Effects of the Atomic Age on Country Music

Ben Ho
March 4, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018

The Atomic Age

Fig. 1: Fiddlin' John Carson at the age of 54 in 1922. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The term "Atomic Age" was first coined right after World War II by William Laurence, a journalist who at the time was writing about the effects of the Manhattan Project. By 1956, the phrase had become very common in the western world, and was used to refer to the period of time following the discovery of nuclear fission in 1939 through the end of the Cold War in the last years of the 20th century where the threat of nuclear warfare was always on the horizon. [1]

This piece of history can be characterized by its extraordinary scientific achievements and superpower countries, but also by its frightening international crises and potential nuclear holocausts. The heightened fears impacted many aspects of American life, notably creating conflicts such as the Vietnam War, and leading to the ensuing protests. However, the Atomic Age also had a significant effect on America's culture because it changed the way Americans looked at the rest of the world and its nuclear weapons. [1]

Country Music Before World War II

One small but interesting cultural aspect that the Atomic Age had an impact on was country music. Country music began about two decades before World War II in the 1920's as a way for record companies to expand their audiences and profits. The executives of these companies wanted to create a new genre of music to appeal to African-Americans and rural white people. As a result, they "sought out black blues and jazz performers" and "genuine rustic talent in the hills and hollows of the rural Southeast: fiddlers, stringbands, singers of old folk ballads, gospel quartets". [2] The resulting combination was what is now known as country music. It possessed central motifs such as, women, alcohol, infidelity and God. Overall, politically it was a very conservative type of music that mainly emphasized the common working man. For example, the first real country hit was Fiddlin' John Carson's "The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane" (1923) which epitomized the politically conservative, but empathetic to the common man tone that came with the genre and became a model for country music until the Atomic Age. [2]

Effects on Country Music

When the nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the world changed forever. Suddenly everybody knew about and feared the nuclear bomb's tremendous power and capabilities of annihilation. A new "nuclear bomb" fever was all the rage and everybody was discussing it over the dinner table. [1]

To match this new phenomenon, Country music veered away from its 20 years of tradition, and suddenly started to find a new voice politically. In the first ever country song that mentions the atomic bomb, "When the Atom Bomb Fell" (1946) by Karl Davis and Harty Taylor, the nuclear bomb's capabilities are praised as a quick way to end World War II. [3] Suddenly, the mood in country music became a heavily political one. The genre was rapidly becoming a pro-America/patriotic platform for many artists to contribute to. The particular opinion about the bombs being an efficient means to an end were very popular in America at the time. In fact, 85% of Americans wholly approved of their use in 1945. [1] This is a very important number. It is significant because that meant 85% of the United States agreed with the general message in the new age of country music, and thus country music had a much wider appeal and quickly gained popularity from all demographics, not just from African-Americans and rural white people. [2]

Starting from 1946, "Dances were named 'Atomic Boogie' and 'Atomic Polka.' Jazz and rock songs had titles like 'Atomic Cocktail,' 'Atomic Love,' 'Atom Buster,' and 'Atomic Bomb Baby'". [3] In all these popular hits, nuclear bombs were constantly used as positive metaphors or analogies for sex, drinking, and other commonly enjoyed activities. They were used in this manner to again politically reinforce the patriotic and beneficial view most Americans had of the nuclear bomb. [3] The song that most represented this atomic craze was "Atomic Power" (1946) by Fred Kirby. It was the most commercially successful "atomic" country song, and in fact, "competition among record companies was probably more intense than at any time in history" because every company wanted a piece of Kirby's politically fueled song. [4] Like many others at the time, Kirby emphasized the "wonderful" aspects of the nuclear bomb in his song, saying that America had every right to use it in the War.

As the years went on and as the Soviet Union emerged as another superpower, the love for the nuclear bomb began to slowly diminish. Gradually, it was replaced with a fear of their destructive abilities. Country music again reflected this mood. Singers and composers began to compare the atomic bomb with God, describing their similarity in power. Religion in general was used as an analogy for nuclear weapons. In the song, "Brush the Dust from that Old Bible" (1950) by Bradley Kincaid, the bomb was likened to Jesus, and his eventual coming and Day of Judgement, became a metaphor for an inevitable nuclear holocaust. [4]


About a decade after the Japanese bombings, country music references to nuclear bombs began to fade. As with all crazed fads, it spiked in popularity because of its excitement and uniqueness, but eventually faded away through the years. [4] However, the most important effect of the Atomic Age on country music lasted. Even though the nuclear bomb metaphor disappeared, country music's popularity did not. Today, country music has returned to its original roots of an honest God, beautiful women, alcohol, and the average countryman. Thus, partially thanks to the Atomic Age, it is now one of the most popular and history-rich music genres out there.

© Ben Ho. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] R. P.Carlisle, Encyclopedia of the Atomic Age (Facts on File, 2001).

[2] P. Kingsbury, M. McCall, and J. W. Runble, eds., The Encyclopedia of Country Music (Oxford University Press, 2012).

[3] R. G. Weiner, "Atomic Music: Country Conservatism and Folk Discontent," Stud. Pop. Cult. 19, No. 2, 217 (1996).

[4] C. K. Wolfe and J. E. Akenson, eds., Country Music Goes to War (University Press of Kentucky, 2005).