Customer Reviews: All Shook Up: How Rock 'n' Roll Changed America (Pivotal Moments in American History)
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on August 11, 2003
I just finished reading, "All Shook Up." Although some of Altschuler's sociological themes are very interesting, particularly those dealing with the lingering effects of rock and roll on white America, his discussions of the formative years of rock and roll and the seminal crosssover influences are vey weak, and from my perspective, inaccurate and superficial. Altschuler would like the reader to believe that it was primarily big name individuals (Presley, Berry, Boone, Nelson, etc.) who were the most influential in bringing rock and roll to the general culture. Although individual musicians played an important role in the evolution of rock and roll, it was the early rhythm and blues and doo wop groups that provided the most important and earliest crossover influences. There are many other books dealing with the early influence of such groups, but in this book, they are given relatively little attention compared to individual singers. Also, having grown up in the forties and fifties in Brooklyn, New York, my recollections are quite different from the accounting presented in this book. By the time Presley, Berry and other individuals mentioned in this book arrived on the scene, the crossover process was well underway. What happened before Presley, etc. is a critical part of the historical record and warrants much more attention than is presented in this book. In reading this book, I had the same feeling that I have had visiting the Rock and Roll of Fame - the creative and historical influences of rock and roll on our culture are lost, relatively speaking, to name recognition occurring several generations down the road.
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on November 21, 2006
"All Shook Up - How Rock `N' Roll Changed America" by Glenn Altschuler is a terrific and well documented book on the seismic social, sexual and racial changes in the United States that was both reflected and precipitated by a new music sweeping the nation in the 1950s and 1960s. This new music with its roots deeply entrenched in largely black American R&B and Gospel literally shook a nation that wanted to believe itself innocent but was undergoing rapid change with the return of combat vets, the ensuing Baby Boom and the suburbanization of our country. Disposable income was rapidly on the rise and technological marvels of the day, such as the transistor radio, rapidly spread this revolutionary new music. Altschuler does a superb job in his narrative documenting this revolution from both a societal and a musical perspective. He is perhaps at his best in describing the backlash against rock and roll as it began break in a color barrier that was still sacred to many, mostly white, Americans. He quotes authors of the day, "with tom-toms and hot jive and ritualistic orgies of erotic dancing, weed-smoking and mass mania, with African jungle background. Many music shops purvey dope; assignations are made in them. White girls are recruited for colored lovers . . . and guarantee a new generation subservient to the Mafia". Obviously some strong backlash.

Oxford University Press is to be commended along with the editors of this series, Pivotal Moments in American History, David Hackett Fischer and James M. McPherson for living true to their words of historical interpretation and reporting "they were the results of decisions and actions by people who had opportunities to choose and to act otherwise". Also by showing "increasing sensitivity to issues of race, ethnicity, class, and gender in the context of large structures and processes". This volume is a classical one of American Studies, an interdisciplinary review of a period of time where social change was rapid. Researching or writing about this time through the lens of only one discipline would clearly have short-changed this era. Neither Altschuler nor Fischer and McPherson allowed that to occur and, in a sense, showed academic bravery for writing a serious book about our social history with rock and roll interwoven throughout.
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on March 20, 2013
"All Shook Up" is bold; Altschuler uses it as a platform to demand the recognition of rock `n' roll in the history of America. The culture of music was pivotal, as Atlschuler's thesis implies, and as a reader, I am inclined to believe it. The narratives he chose were purposeful and insightful--highlighting the struggle, the separation, and the uniqueness of the United States in the 1950s. Also narrowing the history lesson to only that decade shows Altshuler's discipline as an author--especially considering the `guts and glory' came from the later sex and drug attitudes added to the rock `n' roll lifestyle in the `60s and `70s.
But back in the age of Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, racial, generational, and political attitudes were all addressed, questioned, and formed as a result of the culture of rock `n' roll. Technological advances in radios and music equipment also bolstered the role of musicians in the lives of millions--especially the young generations born into post-WWII affluence and leisure. The kids wanted to shake, rattle, and roll while the parents wanted to protect their kids from those wants. Sexuality was launched in the public sphere as music icons like T-Bone Walker and Elvis shook, rattled, and rolled an impressionable crowd. As a result, a generation gap had formed six strings wide. But while family units felt the strain of musical expression, a bond was formed between white and black teenagers sharing in a common identity. Talent took precedence over race and all the while, African Americans could boast of creating rock `n' roll to begin with.
The Cold War brought with it an anxiety that found an escape in the full-bodied rhythms of a Fender guitar and harmonization of a couple of doo-woppers. Rock `n' roll represented everything older and more conservative Americans feared post-war: rebellion in thought, transformation in society, and differences in culture. Altschuler gracefully addresses these limitations while also considering the capitalistic conforming consumerism of the era. A passionate 300-page glimpse into American popular culture, "All Shook Up" is as enjoyable as it is knowledgeable.
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on November 15, 2013
In All Shook Up, Glenn C. Altschuler examines the changing times of the 1950s through the lens of popular music. During the 1950s it seemed that nothing was truly safe from change. McCarthyism and anti-communism changed labor unions and politics. Suburban construction changed the demographics of cities. A tired seamstress on a bus changed how people used public transportation. The swivel of a man’s hips and the twang of a guitar changed music forever.

Altschuler focuses his chapters on rock ‘n’ roll’s affects on specific aspects of social culture in the 1950s. He describes how white kids listened to and danced to music performed by black artists. He also shows the different ways black artists either catered to white audiences or tried to assimilate into white culture. Coinciding with the publication of the Kinsey Report, rock ‘n’ roll lyrics came under even more scrutiny, with parents and lawmakers believing that the music was responsible for teenagers experimentation with sex. Rock ‘n’ roll music was blamed for generational conflicts and teenage rebellion. Some people even linked the lure of rock ‘n’ roll to communist conspiracies.

However, I think Altschuler is giving too much responsibility to this single aspect of popular culture. While I believe in the power of music as well as the importance it plays in modern teenagers’ search for identity, I hesitate to give music as much responsibility for social change as he does. By singling out rock ‘n’ roll music and giving the genre such weight in affecting the lives of teenagers, the country should have experienced the highest rates of unmarried teenage pregnancy, a complete turn around into a communist country, high rates of incarceration and lawlessness, and a frenzied orgy in every small town. However, this did not happen in the 1950s.

What did happen was that rock ‘n’ roll played a role in an environment that was ripe for change. It is another item on the list that made the 1950s such a significant decade. Within the context of anti-communism, McCarthyism, the Interstate system, suburbanization, television, conspicuous consumption, the automobile, the Cold War, and technological advances, it is an important factor that would not be as significant without looking at the decade as a whole and the 1950s-1960s as an era.
Music was a social lubricant and a personal identifier in many cases, but was not the catalyst for the social changes the US experienced in the 1960s. It set the groundwork for a musical revolution, but so did musical technology like the electric guitar. Altschuler defines rock ‘n’ roll as strictly a teenage phenomenon, but music transcends generations. It may not have happened in every household, but I’m sure that some parents enjoyed rhythm and blues music or bought Elvis records.

In his Epilogue, Altschuler chooses Bruce Springsteen as the heir apparent to the 1950s music, but then he explains that Woodstock was the natural progression for a generation that came of age on rock ‘n’ roll. I fail to see the segue way between the 1950s and Woodstock or Woodstock and Springsteen. The Woodstock generation were simply too young to have been as affected by the advent of rock ‘n’ roll.
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on March 19, 2013
"All Shook Up" provided an excellent insight into the impacts of Rock `n' Roll on American society and proved to be a good read. Glenn Altschuler was able to clarify for me why Rock and Roll was so controversial during its rise and taught me a lot about numerous artists, motivations behind certain songs and the payola scandal which I had very little prior knowledge on. He does not just focus on well-known artists like Elvis but also concentrates on many radio and television personnel such as Alan Freed who I learned was actually the first man to widely promote "rock `n' roll". In addition to providing insight into rock history he keeps readers' attention with humorous ancedotes, illustrations and interesting facts. Altschuler ultimately provided me with a new way to view rock and roll, not just as another type of music but as an influential part of the cultural history of America.
Previously when I thought of Rock `n' Roll I primarily thought just of artists such as Elvis Presley, however after reading Altschuler's book I have come to realize the realm of rock and roll extends far beyond a few big names. Altschuler argues that the popular music of the 1950's and 1960's had immense influences on generational conflict, pop culture wars, sexuality and racial integration. He is able to give many concrete examples to support his arguments, such as the influence of racial integration at rock concerts on the civil rights movement and even the development of a unique teenage culture, separate from the adult world, which ultimately widened the generational divide. Altschuler does an excellent job of revealing the wider scope of influence rock and roll had on American lives and was able to tie those influences into common historical themes. After reading his book I now see that Rock and Roll truly was a vital era in American History.
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on January 19, 2016
Before reading All Shook Up, one should note that the book focuses almost exclusively on the 1950s, when rock ‘n’ roll went mainstream. Although Altschuler tilts into the sixties in his last two chapters, it’s curious that he has so little to say about R & R’s second decade (or, for that matter, the last thirty years of the twentieth century).

Despite this, the author does a commendable job explaining how rock ‘n’ roll influenced American culture during the fifties, as reflected not only in the records themselves, but in other media: films (e.g., “Rock Around the Clock”; “The Blackboard Jungle”), television (including Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis’s debut gigs), and early rock concerts. In addition, his chapters on rock ‘n’ roll’s impact on racial and sexual mores are, in my view, important additions to the literature.

If I had to “place” the book in the context of works to date, I’d say it falls somewhere between Charlie Gillett’s classic survey, The Sound of the City, and Fred Goodman’s The Mansion on the Hill. In other words, it covers the basic chronology of Gillett’s book, but cites far fewer performers, leaning as it does toward a more sociological gloss. And it resembles Goodman’s in that it has a great deal to say about the pop music industry itself from the standpoint of the moguls who owned it.

That said, there is little here that won’t already be familiar to those who have read these books, and who have also seen and digested documentary series’ like “Rock ‘n’ Roll” as chronicled in the mid-90s by David Espar and by Time-Life.

In terms of basic facts, we get the usual stuff:

1) the foundational background of R & R as practiced by Louis Jordan, Wynonie Harris, Muddy Waters, (et. al.);
2) the advent of black “crossovers” like Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry;
3) the first breakthrough rockabilly artists (Elvis; J.L. Lewis; Buddy Holly); and
4) the gradual decline and ultimate revival of the music in, respectively, the late fifties and early sixties.

Apart from the sections on race and sexuality, however, it's the chapter on the so-called "pop culture wars" that struck me as most enlightening. For instance, those with even a cursory knowledge of R & R history are aware of the hiatus which started with Elvis's 1958 Army induction and persisted until the arrival of the Beatles in 1964. And most people also know about the payola scandals which jettisoned Alan Freed from the DJ pantheon and whose repercussions ruined other record-spinners as well. Far less known is the war which transpired between ASCAP, that conservative bastion of the record industry which despised rock 'n' roll, and BMI, made up of independent record labels like Atlantic, Chess, and Specialty. This pitched legal contest went on for the duration of the nearly six-year "lull" period, but as the author points out, ASCAP had the clout to marginalize BMI offerings in various ways, so that the "harder" forms of R&R were forced into temporary retreat. What this shows, in other words, is that the rise of squeaky-clean idols like Fabian and Frankie Avalon wasn't merely a consequence of popular backlash (i.e., a revolt of conservative Americans who felt the music was corrupting the young); it was also a manifestation of an underlying commercial war between majors and independents. Altschuler deserves credit for bringing this part of the story into prominent focus.

Nevertheless, the author makes some dubious judgments. For example, in his chapter titled, “Rock ‘n’ Roll and Sexuality,” he devotes an inordinate amount of space to Pat Boone, and while it’s easy to see Boone’s role in the “sanitization” of R & R, Altschuler makes him loom larger than he really was. Among other things, he cites a survey by the sociologist James Coleman which ostensibly proved that Boone was more popular than Elvis. This strikes me as implausible at best, and considering that Altschuler fails to cite Coleman’s methodology (or the size and representativeness of his samples), unconvincing.

On a lesser note, the author seems tentative about musical categories. On one hand, he recognizes the obvious difference between R&R
and the mainstream music that preceded it as embodied in performers like Bing Crosby, Patty Page, and Perry Como. But he is less nuanced when differentiating groups like The Platters (who never did a genuine rock ‘n’ roll record) from artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard (who rarely did anything else).

Then there are the outright gaffes – for instance, when he classifies as “rockabilly” Roy Orbison records like “Only the Lonely,” “Crying,” and “Blue Bayou,” when anyone familiar with Orbison knows that The Big-O abandoned rockabilly when he migrated from Sun Studios to Monument Records, and the songs he cites were all ballads recorded for Monument.

My biggest problem with the book, however, is one alluded to in my opening statement; namely, that the author has too little to say about the rock ‘n’ roll of the sixties. As mentioned, he only covers this decade in his final two chapters, and even here, he concentrates on the Beatles to the virtual exclusion of everyone else. Bob Dylan, the most egregious case, gets only a couple of sentences in this 200-page book, despite the fact that his music, in terms of its overall cultural impact, was arguably the most important in American musical history. To be fair, the author mentions the “British Invasion” in one extended paragraph in Chapter 6, but apart from this and The Beatles, almost nothing. Woodstock also receives a few pages of concentrated focus, but there is nothing here about any of the other important rock concerts of the decade – Monterey Pop, for instance, or the sessions at The Fillmore.

In short, the book cries out for a sequel, one that would bring the cultural significance of rock ‘n’ roll closer to the present time, and show more thoroughly how the music matured and fused (in both a musical and ethnic sense) with the social and political movements of later decades. As it is, All Shook Up leaves one “shaking” for more.
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on March 12, 2010
Having been a teenager in the 50s, I found many sections of the book interesting. I especially enjoyed learning some of the hidden racial messages in songs I once thought to be simple love songs. I would recommend the book to anybody who lived during that time and/or who is interested in the background information of the early stars of Rock 'n' Roll and/or the politics behind the music business.
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on March 21, 2013
Altschuler attempts to capture the generation of Americans who had been "all shook up" by the birth of rock 'n' roll and is largely successful. His book dives into the three main "fault-lines" of society: family, sexuality, and race. He argues that rock 'n' roll, which had been pioneered by African-Americans, opened up the way for later civil rights movements. By entering the mainstream, it also gave blacks credibility and respect as musicians. Rock 'n' roll also stirred up the pot regarding sexuality; desire was now thrown into the public forum and was open for discussion through music. Lastly, rock 'n' roll broke the traditional boundaries of family. In an era of immense prosperity and growth, the most avid fans of the music (teenagers) held a lot of buying power. They could decide what to buy for themselves.

Overall, the book is a good introduction to rock 'n' roll, but fails to achieve its goal: to describe how the music changed America. It also ignores the ills of rock 'n' roll, such as the obvious masculinity and emphasis on traditional roles for women. This, combined with the onslaught of facts, names, and songs that Altschuler provides, makes for a dry read. Essentially, it will appeal only to a niche audience that enjoys 50's music. The book is, however, successful in retelling a history of the music. It also relates events or trends of historical importance with popular culture, which is often neglected.
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Rock n roll may seem like an odd choice for a pivotal moment in American history but altschuler supports his thesis very well and by the end I was convinced. This book is an overview of the business, politics, race relations, and generational relations stemming from rock and roll. It looks at rocks early years through the "day the music died". If you are looking for a book that will serve as an introduction to the rock n roll movement then look no further. I was very impressed with the information presented and as someone who knew nothing about the history of rock when I started I was pleased with how much I learned. It leaves a few places hanging such as what happens to Elvis after he joins the army but mostly it covers everything in the right amount of detail. Highly recommend.
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on September 13, 2009
I bought this book because it's published by Oxford University Press. Well, not only because of that. I dig the subject matter too. But I was looking for a book that would give me some historical insight into the early years of Rock & Roll that I might not have already had, and this book (part of the O.U.P. series "Pivotal Moments in American History") seemed to be just that. After a short introduction focusing on the years 1945-1955, it is Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" (as featured in the movie "Blackboard Jungle") that really opens this story. Altschuler's book focuses on Rock & Roll through the lens of cultural history, and it's in that cultural aspect of the music's history that the book's most interesting tid-bits lie. While I loved reading the stories about many of the musicians (I was prompted to beef up my Fats Domino and Little Richard collections immediatlely after putting this book down), some of the most interesting dirt was about the payola scandals in the late '50s and early '60s: the rivalry between ASCAP and BMI (the music business, old and new), and the roles played in that rivalry (and in the pop music scene in general) by folks like Alan Freed and Dick Clark.

The missing piece of the Rock & Roll story that was filled in for me more than any by this book was the answer to the question: Why did it take 8 years to get from Elvis to the Beatles ('55-'63)? Unfortunately, a lot of that answer is Dick Clark and Pat Boone and their embodiment of squeaky-clean American conservatism, and a lot of it is that nasty old thing that never seems to leave the discussion of America(n music): racism. It's too bad that it took a bunch of British kids, 10 years too late, to turn us on to the fact that the best music in the world was being made right here in America, by black Americans. In fact, the whole story of the exploitation of black artists by white suits in the 20th century is a shame. But it is also a story full of incredible music and countless musicians, and it is a story (and music) that belongs to every American, and to every lover of American music the world over. This book delves into a certain piece of that story, and I, personally, enjoyed reading it.
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