The soundtrack of the Sixties demanded respect, justice and equality

The soundtrack of the Sixties demanded respect, justice and equality

 

The Supremes, with their polished performances and family-friendly lyrics, helped to bridge a cultural divide and temper racial tensions.


When Sly and the Family Stone released “Everyday People” at the end of 1968, it was a rallying cry after a tumultuous year of assassinations, civil unrest and a seemingly interminable war.

“We got to live together,” he sang, “I am no better and neither are you.”

Throughout history, artists and songwriters have expressed a longing for equality and justice through their music.

Before the Civil War, African-American slaves gave voice to their oppression through protest songs camouflaged as Biblical spirituals. In the 1930s, jazz singer Billie Holiday railed against the practice of lynching in “Strange Fruit.” Woody Guthrie’s folk ballads from the 1930s and 1940s often commented on the plight of the working class.

But perhaps in no other time in American history did popular music more clearly reflect the political and cultural moment than the soundtrack of the 1960s – one that exemplified a new and overt social consciousness.

That decade, a palpable energy slowly burned and intensified through a succession of events: the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.

By the mid-1960s, frustration about the slow pace of change began to percolate with riots in multiple cities. Then, in 1968, two awful events occurred within months of each other: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

Through it all, there was the music.

Coming of age during this time in Northern California, I had the opportunity to hear some of the era’s soundtrack live – James Brown, Marvin Gaye, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and The Doors.

At the same time, virtually everyone in the African-American community was directly connected in some way or another to the civil rights movement.

Every year, I revisit this era in an undergraduate class I teach on music, civil rights and the Supreme Court. With this perspective as a backdrop, here are five songs, followed by a playlist that I share with my students.

While they offer a window into the awakening and reckoning of the times, the tracks have assumed a renewed relevance and resonance today.

Blowin’ in the Wind,” Bob Dylan, 1963

First made a hit by the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary, the song signaled a new consciousness and became the most covered of all Dylan songs.

The song asks a series of questions that appeal to the listener’s moral compass, while the timeless imagery of the lyrics – cannonballs, doves, death, the sky – evoke a longing for peace and freedom that spoke to the era.

As one critic noted in 2010:

“There are songs that are more written by their times than by any individual in that time, a song that the times seem to call for, a song that is just gonna be a perfect strike rolled right down the middle of the lane, and the lane has already been grooved for the strike.”

This song – along with others such as “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Chimes of Freedom” – are among the reasons Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize in Literature.

A Change is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke, 1964

During a 1963 tour in the South, Cooke and his band were refused lodging at a hotel in Shreveport, Louisiana.

African Americans routinely faced segregation and prejudice in the Jim Crow South, but this particular experience shook Cooke.

So he put pen to paper and tackled a subject that represented a departure for Cooke, a crossover artist who made his name with a series of Top 40 hits.

The lyrics reflect the anguish of being an extraordinary pop headliner who nonetheless needs to go through a side door.

 
Singer Sam Cooke stands next to a huge reproduction of his head on the roof of a Manhattan building.
AP Photo

Showcasing Cooke’s gospel roots, it’s a song that painfully and beautifully captures the edge between hope and despair.

“It’s been a long, a long time coming,” he croons. “But I know a change is gonna come.”

Sam Cooke, in composing “A Change is Gonna Come,” was also inspired by Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”: According to Cooke’s biographer, upon hearing Dylan’s song, Cooke “was almost ashamed to have not written something like that himself.”

Come See About Me,” The Supremes, 1964

This was one of my favorites of their songs at the time – upbeat, fun and necessarily “unpolitical.”

The Supremes’ record label, Motown, played an important role bridging a cultural divide during the civil rights era by catapulting black musicians to global stardom.

The Supremes were the Motown act with arguably the broadest appeal, and they paved the way for other black artists to enjoy creative success as mainstream acts.

Through their 20 top-10 hits and 17 appearances from 1964 to 1969 on CBS’ popular weekly live program “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the group had a regular presence in the living rooms of black and white families across the country.

Say it Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud,” James Brown, 1968

James Brown – the self-proclaimed “hardest working man in show business” – built his reputation as an entertainer par excellence with brilliant dance moves, meticulous staging and a cape routine.

But with “Say it Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud,” Brown seemed to be consciously delivering a starkly political statement about being black in America.

The track’s straightforward, unadorned lyrics allowed it to quickly become a black pride anthem that promised “we won’t quit movin’ until we get what we deserve.”

Respect,” Aretha Franklin, 1967

If I could choose only one song to represent the era it would be “Respect.”

It’s a cover of a track previously written and recorded by Otis Redding. But Franklin makes it wholly her own. From the opening lines, the Queen of Soul doesn’t ask for respect; she demands it.

The song became an anthem for the black power and women’s movements.

As Franklin explained in her 1999 autobiography:

“It was the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher – everyone wanted respect. It was also one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement. The song took on monumental significance.”

Of course, these five songs can’t possibly do the decade’s music justice.

Some other tracks that I share with my students and count among my favorites include Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” and Lou Rawls’ “Dead End Street.”The Conversation

Michael V. Drake, President, The Ohio State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

The Missing X Factor

The Missing X Factor

“That’s alright now, take your time …”

Those time-honored words have emanated from the pews of black churches in America for decades. They are often uttered by the congregation in response to what is being presented from the pulpit or the altar. Depending on the deliverer, the inflection of his voice, and the temperament and maturity of the one for whom the words are meant, the phrase can take on a couple of different definitions.

The first part — “That’s alright now” — can either be considered a show of affirmation (a sort of verbal cosign), or it can come as an encouraging, nonjudgmental admonishment.

The second part — “take your time” — can either be a plea for one to slow down so that the congregation can savor what is being offered or it could be a gentle nudge coaxing one to slow down and take corrective measures as they may indeed be heading in the wrong direction.

One part of the church service where these words are often heard is the music ministry. From the first note belted by their beloved black church soloist, parishioners can be heard heralding choruses of “that’s alright, nows” and “take your times,” reveling in the sweet spirit that the note is invoking. The phrase can also be heard when the children come forth to make a joyful noise that is sometimes as equally proportioned with noise as it is with joy. When a young soloist or instrumentalist comes to present their weekly or quarterly musical offering, their presentations are usually far from flawless. To these young pieces of artistic clay, the choruses of “that’s alright nows” and “take your times” are welcome words of encouragement.

The youngster is usually keenly aware that their offering isn’t the most polished or pristine, but after hearing those words they are encouraged to not only continue but to persevere and strive to get better. These youngsters and their accompanying church families aren’t the only ones who have benefited from these words as it relates to the ministry of music.

The Crisis in American Music

Historically, the music charts have reaped the rewards of musicians who have cut their artistic teeth in the black church. Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, and countless others got their start singing and playing before a black congregation. As a matter of fact, a significant number of black musicians have received part if not most of their early music training in the church. The black church has traditionally been both a training and proving ground for musicians. I would go so far as to say that all American music can trace its roots to the Negro Spiritual, and as such all American music and musicians in essence owe an artistic debt to the black church.

Let’s be honest, the majority of artists that occupy the top of the R&B and hip-hop charts today are not musicians at all. Most can’t play an instrument, and in the unusual case that they can, it’s often mediocre at best. A computer program, not a human being, is producing most of the music that we hear today. Why is this?

One of the main reasons is a lack of training. I believe that the lack of music training and the resulting lack of trained musicians in the black community today can be traced back to the failures of two institutions: public schools and the black church. We are painfully aware of what has transpired in American public schools. Dwindling resources, lack of funding, and shifting priorities have all but removed music and instrumental training from many public schools, especially those located in under-resourced urban communities.

And what does the black church have to do with the lack of trained musicians in the black community today?

Aside from the obvious benefits of exposing young people to a variety of different musical styles in worship, the church also can provide young musicians with the opportunity to hone their craft on a weekly basis in a nonjudgmental environment that offers unconditional encouragement. But sadly, today’s churches are offering fewer opportunities for young people to develop their musical skills.

Look around your average black church today and count how many “musicians” are actually playing on Sunday morning? Of those musicians, how many are under the age of 18? How many are playing traditional acoustic instruments where the musician himself is instrumental in making the sound? In fact, how many of today’s churches even have an acoustic piano?

Are you getting the picture? Now contrast that to a picture of the black church of yesteryear that spawned Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin.

Technology, the changing landscape of popular music, and the scarcity of qualified musicians coupled with supply and demand are responsible as well.  With the advent of digital music technology record companies and churches alike have found it economically advantageous to pare down the size and scope of “the band.” In the digital realm, one person can now do what used to take a team of people. Churches are now able to get the same sound from fewer musicians or no musicians at all through the use of digital instrumentation or digital tracks. This pervasive digital sound that permeates the R&B, hip-hop, and now the gospel music scenes can place a tremendous amount of pressure on churches to acquiesce to this standard in an attempt to stay relevant and meet budget.

Adherence to this new standard is not necessarily conducive to the development of a high level of musicianship and has resulted in fewer qualified musicians with the chops necessary to be effective in a dynamic church-music environment, which is why many of these coveted few musicians are being constantly shuffled from church to church, usually to the highest bidder.

The Church’s Responsibility

Now, let’s make it personal. Does your church provide opportunities for young soloists to share their gifts during the service at events other than the annual Christmas program?

When the black church gets back to its roots and recommits itself to sowing the seeds of training young musicians vocally and on traditional instruments, then I assure you that the church, the black community, and even the music industry will reap the benefits. No other institution can do a better job of providing children and teenagers with an opportunity to develop artistically, in an environment that gives them the foundation of encouragement needed to foster greatness.

We would all be closer to achieving greatness in whatever our particular pursuit in life may be if we had a regular opportunity to practice it and if we heard the words of folk who love us encouraging us when we mess up.

“That’s alright now, take your time!”

For the sake of today’s youth and the generations to follow, we should relish the privilege of sharing that advice every chance we get.