Rock ‘n’ Roll, Race, and Society

Daryl Davis, noted American R&B and blues musician, author, actor and bandleader, recently taught a “Rock ‘n’ Roll, Race, and Society” course at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Towson University. Davis provided Osher students a unique blend of academic insight into the origins of rock ‘n’ roll and amazing first-hand accounts from the instructor’s life.

Not Just Rock ‘n’ Roll

rock ‘n’ roll, race, and society

Daryl Davis

Daryl Davis earned his Bachelor of Music degree from Howard University. Davis has played piano with music legends Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, Percy Sledge, and more. His respect and knowledge of these greats and their place in music history is astounding. But as those in Daryl’s class learned, this wasn’t just any class about rock ‘n’ roll. And Daryl Davis wasn’t just any instructor teaching it. This February, Daryl was the subject of a documentary released first on PBS and now available on Netflix, Accidental Courtesy. The documentary follows another important part of Daryl’s life, that of race relations and his controversial role as a black man befriending KKK members and their eventual disavowal of their white supremacist views. How does that tie in with rock ‘n’ roll, you might ask? In this 4-week class, students were shown how complex rock ‘n’ roll history, American history, and indeed, an instructor’s own personal history can be.

“Rock ‘n’ Roll died this Saturday.” This is the statement that Daryl Davis made to begin the third week of class. He was referring to the recent death of Chuck Berry—his idol, his mentor, his boss, and the presumptive father of rock ‘n’ roll. The course had started out a couple of weeks before with the backstory of rock ‘n’ roll, an evolution of gospel, jazz, blues, boogie-woogie, and country music. Chuck Berry’s 1955 “Maybellene”, an adaptation of an earlier country song, was imbued with a strong backbeat that gave rock ‘n’ roll its defining sound. Black musicians like Chuck Berry and Little Richard were pioneers of this genre. The music was embraced by teenagers but with this music came controversy.

Seeing that white teenagers were going crazy for this “race music”, as it was sometimes called, civic leaders attempted to ban rock ‘n’ roll music altogether in the effort to avoid race mixing and miscegenation. If they weren’t careful, the rhythm and the beat would lead white teenagers down a path of destruction. But the evils of rock ‘n’ roll were sidestepped in part by cover artists—white artists who performed the songs originally done by black artists. Elvis Presley got his start in 1954 covering Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama” and teenage girls swooned. Presley had a similar sensibility to that of his black musical counterparts, stirring up controversy with his dance moves. But the squeaky clean Pat Boone threw cold water on any lustful machinations in his cover of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally”, sanitizing the lyrics and pleasing the moral authorities. Nonetheless, rock ‘n’ roll performed by black artists made it into the mainstream.

The Power of Music

Many of the Osher students in the class no doubt had a sense of nostalgia as song clips were played. They may have watched Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and understood when Davis spoke about how the television censors wouldn’t allow the white and black teenagers on the show to dance together. The music put smiles on the students’ faces as they danced in their seats. Music has many powers—one of which is to transport us back in time to recapture our memories.

Davis spoke of another power that music has—the ability to bring people together.  In class, he entertained everyone with a number of personal anecdotes about his life as a musician. He told the story of how he first met Chuck Berry as a teenager after years of idolizing him, having rehearsed every word of what he would say to him, and then freezing when he finally had the chance to say something to his musical hero. He told how he finally ended up meeting him again and playing in his backing band. He told the story of how he got to unexpectedly perform on the Late Show with David Letterman in 1997 when Chuck insisted he be onstage as a paid performer that evening.

Music and Race

These lighthearted stories weren’t the only ones Davis shared, though. He told how in 1968, at the age of 10, he had his first experience with racism marching as a Boy Scout in a parade in Massachusetts. Pelted with bottles and cans by spectators, he returned home to his parents who told him about racism. The young Daryl Davis couldn’t believe that what his parents were telling him was true. He had his own question: “How can they hate me if they don’t even know me?” This question stayed with him.

It resurfaced poignantly in 1983 when he was performing as the only black member of a country band that often played at the Silver Dollar Lounge in Frederick, Maryland. Davis stood out in this all-white bar. A man came over to him between sets and told him that he was the only black man he’d ever heard play like Jerry Lee Lewis. The irony of that comment wasn’t lost on Davis. They struck up conversations then and on subsequent band appearances. This man turned out to be Roger Kelly, the head of Maryland’s KKK organization at the time. Davis later interviewed Kelly for a book he was writing, Klan-Destine Relationships (1997).

Through years of contact with Kelly, including visits to each other’s homes and even present at KKK rallies, Davis and Kelly formed a type of friendship based on mutual respect. They were featured in a CNN piece that aired in 1994 in which Kelly acknowledged this respect but stood by his position of white supremacy. Years later, however, Kelly parted ways with the Klan. Others, influenced by Davis, did the same. If not for music, Davis wouldn’t have had the opportunity to engage with Kelly at the Silver Dollar Lounge all those years ago. Davis recognizes that not everyone supports his mission to promote understanding in this manner, but that hasn’t discouraged him.

Those in the “Rock ‘n’ Roll, Race, and Society” class learned about the history of the rock ‘n’ roll genre, its influences and the musicians who gave it life. They learned how music and race impacted our society and in the individuals who make up that society and given a perspective on the subject that only Daryl Davis could impart.

Tracy Jacobs on Email
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Tracy Jacobs is the assistant director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, which offers classes and activities for individuals, aged 50+. She supports Osher memberships, assists with curriculum development, and manages marketing efforts. Tracy's posts focus on Osher and the importance of lifelong learning in enriching a person's life.