OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Richard Aquila

Portrait of Richard Aquila

Richard Aquila is a professor emeritus of history at Penn State University and the former director of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Penn State Behrend. He specializes in U.S. social and cultural history, particularly the American West, American Indians, popular culture, and recent America. His publications include Let's Rock! How 1950s America Created Elvis and the Rock & Roll Craze (2016); The Sagebrush Trail: Western Movies and Twentieth-Century America (2015); Wanted Dead or Alive: The American West in Popular Culture (1996); Home Front Soldier: The Story of a G.I. and His Italian American Family during World War II (1999); That Old Time Rock and Roll: A Chronicle of An Era, 1954–63 (1989); and The Iroquois Restoration: Iroquois Diplomacy on the Colonial Frontier, 1701–1754 (1983, 1997). Aquila has also written, produced, and hosted numerous documentaries for npr. His weekly public history series, "Rock & Roll America," was syndicated on npr and npr Worldwide. In addition, he has written columns for The Hill, Salon, and USA Today.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

This lecture explores the assassinations, polarized politics, riots, and demonstrations that occurred throughout the Nightmare Year of 1968. It uses a non-traditional source of history -- rock music -- to provide additional insights about American life and thought.
This talk explores the significance of the mythic West in American history and culture. As a case study, it focuses on how the West was portrayed in rock music of the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s. The surprising results reveal the continuing power of the mythic West in contemporary America.
This talk focuses on September 11. It examines how popular music dealt with the tragedy and what that reveals about American politics, society, and culture. In the process, it demonstrates the important connections between popular culture and public memory.
This talk focuses on Donald Trump's rise to the presidency. It suggests that the emergence of Trump was no mere political movement. It was a powerful pop culture phenomenon that continues to crush anything or anyone in its path. That’s why Republicans, Democrats, and Independents need to take him seriously. Another Trump Tsunami could be headed their way in 2020. If they’re not careful, they’re going to be trumped again by America’s first “pop culture” president.
This talk places the birth of rock & roll in context of 1950s America. The historical evidence suggests that rock & roll was not as rebellious as common wisdom has it. Instead, the new sound was in tune with the conservatism of America's cold war culture. Early rock & roll reflected the consensus and conformity of the 1950s as much as it did the era's conflict.