In contrast to the stable and economically affluent time of the 1950s, the 1960s and 1970s exhibited a monumental change in ideas and led to culturally tumultuous events. While this was reflected in many ways, one of the most significant illustrations of these changes is seen in the music of the 1960s and 1970s With the Vietnam war raging, it makes sense that anti-war songs such as “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones and Arlo Guthrie’s 18 minute classic “Alice’s Restaurant” were popular hits. The music was also reflected in the counter culture that almost synonymously went with the music.
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All the violence, hate, and death that people saw and experienced in Vietnam led to a rich counter culture of peace, love, and drugs and this is expressed heavily in songs such as Jimi Hendrix’s drug fueled “Purple Haze” and John Lennon’s peace urging “Imagine”. The music also reflected in the civil rights movement, the new divorce laws, and the changing culture of the time.
The average age of an American in 1950 was 35. In contrast, in 1960, the average age of an American was 17. This significant age gap between the older authority and younger, rebellious teens led to a difference in ideology and the start of protests on college campuses. Early protests started over the strict behavioral codes put in place by college administrations, made in attempts to try to stop the promiscuous behavior that clashed with the suburban lifestyle of the 50’s. Having tasted victory when they succeeded in removing the strict regulations set upon them by their university administrations, students moved on to see what other social issues they could change by protesting. It was not very long before students were protesting segregation, the draft, nuclear weapons, and anything and everything in-between.
By the time the 1960s began, the Civil Rights movement was fully underway with “Brown vs Board of Education”, occurring in 1954, and the Civil Rights Act of 1957 being passed at the end of the 1950s. The 1960s started with The Freedom Rides, which took place in 1961, and Martin Luther King Jr’s March on Washington in 1963. Bob Dylan discusses the change in ideology and the growing force of the Civil Rights movement with his 1963 song “The Times They Are A-Changin”. In this song Dylan, says that, “the times they are a-changin’/Come senators, congressmen, Please heed the call/ Don’t stand in the doorway, Don’t block up the hall/ For he that gets hurt, Will be he who has stalled/There’s a battle outside, And it is ragin’/ It’ll soon shake your windows, And rattle your walls/For the times they are a-changin’”. By using imagery of a house shaking he shows, metaphorically, that the Civil Rights movement was strong enough to shake a house, and he says that those who stand in the way will only be knocked down. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed soon after ,not only granting more rights to African Americans but to woman as well. Although Southerners originally wrote women’s rights into the Civil Rights Act as an excuse to not vote for the bill (on the pretense of gender rather than race), their plan backfired, causing more people to support (and then vote for) the bill.
The 60s also led to the addition of “No Fault” divorce. Prior to the 1960s in order for a couple to get divorced one of the couple would need to shown to be ‘at fault’ in court. “Faults” by which a marriage could end included alcoholism and adultery. Tammy Wynette sings of the pain she feels from the end of her marriage in her song “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”. Tammy sings “Our D-I-V-O-R-C-E; becomes final today/Me and little J-O-E will be goin’ away/I love you both and this will be pure H-E double L for me/Oh, I wish that we could stop this D-I-V-O-R-C-E.”
The counter culture of the 1960s was as pure anti-establishment as could be. Counter Culturists preached peace and love to combat the violence and fear that came from the Vietnam War, and drug culture was a significant part of this. People felt so strongly about the positive effects of drugs that they believed that if everyone smoked marijuana or tried LSD, it would change peoples views enough that they would experience an internal change and no longer be violent. Famous for his incredible guitar playing and use of LSD, Jimi Hendrix sings of his drug fueled visions in his song “Purple Haze”. Hendrix describes the drugs as more confusing than enlightening and it seems almost like he’s crying out when he sings “Purple Haze all in my brain/lately things don’t seem the same/actin’ funny but I don’t know why/’scuse me while I kiss the sky/ Purple Haze all around,/don’t know if I’m coming up or down/Am I happy or in misery?/Whatever it is, that girl put a spell on me,”. While Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze talks of his experience with drugs, John Lennon’s 1971 song, “Imagine” illustrates the ideals that many of the counter culturists lived by. John Lennon preaches peace by asking listeners to imagine a different world. He sings “Imagine there’s no countries, It isn’t hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion too/Imagine all the people living life in peace, you/You may say I’m a dreamer, But I’m not the only one/I hope some day you’ll join us, And the world will be as one/ Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can/No need for greed or hunger, A brotherhood of man/Imagine all the people sharing all the world, you,/You may say I’m a dreamer, But I’m not the only one/I hope some day you’ll join us/And the world will be as one”. The beliefs Imagine contains are at the core of the activism/counterculture movement with people believing that drugs helped perpetuate and assist people in imagining and realizing this potential perfect world.
While drug culture started fairly harmlessly, with most musicians within the culture simply smoking weed and dropping acid, towards the end of the 1960s ,there was an immergence of a harder drug, heroin, which led to a struggle of addiction and oftentimes death within the music circles. Written in 1967, The Velvet Underground write of their struggles with the never ending craving for the drug. They sing “Heroin, be the death of me/Heroin, it’s my wife and it’s my life, haha/Because a mainline into my vein/Leads to a center in my head/And then I’m better off than dead, Because when the smack begins to flow/I really don’t care anymore/About all the Jim-Jims in this town/And all the politicians making crazy sounds/ And everybody putting everybody else down/And all the dead bodies piled up in mounds/Cause when the smack begins to flow/And I really don’t care anymore.”. The Velvet Underground show how they lose themselves in the drug and how they just don’t seem to care anymore about things they once cared about. The line “And all the dead bodies piled up in mounds/ Cause when the smack begins to flow/And I really don’t care anymore” is particularly haunting as it could either refer to the ever-rising body count of American troops in Vietnam, or to the other counter culturists who were also suffering and dying from using heroin.
The anti-war movement can be seen within the popular protest song of the time “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones. Mick Jaeger warns of how close the war is by singing “Oh, a storm is threat’ning, My very life today/If I don’t get some shelter, Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away/War, children, it’s just a shot away, It’s just a shot away/War, children, it’s just a shot away, It’s just a shot away/Ooh, see the fire is sweepin’, Our very, street today/Burns like a red coal carpet, Mad bull lost your way”. The storm he refers to that is threatening his way of life is the Vietnam war which is “only a shot away”. At the time of it’s release in 1969, the U.S. had already lost a significant amount of pro-war support due to the United States’ defeat in the Tet Offensive occurring in 1968 and it was around this time that the very unpopular military draft became instated. With the excess fear and televised loss of life that came with the war few people wanted to go to Vietnam and even fewer wanted to be drafted. People talked about different ways they could to trick the proctors of the military screening into thinking that they were unfit for combat and Arlo Guthrie’s 18 minute masterpiece “Alice’s Restaurant” is about his draft avoidance and how he got out of going to Vietnam. Arlo’s style of singing is part spoken story telling with sung hooks here and there. Arlo tell’s of the draft in New York singing “I’m here to talk about the draft, They got a buildin’ down in New York City called Whitehall Street, where you , Walk in, you get injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected and selected!, I went down and got my physical examination one day, and I walked in, sat Down (got good and drunk the night before, so I looked and felt my best when I went in that morning, ’cause I wanted to look like the All-American Kid From New York City. I wanted to feel like I wanted to be the All-american Kid from New York), and I walked in, sat down, I was hung down Brung down, hung up and all kinds of mean, nasty, ugly things
And I walked in, I sat down, they gave me a piece of paper that said “Kid See the psychiatrist in room 604”
I went up there, I said, “Shrink, I want to kill. I want to kill! I want to see Blood and gore and guts and veins in my teeth! Eat dead, burnt bodies! I Mean Kill. Kill!”
And I started jumpin’ up and down, yellin’ “KILL! Kill!” and he started Jumpin’ up and down with me, and we was both jumpin’ up and down, yellin’ “Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!” and the sergeant came over, pinned a medal on me Sent me down the hall, said “You’re our boy”. Didn’t feel too good about it
Proceeded down the hall, gettin’ more injections, inspections, detections Neglections, and all kinds of stuff that they was doin’ to me at the thing There, and I was there for two hours three hours four hours I was There for a long time goin’ through all kinds of mean, nasty, ugly thingsAnd I was just havin’ a tough time there, and they was inspectin’, Injectin’, every single part of me, and they was leavin’ no part untouched!
Proceeded through, and I finally came to see the very last man. I walked in, Sat down, after a whole big thing there. I walked up, and I said, “what do You want?” He said, “kid, we only got one question, have you ever been Arrested?”. At this point in the story Arlo recalls the time he was arrested for littering and recounts the entire story again before they tell him that he can’t be in the military if he’s been convicted of a crime. This song is comical and light but truly shows a lot of the fear that people were feeling at the time. The Vietnam was loosing more and more support and with draft, a lot people who didn’t want to a part of it had to become a part of it or face incarceration for evading the draft.
As the U.S. rolls into the 1970s Richard Nixon uses the anti-government mindset from the 1960s to push the idea of privatization in the 1970s. Privatization is the idea that the private sector can do everything better than the government can and this led to massive amounts of deregulation across multiple industries. This led to the popularization of commercial flight as well as creating better gym’s and healthcare in the country.
Although the 1960s and 1970s were a turbulent time in American the backlash to the authorities led to a rich culture of music. This music reflects the feelings of the times in relation to the war, the Civil Rights movement, the drug fueled counter culture, and everything in between, conveying both fear, as well as the love and the changes that were occurring.
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