Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Nuclear Sounds

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
The use of nuclear bombs against Japan in 1945 caused the first mention of things atomic in blues songs, e.g. in Homer Harris's »Atomic Bomb Blues« from 1946. »It was early on morning, when all the good work was done, and that big bird was loaded, with that awful atomic bomb« say the lyrics of that song in the recording of which Muddy Waters participated as a guitarist. Likewise in 1946 (but according to some only in 1947) a song by the title »Atom And Evil« was recorded by the Golden Gate Quartet (see also below). Based on a wordplay with »Adam And Eve« the song warns that a »romance« between »Atom« and »Evil« will bring about a cata- strophy. This is of course a true and justified claim, but the interesting point is that the song not only warns of nuclear power falling into the wrongs hands, it also declares this danger to be sufficiently great in order to abandon atomic energy altogether:
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
Little surprisingly, and perhaps predictably, the topic had some impact on gospel songs. From the January 1950 we have the song »Jesus Hits Like The Atom Bomb« by the Pilgrim Travelers, and in June »Jesus Is God's Atomic Bomb« by the Swan Silvertone Singers was released. After the U.S. military espionage had discovered the nuclear potential of the Soviet Union in autumn 1949, both songs must be seen as influenced by this new threat. And almost at the same time the newly develped hydrogen-bomb (»H-bomb«) became reality. The sheer destructive power of that devilish weapon immediately stirred the minds and hearts of all. In LIFE, a fake aerial photo was printed in the January 30, 1950, issue showing the hypothetical devastation of Chicago after an H-bomb attack. And the issue of December 18 contains a »pictorial essay« bearing the title »How U.S. Cities Can Prepare for Atomic War«.

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
Notwithstanding the threat caused by new nuclear weapons and the existential fear they caused we also witness the development of a typical »atomic vocabulary« that slowly found its way into everyday speech. This was mainly due to the dominant optimism towards the non-military use of nuclear energy. It is enough to leaf through the pages of popular magazines of the epoch to see with how much confidence in technical progress and how naively the rapid development of civil nuclear energy was reported. Just read the article »Atomic Progress« in LIFE, published on January 1, 1950! Moreover, from the late 1940s »atomic vocabulary« had entered the linguistic dominion of the entertainment industry, even using »atomic vocabulary« for toys and funfair attractions and coming up with things like the »Mutoscope Atomic Bomber«

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
The r&b singer Linda Hayes who in 1953 re-recorded Amos Milburn's song in a slightly different version came to be known as »Atomic Baby«, and even modern anthologies of her songs are sold using this very epithet, »Atomic Baby«.

From BILLBOARD, April 19, 1952
It is also in gospel songs that we find a positive attitude towards the non-military use of nuclear energy, e.g. in »The Atomic Telephone« by The Spirit of Memphis Quartet, released in August 1951: »God have given us a great new power, want us to use it for the good of all mankind. Some people wanna use it to destroy everything, oh, God didn't mean it like that.« And the further we move into the 1950s the more nonchalant did the use of »atomic vocabulary« generally become: black musicians were billed as »Mr Atomic So-and-So«, and »atomic« soon acquired the same meaning as later »fantastic« or »supersonic«. In a November '52 issue of Billboard kiddie rides were advertised that were called »Atomic Space Ranger«. There was scarcely talk of the bomb now ... if not again for entertainment purposes! Thus already back in 1949 »atomic balloons« were advertised which had a »vivid Atom, Bomb effect«!

From BILLBOARD, May 14, 1949
Van Rijn reaches the following conclusion:
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.

No comments:

Post a Comment