As sometimes happens, I came to it — rockabilly — for the clothes. I started collecting vintage clothes from the 1940s through the early ’60s when I graduated from college and was entering the working world, because I wanted more than black pants and a sweater for business casual. I clicked away hours on my laptop, gleaning important bits of knowledge from old photos and bloggers everywhere from Australia to Austin. These stylish women were wonderfully put together for work and play, and danced to a soundtrack of music more powerful and raw than what I’d been listening to at the time.
Don’t get me wrong; I was raised on good music—Fania’s biggest stars in my dad’s car, a little Caribbean music, plenty of jazz and classical (Saturdays were for Tchaikovsky), classic soul, and ’90s R&B. And while I’ve long loved hip-hop, in the last few years, I’ve spent more and more time with my parents’ old favorites because the radio was just too depressing. I found rockabilly, that sliver of sound between early rock ‘n’ roll, country and rhythm and blues, at a time when I was frustrated with new music, period.
My online crate digging, so to speak, led me to offline rockabilly parties here in New York. I left my first party sweaty, breathless and amazed. I’d found a welcoming group of people who wanted to dance with each other and dress to the nines while doing it. Still, I was a little surprised at the lack of black faces in the crowd, but maybe I shouldn’t have been.
Rockabilly is thought of as being a white thing. With Elvis as its biggest star, it’s already ripe with issues for some black people. I know I and other people of color I’ve talked to, were raised with the myth that Elvis publicly said black people were only good for buying his records and shining his shoes. Research showed me he never actually said that but in a way it doesn’t really matter. The damage is done. He’s a reminder of the way whites have long appropriated black culture. Add to that the fact that many fans of the music and the scene use the Confederate flag in their outfits and it’s easy to come away with the message “you don’t belong here.” By no means is rockabilly music or the scene inherently racist, and from what I’ve seen, on the West Coast the scene is heavily Latino. Still, it bears noting a white person once asked me, “But why do you like rockabilly? It’s not really a black thing.”
I disagree. For every Elvis, there are dozens of black artists whose skin color meant they never got off the chitlin circuit to get the recognition (and money) they deserved. Because for all the black people who have said Elvis and others stole rock ‘n’ roll from black people, so few have actually taken the time to really revel in the artists that inspired him. That saddens me. Going to these parties and listening to this music, I’ve learned so much about pre-Motown black artists who’ve had a big, loud influence even if they don’t have biopics. In dusting off forgotten 45s, the rockabilly community pays homage to the black artists who packed so much into a two minute, 30 second recording.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter who’s making the music or running the parties. The point is, I’m there to enjoy myself with everyone else and that should be enough. Instead of being noticed as one of a handful of black people at a show I would rather just be the girl you can’t stop looking at because her dress is perfect. It happens anyway. I feel myself being noticed and it’s hard to shake the habit of counting the other black people in the room.
It takes courage and the fighting of a lot of small fights to be a person of color somewhere it seems you don’t belong. Our communities sometimes tell us not to embrace our perceived weirdness. And as much as rockabilly has a rebellious spirit, there’s a decidedly not rebellious status quo that agrees it’s only for people who look a certain way. My ’50s skirts and cat-eyed liner end up being a small political statement for better or for worse.
Last fall, I went to a show. It was pretty decent turnout, with lots of familiar faces, though I didn’t go with any friends. I got my beer and searched the crowd for a face that looked like mine. He didn’t show up until the second set. I waited to the side, watching him dance; he looked so wonderfully happy, as happy as I felt to be moving to the music. Just before I was ready to go, I asked him for a dance. “I’m so happy to see another black person here!” I laughed when we were done. “I know, me too.” I asked him for his number. He was cute, of course, but I wanted to know how he ended up here. I had a feeling his story would be a little like mine.