Atom, uranium and Hillbilly

Every art form had to deal with the arrival of the atomic age in one manner or another. Some artists were reserved and intellectual in their approach, others less so. The world of popular music, for one, got an especially crazy kick out of the Bomb. Country, blues, jazz, gospel, rock and roll, rockabilly, Calypso, novelty and even polka musicians embraced atomic energy with wild-eyed, and some might argue, inappropriate enthusiasm. These musicians churned out a variety of truly memorable tunes featuring some of the most bizarre lyrics of the 20th century. If it weren’t for Dr. Oppenheimer’s creation, for example, would we have ever heard lines like « Nuclear baby, don’t fission out on me! » or « Radioactive mama, we’ll reach critical mass tonight! »?

There are various subgenres (see below) that comprise the master genre we like to call the Atomic Platter, but mainly these compositions celebrate, lament or lampoon the Bomb and the Cold War that sprang from the mushroom clouds over Japan.

The earlier songs are less self-conscious, more naive (in some cases to the point of downright wackiness) and therefore more intriguing. Needless to say, another reason why many of these songs were selected is—put simply—they swing! Pondering the cultural climate that encouraged songs like 1957’s profoundly strange yet catchy Atom Bomb Baby is a lot more rewarding than, say, examining the obvious metaphors from a pre-electric Dylan protest song like « A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall. » And Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction is a memorable « important » song. (suite…)