 11 weeks from April.

Radio personality and later star Disney voice artist Phil Harris topped the chart at the end of year with The Thing, the tale of an unnamed object the narrator chances upon and can’t get rid of. The song was a popular sensation and one of the biggest sellers of the year.

Despite this mixture of the soothing and the inane, the way was being paved for the rock and roll revolution and two visionaries were at work in 1950 who would catalyse change and mark the history of music indelibly. Having made a painstaking record of American traditional music in the previous two decades Alan Lomax, ethnomusicologist and “the most important single figure” to folk music, according to Pete Seeger, turned his attention to Europe. His year had already been eventful, as Goodnight Irene, the signature tune of his most notable discovery, Lead Belly, had become a massive hit that summer for Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Gordon Jenkins and the Weavers, and Ernest Tubb and Red Foley, and his ground-breaking oral history of Jelly Roll Morton, Mister Jelly Roll, had also been published.

Despite all he had achieved in his native US, Lomax sought escape from the increasingly febrile McCarthyite atmosphere at home, leaving for Europe in the late summer of 1950 to take up a commission to gather recordings for an epic 30-volume collection of world folk for Columbia Records. After trips to France and Belgium, Lomax arrived in London in the autumn, made it his adopted home, and was soon working with kindred spirits like folk song collector Peter Kennedy, Scots poet Hamish Henderson, and uilleann pipes player Séamus Ennis, to make recordings for Columbia and fulfil his archivist’s drive to document for posterity. A ten-volume collection, Folk Songs of Great Britain (1961), also resulted from Lomax’s work in this period, and he went on to record unique documents of musical culture that would otherwise have been lost across the British Isles, Italy and Spain throughout the 1950s.

Sam Phillips was a man with the same visceral appreciation of music as Lomax. Profoundly influenced by the songs of the black sharecroppers on his parents’ Alabama farm growing up, he understood the blues as a way “to think about life, how difficult, yet also how good it can be”, that “relieved the burden of what existed day in and day out”.

When he got a job as an announcer and engineer on Memphis-based station WREC in 1945 the city itself was more important than the professional opportunity, giving him contact with a wealth of black musical talent that he saw as “overlooked humanity”. He felt it almost a mission to open a recording studio where those musicians could be given a voice and what “existed in the soul of mankind” might be captured. In late 1950 he rented a store on Memphis’ Union Avenue, fitted it out with acoustic tiles and rudimentary recording equipment, and the Memphis Recording Service opened its doors on Monday January 2, 1950.

Phillips’ high ambitions were unfulfilled at first, the studio only making money on $2-a-pop instant recordings made for a gift or keepsake, and making mobile recordings of weddings, school talent shows and even funerals. But the musicians slowly came around and he welcomed absolutely everyone on equal terms.

One of the first was Joe Hill Louis, a blues one-man band in the raw and raucous mould of John Lee Hooker. Madcap local DJ Dewey Phillips (no relation) put a lit match under the Memphis black music scene when his Red Hot and Blue ‘race records’ show expanded to two hours nightly in the spring, and the two Phillipses teamed up to establish their own record label, putting out two songs by Joe Hill Louis, Gotta Let You Go and Boogie in the Park, in August.

Already, work with independent LA label Modern Records had seen Sam Phillips make some of the 24-year-old B.B. King’s first recordings in July, and while the Phillips record label quickly folded (it had been a year of difficult starts), Sam’s ambitions were being slowly fulfilled. In March 1951 he would record Rocket 88 with Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, considered by some to be the first rock and roll single, and a watershed moment would be reached.

The Festival of Britain, in the summer of 1951, would put forward a vision of an ambitious, confident and innovative nation. A new monarch and a new era would arrive the year after that, just as the modern pop era finally dawned in Britain, with seven-inch singles going on sale and the NME launching itself by printing the first British singles chart. Sun Records was founded by Sam Phillips in early 1952, and when a young man fresh out of high school walked into the studio to make one of those $2 keepsake records for his mother in August 1953, Phillips found the voice that would put him in the history books.

In the second half of the 1950s, Alan Lomax would encourage Britain’s proto-rock and roll skiffle scene, hosting an influential BBC show and forming a band with Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger, and Shirley Collins, but in capturing the sounds at the roots of culture, Lomax had brought the focus to music’s atavistic emotional power that Sam Phillips was also obsessed with.

The rock and roll revolution was not even a dream in 1950, no such concept being fully formed even in the visionary Sam Phillips’ head, but it was nonetheless the year that its seeds were truly first sown.

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