1959: The Year Everything Changed

Title: 1959: The Year Everything Changed
Author: Fred Kaplan
Publisher: John Wiley & Sons, Inc

Rating: ★★★ 3 out of 5 stars.

This is a nice book on the pivotal year that was 1959. But it’s not like 1959 was the year ALL of it happened; rather, 1959 was a moment in time where a lot of influences in science, music, art, and politics that had been building or were starting to build came together.

It’s definitely a good description of how the old rules in whatever discipline broke down and the new “no rules” came along. In the arts the jazz broke the rules in a couple of ways. Dave Brubeck recorded “Time Out” which breaks the old rules of 4/4 time. All the tracks do weird things with the time of bars and measres. Also Miles David recorded “Kind of Blue” which broke the binds of chord structure. On our recent trip to Chicago I listened to both of these albums with Andrew and he described some of what was going on. I’m not conversant enough with jazz to fully understand, how it all works, but I do “get” how the old box of music time and chords was broken down. In popular music Berry Gordy started MoTown records.

The boundaries of obscenity were lowered with the overturning of the ban on “Lady Chatterly’s Lover”. Also, Philip Roth published “Goodbye Columbus”  and excerpts of William Burrought’s “Naked Lunch” appeared in Esquire. New forms of expression were moving forward with Alan Ginsberg giving a poetry reading at Columbia University. Most of the Columbia literature department skipped the reading, instead holding a meeting on some departmental matters. Big changes in expression were happening and the old guard was trying to ignore it.

Significant events happened in politics as well that year: Fidel Castro took power in Cuba; the Soviet deputy premier visited the US and Nixon had the “kitchen debate” in Moscow.

Race relations were becoming more radicalized as well. Mike Wallace produced the TV documentary “The Hate that Hate Produced” which was about Malcom X and the Black Muslims. John Howard Griffin disguised himself as a black man and travelled the Deep South for the research of the book “Black Like Me” I remember reading this book in high school. More light was being shone onto the reality of the Black experience with these events and the release of the US Civil Rights Commission’s first report detailing racial discrimination in America. We’d see riots in Detroit, Los Angeles and other cities in the coming years.

Science also had its breakthroughs with the Soviet spacecraft Lunik I breaking free of Earth’s gravitation. The microchip was invented by Texas Instruments and the first practical business computer went on sale.

Another huge impact on the social fabric of the US and the entire world was the invention of  “The Pill” for birth control.

Sometimes, it seems a bit forced in its using 1959 as “the” year; after all I don’t think “On the Road” was published that year. But all in all we see examples throughout our culture where the old rules broke down and new ways of living and thinking moved to the forefront. 1959 can be seen as the pivot point between the “before” and “after”.

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