In our days, we witness it once again demonstrated, if demonstration was needed, how vicious and dangerous the use of nuclear energy can become in a matter of minutes ... if things go wrong, that is, and are not under control any longer. Today, more and more people understand this and it has become almost impossible to invoke things atomic with any but a negative connotation.
Not so in the 1940s and 1950s. Not that every reference to nuclear power during that epoch was unambigously positive. The possible use of nuclear weapons was seen with great fear, even panic, and the U.S. were living under the nuclear threat coming from the Soviet Union. Yet it was the U.S. government that had, in 1945, used this terrible weapon for the first and only time in human history and ushered in the nuclear age. But also the optimism concerning the non-military use of nuclear power continued unabated in those years. Only few were afraid that human engi- neering could prove insufficient for the handling of atomic energy, while many saw the advantages and believed in unlimited progress anyhow. Both, the fear and the uncritical optimism, left their mark in the music. I will speak here of R&B, Blues and Gospel in particular.
It is mainly thanks to the Dutch R&B specialist Guido Van Rijn that we know more about the very special, actually quite bizarre category of »atomic songs«. The second chapter of his very interesting study The Truman & Eisenhower Blues. African-American Blues and Gospel Songs, 1945–1960 (London – New York: Conti- nuum 2004) is entitled »Atom And Evil« (!), and this moderately funny wordplay stems from a song of the Golden Gate Quartet, released in summer 1946. In this chapter, Van Rijn presents the results of his reseach on »atomic songs« and also refers to a seminal article by Charles Wolfe: »Nuclear Country: The Atomic Bomb in Country Music«, in: The Journal of Country Music 6 (1978), pp. 4-21. Finally, a fine ressource in the worldwide web is »Atomic Platters: Geerhart's Periodic Table of Atomic Music«, part of the larger database of Cold War Music.
|From LIFE, November 20, 1950|
I'm talking 'bout Atom and Evil
If you don't break up that romance soon,
We'll all fall down and go: Boom, boom, boom! (...)
Now, Atom is a youngster and pretty hard to handle,
But we'd better step in and stop that scandal.
Because if Atom and Evil should ever wed,
Lord, then darn near all of us are going to be dead.
|From BILLBOARD , September 30, 1950|
There now was certainly an atmosphere of fear and awe, and the gospel songs referred to above consequently called upon mankind to turn back to Jesus in view of the new, terrible threat. The impact of Jesus is said to be much stronger than any nuclear weapon: »You know, now everybody's worried, well, about that atomic bomb. And no one seems worried about the day my Lord shall come ... Well, and he'll hit like an atom bomb when he comes.«
|From BILLBOARD, November 23, 1946|
In the same vein »atomic vocabulary« began to crop up in secular songs, for example in Amos Milburn's »Atomic Baby« in which he called his baby »U 92«, that is by the number of uranium in the periodic table of chemical elements! Quite obviously, the enormous power produced by nuclear fission invited its metaphorical use with clear sexual innuendo:
I love my baby, she makes me, oh, so blue
She keeps me so worried, that I call her U92.
She's got a high potential and a low resistance point,
I have to be careful, that gal might blow up the joint.
Yes, she heats my room, she lights my light,
She starts my motor and it runs all night.
|From BILLBOARD, March 7, 1953|
|From BILLBOARD, April 19, 1952|
|From BILLBOARD, May 14, 1949|
In blues, atomic energy appears mainly as a sexual metaphor, but in gospel music it was used as a metaphor for God's power. (...) A sense of wonder instilled by the awesome atomic power possessed by the United States is mingled with feelings of apprehension when it is learned that the Russians have acquired their own version. (Van Rijn, The Truman and Eisenhower Blues, p. 39 f.)The fear of nuclear weapons is still with us today, due to the sinister efforts of North Corea, Pakistan, Iran, and Israel. But at least we have learned (and the people in the Ukraine and lately in Japan have paid dearly for this!) that the immense danger lurking behind the civil use of nuclear energy cannot be eliminated by human control. The »sense of wonder instilled by atomic power« is a thing of the past and not likely to return soon. Or so we must hope.