Sixty six years ago on this date, the Godless communists of the Soviet Union launched the first man-made satellite into space, a 183-pound metal sphere called "Sputnik 1."
I was barely four years old at the time, so if I do any memories of it, they're buried under tons of rock 'n' roll, television commercial jingles and odd recollections of Andy's Gang episodes.
But all my life I've had it drilled into my head that Sputnik caused a wave of paranoia in the U.S.A.
"... Sputnik struck fear into the hearts of Cold War Americans, who realized that the Soviets could just as well have lofted a nuclear-tipped missile to North America," declared a 2003 reminiscence on NBC.
A 2005 dissertation by Ian Kennedy called The Sputnik Crisis And America's Response looks at how the satellite affected America's psyche:
But how did the American reaction unfold? Did hysteria follow immediately after the launch of Sputnik I, as so many sources on the event would lead us to believe? An examination of the public reaction, combined with analysis of it in the proper contextual framework, suggest that the public reaction may not have been immediately fearful. There is evidence to suggest that many Americans were concerned after their communist foes launched the first Sputnik, but not really afraid. Other than the shame of being beaten to the achievement, a large portion of the public felt that they would soon be back on top and that Russian satellite did not pose an immediate threat.
This “not too much to worry about” mentality did not last long into the following month. When the Soviets repeated their achievement with the launch of Sputnik II in early November 1957, a much larger and heavier satellite that included a canine passenger, Americans had more cause for concern. As that month drew to a close, further events would breed a more worried reaction. …
On 25 November, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a bulwark of leadership that had almost always inspired public confidence, suffered a stroke, causing many to speculate whether the aging leader could still fulfill the weighty obligations of the presidency. Finally, as if to add insult to injury, the first attempt by the United States to match the Soviets in the new space race resulted in spectacular failure. On 15 December 1957, American rocket technicians attempted to launch their nation’s first satellite. This small sphere, called Vanguard I, barely made it off of the launch pad before the rocket carrying crashed back to Earth in a massive ball of flame. Once Americans saw this highly publicized disaster, most of the “not too much to worry about” feelings that may have existed after the first Sputnik were replaced by genuine concern.
So how did this genuine concern affect American music?
In my quick and not-very-scholarly look at this issue, I found many songs obviously inspired by Sputnik. But what I didn't find was much real paranoia.
In the world of country music, Ray Anderson, with his band The Homefolks, declared that "Sputniks and Mutniks" (almost certainly a reference to Laika the space dog, who the Soviets sent to into orbit just a few weeks after Sputnik) "have got me scared."
But still, considering the title and the upbeat tempo of the song might lead a listener to believe his fear was tongue and cheek. Hear for yourself:
Rockabilly Jerry Engler in his song "Sputnik (Satellite Girl)" didn't seem scared at all:"
Likewise, bluesman Roosevelt Sykes was inspired by Sputnik to celebrate his sexy girlfriend, a "hot rocket baby [who] will leave you flyin' blind":
Another rockabilly, Carl Mann, sang of "Satellite No. 2," I guess a successor to Sputnik 1. Mann's reaction was not to run in fear, but to "dance, dance, dance / Let's dance, to that satellite no. 2":
So if Sputnik caused panic and paranoia, it was my kind of panic and paranoia!