Sha Na Na and the Invention of the Fifties
By George J. Leonard ’67, ’68 GSAS, ’72 GSAS and Robert A. Leonard ’70, ’73 GSAS, ’82 GSAS
In 1969, the Kingsmen, Columbia’s traditional a capella group, gambled on a new concept. At a Wollman concert, “The Glory That Was Grease,” the Kingsmen, outfitted in gold lame and sporting Elvis Presley hairdos, performed original dances while singing classic Fifties rock ’n’ roll. That led to a memorable “Grease Under the Stars” concert on Low Plaza, soon after which they shot to stardom, opening for Jimi Hendrix at the original Woodstock Festival. Renamed Sha Na Na, they became regulars at Fillmore West and East, appeared in the Oscar-winning Woodstock movie as well as the movie version of Grease, which their act had inspired. Their syndicated TV show ran for years, worldwide.
So Columbia’s place in rock ’n’ roll history has long been granted. Recently, however, there has been an interesting new level of appreciation. Contemporary scholars of American cultural history have begun writing that Sha Na Na’s greatest achievement was the invention of a new American era: the “Fifties.” The whole notion of how artists can change the way a historical era is viewed, and relatively quickly, is interesting on its own; the fact that Sha Na Na and the College played such a role in this change makes it interesting for all Columbians. Brothers and founding members George J. Leonard ’67, ’68 GSAS, ’72 GSAS, who conceived and choreographed the Kingsmen’s change to Sha Na Na, and Robert A. Leonard ’70, ’73 GSAS, ’82 GSAS, the group’s first president and gold lame singer, report on the new scholarly interest in Sha Na Na.
In the last few years, an unlikely group of scholars has been studying Columbia’s Sha Na Na as a test case: meta-historians, theoreticians of cultural history itself. In 2004, Rutgers University Press published a bold new book by Goucher professor Daniel Marcus, Happy Days and Wonder Years: The Fifties and Sixties in Contemporary Cultural Politics. In 2006, Elizabeth E. Guffey, a Stanford Ph.D. and associate professor at SUNY Purchase, published Retro: The Culture of Revival (London and Chicago: Reaktion Books distributed by the University of Chicago Press, retrothebook.com). Both books contain extensive studies of Sha Na Na’s “Fabricated Fifties” (Guffey’s term) because Marcus and Guffey — working quite independently — discovered Sha Na Na and Columbia College, in 1969, playing an unusual role in 20th century American history.
More precisely, in inventing it.
“On the fourth day of the Woodstock Festival of 1969,” Guffey’s account begins, “just before Jimi Hendrix’s celebrated finale, the stage was held by a group of unknown undergraduates from Columbia University ... The rock-’n’-roll revivalist group Sha Na Na bombarded the audience with tightly choreographed 1950s classics like ‘Teen Angel’ and ‘At the Hop.’ The festival’s unlikely scene stealers sported dated looks, including greased ducktails, white socks and cigarettes rolled into T-shirt sleeves. Sha Na Na’s impossibly upbeat and exuberant version of the 1950s seemed the opposite of the arty psychedelica and hard rock that characterized Woodstock.”
Guffey quickly spots that Sha Na Na was “subtly infused with Camp. George J. Leonard, the group’s leader [in matters of theory], described himself as a ‘22-year-old Susan Sontag buff.’ Recalling the group’s transformation from Ivy League glee club to television stars, Leonard spoke of a ‘vision of a group that would sing only ’50s rock and perform dances like the Busby Berkeley films that he ‘learned to love in college readings on Camp’ ” in Richard Kuhns’ aesthetics courses.
Marcus was coming to the same conclusion: 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 ’48 and Jack Kerouac ’44 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. Cultural critics had already agreed the decade was “a national pre-frontal lobotomy.”
Then, Marcus and Guffey saw, around 1969, “history” had been deliberately rewritten — almost invented.
“The replacement of the Beat with the greaser as the emblematic 1950s rebel” had, Marcus reports, consolidated its hold on American “memory” within a very few years, by the time of Happy Days and Fonzie. Nor had that replacement gone unnoticed, Guffey discovered. “People begin to remember the 1950s not as they recall them but as they have been re-created for them,” Horizon marveled by 1972. “This is what makes the newly-minted myth of the Fifties so remarkable … .” “Vision fades and imagination takes over,” Time critic Gerald Clarke wrote.
Marcus uses the term “1950s” for the actual decade, and “Fifties” for the “newly minted” myth (a useful device we’ll adopt). The Fifties, then, had rather suddenly replaced the 1950s in the collective memory. Though Happy Days and the musical Grease had played a role, Marcus and Guffey both found articles such as Horizon’s, which predated those works. Tracing back, Marcus discovered, as Guffey had, that the new Fifties was no older than Columbia College, spring 1969, when the Kingsmen put on two shows: “The Glory That Was Grease” and the “First East Coast Grease Festival,” attended by 5,000 students from Massachusetts to Maryland.
That had been the first appearance of the word “Grease” and the first appearance of the greaser, who, Marcus saw, rapidly replaced the popular image of Beatniks and the Beat era. “This ascription of the social domain and style of hoods (in 1950s slang) or greasers (as they came to be known in the 1970s) as the emblematic experience of 1950s youth came to be a common trope in later media discussions of the era” (pp. 12–13 ff.). The Fonz, then, when he first appeared on Happy Days, a full five years later, had only “completed a process of cultural redefinition that had begun with Sha Na Na — that the prototypical figure of youth culture in the Fifties was the urban, white, male working-class greaser. [The Beatniks] were superceded by mainstream interest in the greaser” (p. 30).
With surprise, Marcus reports that “Sha Na Na, the first and most successful” of the Fifties redefiners, were not, as he had supposed in his youth, “‘juvenile delinquents from Queens … The band was actually formed,” he reports with amazement, “of Columbia College students, many of whom were classically trained … ” (pp. 12–13).
Classically trained indeed. Case in point: “Grease” only became “the word” (as the musical later claimed in its famous title song) because George Leonard ’67, the group’s theoretician, studying Greek and Latin, happened to be taking Columbia’s famous classicist Gilbert Highet. While George was sitting in Highet’s class, struggling to think of a name for the first concert, Highet picked up his book, The Classical Tradition and — rolling all the “r”s in his rich Scottish accent — intoned Poe’s poem: “The glorrry that was Grrrreece … the Grrrrandeur that was RRRome!” George had his title: “The Glory … that was Grease!”
“But won’t the Italians be offended?” one of the group worried at the next rehearsal. And worried rightly. In the real 1950s, “grease” was not the word. As Marcus reports, the real 1950s would have called Sha Na Na’s characters “hoods” (since they turned their collars up) or “J.D.s” for “juvenile delinquents.” (Vide, on YouTube, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ 1956 classic, No No No No, No No No No, I Am Not a Juvenile Delinquent.) Highet reciting Poe’s poem in class accidentally changed that forever, and made “grease” the word. (The name “Sha Na Na” was a similar improvisation. Rock critic Richard Goldstein complained that George, no musician, had misheard the “Sha-da-da” lyrics to the song, Get a Job.)
For 37 years such weird little incidents have been material for rock trivia contests … but for theoretical history books from major scholarly houses?
Guffey’s and Marcus’ work on the “invention” of the Fifties is part of an important philosophic debate about “history.” We contacted Marcus, who seemed surprised — and a little off-balance — to have characters from his pages e-mail him. “My book argues,” Marcus explained to us, “that in contemporary America, popular culture and politics interweave to create senses of national history and memory, and that we cannot understand either sphere without taking their interaction into account.”
Meta-historians prize the chance to study such “interactions.”As George Orwell’s totalitarian regime had claimed, in 1984, “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present, controls the past.”
But Orwell’s villain said that, not Orwell. The simple idea that “history is written by the winners,” is giving way to the realization that history is, of course, written by the writers; and that’s often quite a difference.
This historical inquiry (Marcus and Guffey both confirm to us) is indebted to classic articles by eminent British historians Eric Hobsbawm and Sir Hugh Trevor-Roper concerning what Hobsbawm called The Invention of Tradition. “They were all the rage,” Guffey told us, “when I was studying British history in the United Kingdom in the ’80s.”
The Sha Na Na greaser, it turns out, has an unexpected Old World cousin: the Scottish Highlander.
Trevor-Roper’s discomforted readers discovered that their romantic image of brawny Scottish Highlanders stalking o’er the braes in kilts and clan tartans was in fact a marketing triumph — and not even by a Scot. A Quaker industrialist had invented the kilt and meant to sell it. Still, the product didn’t move until Sir Walter Scott’s Romantic generation (looking for a Noble Savage closer to home than Rousseau’s South Seas) romanticized the Highlander and bought kilts, clan tartans and all: an “invented tradition.”
So one understands the American meta-historian’s interest in the parallel test case at the College. The invention of the American greaser, swaggering in his gang’s motorcycle jacket, as the Noble Savage of the American Century was a direct parallel to the Romantics’ tough Highlander swaggering in his clan’s tartan — as invented a tradition, alas, as the kilt. The “Highland Flings” were as ersatz as “Fifties dance,” George’s transparently College mix of camp Busby Berkeley movies seen at the New Yorker and Thalia revival houses, with Chuck Jackson’s routine from the Apollo, a relatively short walk from his dorm room, 629 John Jay.
Hobsbawm’s school had had to travel as far as Tokyo and Zanzibar to study the birth of such invented traditions as Japan’s “traditional” dish, sukiyaki (introduced by Meiji Japanese officials who speculated that America’s meat diet promoted their sailors’ growth). But Columbia was closer than Zanzibar; the concerts were well-documented in Jon Groner ’72, ’75L’s articles in the archives of Spectator and CCT. “My book Retro was conceived and written at Columbia University,” Guffey told us. “I was living at 116th and Morningside while working on it, and most of my research was based in Butler and Avery libraries … The rise of Sha Na Na and other tales of the late ’60s had special, highly personal resonance for me, and I often thought of [Sha Na Na] when I’d walk across campus.”
“As Voltaire noted,” Guffey observes in Retro (a word she has theorized and made her own the way Sontag captured and theorized Camp), “History does not change, but what we want from it does.” The Columbia test case supports Voltaire. Columbia College, in 1969, wanted something new from the 1950s, and its reasons were well-documented. “Band members linked their success to a disillusionment with radical politics a year after massive student unrest at Columbia,” Marcus writes (pp. 12–14).
During the revolution the year before, the Vietnam-era culture wars had escalated into fist fights, even mob fights, between the “jocks” and the “freaks” (and even “pukes”), as protestors were called. We remember professors John D. Rosenberg ’50, ’60 GSAS, Arthur Danto ’53 GSAS and Richard Kuhns ’55 GSAS linking arms in a human chain of faculty members to block the Tactical Patrol Force from clubbing student demonstrators. Kenneth Koch stopped his poetry class from rushing down from Hamilton to join in a brawl between jocks and freaks going on below by crying out, like a WWII movie heroine, in his campiest voice, “Stop! WE’RE … what they’re FIGHTING FOR!” His students broke up laughing, sat back down and Koch went on with the lecture, while the jocks and freaks punched it out outside.
Researching in Butler and Avery libraries, Guffey discovered George’s twice-weekly Spec ads: “Jocks! Freaks! ROTC! SDS! Let there be a truce! Bury the hatchet (not in each other)! Remember when we were all little greaseballs together” (p. 113). The ads consciously “evoked,” Guffey commented, a “vision of the Fifties as a pre-political teenage Eden.”
After Woodstock, Sha Na Na founders John “Jocko” Marcellino ’72, Don York ’71, Rich Joffe ’72, ’93L, Scott Powell ’70 and manager Ed Goodgold ’65 gained the talents of Jon “Bowzer” Bauman ’68 and “Screamin’” Scott Simon ’70. Their popular television show joined with Happy Days and Grease popularizing the new myth. By the 1980 Presidential election, America had embraced the dream of the Fifties as a pre-political Golden Age. So much so, Marcus painstakingly shows, that the American political landscape was altered to take advantage of this invented cultural memory.
In Ronald Reagan’s time, Marcus documents, politicians began invoking a Columbia College fantasy as if it had been history, and trying to ally themselves with it. “Conservatives [in the Reagan Era] parlay(ed) the cultural nostalgia for the Fifties that had circulated in the 1970s into the basis for a political offensive … ”(p. 58). Marcus describes in detail how Bill Clinton fought for parity by casting himself as a worthy descendant of Elvis. Baby Boom politicians have battled during four presidencies over who was the genuine heir to a Fifties that was itself a kind of artwork.
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 ’71 and Elliot Cahn ’70 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.
The Columbia test case, then, suggests that even “he who controls the present” can still, at best, only select from the past. Looking at the skies, we deliberately drew lines between new stars to create a new constellation. But we did not, could not, create the stars themselves. The past too exists, even though we select from it.