It was a time when great songwriters told us about “tin soldiers and Nixon coming” and reminded us that “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls.”
Whether putting flowers in gun barrels helped change the world in the 1960s is debatable, but the messages in the music of those turbulent times sent powerful messages, gave us pause.
And that music still does.
In a daydream, I wondered what’s happened to protest music and songs that spoke about social consciousness. Certainly, world events continue to cry for more of such works – the U.S. government shutdown, instability in the Middle East, war in Afghanistan, Edward Snowden, among other issues.
I don’t hear it, at least not on my radio stations.
Flash back to the ’60s and ’70s. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, among my favorite musical groups, gave us “Ohio,” about the killing and wounding of students by soldiers during an antiwar protest at Kent State University.
Along those lines is “Chicago,” written by Graham Nash in response to Mayor Richard Daley’s shameful handling of riots during the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 and other issues.
I always liked Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” an anti-Vietnam War song critical of class discrepancies. The song was played during a war scene in the movie “Forrest Gump” and fit nicely onto the soundtrack.
We had Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Remember the “Eve of Destruction”? It was made famous by Barry McGuire, who performed rock, folk and contemporary Christian music.
John Lennon’s “Imagine,” with its enduring theme of peace and love, is listed as No. 3 on Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest songs of all time. I’m sure you’ve heard it. Didn’t check to see if any music by his other half, Yoko Ono, made the list, though.
My favorite songwriter is Paul Simon. The works of Simon and Garfunkel in the 1960s are unsurpassed in their themes about the downtrodden, dispossessed and neglected, such as the “Sound of Silence.”
Who can forget the classic verse from the song “Mrs. Robinson”: “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?” Yes, he’s gone, but I’m glad Paul Simon is still around.
In the 1980s, Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the USA,” and U2, “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” produced some stirring protest songs. Also one of my favorites is Midnight Oil’s “Beds are Burning,” a song about giving native Australian lands back to the Pintupi, who were among the very last people to come in from the desert, according to the website SongFacts.
I’m hard pressed to think of any renowned songs inspired by war, politics or other significant issues that were produced in the last decade.
A cursory search on the Internet gave some insight. This, from New York Times music writer James C. McKinley Jr. in 2011, capsulizes my line of thinking:
“So far, musicians living through the biggest economic disaster since the Great Depression have filled the airwaves with songs about dancing, not the worries of working people,” he wrote.
Is it because the great icons of dissent from bygone eras are too far removed from current forms of expression and communication to make an impact on the current generation of songwriters?
Folk singers have been revered for their social commentary, such as Pete Seeger, the author of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.” But Seeger’s era, the 1950s, is long past.
Perhaps, too, many of us – as true of any generation – are reluctant to embrace newer forms of music. I’m about as flexible as Stonehenge. However, while searching for articles about recent examples of provocative protest music, I came across rap artist Pharoahe Monch’s tribute song to Trayvon Martin called “Stand Your Ground,” an effort to repeal the law used to protect George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of Martin.
Kudos to Monch, known as a socially conscious musician, for delivering what Huffpost Live calls a “potent, hard song that decries the verdict through a sound somewhere between punk rock and hip-hop.” Whether I agree with the verdict in the case is immaterial here. What I applaud is any artist’s earnest attempt to help bring about change – or at least make us think.
Hail to musicians who write songs that “dare to disturb the sound of silence.”