I know you need a license to play cover music.....just didn't know if that counted for music that goes back as far as the 1950's
It' not quite this simple, because there are other factors, but you should assume such a Copyright is good for 95 years. See https://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ15a.pdf
The 1950s isn't that old, when it comes to copyright.
But luckily for you, once a song (musical composition, meaning music and lyrics) is published, then there's what's called a "compulsory license" to cover most songs, and pay the songwriter(s)' music publisher --not the recording artist, who may not be a/the songwriter -- a set royalty for each copy sold of that cover. You can do this through the Harry Fox Agency without needing to contact the songwriter(s)' music publisher.
If you just want to perform that 1950s song, then there'd be a "performing rights" royalty, collected by ASCAP or BMI or SESAC. And again, you don't need to contact the songwriter(s)' music publisher.
See your own music lawyer for help.
Avvo doesn't pay us for these responses, and I'm not your lawyer just because I answer this question or respond to any follow-up comments. If you want to hire me, please contact me. Otherwise, please don't expect a further response. We need an actual written agreement to form an attorney-client relationship. I'm only licensed in CA and you shouldn't rely on this answer, since each state has different laws, each situation is fact specific, and it's impossible to evaluate a legal problem without a comprehensive consultation and review of all the facts and documents at issue.
Years licensed, work experience, educationLegal community recognition
Peer endorsements, associations, awardsLegal thought leadership
Publications, speaking engagementsDiscipline