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date: 25 February 2018

Music of the 1960s and Social Justice: Masterpieces of American Protest Songs and Why They Matter in the Trump Era

Summary and Keywords

This article offers a sociopolitical framework for appreciating seven masterpieces of American protest music that emerged during the tumultuous decade of the 1960s. Attention is paid to the “worked-at-process” that each artist experienced while creating their landmark songs. They include Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” (recorded in 1956 but popularized in the 1960s); Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”; Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”; Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam”; James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”; Jimi Hendrix’s “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock; and John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” These songs became masterpieces primarily because they arose hand-in-glove with mass demonstrations for peace and social justice, thereby establishing legacies of protest music for future generations, particularly, the generation now facing uncertainty and fear created by the presidency of Donald Trump.

Keywords: civil rights, protest music, social movements, Donald Trump, Vietnam War

To write about music is to wrestle with a paradox: Music can touch emotions within us that words cannot describe, yet words are all we have. The paradox is best expressed in the humorous saying that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” The paradox has stumped everyone from common folks to renowned artists and scholars. Sam Shepard, one of America’s most celebrated playwrights, once rather chauvinistically argued that poetry is not something one is given “the moment you come sliding from your mama’s thighs,” but it is a “worked-at-process.” Songwriting is something else, he wrote, because songs use poetry to expand consciousness through music. “One thing for sure,” proclaimed Shepard, “is that you never doubt when it hits you. You recognize something going on in your chest cavity that wasn’t going on before.” He was not describing an ordinary song here but a great song—one that has beautiful poetry and a guitar lick say, a drum and bass rhythm, that seamlessly weds your emotions to each unfolding verse of the song. The great song for Sam Shepard was one that “conjures up images, whole scenes that are played out in your head. How do words become pictures?” he asked. “And how do they cause you to feel something? That’s a miracle” (Shepard, 1977, pp. 52–53).

Because music feeds into our emotions, and because of the well being we get from sharing emotional states with others, music often accompanies social movements that build and depend upon solidarity among people who share similar views (Pratt, 1990). Put simply, music can play a powerful role in efforts to build a better world, one more inclusive of all souls. Scholars use various approaches in explaining how social transformations are effected through music. Some writers show how music complements justice building as an organic part of a community’s everyday life (Lederach & Lederach, 2010). Others explain how songs create engagement among audiences, through references and images that invoke memories and hopes about specific places (Lipsitz, 1994). Most writers offer discussions of how social justice is expressed in music types and traditions, ranging from the blues and jazz, to folk, rock, country, reggae, and hip-hop (Baraka, 1963; Rose, 1994; Tunnell & Hamm, 2009). These discussions rightly place musicians inside the political and cultural contexts in which their work was created—that is, within the societies they came from. And nearly every scholar of the social justice genre includes a list of notable songs.

I follow in this tradition by offering a series of landmark songs about social justice. In so doing, I pay attention to the “worked-at-process” that each artist experienced while creating their masterpieces. As will be seen, these songs became masterpieces because they established legacies of protest music for future generations, particularly, the generation now facing uncertainty and fear created by the presidency of Donald Trump.

A Brief History of American Protest Music

While American protest music can be traced to the 18th century colonial period, it was not until the 19th century that protest songs began to adopt the themes that they are known for today; namely, war (expressed in songs about the Civil War), race (songs about the abolition of slavery), and women’s rights (songs about suffrage). Popular protest songs of each era were decidedly idealistic, and they were performed almost exclusively by white people in churches and civic groups. Other songs, often performed clandestinely due to the system of institutional slavery, came from Negro spirituals, which drew on the plight of enslaved blacks through comparisons to the enslaved Hebrews in the Bible. These two traditions—white protest songs about social reform and Negro spirituals about freedom—set the stage for the great protest singers of the next century, who came mainly from the folk music experience. For them, protest music became a tangible way to confront problems of racism, foreign wars, and women’s inequality.

A new cause emerged in the early years of the 20th century—the fight for fair wages, decent working conditions, and attempts to unionize the American workforce. One of the great voices of American protest music emerged from this development. Joe Hill, an activist for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or the “Wobblies”), traveled widely, organizing workers and singing songs at union rallies. In so doing, Hill carried on the tradition of integrating the defining themes of protest music as reflected in such original Hill songs as “The Preacher and the Slave” (1912) and “Rebel Girl” (1914). Opposed to the conventional way of union organizing through leafleting, Hill argued that “If a person can put a few cold, common sense facts into a song . . . he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read a pamphlet or an editorial on economic science.”1 Following his conviction for a double homicide, in a trial described by historians as a miscarriage of justice, Hill was executed by a Utah firing squad on November 19, 1915—thereby becoming a martyr of American protest music.2

The Great Depression Meets Jim Crow

The American labor movement experienced substantial growth during the 1920s and 1930s, just as widespread poverty gripped the nation during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl catastrophe caused by years of environmental neglect in the High Plains of Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Kansas. The era also saw a rise in protest songs against racial discrimination, the most memorable being the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit,” written by Abel Meeropol and recorded by Billy Holiday in 1939. It was also during this period that African-American blues singers began to attract attention. Among them was the folk-blues singer Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter, also referred to as Leadbelly). Lead Belly is best described as a short, strongly built guitar virtuoso and ghetto poet with a volatile temper that ironically advanced his musical career, which, in turn, bridged racial boundaries to create a universal folk music for future generations.

After planting his musical roots during the early 1900s in the rough “Bottoms” neighborhood of Shreveport, Louisiana—an area dominated by brothels and juke joints and that today bears the name Ledbetter Heights in his honor—Lead Belly moved to Texas, where he was locked up in 1915 for carrying a pistol, yet escaped while working on a chain gang. In 1918, Lead Belly was convicted of killing one of his own relatives in a fight over a woman in Dallas. He was sentenced to 30 years, but pardoned by Texas Governor Pat Neff in 1925, after Lead Belly played a song for Neff on his 12-string acoustic guitar, pleading for his release. Lead Belly returned to Louisiana, and in 1930 he was given a six-to-ten year sentence at the notorious Angola Prison Farm for the attempted murder of a white man while Lead Belly was drunk on moonshine. There he was nearly killed when another convict stabbed him in the neck, leaving a deep scar that Lead Belly concealed with a scarf or high-collared shirt for the rest of his life.

In 1933, Lead Belly received a prison visit from a Harvard-educated musicologist named John Lomax, who held the prestigious position of Curator of the Archives of American Folk Songs for the Library of Congress. Along with his 18-year-old son Alan, Lomax was traveling the South in search of blues musicians in places left behind by modernity, believing that they represented the authentic blues artists. The Lomaxes found no place more left behind than prisons. During their field research, the Lomaxes recorded dozens of Lead Belly songs, including prison songs like “Midnight Special,” songs about trifling women (“In the Pines”), and a song of unrequited love that would become his signature, “Goodnight, Irene.” Lead Belly was an eclectic talent, capable of playing country blues, gospel tunes, and originally written topical songs about matters of interest to whites and blacks alike, such as “Mr. Hitler,” “Jim Crow Blues,” and “The Titanic.”

He was released from Angola prison in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression. Supported by the Lomaxes, Lead Belly became their chauffeur and performed his music at colleges in the Northeast, including a gig at Harvard, followed by two concerts at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where his country blues were poorly received by the audience of urban blacks. For the rest of his career, Lead Belly would find his audience among white liberal folk music enthusiasts.

Lead Belly began to achieve professional recognition through radio performances and press coverage. He was typically presented as a curiosity due to his race and criminal past. On April 19, 1937, Life magazine published a three-page article sensationally titled, “Lead Belly: Bad Nigger Makes Good Music,” accompanied by a photo of his fingers playing the guitar with the caption, “These hands once killed a man.” In response to the racist Jim Crow laws he experienced three months later, during a visit to Washington, DC, while recording for Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress, Lead Belly wrote one of his best original songs, “The Bourgeois Blues.” The song included a refrain, declaring that Lead Belly was going to “spread the news all around” about the racial problems afflicting Washington, and imploring black people to boycott buying homes there.

By 1939, Lead Belly was back in prison for assault after stabbing a man in Manhattan. Upon his release in 1941, he joined Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee in a surging New York City folk scene. Given the times, this was a defiantly interracial group with blacks (Lead Belly, Terry, and McGee) collaborating with whites (Guthrie, Houston, and Seeger) to create the canon of American folk music. Lead Belly played a crucial role here. As Woody Guthrie said at the time, of all the living folk singers he’d ever seen, “Lead Belly is ahead of them all” (Light, 2015). Lead Belly landed his own weekly radio show, and in 1944, he became the original American folksinger to tour Europe. He died five years later at age 61 from Lou Gehrig’s disease, but his contribution to folk music would be monumental. The obscure bluesman left behind by modernity paradoxically became the first folksinger to achieve mass media popularity and international acclaim, blazing the trail for others.


Protest music came of age during the turbulent 1960s. The civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the youth counterculture provided a broader conceptualization of political activism commonly known as social justice, which incorporated notions of equal rights and the promotion of peace. Some protest artists of the 1960s became not just successful, but phenomenally successful due to their poetic and musical talents, their best-selling records, and concert performances. But in terms of their influence on progressive politics, there may have been something more important: The emergence of mass demonstrations supporting their songs of protest.

From these conditions arose a handful of musical masterpieces. As the following review illustrates, these songs emerged hand-in-glove with the energy of a bona fide social movement for justice. That is what ultimately made them masterpieces worthy of inter-generational appeal, which may tell us something about progressive ways forward in the Trump era. As stated earlier, my goal is to explain the “worked-at-process” of musicians who wrote and performed their masterpieces within the sociopolitical context of the times in which they were created. Video links to historic performances are offered at the end of the chapter.

Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” (1956–1960s versions)

In 1918, Irving Berlin—then serving in the U.S. Army and on the verge of becoming one of America’s greatest songwriters—sat down at a piano and sketched out a musical prayer entitled, “God Bless America.” Then he put the song aside for 20 years. In the fall of 1938, as Hitler began to burn German synagogues and menace neighboring European countries, Berlin reworked “God Bless America” into a peace anthem which was introduced by singer Kate Smith on her national radio show broadcast on Armistice Day, 1939. It became a sensation in the recording industry. With America’s entry into World War II, the song achieved even greater success, and by 1943, “God Bless America” threatened to replace the national anthem because of its patriotic theme (Hamm, 2003). The defining feature of the song was the declaration that God, in wartime, would bless the United States and stand beside its troops. Woody Guthrie hated it.

Born in western Oklahoma in 1912, Guthrie, in his early twenties, said goodbye to his wife in Pampa, Texas, picked up his guitar and harmonica, and left the Dust Bowl to join thousands of Depression-era Okies migrating to California in search of work. Guthrie’s early songs were concerned with conditions faced by these destitute working-class people, and he sang them in migrant labor camps, union halls, skid row soup kitchens, and on his own radio show in Los Angeles. Once recorded, Woody’s songs would move Bob Dylan to say that they “had the infinite sweep of humanity in them . . . hearing his voice, I could tell he was very lonesome, very alone, and very lost out in his time. That’s why I dug him. Like a suicide case or something” (Hajdu, 2001, p. 71).

In early 1940, Guthrie returned to his family in Texas but soon set out for New York City to further his work among leftist artists, union organizers, and folk singers like Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, and the mighty Lead Belly. It was while hitchhiking from Texas to New York in the wintery February of 1940 that Guthrie listened to roadhouse jukeboxes and radios blaring Kate Smith’s “God Bless America” and came to believe that the song did not describe the America he knew from his rambling around—the sharecroppers, the kids living in ditches, and the families on relief (Cray, 2004). From this experience came the first line of Guthrie’s response to Irving Berlin’s patriotic plea:

  • One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
  • By the Relief Office I saw my people
  • As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
  • God blessed America for me.

Guthrie settled into a rooming house near the New York Public Library where he spent months reading newspapers and writing poems and songs. Borrowing from the melody of a Carter Family tune, “Little Darling, Pal of Mine,” Guthrie put a chorus to the song he had begun on the road:

  • This land is your land, this land is my land
  • From the . . .

Guthrie alternatively abandoned and re-worked the song for three more years, adding and deleting verses, including the line “God blessed America for me.” In its place came something more universal:

  • When the sun came shining, then I was strolling
  • The wheat fields waving, and the dust clouds rolling.
  • A voice was chanting as the fog was lifting:
  • This land was made for you and me.

Notice that even on the boring printed page, the lyrics take on an elegant poetic curve and no word is wasted. We can actually see sun breaking through the fog onto a glorious pasture of plenty, the image sung in an achingly flat voice by a man “very lost out in his time” leaving us with hope for a better day. It’s a miracle destined to become a masterpiece.

Picking chords from his Gibson guitar, on March 25, 1944, Guthrie recorded the song and set the title down as “This Land Is My Land,” yet the single was never released. Five more years would pass until Guthrie committed the song to an album on Folkway Records with the revised title “This Land Is Your Land,” yet again the album was shelved. Finally, 16 years after Guthrie began working on the song, “This Land Is Your Land” was copyrighted and released by Ludlow Music in 1956 (Petrus & Cohen, 2015). “It had nothing to do with bombs bursting in air or with sanctimonious blessing,” wrote Guthrie’s longtime friend Studs Terkel (2004, p. xvii). “It has to do with what this country is about.”

By the 1960s, the lyrics to “This Land Is Your Land” were included in public school books across the nation, and nearly every baby boomer learned the song. The song achieved greater popularity when it crossed over from folk to other music markets. The Mexican-American singer/guitarist Trini Lopez jumped on it in 1963 and turned “This Land Is Your Land” into a pop hit. It was then covered by artists as diverse as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Frank Sinatra, and later, the politician Bernie Sanders.3 Its appeal was so great that versions were adopted for specific social justice causes, including a Native American version (with the revised line, “This land is your land/It once was my land/Before we sold you/Manhattan Island”) and an ecology version (“I’ve roamed and rambled/And followed the beer cans/From the toxic cities/To the flooded canyons”).

With the widespread popularity of “This Land Is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie emerged as a spokesman for the underclass and an authentic voice of social protest. Included among his verses was one that would inspire a generation of outcasts and misfits:

  • There was a big high wall that tried to stop me.
  • The sign walls painted, said ‘Private Property.’
  • But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing.
  • That side was made for you and me.

Woody Guthrie died on October 3, 1967. Three months later he was memorialized in a sold-out Carnegie Hall concert starring Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and the Band. By then, “This Land Is Your Land” was America’s best-known and most beloved folk song. It established folk music not only as a force for change but also as a viable new commercial genre. The song influenced the music careers of Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie, Jerry Garcia, Bruce Springsteen, Kris Kristopherson, John Mellencamp, Steve Earle, Billy Bragg, and the band Wilco. These popular artists would go on to raise millions of dollars for homeless people, war veterans, drug addicts, death row prisoners, and family farmers. The song would be played by Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen at the first presidential inauguration of Barack Obama. In 2000, the National Endowment for the Arts ranked “This Land Is Your Land” as the second most historically important song of the 20th century (“Over the Rainbow” was first). Irving Berlin and Kate Smith’s “God Bless America” was ranked 19th.

Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (1960)

While Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie were traveling companions and the best of friends who shared a lifelong commitment to social justice, their approach to music and politics were different. On his guitar, Guthrie famously scrawled the words, “This Machine Kills Fascists.” On his banjo, Seeger inscribed, “This Machine Encircles Fascists and Persuades Them to Lay down Their Arms.” So there you have it: Woody the killer and Pete the persuader.

Pete Seeger was born in Patterson, New York, on May 3, 1919 to a folklorist father and a violinist mother who abandoned him as a child. He became a bookish, Harvard-educated Marxist who took up folk music as an act of virtue, believing that a good song could change the world. Seeger teamed up with Woody to form the politically oriented Almanac Singers in the early 1940s, fought with the Army in Europe during World War II, and then founded the Weavers, who did much to popularize “This Land Is Your Land.” The Weavers broke up during the McCarthy era and because of his avowed belief in communism, Seeger was blacklisted in 1952 by the U.S. Congress and banned from performing on television, radio, and many concert stages. He turned to performing at high schools and colleges, where he influenced young musicians on the cusp of the American folk revival of the early 1960s. Among them was a golden-voiced teenager from Palo Alto, California, named Joan Baez.

In October 1955, while on a flight to perform a concert at Oberlin College in Ohio, Seeger fell asleep and awoke with a line in his head: “long time passing.” He had recently read a novel about 19th century Cossack soldiers riding off to join the Czar’s army, And Quiet Flows the Don (1934, by Mikhail Sholokhov), and he jotted down three lines from a song quoted in the novel: “Where are the flowers? The girls plucked them/Where are the girls? They’re all married/Where are the men? They’re all in the army.” Seeger later recalled: “Suddenly, within 20 minutes, I had a song. There were just three verses. I Scotch-taped the song to a microphone and sang it at Oberlin College. This was in 1955” (Hutchinson, 2013).

In the audience that night was a young camp counselor named Joe Hickerson from Bloomington, Indiana. Hickerson took the song to his camp and sang it to the kids, which led him to put a rhythm to the song, which Seeger had not done. In May 1960, Hickerson added two more verses to the song, and Seeger recorded “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” on his album The Rainbow Quest, released by Folkway Records in July. It was a good song but it did not resonate with the times. This was still the Eisenhower era in 1960, the time of “happy days” when white, middle-class Americans enjoyed the benefits of a booming peacetime economy. War and divisive social issues would come later. In 1962, Seeger published the lyrics to “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” in Sing Out! magazine, and popular versions of the song were released by the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and the actress Marlene Dietrich.4

On June 10, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson and the first family gathered for a celebration on the White House lawn. The evening’s entertainment featured the actor Sydney Poitier, music composer Leonard Bernstein, and the Kingston Trio. Grainy images of the event show everyone dressed in formal attire; tuxedos for the men and evening gowns for the women. A somber LBJ sat beside his wife Lady Bird and daughters Lynda Bird and Luci Baines. Luci was a big Kingston Trio fan, which is why the White House had invited them. In the last performance of the night, the Trio’s lead singer John Stewart (not to be confused with the modern comedian Jon Stewart), stepped to the microphone with his guitar and slowly strummed the simple chord pattern that opens the song:

  • Where have all the flowers gone?/Long time passing
  • Where have all the flowers gone?/Long time ago.
  • Where have all the flowers gone?/Picked by young girls every one.
  • When will they ever learn?/When will they ever learn?

The song is circular. Succeeding verses ask where have all the young girls gone?/They’ve taken husbands. Where have the husbands gone?/To soldiers. Where have the soldiers gone?/To graveyards. Where have the graveyards gone?/To flowers. The rhetorical “where” and meditation on death is being sung by Stewart only feet away from the man whose executive decisions will cause the killing of 1.3 million human beings over the next eight years. It is as chilling a scene as will ever be witnessed in the corridors of power (see Bush, 2012).

Eight weeks later, Lyndon Johnson ordered airstrikes against North Vietnam following the Gulf of Tonkin incident and was given Congressional authority to conduct further military operations in Southeast Asia. In March 1965, Johnson committed the first U.S. combat troops to Vietnam, and the Viet Cong retaliated by bombing the American embassy in Saigon. In response, the United States launched its first use of B-52 bombers in combat. At home, faculty at the University of Michigan organized the first teach-in against the war, and antiwar demonstrations became widespread on campuses across the nation. As the killing in Vietnam escalated, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” became not only an anthem of the antiwar movement, but it would also provide the emotional impetus for opposition to the war among soldiers on the battlefields of Vietnam. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book on Vietnam, A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan wrote that “‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ had originated in the antiwar movement. Then it caught on among the American soldiers in Vietnam and eventually became a popular song of the era, perhaps the best-known song of Vietnam, a song that would make one think of the war whenever it was played” (Sheehan, 1988, p. 23).

Humble to a fault, Seeger would never accept praise for the song’s authorship and even denied that it was about war. “I think I’ll just let the song stand on its own feet,” he said years later. “You know, a song can mean a thousand different things to different people, and when people ask me what the song means, I say, ‘Whatever it means to you, it means’” (Hutchinson, 2013).

In a career that spanned over 70 years, Pete Seeger personified the idealism that once defined American liberalism. Johnny Cash called him the most honest man he ever met. By the time of his death at age 94 in 2014, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” had been recorded by dozens of artists ranging from rock and roller Roy Orbison, country stars Eddy Arnold and Dolly Parton, to soul musicians Earth, Wind, and Fire, and jazz legend Wes Montgomery. The song has been released by artists in 24 languages, including Turkish, Russian, Ukrainian, and French—that is, in tongues spoken in lands that are modern flashpoints of geopolitical conflict.

Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963)

Bob Dylan came from the camp of Woody the killer, but with a more cultured poetic sensibility steeped in country music, the blues, and early rock and roll. That sensibility has received infinite critical attention since Dylan’s emergence on New York’s Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961. No musical artist has been written about, analyzed, criticized, second-guessed, and worshipped more than Dylan—not Elvis, Frank Sinatra, or the Beatles. And no artist has been more disapproving of music critics than Dylan who has disparaged them as “stupid misleading jerks” or “Forty-year-olds talking to ten-year-olds . . . They dissect my songs like rabbits” (Ricks, 2003, p. 1).

By early 1962, Bob Dylan, then only 20 years old, had already produced a batch of original songs that established him as the premiere folksinger on the Village scene. Written in the Woody tradition, protest ballads like “The Death of Emmett Till,” “Let Me Die in My Footsteps,” and “Ballad of Donald White” were concerned with exposing miscarriages of justice. But they followed a sort of crime-reporting format and “were rife with simplistic images and a preponderance of moon-and-June rhymes” wrote one author (Spitz, 1989, p. 192). Dylan would later agree. As he told an interviewer: “I wrote a song about Emmett Till which, in all honesty, was a bullshit song . . . my reasons behind it were phony” (Heylin, 2003, p. 98). That April, he hit upon something more original.

In Martin Scorsese’s (2005) documentary on Dylan, No Direction Home, Dylan allows that more than Jack Kerouac’s 1957 acclaimed On the Road, in his youth he was influenced by Woody Guthrie’s (1943) autobiography Bound for Glory. “It showed you a way to actually live your life,” he explained. On page 295 of the book, Guthrie compared his political sensibility to newspapers blowing in the winds of New York City streets and alleys. Dylan would tell a biographer that during this time he was also influenced by the Talmudic precept that one who can protest an injustice, and does not, is an accomplice to it. “Your silence betrays you,” he said (Scaduto, 1971, p. 118).

These dual themes about life’s mysteries, and the moral responsibility for pointing a finger where it needs pointing, became the basis for “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Dylan set the song to a melody he adapted from an old African spiritual, “No More Auction Block,” which originated in Canada and was sung by former slaves who fled there after Britain abolished slavery in 1833 (Bauldie, 1991). Legend has it that Dylan wrote the song in ten minutes at a Village coffeehouse and performed it at Folk City that night. “There ain’t much I can say about this song except that the answer is blowing in the wind,” he told a reporter. “I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it’s wrong” (Gray, 2006, p. 64).

“Blowin’ in the Wind” marked the beginning of Dylan’s blending of poetry with metaphor to communicate universal messages in his songs. It would also catapult Bob Dylan from local folk hero to poet-philosopher of his generation and begin the study of Dylanology—the tradition of listeners who “grasped every idea, absorbed every word, and savored every detail of the growing Dylan legend” (McDougal, 2014, p. 81). Like his comment, “There ain’t much I can say about this song,” simplicity is the hallmark of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The song asks a series of portentous social questions—How many roads must a man walk down/Before you call him a man?—each of which has no earthly answer. The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.

Some Dylanologists were not content with such simplicity. One suggested that the lyrics were Dylan’s attempt at incorporating Biblical imagery into his songwriting, arguing that a rhetorical form used in the New Testament and based on a text from Ezekiel (12:1–2) from the Old Testament is: “The word of the Lord came to me: ‘Oh, mortal, you dwell among the rebellious breed. They have eyes to see but see not; ears to hear, but hear not’” (Gray, 2006, p. 63). In “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Dylan is thought to have transformed this passage into: Yes’n’ how many ears must one man have/Before he can hear people cry? Yes’n’how many times must a man turn his head/Pretending he just doesn’t see?

Dylan recorded “Blowin’ in the Wind” at New York’s Columbia studios on July 9, 1962. The song opens with a strummed acoustic guitar and has harmonica breaks between each of the three verses and one at the end. The tone of the guitar and harp are soothing; the voicing is gentle. A scholar remarked that “the song’s claim to courage, and its asking courage of others, its incipient solidarity, all required that it convey a certain political loneliness” (Ricks, 2003, p. 324). Dylan released the recording on his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, in May 1963. Before the year ended, soul singer Sam Cooke was performing the song in his live act and wrote a response, “A Change Is Gonna’ Come,” which upon its 1964 release joined “We Shall Overcome” as an anthem of the civil rights movement. In the long tradition of American protest music, the anthem represented an assimilation of racial influences stemming from Pete Seeger’s meeting in 1957 with Martin Luther King at the Highlander Folk School in Knoxville, Tennessee, where Seeger first introduced King to “We Shall Overcome.” Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” was apiece with this tradition. “It wasn’t the way Dylan sang,” Cooke said to a friend about “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “It was what he had to say and the fact that such a song could be written by a white boy” (Guralnick, 2005, p. 512).

Peter, Paul, and Mary recorded “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and it quickly sold a phenomenal one million copies, reaching number two on the Billboard pop chart. “Blowin’ in the Wind” then became known as a song that could be applied to any freedom issue or, as Ricks wrote, to any cause where “men who got themselves killed for the rights that were theirs and others.” Its crowning moment came on August 28, 1963, when Peter, Paul, and Mary stood atop the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and performed “Blowin’ in the Wind” in front of 250,000 people at the March on Washington, most remembered for Martin Luther King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech—the defining moment of the American civil rights movement.

Down the many roads he has traveled since, “Blowin’ in the Wind” is still the song with which Bob Dylan’s name is most prominently linked, and it has secured his reputation as a champion of social justice the world over. In 1997, Pope John Paul II invited Dylan to play before an audience of 300,000 at the World Eucharistic Congress in Bologna, Italy. After shaking Dylan’s hand, the Pope compared the message in “Blowin’ in the Wind” to the Gospel itself. In 2016, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” (1964)

Dylan also played at the historic March on Washington where he introduced “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” a song he had written about the assassination of black civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, on the night of June 12, 1963. Three months later—on September 15, 1963—four black girls were killed when a bomb exploded while they were attending Bible class at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. These events had a profound and transformative effect on the civil rights movement, presenting in stark and absolute terms the stakes of the movement and the intolerable level of hatred and violence being directed against African-Americans in the Deep South. They would mark a turning point in the life of Nina Simone. “When they killed the little girls in Alabama,” she recalled, “that’s when I changed” (Light, 2016, p. 97).

Born in rural North Carolina in 1933, Nina Simone was a classically trained concert pianist whose early career was crushed by the racism she encountered at a prestigious music school in Philadelphia, leading her to take work as a nightclub piano player in Baltimore, where she covered jazz and pop standards accompanied by her expressive contralto voice. Her immediate reaction to the Birmingham bombing in 1963 was to build a zip gun and go on a killing rampage against white racists. Instead, she sat down at her piano and channeled her rage into a new song with an upbeat tempo that began:

  • Alabama’s got me so upset
  • Tennessee made me lose my rest
  • And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam!

This was a new and totally innovative kind of black protest music, more raw, direct, and angrier than anything seen before. Simone was not the first black woman to take such a courageous stance in her music. “Mississippi Goddam” is often compared to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” yet they are fundamentally different. “Strange Fruit” is a dirge, or a lament on the brutal, unforgivable lynching of blacks rather than a protest against it. Besides, African-Americans of the Jim Crow South were not ready for protest music in the late 1930s. Now they were. This heightened state of black consciousness coincided with the 1964 release of “Mississippi Goddam” on the album Nina Simone in Concert.

Nina Simone came to have a major influence on the front lines of the civil rights struggle. Organizers for Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) played Simone’s records in their college dorms, at social gatherings, and community meetings. SCLC organizer Andrew Young would recall: “Every home I went to had Nina Simone [records]—I mean every one. For all of the people in the civil rights movement, it was an identity, you know what I mean? Her music was just sort of what you heard” (Light, 2016, p. 102).

Simone’s release of “Mississippi Goddam” made her a highly sought-after performer at benefit concerts, earning her the title “High Priestess of Soul” and bringing her into contact with leading figures in the civil rights movement. Initially, she shied away from protesting herself. When asked by Vernon Jordan of the Urban League why she didn’t protest for civil rights, Simone responded: “Motherfucker, I am civil rights!” (Light, 2016, p. 102). But her ambivalence vanished when Simone was invited to appear at an all-star concert greeting marchers at the end of Dr. King’s famous Selma-to-Montgomery march in Alabama on March 21, 1965. Prior to the concert, Simone joined Sammy Davis, Jr., James Baldwin, and Harry Belafonte in crossing picket lines to enter the venue. On stage, Simone delivered a furious rendering of “Mississippi Goddam” in front of King and such notables as Langston Hughes, UN Commissioner Ralph Bunche, and Leonard Bernstein. “Nina stole the show,” Andrew Young recalled. “And it was because her music so reflected the soul and the feeling of the people there” (Light, 2016, p. 114).

Financially destitute, suffering from schizophrenia, and relatively unknown to the general public, Nina Simone passed away in France at age 70, on April 21, 2003. Yet among musicians, she is an artist for the ages. Simone’s fierce and sophisticated piano playing, her uncooked voicing and captivating stage presence inspired the likes of Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, Van Morrison, and Elton John and continues to influence such popular artists as Bono, Kanye West, and perhaps her most famous protégé, Beyoncé. Rolling Stone ranked her number 29 in its list of the 100 greatest singers of all time. “She was hip-hop twenty years before the beats arrived,” music producer Don Was told NPR in 2005. “In the 1960s, no black woman was any more ‘gangsta’ than Nina Simone . . . Nina Simone may have been embittered by racism and social injustice, but that gave shape to her persona as a kind of female black Bob Dylan, albeit with a bit more swing than twang and an unmistakable passion and intensity that remain unrivaled to this day.” Nina Simone, force of nature.

James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” (1965)

A tipping point for the civil rights movement was the 1966 “March Against Fear” from Memphis, Tennessee, to Mississippi’s state capital, Jackson. Organized by James Meredith (who four years earlier had successfully fought to be the first African-American admitted to the University of Mississippi), the 220-mile march down Highway 51 began on June 5 with the goal of demonstrating that white supremacists could not stop the registration of black voters across the Mississippi Delta. There was only one marcher: Meredith. On June 6, he was gunned down by a white racist outside Hernando, Mississippi.

While he recuperated in a Memphis hospital, various factions of the civil rights movement gathered to formulate a unified response. Led by Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Andrew Young, the activists continued the March days later from the spot where Meredith was ambushed. Upon reaching Greenwood, Mississippi, Stokley Carmichael, nominal leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), got into an argument with a violent white policeman and was hauled off to jail. Upon his release, Carmichael stood before a thousand supporters and said: “This is the twenty-seventh time I have been arrested. I ain’t going to jail no more” (Branch, 2006, p. 476). Pausing for effect, he then introduced a new slogan: “We want black power.”

“That’s right!” yelled a few in the crowd. “We want black power!”

Word spread that celebrities were on their way to lend support to the marchers. Sammy Davis Jr. would be coming, along with Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, and Marlon Brando. The march to Jackson was a hard slog. In Canton, Mississippi, on June 24, King was addressing the marchers when white state troopers fired tear gas at the crowd, and then battered the throng of black men, women, and children with their rifle butts. The next day, the procession of 20,000 marchers made it to the outskirts of Jackson, where King and other leaders met in the dean’s office at Tougaloo College to discuss plans for crossing the finish line. Arguments ensued as to who would be speaking and in what order until an exasperated King abruptly cut things off saying: “I’m sorry, y’all. James Brown is on. I’m gone” (Branch, 2006, p. 492).

The previous year, James Brown—“Godfather of Soul,” “the hardest working man in show business,” and “the sweatiest man in show business”—recorded a two-part single, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” which became his first song to break into the Billboard Hot 100 and won Brown his first Grammy Award, for best R&B recording. Backed by a skin-tight band providing a horn-heavy backdrop with a prominent rhythm and an electric guitar for a hook, Brown introduced the sound of funk where both singer and musicians place overwhelming emphasis on the first beat of each measure—“on the One,” as Mr. Brown called it. His lyrics praised an old man brave enough to get out on the dance floor of a nightclub. “Come here sister, Papa’s in the swing/He ain’t too hip about that new breed thing/He ain’t no drag [stop], Papa’s got a brand new bag”—meaning that he had a new interest, a new way of doing things.

Brown began the afternoon show in Jackson with “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” The song “revitalized a crowd that was weary even before the sweltering temperatures rose above ninety degrees,” wrote Brown’s biographer, “and it also pointed to how Brown’s music was being repurposed by a new generation of African Americans” (Smith, 2012, p. 155). The new bag and the new black power met on the One. And with this perfect synergy of musical energy and retail politics, James Brown emerged as the representative of a new kind of black pride. His songs were turned into expressions of hope and confidence for legions of fans. During the 1960s, Brown’s music and social activism were praised by everyone from Mohammad Ali, Mick Jagger, and the Black Panthers, to the racist South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, and Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

The apex of Brown’s influence came on the night of April 4, 1968—within hours of Martin Luther King’s assassination, when Brown and his band took the stage at the Boston Gardens for a sold-out performance, simulcast on television, intended to urge black youth to sit down instead of taking to the streets in violent protest against King’s murder. After being introduced by Boston mayor Kevin White, the band began playing, but trouble came immediately. After a group of youth stormed the stage and grabbed the singer, Brown called for the house lights to be turned up, and then he addressed the unruly crowd.

“Let me finish the show,” Brown said. “We’re all black. Let’s respect ourselves. Are we together or are we ain’t?” It worked. “We are,” the fans yelled back. Brown signaled the drummer—“hit the thing, man” and off they went on the One.

In the wake of King’s death, 125 U.S. cities experienced rioting, leaving 46 dead and 2,600 injured. Hundreds of stores were looted and entire communities burned to the ground. But in Boston, there was no violence.

By the late 1980s, James Brown had lost a fortune through bad business deals, bad marriages, and bad drugs. He spent three years in prison for firing a shotgun at police during a high-speed chase. When he died in 2006 at the age of 73, Rolling Stone ranked him seventh among the 100 greatest musicians of all time, even though he had only rudimentary skills on the organ and guitar. Today, James Brown is the most sampled artist in hip-hop music. His beats are heard in the raps of Dr. Dre, Public Enemy, Jay Z, the Notorious B.I.G., and countless others.

Jimi Hendrix’s “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock (1969)

On the evening following Dr. King’s assassination, the three-member Jimi Hendrix Experience arrived in New Jersey for two shows at the Newark Symphony Hall. As the band pulled into the city, their limo passed a military tank in the street, and they wondered if a war had broken out. In a way, it had. Not only was Newark dealing with lootings and arsons over King’s murder, but it was still recovering from riots that had rocked the city several months earlier, killing 26 and causing millions of dollars in damage. King himself had been in Newark only eight days before he was killed while on a whirlwind tour supporting his Poor People’s Campaign. Along the way he spoke about the need to combat poverty in the same way leaders had focused on civil rights. At one stop, King told a group of teenagers that they should avoid the black power motto “burn, baby, burn,” they should “learn, baby, learn, so you can earn, baby, earn” (Augenstein, 2015). Then he spoke of his opposition to the Vietnam War, a stance that had recently marginalized King among the power elites in Washington (Branch, 2006). These dual themes—racial unity and opposition to Vietnam—were about to make their way into the music of the most gifted guitar player the world has ever seen.

“This number is for a friend of mine,” Hendrix told the audience that night in Newark before playing a long blues instrumental. It was Jimi’s way of honoring Dr. King and, according to Hendrix’s biographer, “the performance was so poignant that many in the audience were moved to tears” (Cross, 2005, p. 224). Until this night, Hendrix had avoided making any kind of political statement at his shows, preferring instead to offer loftier ideals as expressed in his often-quoted saying: “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” Further hints of social consciousness appeared in songs Hendrix wrote over the next few weeks, which would appear on his third and final album, Electric Ladyland. In “House Burning Down,” he encouraged listeners to “Try to learn instead of burn,” a sentiment expressed by King in his talk with the Newark teenagers.

Hendrix first performed an instrumental version of Francis Scott Key’s 1854 song “The Star Spangled Banner”—America’s official national anthem—during his U.S. tour in the fall of 1968. By early 1969 “The Star Spangled Banner” had become a staple of Jimi’s concerts, and he played it nearly every night during his cocaine and amphetamine-fueled run through West Germany in January. Hendrix was no stranger to the song, having served two years as an army paratrooper (1961–1962), where he would have heard the national anthem and “Taps” on a regular basis. “I heard the national anthem every day in high school,” Hendrix later said to TV host Dick Cavett. As the tour moved through England, Hendrix continued to play the anthem and was asked by reporters for his opinion on the Vietnam War. His responses ranged from nonsensical to the surprisingly hawkish, saying that the war was necessary due to the “yellow danger” posed by China. He was highly critical of the antiwar movement. While watching a demonstration in London with his friend Eric Burdon of the Animals, Hendrix said that he “was still a soldier and still trained to think like one” (Cross, 2005, p. 248).

Organizers of the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, scheduled from August 15 through 18, 1969, sent out invitations to their A-List of performers in April. The Beatles declined, Dylan said no, and so did the Doors. The first act signed were the newly minted superstars of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Others fell in behind, including the premier act in rock music who signed on as the headliner—Jimi Hendrix. After returning to New York from his European tour, Hendrix disbanded the Experience and organized a five-piece ensemble experienced with Latin rhythms and began rehearsing the band in early August, just two weeks before the Woodstock festival. Hendrix named the band Gypsy Sun and Rainbows.5

It is well known that the Woodstock festival exceeded anyone’s expectations. While some 180,000 tickets were printed up, more than 800,000 people made their way to Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York near the village of Bethel. As the masses descended on the site, security fences were torn down, traffic jams forced a closing of the New York Thru Way, emergency food and medical staff were helicoptered in, leaflets were handed out with survival tips about avoiding a particular type of acid, marijuana smoke could be detected for miles, and it rained and then it rained some more. Musicians known as local stars became international legends, beginning with Richie Havens, who opened the show on Friday evening by playing every song he knew in a stunning two-hour performance. The San Francisco bands went on—Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, and Santana. The British bands played—Ten Years After, Joe Cocker, and the Who. Joan Baez played a tribute to the martyr of American folk music, “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.” Arlo Guthrie, the Band, Canned Heat, and the newly formed Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young—they all played to the mud-soaked crowd of joyous hippies. Jerry Garcia would say about Woodstock: “You could feel the presence of invisible time travelers from the future who had come back to see it, a swollen historicity—a truly pregnant moment . . . as a human being, I had a wonderful time” (McNally, 2002, p. 335).

Hendrix was scheduled to close the festival at 11 p.m. on Sunday. He arrived with his band from the local airport on Sunday afternoon in a stolen pickup driven by Neil Young, only to find that the show was running hours late. So he passed the time smoking marijuana and playing acoustic guitar with his band. By the time Hendrix went on, it was Monday morning. Most of the crowd had gone home leaving some 40,000 die-hard fans. Also remaining was a film crew that had been shooting the entire affair. Their resulting movie about the festival, Woodstock, would be seen by millions upon its release seven months later; a soundtrack album would follow two months after that. They documented for history a celebration of peace and music amid the tumult of the Vietnam War.

Hendrix walked onto the stage around 8:30 a.m., carrying a white Stratocaster electric guitar and wearing a white beaded buckskin jacket with fringe, blue velvet bellbottoms, and a red silken headband—the Gypsy Sun. His ears were pierced with diamonds, his fingernails were dirty, and he had not slept for three days. After commenting on the rising sun’s beauty, the rhythm of Earth, and his powerful love of women, Jimi began the first number of a 16-song set that would run for two hours. Some of the songs have been described as dazzling, others as forgettable, but only one was saved for posterity as the legendary closing song of the Woodstock movie.

“I was working in the bad trip tent as a nurse when he started to play it,” said one observer. “Everything seemed to stop. Before that, if someone would have played ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ we would have booed; after that, it became our song” (Cross, 2005, p. 271). “It was a riveting moment,” remembered another. “Just that single guitar, so piercing and so pure. Those huge speakers bouncing sound off the hillside, an eerie, silent, pre-dawn misty kind of silence.” Still another recalled, “I saw people grabbing their heads, so ecstatic, so stunned and moved; a lot of people holding their breath, including me” (Ventre, 2009).

In the movie, you see Hendrix adjusting the tuning knobs of his Stratocaster with his right hand as he plays the anthem’s opening verse with his left, looking down at the camera operator with a look that says, “You’re gonna love this.” The rest of the band is quiet; only the drummer will add flourishes to the instrumental. Then, in the second verse, Hendrix rivets his eyes on the guitar neck and attacks his whammy bar while playing piercing notes on his fretboard, creating sonic feedback and sustained bursts of sound, one after another, until his fingers clip them off like a hatchet. He runs up and taps the wa-wa pedal with his foot, and then his hand slides up and down the neck with blistering speed, getting a swooping sound and distorted feedback. He alternates between playing the melody for “the bombs bursting in air” with nightmarish imitations of the sounds of war: bombs dropping, rockets exploding, and wailing ambulances punctuated by an excerpt from “Taps,” the military funeral song, echoed by a quick drum roll, conjuring up the sound of human anguish. More feedback follows with more terrifying sounds and then he returns to Earth with one final bomb-dropping crash.

Hendrix played three more songs bringing an end to the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair. Then he went backstage and fainted.

Critics would discuss Jimi Hendrix’s performance of the national anthem at Woodstock—a performance that itself lasted only four minutes— long after his passing from a drug overdose in London at the cursed age of 27. New York Post pop critic Al Aronowitz spoke for many when he wrote: “It was the most electrifying moment of Woodstock, and it was probably the single greatest moment of the 1960s. You finally heard what that song was about—that you can love your country, but hate the government” (Cross, 2005, p. 271). Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane later wrote that Hendrix “offered not just the traditional ‘my country, right or wrong’ rendition of the national anthem, but something else that showed us—via screaming, sliding notes—the truth about our beautiful but fucked-up nation” (1998, p. 141). Greil Marcus, dean of American music criticism, described the performance as “so complex, with so many different layers of disgust and celebration and alienation and engagement” (Ventre, 2009). Even Bob Dylan weighed in, writing about Hendrix’s performance for his movie Masked and Anonymous: “It was not a protest, it was not negative, but rather a cry of despair and love and what it said was, ‘I’m a native son. This belongs to me, the anthem and the country.’” As for Hendrix, this is what he said three days after playing “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock: “We’re all Americans . . . it was like ‘Go America!’ . . . We play it the way the air is in America today. The air is slightly static, see” (Onkey, 2002, p. 190).

John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” (1969)

As the scale and intensity of combat in Vietnam increased, the number of casualties mounted dramatically. During 1968–1969, 300 or more U.S. soldiers were killed in a single week on occasion, and in April 1969, the total reached 33,641, surpassing the total number killed in the Korean War. Most of those killed or wounded in Vietnam were poor and poorly educated young draftees from minority backgrounds. The Pentagon’s own figures showed that 40% of enlisted Marines and 16% of enlisted Army personnel killed in Vietnam were teenagers, and 70% of all American casualties were 21 years old or younger (Kutler, 1996). This had a major effect on the antiwar movement, which was being increasingly influenced by the Woodstock miracle. Country Joe McDonald’s performance of “Fixin’ to Die Rag,” Richie Havens’ “Handsome Johnny,” and especially Jimi Hendrix’s “The Star Spangled Banner” brought to the antiwar movement a cultural and moral awareness of what was truly happening in Vietnam.

In October 1969, university activists waged a series of local demonstrations against the war. Known as the Vietnam Mobilization, the protests drew thousands of students to the streets, many wearing black armbands, and generated widespread media attention. At the University of California, Berkeley, students were in open revolt and heavily armed police were sent to the campus by Governor Ronald Reagan to restore order. A young Rhodes Scholar from Arkansas, Bill Clinton, organized a demonstration of a thousand students in front of the U.S. Embassy in London. In response to the protests, President Richard Nixon launched a public relations appeal to pro-war patriotic Middle America; a group Nixon called the “Silent Majority.” Undaunted by Nixon, mobilization leaders upped the ante by moving beyond local protests to organizing for a demonstration on a scale never attempted before. Led by a core group of 253 student-government officers and student newspaper editors, the Vietnam Moratorium Committee scheduled a massive march on the Nixon Whitehouse for November 15, 1969.

Meanwhile, the Beatles were breaking up. John Lennon was internationally celebrated for his music as a Beatle and was known for his widely quoted criticism of the Vietnam War. In the spring of 1969, Lennon and his new bride Yoko Ono petitioned the U.S. State Department for an audience with Nixon in the hope of presenting the president with two acorns to bury in the White House lawn for peace. Yet due to a previous marijuana bust—and the fact that Lennon had just recorded the Beatles song “Revolution”—Lennon was denied a U.S. travel visa. “The States are afraid we’re going to go over there and rouse the kids up,” he told reporters. “We intend to calm it down, you know. I think the States needs us, we can help” (Norman, 2008, p. 605). Instead, John and Yoko flew to Canada, where they staged a “bed-in” for peace.

They arrived in Toronto on May 26 and made their way to the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal. A journalist asked Lennon what he hoped to accomplish with the bed-in. “All we are saying,” John replied, “is give peace a chance.” Nursery rhythms had been a mainstay of Lennon’s songwriting from the beginning, and this off-the-cuff comment had a similar inbuilt rhythm. Within hours, Lennon turned the comment into a song mantra like those he had learned in India while studying with the Maharishi in 1966. The verses of the song were intended to be made up on the fly; a true form of democratic songwriting, anyone could sing what they wanted in this part of the song. The real emotional payoff was in the simple nine-word chorus. All we are saying, is give peace a chance.

On June 1, a recording engineer set up microphones and a tape recorder inside Room 1742 at the Queen Elizabeth. A gaggle of journalists were on hand along with a select group of celebrities, including drug guru Timothy Leary, British pop star Petula Clark, black comedian and activist Dick Gregory, and poet icon Allen Ginsberg. Everyone was asked to sing along with the chorus and shake a tambourine or keep the beat by banging on something. Sitting cross-legged on the bed and dressed in white pajamas with Yoko at his side, Lennon strummed his Gibson guitar and the tape rolled. In one verse, he name-checked people at the bed-in or those he wished were there (“Timothy Leary, Tommy Smothers, Bobby Dylan, Norman Mailer. . .”) and then came the simple chorus, over and over for nearly five minutes. And that was it. One take and the record was done and dusted. The next day, John and Yoko were deported by the Canadian government and returned to England. “Give Peace a Chance” was released in the United States on July 7 and shot to number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The Vietnam Moratorium Committee issued its first press release on July 1, warning that on November 15, 1969 “this nation will cease ‘business as usual’ to protest the war in Vietnam, and for the Nixon administration to bring the troops home” (Perlstein, 2008, p. 418). A paranoid Nixon ordered top aides to come up with an anti-Moratorium “game plan,” and Vice-President Sprio Agnew was sent before the press to call the administration’s critics a bunch of “traitors.”

On November 13, an advance group of protesters began a 36-hour March Against Death from Arlington National Cemetery to the White House. The marchers wore placards around their necks bearing the names of 45,000 American soldiers killed in Vietnam by then. On Friday night, November 14, marchers placed the placards in wooden caskets and set them before the U.S. Capitol Building.

As I remember it, Saturday, November 15, 1969, dawned sunny and cold in Washington.6 In the early afternoon, a sea of people began the march down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House, most wearing coats and hats to keep warm. Passing the South Lawn of the White House, you could see machine gun nests on the balconies. A line of city transit buses ringed the mansion for extra security. Some were overturned and burning, belching black smoke into the air and mixing with the smell of patchouli, pot, and fear. (The air was “slightly static, see.”) As the mass of protestors continued by the White House, Nixon issued a press release saying that he was spending the afternoon watching football on television and did not take the demonstration seriously.

The March ended at the Washington Monument, which was normally ringed with American flags, but some of them had been torn down and replaced with Viet Cong flags. (Later that night, to keep warm, protestors tore down the wooden benches surrounding the Monument and fed them into a raging bonfire.) Five speakers addressed the crowd from a wooden stage facing the Mall: Senators Charles Goodell and George McGovern, peace activist David Dellinger, Coretta Scott King, and Dick Gregory. And there was music of course. Peter, Paul, and Mary played, along with Richie Havens, Joan Baez, and the cast of Hair who sang “Aquarius.” As evening approached, the crowd encircling the Washington Monument grew to an astonishing 600,000 people: Student radicals, war resisters, parents with small children on their shoulders, Vietnam vets, priests, nuns, and hippies. It was the biggest political protest ever held in Washington. “As far as the eye could see there were people,” recalled a marcher. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It was incredible” (Bingham, 2016, p. 199). Then, Pete Seeger came on.

Standing erect at the microphone, his well-traveled guitar in hand, Seeger began a song he had only heard a few days before, not from the record or the radio, but from a young woman singing at a peace rally. He liked the song because he knew it was a natural sing-along, and sing-alongs were his specialty. In this way, Pete Seeger helped to create yet another masterpiece:

  • All we are saying, is give peace a chance.

After he sang the opening line, Peter, Paul, and Mary jumped onstage and joined in. The lilting flow of the song began to grow among the people and they started to sing along.

  • All we are saying . . .

When Seeger got to the open verse, he sang out across the sea of marchers:

  • Are you listening Nixon?
  • Are you listening Agnew?
  • Are you listening in the Pentagon?

As the song got better and better, the people began swaying their bodies and banners and flags in time, until more than half a million souls sang with one majestic voice:

All we are saying, is give peace a chance!

“I guess I faced the biggest audience I’ve ever faced in my life,” Seeger told The Nation in 1981. “Hundreds of thousands; how many, I don’t know. They stretched as far as the eye could see up the hillside and over the hill . . . It was a tremendously moving thing.” A year earlier, John Lennon had been killed by an assassin’s bullet in New York.

Music and Social Justice: Long Time Passing

Sixties idealism did not end with the 1960s. In what would become a prototype for a new style of humanitarianism among musicians, in 1971 George Harrison organized two historic benefit concerts at New York’s Madison Square Garden (The Concert for Bangladesh), raising more than a quarter million dollars for the relief of refugees from the Bangladesh Liberation War. “This was rock turning respectable for the first time,” wrote one critic (Hepworth, 2016, p. 168). “The event provided the blueprint for every subsequent effort to harness the popularity of rock music and the perceived moral stature of the people who play it to benefit some sort of deserving cause.”

Over a decade later, in what was billed as a “global jukebox” by organizer Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats (“Boomtown” taken from a hobo jungle described by Woody Guthrie in Bound for Glory), Live Aid, a massive rock concert held in Philadelphia and London, was attended by 180,000 people, with an additional 400 million television viewers across 60 countries via satellite link-ups. The concert raised $225 million for famine relief in Ethiopia. Live Aid was followed by Farm Aid, organized in 1985 by Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp; over the years it has raised $50 million to increase awareness about the loss of family farms in America. The list goes on. Bob Marley’s One Love Peace Concert in Kingston, Jamaica in 1978 bridged the gap between political rivals at a time when they threatened to tear the country apart, and raised enough money to fix the plumbing in Kingston’s poorest neighborhood. U2’s Bono has used his fame and fortune to help erase billions of dollars in public debt from the poorest nations of Africa. From 1965 until their road ended in 1995, the Grateful Dead performed more benefit concerts than any other musical act of their time, raising millions for projects ranging from relief efforts for Cambodian children to saving the Amazon rain forests.

As popular music became more inward looking after the stormy 1960s, social transformations were effected on a more personal level, in a way more intrinsic to the relationship between artist and listener. First to experience this transformation was the women’s liberation movement. It wasn’t that female musicians of the 1960s were overlooked as much as they were looked through. That ended, full stop, with two landmark albums released in the defining year of 1971—Carole King’s Tapestry and Joni Mitchell’s Blue. With their attention to the personal lives of young women, these hugely popular records created a new constituency of listeners. And that, in turn, influenced the musical directions of such popular performers as Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Linda Ronstedt, Carly Simon, and years later, the swaggering young feminists of the 21st century led by Taylor Swift. Another groundbreaking record from 1971, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” would create a new narrative about the angry young black man who gets in touch with his inner strength, is moved by the plight of his brothers and sisters in the inner city, and then fights the power for change. The narrative has echoed down through time in the music of Gil Scott Heron, Tupac, Public Enemy, and NWA. Today it is heard in the raps of Kendrick Lamar, Nas, and Chance the Rapper who stand on the front lines of Black Lives Matter. And has there ever been a sexually confused teenager alone in their bedroom who has not been moved by David Bowie’s masterpiece album in 1972, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars? Just as “This Land Is Your Land” gave succor to misfits and outcasts of an earlier period, such shape-shifting Bowie songs as “Starman” and “Suffragette City” gave voice to several generations of rebels and wierdos, paving the way for Prince, Madonna, Lady Gaga, and many more.

But as Dylan said, the times they are a-changin’.Masterpieces of war protest music like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Give Peace a Chance” have little appeal in an age of voluntary military service, when mainly technological battles are waged in places like Yemen, Libya, and Afghanistan, leaving antiwar songs of the 21st century mired somewhere between resignation and a siege mentality. The great anthems “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “A Change Is Gonna’ Come,” and “Mississippi Goddam” were successful because the civil rights movement was led by great leaders who understood the potential of these songs for creating solidarity among their members and mobilizing them to action. Where are today’s Martin Luther King and Fanny Lou Hamer? Massive gatherings like the March on Washington, Woodstock, and the Vietnam Moratorium are no more. These days, if you want to support a social cause, like clearing land mines still buried in the bloody ground of Vietnam, you can do so with a credit card and a click on your laptop, without leaving home or coming into human contact with others concerned about land mine victims. This discombobulated social arrangement—what the criminologist Jock Young (2011) termed “liquid modernity”—has left us less empathetic to the plight of others, not more empathetic, despite the ironic advances in connectivity promised by the Internet and social media. Alas, the “one click and done” society has compromised our need for emotional joining through songs of social justice.

And Then Came Trump

It is hard to tell what the future holds for protest music. Yet of one thing we can be sure: This world will still offer up the requisite material for a good protest song; namely, the bigotry and all-around cruelty of government leaders willing and able to take their country in the wrong direction. To wit: Donald Trump. If the Trump presidency is defined by anything, it is massive protests. Only days after his inauguration, millions of people around the United States demonstrated against Trump as part of the Women’s Marches—potentially the biggest single day of protests in American history. Thousands more flooded airports to protest Trump’s executive order banning refugees and travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries. At Washington’s Dulles Airport, only miles from the White House, protestors raised their voices in solidarity with stranded Muslims by singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”

Dangers of the Trump era will not go away, because they are rooted in the character and temperament of Donald Trump himself. As Trump’s will-to-power intoxicates those around him, the United States will likely endure domestic upheaval, public scandals, race-baiting, the promulgation of “alternative facts,” and outright lies favorable to the administration, a rollback on women’s reproductive rights and criminal justice reform, and more acts of ISIS-inspired lone wolf terrorism, like the massacre at the gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Foreign affairs will be marked by the legitimization of autocratic leaders, planet-threatening levels of climate change, and an escalation of U.S. military aggression in Muslim lands, including the use of torture, which will simultaneously shred the Geneva Conventions while galvanizing jihadists from Damascus to Paris. Protests will not go away in the face of such ruinous policies; and at some level, neither will the urge for making music that can mobilize people to action.

Protest music matters in the Trump era precisely because its traditions stand for everything Trump is not. Protest music’s time-honored traditions of confronting racism, war, and women’s inequality may provide a unifying counter-narrative to the bellicose fear mongering of Trump’s “America First.” American protest music is steeped in the battles to blow racial lines wide open by the likes of Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, Sam Cooke, and Joan Baez. Protest music is about the humility of Woody Guthrie, the fierce genius of Bob Dylan and Nina Simone, the soul of James Brown, and the universal love inspired by John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix. None of this matters to Trump because it is not about him. New protest songs, then, are likely to be most effective if they attack Trump where he is most vulnerable—his enormous ego. In fact, it has already begun. After years of venerating Trump’s wealth and privilege, rap artists are taking their bomb-hurling skills in a more radical direction. Consider this from Eminem, one of the best-selling music artists in the world, from his 2017 single, “No Favors.” “I’m anti,” he boasts, “can’t no government handle a commando/Your man don’t want it/Trump’s a bitch/I’ll make his whole brand go under.” Inspiration can even come from a buried treasure.

Recently released documents by the Woody Guthrie estate indicate that, while living in a federally subsidized housing project in Brooklyn in 1950, Guthrie became incensed to learn that his landlord was taking advantage of federal housing laws that allowed real estate developers to keep African-Americans out of such dwellings. Woody the killer unleashed his poetic powers against the landlord. His name was Fred Trump, father of Donald. One line of the poem reads:

  • I suppose
  • Old Man Trump knows
  • Just how much
  • Racial hate
  • he stirred up
  • In the bloodpot of human hearts
  • When he drawed
  • That color line
  • Here at his
  • Eighteen hundred family project. . .

Ani DiFranco and Tom Morrello have released a fine folk version of Woody’s nearly 70-year-poem called “Old Man Trump.” What remains to be done now is for others to join the fight, including country pickers, rap crews, gospel groups, and punk bands, leaving their mark on “Old Man Trump” by performing it wherever Donald Trump choses to bloviate about American politics. Better yet, music teachers could teach the song to their students, along with “This Land Is Your Land,” from California to the New York Island.


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(1.) Joe Hill. Wikiquote.

(2.) Hill was cremated and his ashes were deposited at the National Archives. They were re-claimed by the IWW in 1988. Some of the ashes were given folksinger Billie Bragg, who swallowed them with a chug of union-made beer.

(3.) While serving as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in 1987, Sanders released an album of folksongs on Burling Town Records entitled We Shall Overcome.

(4.) Dietrich performed her German version at a 1962 concert in Israel; this was the first time German was spoken at a public gathering in Israel since World War II.

(5.) Hendrix would eventually bring back the original Experience drummer, Mitch Mitchell.

(6.) See also oral histories of the March in Bingham (2016) and various video clips on YouTube.