Music’s influence on American History in the 1960s
“Entertainment is always a national asset. Invaluable in times of peace, it is indispensable in wartime. All those who are working in the entertainment industry are building and maintaining national morale both on the battlefront and on the home front.” Franklin D. Roosevelt 1 The 1960s was one of the most dramatic decades we see throughout American history. The music of the 1960s played an important role socially, economically, and culturally. To this day, the music out of the 1960s is how that decade is highly remembered to today’s generation. While many of the songs from wars in our past tended to lean in favor, Vietnam presents a startling shift in music. For the first time during a major conflict, the number of protest songs begins to outweigh the number of pro-war songs.2 This can be attributed to a more unfiltered media presence able to spread more information to the public. The change in relationship between war and music and patriotism can be linked with the changing role of the media in the 1960s. The emergence of television in particular provided more opportunities to question events as they streamed into America’s living rooms. Social unrest in the 1960s, particularly related to Civil Rights efforts and demonstrations, were broadcast frequently. 3 In the past information spread through newspapers and radio reports, but Americans had never actually seen the images beyond photographs and newsreels at the movies. Seeing the images tends to force participants to draw their own conclusions, and Americans were questioning authority long before Vietnam became their concern. Prior to that time many musicians were silent about the war. It was not until Americans themselves began to change their opinion about their presence in Vietnam that many musicians in the record industry began to market protest.4 As the music began to mirror American opinions more and more, the popularity of many of the anti-war songs soared. In fact, many of the tunes that are still remembered from this time were released after 1965. The protest songs begin to escalate with Tom Paxton’s “Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation,” released in 1965. In the song, Paxton exhibits great criticism of the president’s policy in the chorus: “Have no fear of escalation. I am trying everyone to please. Though it isn’t really war, we’re sending fifty thousand more, to help save Vietnam from Vietnamese.” 5 The lyrics demonstrate the frustration felt by Americans, many of whom were unable to find a good reason to “save” Vietnam from their own people and were upset that so many lives were lost when war had not been formally declared. There were many other songs that did not necessarily protest, but clearly did relate and reflect what was going on in American History in the 1960s. Four young girls were killed in the 1963 Birmingham 16th Avenue Baptist Church bombing. Later on after that, John Coltrane wrote the song, “Alabama” in response to the tragedy. Again in 1963, Bob Dylan wrote the song, “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues.” This song refers to the right wing group, the John Birch Society. Later in the decade, Aretha Franklin wrote the song, “Respect”, in 1967. Her song may have been taken as a political statement, but in her own mind her performance was a personal shot towards her husband at the time, for domestic respect. Her song and her vocals, gave the song power and meaning. “In the 1960s, young people made popular music-above all rock ‘n’ roll-the center of their cultural universe.”6 Music was one of the biggest way that youth expressed their rebellion throughout the 1960s. Rock ‘n’ roll was a rebel compared to the previous pop music that came in the 60s. This music fused together counterculture, search for equality, anti-war, and drugs. Rock ‘n’ roll became 80% of all music sales throughout the 1960s. The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and the biggest of all The Beatles were very big names at this...
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