In a farm field located in Sullivan County, in the township of Bethel, New York, approximately 400,000 young people gathered to form a community based on some pretty simple philosophies (Rolin 204). Their call was not for violent revolution or anarchy but
rather for peace in the world and love of neighbor. The glue that held this community together was the music. The outdoor concert at Woodstock, held August 15 – 17, 1969 marked the end of a decade that had seen the coming of age of a group of people destined to become the leaders of this country. The young people of the sixties was a generation that had experienced the loss of charismatic leaders such as the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King Jr., the rebellion against a war in a far off place with city names that most Americans could not pronounce, and the claim by Black Americans that they too desired and deserved the dream that was embraced and realized by most White Americans. The official Woodstock Music and Art Fair program probably put it best by saying, “What we’re doing here is celebrating, and at the same time we’re checking each other out, and what we see is a bunch of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread. And hooray for us; we’ve been fearful angels too long” (Curry 3).
The angels of the 1950’s had become the movers and shakers of the next decade. An example of the affect of rock music on the lives of young people comes from Bunny Gibson who was born in 1946 and lived in Darby, Pennsylvania. Her desire was to be on the television show “American Bandstand.” She talks about her experience and how rock music changed life for her and so many others her age. “Even on Bandstand we had to conform. We had a strict dress code. The guys all had crew cuts and wore ties and jackets. All of the girls’ dresses had to come up high on the neck and could not reveal too much. I think that really helped change the image of rock and roll. How could rock and roll be the devil’s music when all of the kids on Bandstand looked so nice and clean? I think the show really helped to smooth over the image of rock and roll and to bring it into the mainstream. In the fifties we were supposed to listen to our parents and not really have a lot of thoughts of our own. We were supposed to do what we were told, which didn’t really allow for much freedom. But like me, a lot of teenagers wanted to be able to find things out for ourselves: who we were inside, what we liked, what we wanted to do. Rock and roll was music from the heart and the soul that gave us a feeling of freedom. And once we got that freedom, it was like the parents really lost their control over us” (Jennings 147).
The legacy of people like Bunny Gibson lives on through the music that reflected a change in the values of American culture and even in 2006 touches the lives of young people. While it cannot be shown that the music of the 1960’s shaped the cultural and political scene of the time, it can be shown that the music did reflect the times and did enhance the sensitivity and awareness of young people to the world in which they lived. Its form was indicative of the desire to break loose from the strict moral and philosophical conservatism that had prevailed since the end of World War II. “1960’s music not only deepened rock and rolls ability to work as a music of rebellion, disobedience and disrespect—often worthy and noble impulses that were reenacted in the 1970’s punk and are still acted out in much of today’s best (and worst) rap and heavy-metal music—but also made plain that pop music had become capable of expressing emotional and thematic truths that were as rich and consequential as anything contemporary film or literature had to offer. In other words, the 1960’s proved that rock is anything but trivial music; it does have impact, and at its worthiest, it still aims to threaten, to draw boundaries, to defy and to win young people over to its view and its ethos.” (Gilmore 67)
In 1960 John F. Kennedy was elected to the U.S. Presidency. At the time, he was the youngest person ever elected to the office. He began his presidency with a challenge to the American people in his inaugural address to, “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country…” (Anderson 78).
To all the audience attending the ceremony and those watching on television, this new, young president embodied a fresh spirit, new ideas, dedication, and hope for great things to come. Rock music began to reflect this call service, to question the status quo and the struggle for identity. The rise of the Beatles as pop icons represented the beginning of this change. Their long hair, unique dress and music began to challenge the traditional musical and celebrity formulas of the day.
Tragically on November 22, 1963 President Kennedy lost his life to a bullet from the rifle of an assassin (Anderson 129). Robert Kennedy, who had served as Attorney General during the Presidency of his brother John Kennedy, began his own run for the presidency in 1968. He too lost his life to the bullet of an assassin and in that same year Martin Luther King Jr. was also shot and killed. All three of these men represented significant change to the American cultural landscape and their loss, while grievous, also emboldened many young people to take up the causes they had championed. In Dick Holler’s 1968 song, “Abraham, Martin and John” the lyrics mourn the loss of these leaders in a folk/rock ballad that was originally recorded by Dion who was best known for such hits of the 1950’s as “Runaround Sue.” This song celebrated the accomplishments of these leaders who “freed a lot of people.” Even the artists of the 50’s were embracing the changing landscape of American culture. In addition the 1968 Rolling Stones song “Street Fighting Man” was banned on many radio stations after the assassinations for fear that it would inflame emotions and lead to riots.
In the 2000’s it is difficult to identify persons who have influenced American life as much as those already mentioned. Perhaps one person, although not American, that has had an indirect impact on America was Nelson Mandela of South Africa. Mandela was an outspoken opponent to apartheid in his country. Without Mandela’s voice and that of others like Steven Biko the world may have never come to realize the tragedy that was life in South Africa. The Black majority in the country lived in destitution and poverty for many years and their plight was worsened by the White minority who occupied the seats of power and control. As a result of Nelson Mandela’s efforts and the pressure brought to bear by other countries on the economy of South Africa the chains of apartheid were broken (Jennings 225). On his album “Graceland” released in 1986 Paul Simon brought further attention to the plight of the people of South Africa by recording much of the album in South Africa featuring the voices of the South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
The involvement of the United States in the war in Vietnam (1963 – 1973) sparked artists to write songs expressing either their support or opposition to the conflict. In 1966, approximately 120 pro-war songs were recorded by country-western singers (Anderson 51). By the time of the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the withdrawal of America from Vietnam in 1973 Rolling Stone Magazine determined that almost seventy percent of the five star albums in rock and roll were released during this period (Anderson 51). Folk musicians such as Pete Seeger and Peter Yarrow began to write songs that protested American involvement in the war (Anderson 52).
Younger folk singers began to join the cause and the voices of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan began to be heard (Anderson 53). Soon the sound of electronic guitars and drums joined the chorus and songs such as “Eve of Destruction” and “Unknown Soldier” by the Doors began to be heard over the radio (Anderson 58). Finally, perhaps one of the best known anti war songs of the decade was performed at Woodstock by Country Joe and the Fish entitled “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag”. In this song the group made the war sound like a “carnival farce” with a chorus of:
“And it’s one, two, three
What are we fighting for,
Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Viet Nam.
And it’s five, six, seven
Open up the pearly gates.
Well, there ain’t no time to wonder why,
Whoopee we’re all gonna die. (Anderson 57)”
By the end of the decade there were a multitude of songs that sought peace such as John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” and Cat Steven’s “Peace Train.” Other songs written to protest the war included “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” recorded by Mason Profitt, “Get Together” written by Chet Powers, “Alice’s Resaurant” written by Arlo Guthrie and “Ball of Confusion” recorded by The Temptations. Neil Young wrote and delivered with his song “Ohio” which told the story of the killing of innocent college students at Kent State University by National Guard troops trying to break up a war protest. While the song told that story, the lyrics also called for action on the part of people to stop the madness.
“Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are gunning us down,
Should have been done long ago
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know” (Anderson 58).
On September 11, 2003 terrorists hijacked three airliners. Two were used as missiles to destroy the World Trade Towers in New York City. Approximately 3,000 people lost their lives in the terrorist attack. As a result of these attacks a decision was made by our nations leaders to attack Iraq. As of this time, we are still occupying that country and to many it appears that we have gotten ourselves into a similar situation as the conflict in Vietnam during the 1960’s. Once again we have seen the sound of music supporting and opposing this war. In the area of rock music some of the champions of the 1960’s have again come out with anti war songs. Neil Young wrote a song entitled “Let’s Impeach the President” and John Fogerty of Credence Clearwater Revival fame released a song entitled “Déjà Vu (All Over Again). In this dssong Mr. Fogerty laments that the rhetoric being heard today for this war is much the same as it was during the Vietnam conflict.
“Did you hear ‘em talkin’ ‘bout it on the radio
Did you stop to read the writing on the wall
Did that voice inside you say
I’ve seen this all before
It’s like Déjà Vu all over again” (Fogerty)
Younger artists have joined their voices in the chorus to protest the actions of our government in this war including Pearl Jam in their song “World Wide Suicide” and John Mayer in his song “Waiting on the World to Change.”
“Now, if we had the power
To bring our neighbors home from war
They would have never missed a Christmas
No more ribbons on the door
And when you trust your television
What you get is what you got
Cause when they own the information
They can bend it all they want” (Mayer).
This last piece almost seems like a lament that young people today feel so powerless but yet they will one day be the ones to assume leadership of the world and so they wait for the world to change. Other recent offerings that protest the war include “War” recorded by Outkast, “Bomb the World” recorded by Spearhead, “Empire” recorded by Dar Williams, “I Want My Country Back” recorded by Greg Brown and “No Bomb is Smart” recorded by Sonia Rutston.
During the decade of the 1960’s our country struggled with it’s own sins in the area of discrimination. America’s Black citizens had been denied many basic freedoms that White America took for granted. A movement began to claim those rights for Black Americans and many of the rallies and protests were led by songs that celebrated the Negro Spiritual. Songs such as “We Shall Overcome” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” became cries for justice and freedom for a group of people that had little for decades. Once again many folk artists lifted up the plight of the disenfranchised in their songs. Bob Dylan wrote “Blowing in the Wind” and David Arkin wrote “Black and White” to celebrate the coming together of races for mutual growth. Over the years our country realized that it was time to repent and laws were passed to assure that all people in this country would have the legal right to basic freedoms such as voting and property ownership (The Sixties: The Decade That Changed America).
We have come a long way in the area of civil rights, but the truth be known, we still have a long way to go. One only needs to be aware of the number of people in our country that live in poverty or are homeless to recognize that the work is not completed. Even today we have rock artists that sing about the plight of the poor and the disenfranchised. Talib Kweli in his song “Get By” talks about what it takes to make it from day to day in America today (Kweli). Wyclef Jean laments the plight of minority people in the city in his song entitiled “Diallo” (Jean).
Rock music in the 1960’s enhanced the changes that were brought about by a generation that was not satisfied with the status quo and demanded change and embraced being involved in that change. A summation of the impact this music had and is having is best summed up by Mikal Gilmore in an article written for Rolling Stone Magazine in 1990.
“…it is also true that rock has lost much of its political and social convictions in recent years, and that it is now a music that can accommodate ugly views of sexism and racism, and that perhaps too much of it has helped spread an unthinking affection for alcohol and drugs. To put it differently, 1960’s rock didn’t save the world—maybe didn’t even change the world enough—but it fought good battles and it enriched a progressive struggle that is far from finished, and far from lost. In the end, rock and youth culture met with considerable and determined opposition—and that opposition is still formidable. But for a moment, in the middle of a momentous decade, rock & roll was heroic enough to tell us the essential fact of our time: that we were finally on our own, and that we were ‘with no direction home.’ In some ways, the most important music since that time has struggled either to deny that bold truth or to follow its chilling and liberating implications to their bravest and most surprising ends” (Gilmore 67).
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