Tuesday, June 17, 2014
June 17, 2014: AmericanStudying Summer Jams: Summertime Blues
[As the solstice approaches, a series on AmericanStudies contexts for some of our most enduring summertime songs. Add your responses or other summertime favorites for a crowd-sourced weekend bbq—I mean, post. Okay, both!]
On what a summer classic reveals about the voices of youth.
I listened to a lot of early rock and roll growing up (something about having a couple baby boomers for parents during the era that first defined the concept of “classic rock” and produced countless “Best of the 1950s” type collections), and few songs stood out to me more than Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” (1958). I don’t know that any single song better expresses the clash of youthful dreams and adult realities on which so much of rock and roll and popular music more generally have been built, and I definitely believe that Cochran and his co-writer (and manager) Jerry Capeheart hit upon the perfect way to literally give voice to those dueling perspectives: in the repeated device through which the speaker’s teenage desires are responded to and shot down by the deep voices of authority figures, from his boss to his father to his senator.
Coincidentally, Cochran himself died very young, at the age of 21, in an April 1960 car accident while on tour in England. Cochran’s death came just over a year after the tragic plane crash that took the lives of three other prominent young rock and rollers, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. There’s obviously no direct relationship between these two accidents, nor would I argue that these artists’ youthful deaths were the cause of their popularity (all four were already popular prior to the accidents). But on the other hand, I think there’s something iconic, mythic even, about rock and rollers dying young—or about, more exactly, our narratives and images of such figures—and I believe it’d be difficult to separate those myths from the idealistic and anti-authoritarian attitudes captured in Cochran’s biggest hit. That is, it feels throughout “Summertime Blues” as if the speaker’s youthful enthusiasm is consistently being destroyed by those cold adult responses—and melodramatic as it might sound, the loss of childhood dreams can certainly be allegorized through the deaths of the kinds of pop icons who so often symbolize youth.
Yet of course most young people continue to live in, and thus impact, the world far after their youthful dreams have ended (“Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone,” to quote another youthful anthem), and in a subtle, unexpected way Cochran’s song reflects that human and historical reality as well. When Cochran’s speaker tries to take his problem to more official authorities, he is rejected by his senator for a political reason: “I’d like to help you, son, but you’re too young to vote” is the reply. In 1958, when “Summertime Blues” was released, the national legal voting age was 21, and so the 20 year old Cochran could not vote; but over the next decade a potent social and legal movement to lower the voting age would emerge, in conjunction with the decade’s many other youth and activist movements, and in 1971 Congress passed and the states ratified the 26th Amendment, which did indeed lower the eligible age for voting to 18. Being able to vote certainly doesn’t eliminate all the other problems of teenage life and its conflicts with adult authority—but it does remind us that neither the gap nor the border between youth and adulthood are quite as fixed or as absolute as our myths might suggest.
Next summer jam tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this song? Other summertime favorites you’d share?