The 1960’s was one of the most controversial decades in American history because of not only the Vietnam War, but there was an outbreak of protests involving civil and social conditions all across college campuses. These protests have been taken to the extent where people either have died or have been seriously injured. However, during the 1960’s, America saw a popular form of art known as protest music, which responded to the social turmoil of that era, from the civil rights movement to the war in Vietnam. A veritable pantheon of musicians, such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan sang their songs to encourage union organizers to protest the inequities of their time, creating a diverse variety of popular protest music, which has reached out to the youthful generations everywhere demanding for a revolutionary change. The protest music took the children of the 1960’s to a completely new different level. Musicians of this generation were not going to sit and do nothing while the government lied to the people about what was going on in Vietnam. Instead, they took their guitar-strumming troubadours from the coffee houses, plugged them in, and sent the music and the message into the college dorm rooms and the homes of the youth of America. However, as decades went by, protest music does not have much of an impact as it use to because of the way things have changed over the years. Through the analysis of the music during the 1960’s, there shall be an understanding on how the different genres of protest music has affected social protesters based on how musicians have become the collective conscience of that generation through their lyrics and music and the main factors that contributed to the lack of popular protest music in modern-day America. The fact that the United States was going to war in Vietnam and college students were being drafted as soldiers brought the birth of protest music.Order now
The 1960’s in America was often referred to as an age of protest because of not only the social protests that have taken place, but also for the upbringing of protest music, which became very popular during that era. The roots of protest music were largely from folk music of American musicians during 1950’. Folk musicians, such as Joe Hill, composed labor union protest songs and distributed song booklets, hoping to “fan the flames of discontent.” (Rodnitzky pg. 6) Symbolically, this meant that the songs, the fan, would reduce the uncontrollable social protests that the United States government caused with the misleading information that they did not keep their word on, or the flames of discontent. Other folk musicians, such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, traveled around the United States spreading their “message music” and becoming involved in political movements. Guthrie and Seeger were the pioneers of protest music, bringing their folk music to New York City and merging it with urban music. Woody’s songs were about the masses, often identifying problems and offering solutions. While Seeger was cautious about referring to his music as folk music, preferring the term “people’s music,” meaning that not everyone may had the same thoughts, but they all expressed it in their own unique musical sense. For both Woody and Seeger, folk music was a necessity in these protests, when the needs and goals of the people were sung together by the people, a force was created with the capability of defeating alienation. However, if commercial music of 1960’s would have been subdued, then the people’s music could be heard by others and affect change. (Boucher pg. 60-61) During the late 1950’s, folk music would be taken by storm across all college campuses, as students were becoming more distant from the genres of jazz and rock music of that era. (Rodnitzky pg. 13) Folk music was a simple and meaningful, which would intensify as the decade went by, with the response to the civil rights movement, Vietnam War, and other social concerns. The protest music, which flourished throughout the 1960’s, was not only a new beginning, but also a new way of speaking out towards others. However, protest music grew out of its folk traditions and began to develop into other genres of music.
During the early 1960’s, an interesting event occurred within the music era, which would augment the popularity of the protest music movement. Three generally distinct areas of music began to merge, folk music, topical music, and Tin Pan Alley music all began to meld together. (Rodnitzky pg. 4) It was a possibility that both record companies and musicians were attempting to capitalize on the social event, which has taken into effect towards the younger generation. Confronted with serious social turmoil, a burgeoning sub-culture, and a sense of generational revolution, youths have viewed politicians, businessmen, and athletes less as role models and have turned to folk singers as models of integrity. As social movements began to improve the struggle for civil rights and protests of the Vietnam War, popular music and the protesters were inseparable because it was a new culture for young people. Everyone from musicians to businessmen to preachers recognized the effect protest music had influenced over the younger generation. Similar to religious messages, protest music often appealed to the guilt of the listener, invoking action. Support from radio stations, rallies, concerts, festivals, and music magazines gave this powerful form of music a popular venue, which helped youths became more serious and political at the same time. Other musicians during that era had other ways of expressing different genres of protest music.
As the 1960’s progressed, protest music progressed in many diverse ways from its original folk roots because of artistic decisions, record company involvement, and a growing disillusionment among young people. Bob Dylan arguably started the shift away from topical, folk-inspired protest music, by amplifying his guitar, employing a back-up band, and rejecting the topical form, which was a genre known as “folk-rock,” which describes the mistakes of that person or organization has made. In helping to create the “folk-rock” genre that Dylan pioneered, record companies were able to merge the high school and college markets, producing profitable music that was reliant more on the mood of youths, than messages (Rodnitzky pg. 22). The new styles of music, reliant on instrumentation over lyrical messages, spoke to youths growing increasingly disillusioned with race riots and the seemingly endless Vietnam War. Confronted with alienation and absurdity, youths were attracted to music, which depicted the absurdity around them. Whereas protest music in the folk tradition had worked to build solidarity and point out specific social issues, new forms of protest music called for diversity among audience members, protesting societal norms and the notion of ideology, itself (Rodnitzky pg. 31). The popular music of the later 1960’s would be more subtle and effective, however, whatever its effects, the diverse catalogue of protest music made popular in the 1960’s undeniably became an integral part of the social movements and culture of a turbulent decade. Among the rising popularity of protest music, there was also the rise in popularity among the musicians that helped pioneer that genre of music.
Artists such as Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan all became famous for their individual brands of protest music. Phil Ochs, growing up as a middle-class kid, became a radical in college and subsequently dropped out when he picked up a guitar and became involved in activism (Rodnitzky pg. 70). Addressing many and diverse issues of injustice throughout his songs, Ochs marched with various groups and closely associating himself with Students for a Democratic Society. Originally optimistic about the power of music, Ochs became disillusioned like so many of his peers at the end of the decade. He emulated the lengthy, prose of Dylan’s new songs without much success, as he rejected liberalism, dogging the feet of new leftists like Jerry Rubin (Rodnitzky pg. 78). Ultimately, he rejected American political society, before it eventually rejected him culturally. Though his career ended in unpopularity and relative obscurity, Ochs was a key figure of the 1960’s protest scene, exhibiting the connection between social protest and people’s music. Another example of a musical hero spawned by the upbringing of protest musician the 1960’s is Joan Baez. Baez, another college dropout, was perhaps the premier American folksinger by 1960. Singing ancient ballads, her own protest songs, and covers of artists such as Dylan, Baez was also an articulate activist, escorting children to schools during de-segregation, often charged no more than two dollars to attend her concerts, and set up an institute for the study of nonviolence (Rodnitzky pg. 89). Baez had celebrity status and used it for specific purposes, rather than flaunting it. She sang protest songs and advocated the causes of peace, resulting in her becoming a popular icon of her time. However, the most important case study of a protest singer during the 1960’s is Bob Dylan. Robert Zimmerman dropped out of college, ran away from his home in Minnesota to Greenwich Village in New York City, and adopted the name Bob Dylan. Dylan was known to write the best topical, protest ballads of the era, redefine what protest music said and sounded like, taking it to new levels, and his influence on future generations of musicians. By 1962, at the age of 21, Dylan was at the forefront of the folk-protest scene (Rodnitzky pg. 107). His first three albums were largely comprised of acoustic folk music, with his second and third albums, The Freewheelin Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A Changing, offering mostly protest ballads. Dylan’s well-written songs, such as “Blowing in the Wind,” became hugely popular, unifying anthems. Because of his protest music, growing popularity, and early identification with social issues, such as the civil rights movement, Dylan was chosen to lead the movement for social change. He was hailed as “the voice of his generation,” among other, heavy-weighted titles. By 1965, Dylan had made his final break with what many would refer to as protest music, as his electric set at the Newport Folk Festival during that year was met with a frenetic dissatisfaction. Understandably, those involved with the social movements of the day were disappointed and even angered by Dylan’s changing music. Many accused him of abandoning the movement and disregarding his social responsibility as a popular icon. Being accused for fostering alienation, rather than togetherness, the folk community asserted that Dylan was a sellout (Rodnitzky pg. 118). Andrew Gamble argued that despite Dylan’s denial that he was a leader, had useful advice, or was even a protest singer. His songs did show how to live and survive in modern America, without preaching. As he sang on “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “You don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows,” the wind was still blowing, but it was no longer offering the hope of a better world (Boucher pg. 28). This implies that in a political world that has gone awry, Dylan advised that when one evades authority, one should also watch out for societal trappings and ultimately stay true to oneself. Even if the world could not be reformed, it was still possible to survive through the protest of those willing to go against the societal grain and live at they wish. After elevating folk music to global awareness, Dylan took it to popular heights, using pop music as a medium for questioning social and political norms. His music was no longer the people’s music Seeger spoke of, but it wasn’t synonymous with mass culture. Rather than abandon traditional music, Dylan found a power in it greater than communal singing (Boucher pg. 74). Perhaps Dylan went deeper into tradition than anyone had before. Though he turned his back on the protest ballad form, Dylan never turned his back on protest itself. Dylan’s influence on protest music is particularly relevant because it was felt throughout the music of the second half of the 1960’s. In addition, today’s artists work within Dylan’s tradition, often echoing his artistic sentiments concerning protest. Although it can be debated whether anthems are a necessary part of protest music, contemporary artists seem to agree that there are other ways to protest through music. As the 1960’s end, protest music has made its mark to the younger generations of that era. However, in today’s society, protest music does have much on an impact in modern-day America.
Factors such as a differing social response to social injustice, the changed nature of today’s music industry, and the changed nature of today’s pop culture have contributed to the lack of popular protest music in today’s modern society. The lack of popular protest music today has mirrored the lack of strong, unified social movements in America. Protest music has never been responsible for starting such movements, rather, it has served to unify, popularize, and sustain movements already in place. Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University elaborates, “Forty years ago, there was a social movement, or a collection of social movements, and people gravitated to the music because they thought the music spoke for them… So the music … was an anthem for armies that were already on the march. Today, the armies are not so much on the march, if there are armies. So necessarily, the place of the music is going to be different. It’s more often out ahead of what people are doing in their political lives.” (Danton)
As they filled campuses with protests and supported movements at the grass roots level, protest songs offered a rousing soundtrack for movements already up and running. By contrast, today’s musicians perform in a context of growing disapproval for the war, but little activism (Marino).
Social movements have often been supported by throngs of young people, the civil rights movement and the movement to end the war in Vietnam owed a great deal to the efforts of young people, many who felt connected to a generational revolution. However, current issues of social justice, such as subverted racism, the Iraq War, and global warming, fail to penetrate youth consciousness with any viable force. This is largely due to the fact that such issues often exist outside the realm of youths’ direct experience. Because of the absence of a draft, the war in Iraq is not felt as viscerally by today’s student population, as it was during the 1960’s. The military draft, which was not only a defining issue for a generation, but an impetus for social action during the 1960’s, does not offer today’s youths a powerful reason to protest. Although protest music undoubtedly can exist without social movements, it is such movements that often popularize protest music, using it as a galvanizing force. Unlike a unified collection of songs fueling unified movements, today’s protest music is more akin to a collection of isolated songs, accompanied by low approval ratings. A second major reason for the lack of popular protest music today is the changed nature of the music industry. Since the 1960’s, there has been a widespread consolidation of record companies, record stores, and music broadcasters, such as radio and television. The concentration of global ownership in the record industry is such that five international companies, Sony, Universal-Vivendi, AOL Time Warner, EMI, and BMG controlled seventy to eighty percent of all global music sales (Brown pg. 290). Thus, the ease of pressing and promoting a single has greatly diminished for contemporary, independent labels. In addition to this plateau of the record industry, there has also been an uprising, as companies, which used to function separately as record companies, publishers, radio stations, and the like, have also merged. These changes have made the relationships between artists and record industry executives much more impersonal than they were in the 1960’s. Unfortunately, protest has not proved to be a shortcut for instant success among today’s artists, the way it often was among musician sin the 1960’s. However, if the record industry truly runs on the wheels of capitalism, they would be pragmatically obliged to supply popular protest music if the populous demanded it. Although protest music has intensified and become slightly more accepted as approval ratings for the current war and presidency have plummeted, record companies are not offering an array of protest music to be heard on commercial radio or television. This comfort with the status quo and commitment to safely earned profits means that record company assets are focused on a few, global superstars, often leaving politically controversial musicians without a popular venue for expression. Finally, the third key reason for the relative nonexistence of popular protest music today concerns the changed nature of today’s pop culture. During the 1960’s, pop culture was something of a monolith but in today’s society, pop culture is very much a diverse and often disunited collection of seemingly infinite options for one’s own entertainment. While three or four television channels vied for the viewer’s attention during the 1960’s, today there are hundreds of channels competing for the viewer’s time (Marino). This situation is analogous to the current state of popular music. There is a seemingly endless supply of musical genres, either independent or sanctioned by record companies, available in a multitude of ways, through radio, music television, retail stores, and the internet. The transformation of pop culture into a niche culture has translated into the marginalization of protest music. Record companies today have created the illusion that protest music is not happening in a significant way. By consequence, the marginalization of today’s political music has made it difficult for protest singers to produce popular music that can be successful across multiple genres and demographics. It is not only the nature of the pop music marketplace that has changed, but also music and musicians have changed since the 1960’s. Today’s protest music is often “more aggressive, angry and unapologetic” (Proskocil). Given the current, divisive nature of American politics, even among younger people, protest songs struggle to unify youths on social issues, especially when they are incendiary. Furthermore, the role of musicians in society has changed. Michael Budds, a music history teacher at the University Of Missouri School Of Music, comments “At the time during the Vietnam war, people looked to musicians and actors as social leaders and wanted their point of view…. They had a leadership role that I don’t think they have in our culture right now” (Draper). This meant that in today’s society, there is not only a lack in protest music, but there is also a limit to potential influencing people in today’s modern-day culture. In many ways, today’s artists are Dylan’s children, his shift from overt protest songs to electric, more existential songs is echoed in much of modern music that protest songs of the early 1960’s often relied on based on folk-inspired melodies, which made them easy to learn and suitable for both an individual performance and a group singing. This is not always the case with today’s protest music, as it is broken down through many, diverse styles of music. However, modern-day protest music, today, is often inappropriate for group singing because it is considered as an artistic statement of protest, rather than a rallying call. Furthermore the bounds of what constitutes protest music today are somewhat vague than they were in the 1960’s. Rather than construct albums of protest songs or even individual protest songs, many modern artists, such as Juelz Santana, Chamillionaire, and the Flaming Lips, slip in political statements into their regularly non-political work. Although it is encouraging to see mainstream artists speaking out, this serves to keep such artists safe within their own genres, while other protest musicians remain marginalized. This leads into an interesting discussion of the role of music in the lives of young people. Music has always played multiple social roles, used to sway emotions for entertainment and distraction, to condition or persuade people to buy things or take certain action, and to create solidarity, among a variety of uses. The notion of pop music as an affirmation of mass culture values was challenged in the 1960’s by the plethora of popular protest music. However, record companies have probably taken notice of the fact that even among the biggest selling protest songs of the 1960’s, the vast majority of teenage listeners were relatively unsure of what the lyrics were exactly about (Brown pg. 62). This suggests that in the relationship between pop music and youths, the lyrics and music may not be important. Rather, what is important is that certain music helps define the listener to themselves and to others as a certain kind of person. This phenomenon is truer today than ever, as the features of modernity have inevitably influenced the function of music: individualism, pluralism, secularism, consumerism, media proliferation, and reliance on technology. (Brown pg. 51)
Although popular protest music does not exist today, in the way that it did during the 1960’s, musicians continue to write and perform songs of social justice, as they have throughout time. Musicians such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Phil Ochs are the ones that contributed in establishing the birth of protest music. In order for a resurgence of popular protest music to occur again, a reconstitution of the music industry would be necessary. In many countries, government pressure forces media companies to conform to the will of the people, playing locally produced music and popularly demanded songs. However, a strong audience would also be required for such a resurgence, whether it be a unified social movement or politically conscious youths willing to trade ideas, rather than commercial capital. As protest music continues to evolve and address current issues of injustice, one cannot help but look back on the renaissance of protest music during the1960’s and wonder if such an era could ever occur again.
Boucher, David. The Political Art of Bob Dylan. New York: Palgrave Macmillan: 2004.
Brown, Steven. Music and Manipulation: On the Social Uses and Social Control of Music. New York: Berghahn Books: 2006.
Danton, Eric R. “Flood of Protest Songs Reflects Growing Anger.” The Hartford Courant 29 May 2006: 13 pars. Online. LexisNexis Academic. Dec. 7, 2008.
Draper, Bill. “Musicians Say Cultural Changes, Lack of Draft Put Damper on Protest Songs.” The Associated Press State & Local Wire April 2005: 20 pars. Online. LexisNexis Academic. Dec. 7, 2008.
Marino, Nick. “Renewed Sounds of Protest: Host of New Songs Question U.S. Military Policies in Iraq, But It’s Tough to Live Up to the Standards of the Vietnam Era.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 9 Sep. 2005: 17 pars. Online. LexisNexis Academic. Dec. 7, 2008.
Proskocil, Niz. “New Wave of Protest Songs Rips War, Bush.” The Omaha World-Herald 21 May 2006: 32 pars. Online. LexisNexis Academic. Dec. 7, 2008.
Rodnitzky, Jerome L. Minstrels of the Dawn: The Folk-Protest Singer as a Cultural Hero. Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1976.