Protest Music

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Protest Music of the Sixties: an Emphasis on Soul

Note: I have provided links to videos of performances on YouTube, since embedding sound and video on this wiki is not permitted, or at least I can't figure out a way to do it. When possible, I have linked to performances in and around the time of a song's release. Some, of course, have images added when live performances were unavailable, and some are recorded from television shows from the sixties.
Preface: Protest Music of the Sixties

The music of the sixties played a huge role in its political and cultural revolutions, whether as anthems, specific protests, social commentary, topical songs, as inspiration, or as satire. Electric-based guitar rock of the late sixties itself was considered revolutionary, reflecting the attitudes and feelings of a counterculture. As John Lennon said, "Rock and roll was the basic revolution to people of my age and situation," and "All of our songs are antiwar."1 Jimi Hendrix more than made-over the concept of patriotism with his rendition of The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock in 1969. Neil Young recorded Ohio in the wake of the Kent State killing by the Ohio National Guard of four students during an antiwar demonstration. Most protest songs in the rock genre were antiwar. Barry McGuire's Eve of Destruction, which was released in 1965, contained the infamous line "you're old enough to kill but not for voting," and is cited frequently in protest song anthologies. Country Joe and the Fish sang "And it's one two three/ What are we fighting for/Don't ask me, I don't give a damn/ Next stop is Vietnam" in their 1965 hit, I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag. Other songs were about class and the heavy toll induction took on poorer families, such as Credence Clearwater Revival's Fortunate Son (1969), written by John Fogerty. Against police brutality, Buffalo Springfield's song For What it's Worth (1966) spoke of the difficulty protesters faced, singing "there's a man with a gun over there, telling me I got to beware... young people speakin' their minds, are getting so much resistance far behind." The Plastic Ono Band's Give Peace a Chance (1969), written during Lennon and Ono's two-week long "bed-in for peace," has subsequently shed its publicity stunt /free love connotations to become one of the most common protest songs in the past few decades.2

We Shall Overcome, adapted from a 19th century hymn "I'll Overcome Someday," became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement after it was introduced at a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960, and was popularized by Pete Seeger.3 Folk music saw a huge revival and inspired some of the most political music of the 20th century, with folk songs played at sit-ins, protests, and marches across the nation. Broadside Magazine, which ran from 1962-1976, collected folk songs and protest songs complete with scores and suggestions for performance. Seeger, who had already been accused of being a communist during the Red Scare, wrote and adapted many protest songs during the Vietnam era that were played by scores of popular artists. From If I Had a Hammer played by folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary in 1962, to Where Have All the Flowers Gone (1961), which he adapted from a traditional Civil War era song, Turn, Turn, Turn (1962), and Waist Deep in Big Muddy (1967), his songs spoke of grass-roots organizing and the futility of war, and as social commentary against conformity in Little Boxes (1964). Arlo Guthrie's lengthy Alice's Restaurant Massacree (1967) was a talking tale about the true story of his arrest after dumping out the restaurant's trash, giving him a criminal record, which, when we was inducted, kept him from having to serve. Played on Thanksgiving Day, the song spoke out against the draft and the Selective Service System, the war, and the persecution of resisters.

And of course there's Bob Dylan: Blowin' in the Wind (1963), The Times They Are a-Changin' (1964), The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (1964), and Masters of War(1964), to name only a few, were songs that became anthems for Civil Rights and antiwar movements, speaking explicitly about racism and violence, complicity against the war, and the need for change. Joan Baez co-wrote "Saigon Bride" (1967), a song about the inherent racism of war, telling the tale of a young soldier sad about saying goodbye to his Saigon "bride." Baez also was big on the folk circuit, playing festivals from Newport (1959) to Woodstock (1969) and singing all of the popular antiwar songs. Buffy Sainte-Marie sang about the The American Indian Movement and wrote Unknown Sodier. The MC-5, some of whom were members of The White Panther Party, performed at the Democratic National Convention. Many artists were slated to perform at the famed event (Neil Young did show, but did not perform), but aside from the MC-5, none of the other artists made it to the event, and they played their guns + guitar = revolution inspired acid rock for eight hours straight, featuring popular songs such as Kick Out the Jams. As songs of the counterculture, the music that led up to Woodstock in 1969 spoke of revolution and protest in many forms: as social commentary against conformity, against the Vietnam War, against the draft, against hypocrisy, against injustice, against materialism, for love, for peace, and for freedom. But looking back at the decade of the sixties, the story of protest songs and music of the revolution that often gets told is primarily that of rock and folk music. We all know the effect The Beatles had on American culture in the sixties, and it was a Revolution (single released in 1968). But Nina Simone also had a Revolution (1969).

The thing about protest music in the sixties, however, is that most of it was general enough to be applied to any situation. Adapted from traditional songs, or just sung by the right people, the term "protest song" could mean anything and at any time. Antiwar songs were rarely explicitly against the Vietnam War, and songs that became the most revered "protest" songs often had no political content in the lyrics whatsoever. On the other hand, the fact that a lot of our knowledge of music is shaped by what became popular or hit the top-forty charts, signals that one can never be sure of a musical archive's completeness or representativeness for that very factor. The only antiwar song to hit #1 on the billboard charts, for instance, was a Motown tune "War," performed by Edwin Starr in 1971 (it was his only hit).4 Looking at the videos of performances in the 1960s illustrates the complicated relationships between protest songs and commercial viability and popularity. Lyrics generally became important to the listening public in the early half of the 1960s, but by the time 1968 came around, the feeling of "preaching to the choir" made a lot of artists resist muckraking, as audience and performers were on the same page.5

Soul Music in the Sixties
Soul music, with its roots in gospel, rhythm and blues, and jazz, became a significant form of protest music in the 1960s as a credo to the Black Power and Civil Rights movements, as an affirmation of black pride and as a projection of determination and the hopes for a better future. "Soul" had begun to be used as a term to suggest what it was to be an African American in the United States, and one can trace the appearance of "soul" in music, up until soul music as a genre hit in the 1960s.6 Jazz albums, such as Lou Donaldson's Swing and Soul (1957), Coltrane's Soultrane (1958), Bennie Green's Soul Stirring (1958) and Hornful of Soul (1959), and Blue Mitchell's Blue Soul (1959), all refer to "soul" as expression of an African American feeling, expression, and aesthetic: a black consciousness. Perceived by the white jazz critical establishment, this new "soul" music was "consciously revivalistic in form and overtly anti-white in function," and was seen as threatening, aggressive, and as an assertive statement of black identity.7

The step from cool to soul is a form of social aggression. It is an attempt to place upon a meaningless social order an order which would give value to terms of existence that were once considered not only valueless but shameful. Cool meant non-participation; soul means a new establishment. It is an attempt to reverse the social roles within the society by redefining the canons of value. In the same way the 'New Negroes' of the twenties began, though quite defensively, to canonize the attributes of their 'Negro-ness,' so the 'soul brother' means to recast the social order in his own image. White is then not 'right,' as the old blues had it, but a liability, since the culture of White precludes the possession of the Negro 'soul.' - LeRoi Jones 8

As soul began to refer more and more to black consciousness and to the political agendas of social justice, soul music as a genre emerged. In the inner-city riots of the late sixties, "soul" was a sign of the identity reclaimed and fought for on the streets, and the refusal to endure adversities socially, politically, and economically.9 "Soul is black, not blue, sass, anger and rage. It is not just a feeling but a conviction. Not just intensity but involvement. A force as well as a style, an accolade as well as identification. It is an expressive explosiveness, ignited by a people's discovery of self-pride, power and potential for growth."10 Made and performed for black audiences, soul music revitalized and reinterpreted gospel and R&B sounds, and had a big presence on radio stations for black audiences. Like the blues in the decade before, soul music became popularized and changed as it got assimilated into mainstream culture. It lost its specificity as a musical genre as "soul music" began to refer to any black popular music in the 1970s.11 Producers and studios began to control more and more of the creative aspects of the music, and soul as a culture-specific testament to unity, black consciousness, self-acceptance, and self-determination largely died out. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April of 1968, soul music had already started to become a music loved by both white and black crowds. The years around 1968, however, were a unique time in the history of popular music, and saw soul music able to exist in mainstream American culture as well as sing about soul, about black identity. Soul musicians could use their popularity as a political weapon as well, forcing and encouraging integration in the Southern music venues and raising nationwide awareness of Jim Crow laws that affected white America's heroes.

Sam Cooke
Although the "King of Soul" died in 1964, his music was a big influence on soul and Chicago music. Born in the Delta and raised in Bronzeville, Cooke's early music life was shaped by the black churches of South Chicago. Even as he gained fame, Cooke felt his music was always directed to his black audience: "When the whites are through with Sammy Davis, Jr., he won't have anywhere to play. I'll always be able to go back to my people 'cause I'm never gonna stop singing to them. No matter how big I get, I'm still gonna do my dates down South. Still gonna do those kind of shows, I'm not gonna leave my base."12 A friend of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, Cooke had a complicated existence as a supporter of the Black Power Movement and desegregation, yet reliant on mainstream popular culture to pay his bills.

  • Chain Gang (1960) as performed by The Supremes
    • This song was remade in 1968 by Jackie Wilson and Count Basie.
  • The Gang's All Here with Muhammad Ali
  • A Change is Gonna Come (1964)
    • This song has recently been co-opted for the Barack Obama campaign and most videos of the song are now "Barack Obama and Sam Cooke". I linked to one with a lovely nature scene to look at - unfortunately I could not find another version to link to. This song has been covered by artists from The Supremes to Ghostface, and from Arcade Fire to Rod Stewart.

James Brown
The "Godfather of Soul," the "Hardest Working Man in Show Business," and the "Soul Brother Number One" was already successful by the time he became a vanguard of soul music in the sixties. His music can be seen as an affirmation of blackness, of self-determination, and freedom of expression. A 1969 advertisement he placed in New York City newspapers just before a Madison Square Garden performance read: "James Brown is totally committed to black power, the kind that is achieved not through the muzzle of a rifle but through education and economic leverage."13 Brown, Ray Charles, and Sam Cooke are also noted as using their popularity to desegregate Southern theaters.14 His music was polyrhythmic, abandoning melody and harmony under the demands of the rhythm, with lyrics shouted and screamed, and with fragments of sermons on black pride intermixed.15 James Brown's musical popularity reached from West Africa to Britain, with groups like The Rolling Stones wanting to cover his songs. While his lyrics were not always overtly political, his style and his musicianship had soul and meaning for his black audience and his innovative use of rhythm, putting the beats on one and three instead of two and four, for instance, signaled a brand new bag for the music to come.

Nina Simone
Stokely Carmichael called her the "true singer of the civil rights movement.16 The "High Priestess of Soul" not only sang for civil rights but also for Black Power, writing about the murder of Medgar Evers, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., racism (especially her 1964 song "Old Jim Crow"), black women and pride, and being "young, gifted and black." Simone also covered a range of protest songs, from Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," about lynching in the south, to Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." Her music is classical and jazz, what she called "black classical music," but she is also considered one of the great soul vocalists, producing albums such as Silk and Soul (1967) and Black Gold (1970).

  • Mississippi Goddam (1964)
  • Four Women (1966)
    • Speaks of four stereotypes of black women: Aunty Sarah, mixed-race Saffronia, the prostitute Sweet Thing, and the angry and bitter Peaches.17
  • I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free (1967)
    • Written by pianist Billy Taylor and first recorded by Simone. Video includes an interview with Simone on what she means by wishing to "feel" free. Part 2 of video.
  • To Be Young, Gifted, and Black (1970)
    • Simone, together with Weldon Irvine, adapted the playwright Lorraine Hansberry's (known for A Raisin in the Sun) unfinished play to create this song.

Aretha Franklin
The "Queen of Soul," like many of the musicians of this time, moved from Memphis to Detroit at a very young age, and having her early music career shaped by gospel traditions and recorded in studios owned by white executives. Switching labels, Franklin's music hit big in the late 1960s. Ebony magazine dedicated a 1967 cover, declaring it the year of "'Retha, Rap, and Revolt." For the Black Panthers, songs like "Respect" had clear meaning, however, for women, the song had an added dimension often ignored in the male-centered power movement. A great admirer and supporter of King, as the shift from nonviolent and interracial civil rights groups to black organizations for black people in The Black Panther Party took hold, Franklin found herself strongly influenced by the revolution, dressing in African clothing and singing more overtly political songs. But as for all musicians in the sixties, protest songs could also be lucrative. "I suppose the revolution influenced me a great deal, but I must say that mine was a very personal evolution of the me in myself. But then I suppose that the whole meaning of the revolution is very much tied up with that sort of thing, so it certainly must have helped what I was trying to do for myself. I know I've improved my overall look and sound."18

  • Respect (1967)
    • Originally recorded by Otis Redding in 1965, Franklin's version is considered a feminist rendition
  • Think (1968)
  • Spirit in the Dark (1971)
    • Appeared on the Live at the Fillmore West album, with Ray Charles, uses the idea of a mask, invoking the many ideological crosscurrents of the early seventies, inviting the listener to get up and dance, as much a call for political action as any.19

Curtis Mayfield
"As a young man I was writing songs like "Keep on Pushing" and "This is My Country" and feeling all the love and all the things I observed politically. Of course, with everything I saw on the streets as a young black kid, it wasn't hard during the latter fifties and early sixties for me to write through my own heartfelt way of how I visualized things, how I thought things oughta be."20 Mayfield grew up in Chicago's South and West sides, and, influenced by fellow Chicagoan Sam Cooke as well as the great Chicago jazz tradition and the AACM, located his music politically early on in his career. "When you're talking about songs such as "We're a Winner," that's locked in with Martin Luther King. It took something from his inspiring message. I was listening to all my preachers and the different leaders of the time. You had your Rap Browns and your Stokely Carmichaels and Martin Luther Kings, all of those people were right there within that same era."21 Singing with the Impressions until 1970, their song "We're a Winner" was banned on several top radio stations. Going to the Library of Congress, Mayfield learned the ins and outs of the recording industry in order to have more control over publishing rights. This echoes the feeling in many black arts movements of the need to create black organizations for black artists, and Mayfield was well aware of the many stories of gifted artists falling prey to money-hungry record labels.22 His protest songs spanned confronting drug abuse by black musicians (Stone Junkie), racial paranoia (Mighty Mighty (Spade & Whitey)," the The American Indian Movement ("I Plan to Stay a Believer"), and spiritual despair in poor black neighborhoods ("The Other Side of Town"). One of the only male soul singers to not die tragically and young, Mayfield is a huge figure in Chicago music, in soul music, and in the protest music of the 1960s, incorporating his signature falsetto gospel style to the arrangements.

Marvin Gaye
Gaye's 1971 album What's Going On is possibly the most well-known soul album, and despite expectations by Motown to not be commercially viable, became a great hit.

Edwin Starr
Performed the hit "War," written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong and also performed by the Temptations. "War" was the first antiwar song to reach #1 on the billboard charts.23 However, many see this performance as an example of Motown's cashing in on the trend of antiwar songs and amidst the widespread disapproval toward the Vietnam war.24 But, even if that was the case, it was effective as a protest song.

Works Cited

  1. David Pichaske. A Generation in Motion: Popular Music and culture in the Sixties. New York: Schirmer Books, 1979: xix, 14.
  4. Perone, James. Songs of the Vietnam Conflict. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001: 8, 63.
  5. Ibid., 17.
  6. David P. Szatmary. Rockin' in Time: A Social History of Rock-and-Roll. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007: 172.
  7. John F. Szwed. "Musical Style and Racial Conflict." Phylon 27.4 (4th Qtr., 1966): 358.
  8. LeRoi Jones. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: Harper Perennial, 1999: 219.
  9. Robert W. Stephens. "Soul: A Historical Reconstruction of Continuity and Change in Black Popular Music." The Black Perspective in Music 12.1 (Spring 1984): 21-43.
  10. Arnold Shaw quoted in Szatmary, 173.
  11. Stephens, 37, 41.
  12. Ibid., 40.
  13. As quoted in A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America, Craig Werner. New York: Plume, 17.
  14. Ibid., 27.
  15. Ibid., 138.
  16. Ibid., 173.
  18. Werner, 116.
  19. Ibid., 123-24.
  20. Ibid., 146.
  21. Ibid., 146.
  22. Ibid., 148.
  23. Perone, 63.
  24. Ibid., 63.
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