How Music Shaped American Politics

In the 1960’s, the youth of the United States were boiling over with frustrations and pain. People of color were still being treated like second class citizens, women were fighting for the right to control their bodies and for their rights in the work place, and young people were starting to question the values of the religions in which they had been raised. Many had experienced the loss of a loved one due to the Vietnam War. Brothers, uncles, fathers, cousins and sons were coming home in body bags, and the Vietnam War kept escalating.  

These frustrations spilled over into the streets with protests, seeping their way into American thought, and those thoughts and frustrations were expressed through many avenues, including music. This music helped provide a voice at a time when it seemed everyone was trying to silence the anti-establishment, anti-war voices. Music was the way to express dissatisfaction with the way things were always done.

Politics and social change have always found their way into our music. One of the earliest examples that helped pave the way for the 1960’s anti-establishment songs was the 1939 song “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday:

  Southern trees bear strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood on the root

Black bodies swinging the southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging for the polar trees 

Over twenty years after this song was recorded, America finally started to examine the strange fruit of Jim Crow laws and the resulting unwarranted violence against African Americans. Songs like Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” tackled America’s racial disparity and discrimination with hammer lyrics meant to shatter America’s long-held racism and expose it for what it was. The hymn “We Shall Overcome was widely sung during the marches in Selma and Montgomery, and it remains a song of liberation against racial discrimination and injustices.

When the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement collided, they gave birth to an entire new genre of music.  “Say it Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud by James Brown  and Arlo Guthrie’s 18-minute long “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre” were suddenly on the charts and making money for the record industry.  The post-World War II children had disposable income and, at the same time, were starting to question society’s accepted norms and record companies took notice. The conservative politicians of the time, of course, didn’t much appreciate the way youth sentiment was headed, especially when 18-year-olds were given the right to vote in 1970, but they couldn’t ignore the changing social atmosphere either.

Photo Courtesy of Frank C. Curtain/AP

As the war in Vietnam grew fiercer in the mid-60’s, and race riots erupted in the streets of Watts, the music of the time reflected the disharmony and anger in society. The Rolling Stones song “Paint it Black,with its anti-establishment hard, snarling chords reflected the politically charged times. Even today, forty-four years after the Vietnam War ended, these songs and others are still tied into the American psyche as part of that restless, turbulent time.

The increase in troops in Vietnam under Nixon had the direct effect of causing many young men to look at the possibility of dying in a completely useless war. The draft had taken away their choice to serve in the military, and young men tried to find ways to avoid the draft. Fleeing to Canada, enrolling in college, burning draft cards and suddenly developing physical problems or mental illnesses (see “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre”) were common ways young men avoided the draft and the war.

Phil Ochs’s song “The War is Over” was adopted by these draft-card-burning men as their own battle hymn. Other anti-war songs like Edwin “Starr’s War, What is it Good For?” captured the rage and turned it toward the people and institutions that were supporting the quagmire in Southeast Asia.

The counterculture arrived hard and fast. California quickly became the mecca for flower children, changing the Haight-Ashbury area forever. These hippies were turning on, tuning in and dropping out. The Leave it to Beaver lifestyle of the 50’s their parents tried to force on them was not what they wanted. Music was changing rapidly, and the voices flowing out of the America’s stereo speakers told them they weren’t alone in how they felt or crazy for feeling the way they did. The music demanded that young people take to the streets, initiate change, challenge their government and remind them that they worked for the people. The times were a changin’.

Bob Dylan - Photo Courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Folk and rock music gave hippies their anthems; “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan, “Freedom” by Richie Havens, “Fortunate Son” by Credence Clearwater Revival, “Almost Cut My Hair” by Crosby, Stills & Nash, “Saigon Bride” by Joan Baez and John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance” remain the songs that are still loved and relevant today.

Lyrics that questioned conformity, demanded equality, preached free love and gave women a strong voice within the music industry were suddenly valid.  Women were tossing their aprons in the trash on the way out the door to burn their bras, people were taking to the streets with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and demanding social equality for black communities. These loud, collective voices could no longer be ignored and their music and message were loud enough for the people on Capitol Hill to hear, even if they tried to keep cotton stuffed in their ears.  The old conservative guard-of-old was starting to shake in their business suits.

The musicians didn’t just sing about changing the world, they took to the streets with the young people, rallied with them and carried them with their words. When someone in a position of power gives people a voice who otherwise have none, it sends out a ripple of hope and joy. The accomplishments that the counterculture achieved were outstanding for a time when it seemed nothing would change. In the 60’s, the youth of America achieved the passage of the Civil Rights Act, more avenues for freedom of speech, the groundwork for the environmental movement, and they got the nation’s creative juices flowing. They yearned for, and received, a unique individualism all while singing the songs of their heroes.

Each generation has musicians or bands who remind them that the work is not yet done. Bono helps with the funding of government policies and programs that have helped save thousands of lives and has raised over $400 million dollars for AIDS prevention and treatment in Africa. Rage Against The Machine sheds light on the police brutality that still happens across the country. 

Our nation is once again bubbling over with frustrations and fear for what the future holds because of the policy makers who are in charge. There has been a resurgence of protests and politically charged music in the shadow of the Trump/Pence administration, and social media has become a platform where music can reach more people than ever before. Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine once said, “Dangerous times call for dangerous music,” and I couldn’t agree more.

Louder than words - 1.jpg

Today, women’s rights are being addressed more than ever before. The #MeToo movement and the women’s marches of the past three years have brought the issues of women’s rights and sexual abuse to the forefront.  Our musical queens took to the streets with us during the women’s marches and shared their personal stories of sexual harassment, challenging women to come forward and speak out against their abusers. In 2017, the artist MILCK wrote a song titled “Quiet.” MILCK and other women rehearsed it on Facetime before singing it at the Women’s  March in D.C. The video has been viewed over a million times.   

Over 50 years after the flower power movement, and racism and disillusionment are still alive in our nation. Minorities are still being targeted by police officers, and with today’s technological advances, it’s caught on camera for all to see, sparking movements like Black Lives Matter. Musicians like The Weekend have donated money and are using social media to help spread awareness, while power couple Beyonce and Jay-Z  held a charity concert in Brooklyn raising $1.5 million dollars for social justice groups including Black Lives Matter.

 In 2018, Kendrick Lamar was the first hip-hop artist to win a Pulitzer Prize for his album, DAMN. This album rocked the world with its open and honest lyrics about life in black communities and other social justice issues happening in today’s day and age. Damn. and other recent albums have pushed these social issues to the forefront, forcing us to have the conversations this nation needs to have.

Kendrick Lamar - Photo Courtesy of Mic

Childish Gambino (Donald Glover) also released his politically charged and powerful video for “This is America.” The video is filled with symbolic images, mostly in reference to gun violence in this country. At one point in the video, Glover opens fire on a church choir in reference to the mass shooting deaths of nine, black church members by a white supremacist in 2015 at a Charleston, SC church. He is seen handling the gun with care and placing it on a red cloth while the dead bodies are dragged away, taking aim at how our country handles victims of mass shooting.

Throughout the video, Glover dances in front of the camera,, distracting you from what his happening in the background, representing how the American people ignore the ongoing violence and care more about the latest pop culture trend. The video ends with Glover running through a dark parking garage being chased by people, with the lyrics, “You just a black man in this world/ you just a barcode” being sung in the background. These lyrics illustrate how black men aren’t viewed as people, but rather as commodities to be bought, sold and imitated.

I often hear people say musicians should stick to making music and keep their nose out of politics, but would our country have come as far if these artist didn’t use their platform? In the 60’s, music helped spark the fires of progressive thought, it helped unite the nation after the horrific events of 9/11, and it has helped us time after time to put our differences aside and come together for the betterment of humanity. Music gives us freedom to turn our anger, pain and joy into an art that can be shared with everyone. Weaving its way around the world and rocking people awake, feeding the change so desperately needed in our country.

Lara Daniel

Georgia native. Lover of Books. Music Buff. Potterhead