“Sometimes I’m right and I can be wrong,
My own beliefs are in my song.”
--Sly and the Family Stone, “Everyday People”
I spent the last week of August, 1968, glued to the television. The Democratic National Convention was taking place in Chicago, and there was gavel-to-gavel coverage on the three commercial networks. Inside the hall, delegates debated the party platform, particularly its stance on the Vietnam War. Outside, young protesters challenged the status quo, tensions building to a climactic crescendo the night Hubert Humphrey was selected as the party’s presidential nominee. The Chicago police went berserk, indiscriminately clubbing, kicking and dragging not only anti-war protesters, but reporters and curious bystanders as well.
Watching that convention and its surrounding mayhem was a turning point for me, the pivotal event in the year of my radicalization. I was sixteen years old.
Getting caught up in the political process was nothing new for me. I first got hooked during the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon campaign, was inspired by JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you speech,” handed out campaign literature for the “LBJ for the USA” campaign in ’64, and discovered my political bearings via the civil rights movement.
The soundtrack of my youthful politicization was the popular music of the time. Peter, Paul & Mary’s 1963 rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” was one of the first that I actually recognized as a political song, but I had already been singing “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” at summer church camp and “This Land is Your Land” in elementary school music class.
With the tumult and progressive ferment of the decade, it’s easy to ascribe more political awareness to the pop music of the ‘60s than there actually was. After all, the top selling record of 1969 was “Sugar, Sugar” by a group of comic book characters! But, there were a few politically charged songs at or near the top of the charts, and they were not all from the same side of the political spectrum. In fact, Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler’s pro-war anthem, “Ballad of the Green Berets,” was the number one song of 1966.
It all began when the early ‘60s folk boom brought political protest music close to the mainstream. Young songwriters like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs got caught up in the headwinds to produce topical lyrics torn from the day’s headlines. Ochs’ first album was called All the News That’s Fit to Sing and he was branded a “singing journalist.” Dylan told real-life stories in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” but used the facts as a foundation upon which to build statements as poetic and timeless as they were reportorial and opportune. “Masters of War” was biting and direct, “The Times They Are A-Changin’” prophetic.
Though he would soon reject the crown and retreat into more obtuse wordplay, Dylan was the King of Protest Music at the height of the folk era. His role model was Woody Guthrie, author of “This Land is Your Land” and hundreds of other entries in the Great American Folksong Book. Woody’s oeuvre was songs about working people, the lower classes, migrant farmworkers, dust bowl refugees, those who struggled to earn “less than a dollar a day.” He wrote “This Land” in 1940 as a protest song, the common man’s response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” (He originally called it “God Blessed America for Me.”)
Pete Seeger took on the job as keeper of the flame after Woody was diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease in 1952. Seeger wrote a bunch of campfire classics himself, including “Flowers,” “Hammer” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and was essentially a one-man proselytizer for political songmaking in the post-McCarthy-era ‘50s.
As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the early ‘60s, so did songs with messages. Sam Cooke wrote “A Change is Gonna Come” after hearing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” answering Dylan’s “how many years” question with “it’s been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come.” In 1965, Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” made a similar promise and when James Brown shouted “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” the underlying implications for black Americans went far beyond the story of a guy doing the jerk, the monkey and the mashed potato. Aretha Franklin’s demand for “Respect” also implied far more than its surface narrative of man and woman. When Soul Brother #1 invited his listeners to “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” the message was clear.
The blatant polemics of “Eve of Destruction” may have been somewhat overbearing, but the song was nonetheless potent and timely. The Beatles’ “Taxman” was a cleverly conceived rant, though that of those with wealth. Stephen Stills captured the tenor of the times in Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” (“There’s something happening here”).
“All You Need is Love” was filled with John Lennon’s poetic playfulness when it arrived in the middle of the Summer of Love in 1967. It may be the ultimate political statement in song, rivaled in its optimism only by Chet Powers’ “Get Together,” a Top 10 hit in the Woodstock summer of 1969 for The Youngbloods.
The end of the ‘60s brought a flurry of topical songs: Edwin Starr’s “War” (“what is it good for?”); Sly Stone’s “Everyday People” and “Stand”; The Rascals’ “People Got to be Free” and “Ray of Hope”; Steppenwolf’s “Monster,” “Move Over” and “Draft Resister;” Eric Burdon and the Animals’ “Sky Pilot” and “White Houses” (“in neat little rows contrasting against the sky”); Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” Even songs as varied as “Aquarius,” “Born to be Wild” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion” seemed to contain a subtle political overtone that was hard to pinpoint.
The Vietnam War provided fodder for John Fogerty’s classic Creedence Clearwater Revival songs, “Fortunate Son” and “Run Though the Jungle.” Country Joe and the Fish satirized it with “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die-Rag” (“1-2-3 what are we fighting for”), the musical twin to Phil Ochs’ “Draft Dodger Rag” from earlier in the decade. Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers was the most directly political album of the era, closing out 1969 in a double whammy with the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, whose leadoff track, “Gimme Shelter,” warned that “war, children, it’s just a shot away.” As those albums were released, Merle Haggard topped the country charts from the other side of the cultural divide with “Okie from Muskogee.”
The ‘70s are remembered as the “Me Decade,” and singer-songwriters like James Taylor made their fortunes by turning inward. But Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” “What’s Goin’ On” and “Mercy Mercy Me” are among the most powerful political statements ever set to music. Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” and “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” also had potent storylines, the latter leavened with the Jackson Five’s “doo-do-wops.” Pete Townshend took a cynical tack when The Who pledged “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young sprinkled their albums, together and apart, with dollops of political commentary (see accompanying article). John Lennon was graceful with “Imagine” and plodding with “Power to the People” and “Woman is the Nigger of the World.” Gil Scott-Heron got no radio airplay but produced masterful musical commentary in jazz-inflected songs like “Winter in America” and “We Almost Lost Detroit.”
As the disco era spun its mirrored ball around the second half of the decade and faceless stadium-rock bands promised to “keep on lovin’ you,” pop and rock music pretty much lost any pretensions to political acuity. It would take the punks—the Sex Pistols and The Clash—and near-punks like The Police, Talking Heads, U2 and Midnight Oil, plus the political awakenings of Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne and John Mellencamp, to put a topical spin on popular music in the late ‘70s and the ‘80s.
For those of us who came of political age in the ‘60s and somehow held on to most of our ideals, the soundtrack continued to fuel our passions and lighten the darkness of the Reagan era. Twenty years since Reagan left office and forty years since the year of my radicalization, I can still be inspired by a well-crafted topical song like Eliza Gilkyson’s “Man of God” or Arlo Guthrie’s “In Times Like These.”
But “well-crafted” is the key. Gilkyson told me last month that “if you have a message, great; but first, it better stand up as good poetry and be musical.”
That has always been a tough standard to measure up to.
copyright © 2008 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.