Did Sha Na Na Invent the Fifties?

BowserIf you enjoy post-moderism and meta-history you’ll appreciate this. Two of the founders of the original revival band write an article for their alma mater’s journal wherein they discuss a couple of recent scholarly publications (Happy Days and Wonder Years: The Fifties and Sixties in Contemporary Cultural Politics by Daniel Marcus and Retro: The Culture of Revival by Elizabeth E. Guffey) that both “contain extensive studies of Sha Na Na’s ‘Fabricated Fifties'” and claim that Sha Na Na played “an unusual role in 20th century American history. More precisely, in inventing it.”

The basic idea is this:

The idea of the Fifties that America still holds — the happy, “greasy” Fifties — was an “invented History.” Up until 1969, quite an opposite cultural memory held sway. When Americans remembered “the Fifties,” they thought of Joe McCarthy witch hunts, of an “age of anxiety,” of the “shook-up generation” diving under their desks during A-Bomb drills, of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit selling out and Holden Caulfield cracking up, or Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac too “beat” to fight back. Nothing to get nostalgic about there. In a section titled “Re-inventing the Day Before Yesterday,” Guffey describes older critics, who remembered the decade only too clearly, “shocked at the happy-go-lucky imagery” of what Horizon Magazine protested as the “newly-minted” Fifties.

After detailing the arguments of these two studies, the former Sha Na Na members dismiss the whole premise:

We admire the way that Guffey and Marcus accurately deduced, from imaginative research, the 1969 Kingsmen’s conscious intent to invent a Fifties that would reunite Columbia’s shattered, polarized student body by having them relive together their roots. Writing this essay, however, recalled our attention to Hobsbawm, Trevor-Roper and hard-line cultural historians, such as Jean Baudrillard (popularized by The Matrix) who (unlike Guffey and Marcus) at the least, imply that people like us have “invented” history out of whole cloth.

The “invention of history” is a topic about which we can speak with odd authority; we know we, at least, did not invent history, we selected it. That’s a great difference. On stage, the careful choice of songs by music directors Al Cooper and Elliot Cahn constructed a new montage of the Fifties, based on the plots, themes, recurrent character types and musical emotions already contained in the music. The resulting Sha Na Na Fifties myth was not, therefore, “newly-minted” — only newly-selected.

Keep in mind that Grease hit the stage in 1971 (analysis of that here), American Graffiti came out in 1973, and Happy Days first aired in 1974. So timeline-wise, Sha Na Na came first in 1969. Who knows?

But what really blows my mind is that “At the Hop” was a hit for Danny and the Juniors in 1958, only 11 years before Sha Na Na resurrected it at Woodstock. That used to be long enough for people’s real memories to be replaced by mythology?

Video: Sha Na Na – “Blue Moon” on Flip Wilson

Video: Danny and the Juniors – “At the Hop”

Video: Sha Na Na – “At The Hop” (Woodstock, 1969)

Via the rope.

3 thoughts on “Did Sha Na Na Invent the Fifties?”

  1. Huh. So what you’re telling me is that all that time that GOP’ers and televangelists harkened back to a nicer, more moral era of happiness and bobby socks, that all this time they were harkening back to some nice-and-tidy constructed memory created by a merry band of revivalist entertainers?????

    Niiiiiiiiiiiiiice. Good to know. I don’t blame Sha-Na-Na for this absurd cultural wrinkle, but I do blame them for ripple effect which resulted in revived interest in Pat Boone!!!!

  2. I don’t know which of those videos is weirder, the Woodstock one or the one from the Flip Wilson Show. I mean, why does the audience keep laughing during “Blue Moon”? Was Bowser just so darn funny looking, or are those nervous, anxious giggles because the audience feels awkward watching such a celebration of dorkiness? What’s with the weird, “walk like an Egyptian” hand movements while they sing? I don’t get it at all.

  3. Bea, I think the Flip Wilson audience–and the stoned Woodstockers–took the whole thing to be a goof, and the exaggerated performances make it easy to see why, regardless of the band’s intent. I mean, how musically out of place must have Sha Na Na seemed then? (Probably way more than hair metal did in 1996, for example.)

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