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Thoughtful Research

History Lesson #16: Pop & Politics of the '60s

These days we tend to think of the 1960s as an era of riots and protests, and for good reason. Assassinations of three (four including Malcolm X) major political figures trying to fight for civil rights and wanting to end the Vietnam War created a malstorm of sadness, unrest and protests. I will explore that era more closely through three questions on my mind about that time. I hadn't even graduated high school by 1970 so I wasn't as engaged as I could have been and yearn to know more.


One, did JFK's assassination open the door to the British Invasion?


Two, did John Lennon's comment about being more popular than Jesus -- which led to record burning in the bible belt, while Dems there were already turning Republican after the Civil Rights Act -- open the door to the popularity of the Monkees?


Three, did the killing of RFK and MLK lead to the first occurrence of popular singers protesting the government and the war in Vietnam?


Let's start with this last one, which is the easiest to answer. Protest songs have been around for most of the 1900s. Billie Holiday recorded Strange Fruit in 1939, a poem written by Abel Meeropol, a white Jewish Communist who then set the poem to music. He wanted to expose the brutality of racism in the U.S., juxtaposing idyllic Southern landscape scenes with descriptions of lynchings. Holliday began performing the song but was afraid of retaliation. The song became a literal show stopper; she was required to perform it only as her last number of the night. Columbia Records wouldn't record it, so Commodore did and it sold a million copies. You can find her recording at this link. Strange Fruit


Some believe the 1755 song "Yankee Doodle Dandy" was a protest song. But it was written by the British to make fun of the "Yankee" colonists, so as such, really doesn't meet what we would see as commoners protesting societal acts, which is how I'd define protest music. Anyway, let's stick with the 1900s here.


Woody Guthrie wrong and sang "This Land is Your Land" in 1944. He did not like "God Bless America," calling it a smug song. He wanted to question that notion of private land ownership, while pointing out that the country suffered from poverty and inequality. The last line, instead of "this land was made for you and me," he originally wrote "God blessed America for me." A few might know that Woody was Arlo Guthrie's dad (Alice's Restaurant), a hippie of the '60s. Here's the link to Woodie's song. This Land Is Your Land


These and other singers of that period, such as Lead Belly, did not see that kind of uprising of protests we would later become familiar with in the 1960s. One website quote puts these early songs in perspective: "Unafraid to speak up against injustice, the best protest songs take on the issues of their day, but transcend their eras to speak to future generations." We can see those early songs sparking the later protest rebels.


The babyboomer generation formed the core of that generation in the 1960s, but one thing we need to get straight right off is that these "hippies" formed only a small percentage of their generation. Still, this large audience made and responded more openly to protest songs, as the later protests of the '60s demonstrated. We would see a lot of racial demonstrations in the '50s, but to get a great white involvement waited until after JFK was killed.


For instance, you've likely never heard of A. Philip Randolph. He organized the first black march on Washington back in 1941. Note how this came shortly after Billie Holiday recorded Strange Fruit. The March was never held, however, because FDR met a part of their demand to end federal employment discrimination. Randolph was the one who inspired Martin Luther King (MLK), whose march in August 1963 was organized by Randolph.


Bob Dylan, easily the protest solo artist of the '60s, appears to be the influence on all who came after him, but one would need a book on his life to find who influenced him. He wrote Masters of War in 1963, before King's march. He was quoted as saying:


"I've never really written anything like that before… I don't sing songs which hope people will die, but I couldn't help it in this one. The song is a sort of striking out, a reaction to the last straw, a feeling of what can you do?"

It's an angry song, the young Dylan obviously incensed by a feeling of helplessness as the United States became entangled in international affairs – Cuba, Vietnam – for reasons he considered to be self-serving. In a 2001 interview with USA Today he explained it was "supposed to be a pacifistic song against war," adding, "It's not an anti-war song. It's speaking against what Eisenhower was calling a military-industrial complex as he was making his exit from the presidency. That spirit was in the air, and I picked it up." You can hear Master of War at https://youtu.be/JEmI_FT4YHU.


"The spirit was in the air." He wrote that song the same year that Kennedy was killed. Many want to believe in Oswald as a solo killer, and I don't blame them, because it's easier to accept. But Kennedy was killed three weeks after Diem's assassination in Vietnam by the CIA, an act that JFK did not sanction. We don't know where he would have gone from there. We never will.


It is interesting, though, that Dylan would have written an anti-war song at a time we were not officially at war. The Cold War was an unofficial bristling, to put it succinctly. Since Dylan's song was released in the spring of 1963 we might expect what he felt in the air was related to the Cuban Missile Crises the previous October.


Dylan made an interesting statement shortly after the assassination when he accepted the "Tom Paine Award" from the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee at a ceremony on December 13, 1963. According to those who were there "a drunken, rambling Dylan questioned the role of the committee, insulted its members as old and balding, and claimed to see something of himself (and of every man) in assassin Lee Harvey Oswald."


The Babyboomers were quite literally raised on Bob Dylan, rock 'n roll, and protest songs. I doubt few of us will forget Eve of Destruction, or many of the others, including Buffalo Springfield's For What It's Worth. 


The Beatles, then, were actually latecomers to protest music. I believe their innocent exuberance started to change when John Lennon made the comment that got the Dixie South in an uproar. As Dylan sang in his brilliant protest song, "The times, they are a'changing," what happened in the South was also because of Johnson passing Kennedy's Civil Rights Act. He lost the support of the South, and knew he would, too. 


Because of that, perhaps, Johnson instead jumped more deeply into the Vietnam War. Southern Dixicrats turned Republican, and reacted the most violently to John Lennon making an innocuous comment in London that March that "We're more popular than Jesus." He felt Christianity would shrink and eventually disappear. It was just an observation, but the reaction to it demonstrates the Christian Right's takeover of the South. Today those states are solidly voting red, a complete switch from the '60s.


Here's more on what happened. Mark Murrman of Mother Jones magazine wrote: "Early August 1966, Christian groups, primarily in the Southern United States, took to the streets to burn the sin out of their beloved Beatles records in response to John Lennon's remark that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus." This controversy broke in the U.S. late that July, just before they were to begin a 14-city concert tour in North America.


The riot against the Beatles began when two Alabama DJs aired the comment and announced a ban on playing their music, encouraging listeners to burn or otherwise destroy their records. The ban went up the East Coast, into New Jersey, with some politicians demanding their concerts be canceled. The Beatles held a press conference previous to their Chicago concert in mid-August and John tried to explain the comment. Privately he admitted he'd had enough.


In Chicago it went well, and generally all through the Midwest, although there were a few bonfires in Detroit. Even the KKK got into the act, as it had probably become well known by then that the Beatles would not play before a segregated audience.


To answer the second question, The Monkees TV series first aired on September 12th, only a month later, and the pilot had the infamous scene of Mike throwing at dart at a poster of the Beatles. Actually the series was nearly dead in the water; first conceived long before this, in the fall of 1965 as a response to "A Hard Day's Night." The networks weren't big on the pilot until they added the interviews of Mike Nesmith, with his down-home Texas accent, and Davy Jones, who'd pretty much been a star back home in England already. The pilot itself didn't air until week 10. So the dart at the Beatles was planned before the Jesus comment. The pilot was seriously over the top, though, and was saved to air in week 10.


The Monkees' success was nearly immediate with Last Train to Clarksville, an lighter protest song against the Vietnam War, was released on August 16th, eventually to hit #1. Would they have become so popular, though, had not the Beatles suffered that diminished support? I was one who threw them over for the Monkees when I was 14.


The Monkees brought us back, for a little while, to our earlier innocence, until they began to revolt against the world that had created them. But their popularity appears due to the Beatles controversy the same way the Beatles benefited from collective U.S. sorrow.


So let's answer that first question, if we can. Were the Beatles also in the right time and place after JFK's death? It came so close on the heels of that assassination that you don't have to look far to find people who believe the Beatles broke us out of our collective mourning, a mourning soon forgotten, too, as the Vietnam war heated up.


The Beatles' advent into the U.S. was actually delayed by the assassination. They were to be introduced on TV on 11/22/63 on the Evening News with Walter Cronkite, but that report got bumped. Ed Sullivan had already seen the crazy reaction in London earlier and planned to book them in February.


No radio station wanted to play their music, however.


That changed in December, after CBS ran the story on December 10th without much fanfare. One girl who watched, 15-year-old Marsha Albert of Maryland, called her favorite disc jockey and demanded to start hearing Beatles songs on the radio. Carroll James, the DJ, got hold of a copy of "I want to hold your hand," and had her come into the studio to help introduce it.


After he played it, requests to hear it again started pouring into the station. So, in this respect, you might want to see the Beatles as having a hand in helping us overcome our collective sadness. Who made those calls? One, it turns out, living in Illinois, was George Harrison's sister, Louise, who made calls over and over demanding to hear their music. The more the music played, however, the more the calls came in.


By the time the Beatles arrived on February 7th, they had four songs on the top of the U.S. charts. But most people (including me) still had not heard of them until they were on Ed Sullivan. Since those songs did not sell themselves, did this author mean those older folk and kids like me hadn't heard of them? Or did it not take much to be on the top of the charts back then?


Hylton did not end his analysis agreeing with me about overcoming collective sadness. But just who lit up the switchboard at that radio station, asking for that song over and over?


You'll find no end of disagreement over this issue. Just purely coincidence, most people say. Coincidence? Most pivotal events in history are connected in some way to what came before.


Jack Paar planned to introduce them as a joke, and did so in January, 1964, a month before they appeared on Sullivan. He quipped:


"I never knew that these boys would change the history of the world's music, which they did," recalls Paar. "I thought it was funny."


Did the joke become something more because JFK died? Of course, we can never be sure. But we do know that the '60s were a decade of change, as Dylan sang in one of his best protest songs. Those of us who were young, and who lived it, will always wonder about these impacts on our lives. Coincidence? As a historian, I don't think so.


I don't know if I've connected any historical dots for you, but for me, this puts the '60s into a little clearer focus. The babyboomers, as all generations, are products of their times.






 Author, From Lincoln to Trump: a political transformation, 107 & 134.




 https://jfkfacts.org/bob-dylan-on-the-death-of-jfk/ You can read that statement as you wish, but for me he meant that we all killed him. In his song, Murder Most Foul, written in 2020, he alludes to something more sinister than many accept of the killings in the '60s. https://www.wbur.org/news/2020/03/27/bob-dylan-jfk-murder-most-foul. 


 https://www.cleveland.com/entertainment/2016/05/25_most_powerful_protest_songs.html - you can see here for others, but they left off several I felt should be here.


 Author, From Lincoln to Trump, 140.


 Author, From Lincoln to Trump, various references.








 Jack Hamilton, 2013, https://slate.com/culture/2013/11/kennedys-assassination-the-beatles-and-phil-spector-nov-22-1963-was-a-bad-day-for-history-and-a-great-day-for-music.html 


 J. Gordon Hylton, 2014, https://law.marquette.edu/facultyblog/2014/02/the-link-between-the-kennedy-assassination-and-the-onset-of-beatlemania/ 






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