‘Lost in the ’50s tonight’

Illustration: Chris McNaught

 (Ronnie Milsap)

By Chris McNaught


The two immediate post-WWII decades were not, as often tagged, purely an era of bland innocence and vapid consumerism. Popular music was substantively upbeat as the Big Band vitality of the war years helped prime a Wurlitzer-spun, generational release, a deceptively potent teen tonic in the face of nuclear holocaust, racial tensions, communist sabre rattling, the murders of JFK, MLK, RFK… and thus, welcome, doo-wop and rock ’n’ roll!

But despite my fond memories, was it truly a unique era, given other bookending or subsequent musical vogues? What is it about the ’50s and ’60s which seems to linger today, and not just in a baby-boomer’s rear-view mirror? What explains, in 2023, the ubiquitous “oldies” TV specials, revival concerts, the vertical longevity of (grizzled) performers, lucrative vinyl reissues, the press fulsomely noting the passing of rock ’n’ roll titans – including even second tier shoo boppers? If a devilishly catchy beat still lifts feet, and the musical yesteryear helps crumble the looming walls of age, is there a timeless, beneficial universality hanging from those clef tones?

In my humble view, the bebop verve, rather than mere pimplish bounce, belied, musically, an urge for peace in a fractious world. We still inhabit a fractious world, but lately I’m forced to ask whether that once magical beat is equally potent against the DNA of today’s menaces: Trump, Putin, spineless (e.g. Republican) disengagement from international and humanitarian issues, persistent racial iniquity, environmental degradation, etc. If music be the…, should we play on, or are these different threats festering in a way any music cannot ignore or heal?

Or perhaps, dear self, is it, like Peter Pan, I’ll never grow up, at least not until I recognize and accept that my sacred melodies, any melodies, are impotent in the face of global rifts, either as deflection or salve, and one shouldn’t ask too much of them. I’d like “my” music to endure as more than just airy wisp, but I allow I may be the victim of “the menace of the years” (Wm. Ernest Henley), have shot only a time-sensitive bolt, and ought quietly to retreat into a hearse-like Florida condo.

Bop, bop, shooby-do-bop, bop…


Chris McNaught is a Glebe resident, author and former criminal lawyer and university lecturer.

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