America’s Greatest Revolution

From Fortune, February 25, 2015

Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965

This extremely short piece — an essay-let — was part of a town-square put together by Fortune to discuss the importance of rock’n’roll. 


For the first two-thirds of the 20th century, America was an apartheid nation. But there was something that didn’t obey Jim Crow laws or that foolish concept of a society that is “separate but equal”: the air.

We can’t regulate the air, and radio travels through the air.
Governments couldn’t legislate what you listened to in your home.
After dark, suddenly you could hear voices from all over the place, voices you couldn’t hear during the day. Growing up, I thought of this as magic time.

You could hear WLAC in Nashville all the way from Tallahassee to the Canadian border.

Imagine you’re Bob Zimmerman, a high school kid in Hibbing, Minnesota. There isn’t a single black person in town. But at night, up in your room, you hear the music of black America on WLAC. You want to hear more and know more. And that desire eventually makes you want to become Bob Dylan.

And even earlier: Imagine you’re a black kid living in segregated St. Louis. You listen to the Grand Ole Opry on WSM out of Nashville and hear the voices of old, weird America. And so you grow up steeped in the white traditions of country music. That’s why, when you grow up and become Chuck Berry, all those great rock ’n’ roll songs have a narrative tradition borrowed from white country music.

When those different kinds of music met—country and western (white) and rhythm and blues (black)—something new was created: rock ’n’ roll.

The music provided a metaphor for society: two things kept apart and thought so different could, in fact, be joined. When joined, something better resulted. It was a kind of integration.

The walls came tumbling down. Separate was inherently unequal.

So think of radio as the most subversive medium. It played a huge and often unheralded part in igniting a social revolution. Not all walls have tumbled, of course, but we made a good start.