In June 2014, Humanities Texas held two three-and-a-half day teacher professional development institutes co-sponsored by The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts, the LBJ Presidential Library, and the University of Houston titled "America in the 1960s." At the Austin institute, Karl Hagstrom Miller, now associate professor in the Critical and Comparative Studies of Music program at the University of Virginia, gave an engaging and entertaining presentation on popular music from the sixties and discussed how teachers can use this music to help students understand the political stories of the time.
Miller is a U.S. cultural historian who uses popular music to explore the cultural, economic, legal, and intellectual history of the United States. His book Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow (Duke, 2010) rethinks the origins of blues and country music. He is currently working on a book titled Sound Investments: A History of Music Ownership and Theft, which examines recent debates about illegal music file-sharing over the internet within the context of the long historical struggles over the meaning and control of music as property. Miller received a PhD in history from New York University in 2002.
I want to talk a bit about understanding music as well as how to talk about music in relationship to politics and the political stories we've been hearing about. Music is great. I've found in teaching my U.S. survey courses that music is a great way, of course, to engage students in a new and fresh way—to give a new kind of primary document. It is also a great kind of metric—a barometer, you might say—to understand the kind of cultural milieu of the time.
To start out, I want to talk about understanding music as a cultural and political force. This is a way of moving us away from Country Joe and the Fish, "Fixin' to Die Rag" —no one can question that this is a political song; it's very explicit—to trying to understand how music functions politically and some other ways as well. [American studies scholar] George Lipsitz says that music can function four ways. Number one, music can be an escape from the political, a place set apart that washes your brain of all those worries and makes you think about something else. And I think of this:
It can be an escape from the political. In many ways, historians for most of the twentieth century have thought about music in this way, and often shunted it aside, particularly popular music and popular culture. That's something else. That's a "rotting the brains of the youth of today" type of thing, an escape.
Number two, Lipsitz reminds us music can be a reflection of politics happening elsewhere. [Something political] is happening outside, and we're going to talk about it or reference it in the music. And I think of:
So it could be a way of talking about politics, or referencing all those things that are happening outside the window.
Music can also, number three, be a rehearsal space for politics that are going to happen. You want to organize; you want to protest; you want to build a collective. You can build a collective musically that can then, potentially, become operative politically. And one of the great examples from the '60s of this is:
"Dancing in the Streets," by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. Motown, 1964. She wrote this as a party song. By 1965, it was taken up as a protest song when all the urban rebellions and riots were happening in the last half of 1965 into 1966. "Dancing in the street" turned into a metaphor for protesting in the street. And she had nothing to do with it.
This raises another great issue about using music in the classroom. Music allows, actually encourages, multiple interpretations and multiple uses. There isn't a right answer to this. This is both a party song and a protest song. I've got a lot of juice in the classroom out of getting students to compare and contrast those meanings while holding them both up as perfectly legitimate and viable. Martha Reeves and the Vandellas are spelling out what it's going to look like—they don't know it at the time—in a few short months down in New Orleans, out in Los Angeles, up in Chicago, in New York, mapping out what would eventually be the map of black urban protests across the land—rehearsing it here; it happening later.
But Lipsitz finally says, number four, that music can be a reflection, and it can be a rehearsal, but music can also be a form of politics in itself. It can be a place where new identities, new ideas, new ways of approaching the world, get articulated and shared, and those new identities then can be taken up and affirmed by fans of the music or fans of the politics. One of the great examples of this comes from 1975, from the very conservative Loretta Lynn, conservative gingham Southern coal miner's daughter. In 1975, she comes out with the unlikely hit "The Pill."
Do you all know this song? "I'm tearing down your brooder house 'cause now I've got the pill." 1975. This was an articulation, on conservative country music, of the broad success of the feminist movement. By 1975, there was a major backlash against the term "feminism," in many ways—on [All in the Family by] Archie Bunker, for example—but the use of contraception was becoming acceptable in many ways, and this was a public articulation of that. "If Loretta Lynn can articulate that, maybe I can." A new form of politics. So if you start looking at these different musics, the connection between politics and music is beyond simply the protest song that has very explicit politics. It can be much more complex.
Let's think about those [connections] as we're looking at the 1960s. In many ways, the 1960s was a watershed not only for American popular music, but for the popular music industry as a whole. Across the 1960s, this is a time when youth music, pop music, becomes the bestselling music in the country. This hadn't happened in the 1950s with the rise of rock and roll. It happened with the Beatles later on. Adult music and non-pop music was still very popular. One of the top selling records of the entire decade was The Sound of Music soundtrack. And so when we think about the '60s, we have to think about the Beatles and the Stones and Dylan, but we also have to think about The Sound of Music, "Sing Along With Mitch Miller," The Music Man, and all of that kind of adult contemporary stuff that was going on.
This was a time when the LP, the long-playing record, surpassed the 45 [rpm record]. This has a lot of influence on how we understand the artistic statement. The concept album emerges. It's a time when, by the last part of the decade, FM radio begins to replace AM radio. AM radio is national networks playing the same song at the same time across the nation. FM radio was much more grassroots. Small stations, localized stations, and freeform music. The DJ gets to pick what's played. A lot more different kinds of music got on the radio because of this FM shift. You have a diversification of the airwaves.
And there is also a number of tensions that develop. I want to hit you with these tensions before I give you a few very brief case studies to see how these things play out. One of the major tensions that emerges with these technological shifts is a tension between collective music and commercial music. We're going to see in just a minute the kind of protest music that primarily emerged out of collectives involved in civil rights activism shift to commercialized products put out by record labels. There's also a tension between commercial music and, for lack of a better word, art. We're going to see pop music, which had been seen as kiddie music ("Baby love, my baby love"), take on the mantle of serious cultural political statements, and I'm going to try to worry that tension a little bit.
There's also a tension between mainstream and counterculture or alternative culture. This is where I'm getting at: the mainstream throughout much of this decade remains The Sound of Music, not "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida." There's a tension between reality and fantasy. What do I mean by that, reality and fantasy? One of the great things about music is that it allows you to revel in other identities and other people's lives. I can put on a fantasy of being a Druid while listening to Led Zeppelin. I can put on a fantasy of being a Southerner by listening to country music. I can put on a fantasy that allows role-playing and fantasy to happen, and quite often when we talk about music and politics, we talk about music of identification. I'm singing about me, and I'm singing about my situation. That's only a very small amount of music. One of the great things about music in the classroom is it allows, like literature, this kind of play between my own current situation—affirming it—and my aspirations or my dreams. There's a tension between inclusion and exclusion.
One of the things that happens as rock emerges as an artistic statement, you think of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, is that rock begins to exclude women. Can you all think of any female rock stars of the 1960s? Janis Joplin. Jefferson Airplane. Can you think of a third? There are very few. Grace Slick and Janis Joplin. Can you think of three male rock stars of the 1960s? So there's an exclusion of women in rock. There's an exclusion of African Americans in rock. In 1959, Chuck Berry was a rock and roll guitar player, and that was not an issue. There were a lot of black rock and roll players. By 1969, Jimi Hendrix was seen as an exception, being a rock guitar god. There were very few. So, inclusion and exclusion are a big part of this.
Finally, there is pop versus rock. This emergence of a rock formation that is going to be closely aligned with the counterculture that we learned about—closely aligned with, in many ways, the antiwar protests. But I want to emphasize that that's only one way of being political through music in the 1960s. Pop music, which was often dismissed as being ephemeral, as being kiddy music, as being more feminized than rock music, in many ways had a politics of its own and was doing some very important work.
My first story is a story of civil rights soul. And this is a story of collective versus commercial, of the move from disseminating music through grassroots channels, to disseminating music through record labels and the radio. One of the great anthems of the civil rights movement, of course, is "We Shall Overcome." And I'll just play a clip here, by the Freedom Singers and Pete Seeger.
Where is this being sung? Or where do you imagine "We Shall Overcome" being sung? Church. This is coming out of the gospel and spiritual tradition of the African American church. It was originally "I Shall Overcome," about personal salvation and about personal relationship with God. As it became an anthem of the collectivity of civil rights activism, it was transferred to the plural, "We Shall Overcome," to both talk about transcendence, but also to talk about us as a collectivity. You hear that; it sounds like church. It's a congregational singing style. You can hear the out of tune grandmother singing in the background, right? And the polyphony of a lot of voices, not trained singers, singing together. It has that sense of collectivity. The sound and the meaning of "We Shall Overcome," a powerful testament to the human spirit in light of current racism, and the polyphony of the multiple voice singing, becomes some of the sound of soul music of the 1960s.
No one charts this move from the black church to the airwaves better in my mind than Sam Cooke. Sam Cooke starts out as a gospel singer with The Soul Stirrers, and if you ever want to hear some amazing a cappella gospel music, go check out The Soul Stirrers with Sam Cooke. In 1959, he becomes a secular singer. He's derided by many of the Christian fans of the past, "You've moved into the secular sphere, you're no longer singing for the Lord." But he brings some of the spirituality and some of the vehemence to the airwaves when he starts singing protest songs. And his most famous, of course, and most powerful, is "A Change is Gonna Come" in 1964.
"We Shall Overcome," "A Change is Gonna Come," the long river of both black experience and black freedom struggle, moving from the language of the church into the language of soul music. In many ways, this is an example of a lot of the soul music of the 1960s that used both the sonic markers borrowed from the black church and the metaphorical imagery borrowed from the black Evangelical and Protestant traditions to make that shift from transcendence and salvation to political transformation. "Dancing in the Streets" is just one example of this. We can get dozens of them. So here's my first story, moving from the collectivity to the individual and the commercial recording. And these commercial recordings become politicized in a way that "How Much is That Doggy in the Window" never could imagine being.
My second story: Beatlemania and women in the streets. This is a story from the early months of 1964. And I'm going to play you a clip. Here's early February 1964, in Chicago, when the Beatles are first playing in the United States.
Now on the one hand, Beatlemania in the 1960s is often talked about as the hysteria of the mass media, a thought control of young girls' minds, and the power of the mass media to turn them into screaming fans. One legacy of Beatlemania is David Cassidy of the Partridge Family, is the Backstreet Boys, is Justin Bieber. And they are derided for going crazy over these media images. I'm down with that, but there's another part of the story as well that I think is just as vital. This happens in 1964, the first week in February. The Beatles arrive at Logan Airport, and they're greeted with a crowd like this. That week, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" hits number one on the Billboard charts, their first charting single. By the first week of April, they would have all top five positions on the Billboard charts—the first time that's ever been done.
But I want to go back to that "I Want to Hold Your Hand" week, where you have young women and girls screaming in the streets. What was number two on the chart, behind "I Want to Hold Your Hand"? Any guess? Number two on the chart was by a young woman named Lesley Gore, who was playing out of the girl group tradition, with her song, "You Don't Own Me."
"You don't own me. Don't tell me what to do." So at the same time these young women are screaming in the streets for John and Paul, they're also listening to Lesley Gore. This was the most vehement feminist song on the pop charts in the early 1960s. "You Don't Own Me." It was not only about "aren't girls great?" It's not "girl power," like the Spice Girls. It's a direct address to a male person. You don't own me. And for me, the fact that this was number two behind "I Want to Hold Your Hand" changes the way I think about women taking to the streets and taking over the streets, transforming it.
This comes out of the girl group tradition, which for me is one of the most political genres of music in the 1960s. Girl groups, again coming out of the African American gospel tradition, featured a lead singer and a few backup singers—musically modeled on the gospel music of the 1950s. Girl groups were the biggest, most popular music in the country before the Beatles hit in 1964 and kind of wiped them off the charts. Can you all think of girl group songs? "Stop in the Name of Love." "Baby love, my baby love." One of the biggest and most historically important girl group tunes, to my mind, comes in 1960 with The Shirelles, teenagers from New Jersey. You can see the well-coiffed hair, the matching evening dresses, they're going to be moving in very choreographed ways.
This song is about a very real question that many young women were asking themselves in 1960. It's about having sex, in fact, and the downside of having sex. "Will you still love me tomorrow?" Will you still respect me in the morning? This is a major issue that has never been broached—not since 1920s blues culture—on the pop charts. This is a very adult song. This is not "I Want to Hold Your Hand." This is grappling with the real issues that many young women were having to grapple with. A powerful song. Many of the girl group songs featured real issues that girls were having to deal with at the time, and once you start digging at that, it becomes a highly politicized and highly important space. Once the Beatles came and this idea of rock as high art took over our understanding of 1960s music, a lot of this politicized girl group music gets swept to the side as being ephemeral or just little pop ditties. "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" and Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me"—the politics of women in the streets.
My third story is the formation of rock music, the formation of that high art music. Bob Dylan came up writing protest songs, what he called finger-pointing songs. One of his most famous, of course, and long lasting was "Blowing in the Wind." "How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?" This is a reference to civil rights marches where African American men had been called "boy" by white Southerners, and they carried protest signs in the streets, "I am a man. How many roads must I walk down before you call me a man?" Sam Cooke, by the way, heard "Blowin' in the Wind," and said, "How the hell can a white guy write such a great protest song? I'm going to write 'A Change is Gonna Come.'" He was directly influenced by "Blowin' in the Wind."
By 1965, Bob Dylan had given up on what he called finger-pointing songs. He said, this doesn't change anything. This doesn't do anything. These are simplistic songs, and I don't write simplistic songs. He came out in 1965 with "Like a Rolling Stone." Very famously, in July of 1965, he premiered it at the Newport Folk Festival, playing what? Electric instruments. Pete Seeger, it was said, tried to take an ax and chop the power cord to stop this intrusion of rock and roll into the pure folk scene. But even more important than this debate between folk purity and rock and roll, I think, is this move away from direct address towards abstraction. "Like a Rolling Stone" makes no sense. It is not direct action; it is a mystery. Much of Dylan's reputation throughout the rest of the 1960s was because he wrote impenetrable lyrics that everyone tried to figure out the meaning of. On the one hand, this meant art. On the one hand, I think rock music in many ways took a step back from the political sphere into abstraction. So one of the great legacies of "Like a Rolling Stone" is stuff like this [Stairway to Heaven], where rock begins to take itself quite seriously.
Finally, Vietnam. There's a great collection out there of Vietnam songs. Vietnam is a great way to talk about politics in music. These are two of the most important, the most useful, to my mind, Vietnam ballads of the era. Number one, Sergeant Barry Sadler. To me, the two sides of pro-war/anti-war, or pro-military/anti-military are spelled out in these songs. What is also really interesting is to look at the kind of affective character—the style in which they're presented—which often escapes direct words, but you can certainly tell the transformation that happens in these two. The first was a big hit by Sergeant Barry Sadler. "The Ballad of the Green Berets" in 1966.
We often don't think about Barry Sadler at first when we think about music in the 1960s, but [it's got to be remembered that] this guy is on TV. This guy is being cast into everything. This is the mainstream culture. Country Joe and the Fish gets celebrated later for their anti-war music, but it didn't have nearly the reach that Barry Sadler did in the 1960s.
"One, two, three, what are we . . . fighting for?" It's collective singing.
I think music is a great way to get into the nuances and textures of an era. It's a great way to open up multiple interpretations and have them floating there in students' minds at the same time. And it's a whole lot of fun.
What are your musical memories of the 1960s? Email them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Audio clip credits:
"How Much is that Doggie in the Window," Patti Page, 1953.
"For What It's Worth," Buffalo Springfield, 1967.
"Dancing in the Street," Martha and the Vandellas, 1964.
"The Pill," Loretta Lynn, 1975.
"We Shall Overcome," Pete Seeger and the Freedom Singers, 1963.
"A Change is Gonna Come," Sam Cooke, 1963.
"You Don't Own Me," Lesley Gore, 1963.
"Will You Love Me Tomorrow," The Shirelles, 1960.
"Stairway to Heaven," Led Zeppelin, 1971.
"Ballad of the Green Berets," Barry Sadler, 1966.
"I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag," Country Joe and the Fish, 1967.
"A Taste of Beatlemania" from the series 50 Years Later by CBS News.