THE BLOSSOMING OF THE ANTI-VIETNAM WAR MOVEMENT AND MUSIC AS AN INSTRUMENT OF ANTI-WAR PROTEST IN AMERICA: 1960-1970
BACK TO THE MAIN PAGE
Any society that feels bridled by the suffocating linearity in thinking among the masses, as was the case in post-WWII America, finds vent in the constriction through variegated forms of societal responses. Such responses can be broadly placed under two categories - socio-political and socio-cultural. But no cultural or political response, engendered by the social milieu, can be holistically comprehended in isolation from the politics of the time. Through the fifties and into the seventies, the Cold War paranoia, continued augmentation of nuclear weaponry, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights issues and the emergent Counterculture formed the gene pool for the socio-cultural and socio-political responses in America. This alchemic confluence and concurrence of such movements and sub movements that had been germinating in America variously through different periods in times, in the sixties, reached a zenith -- at least in terms of conspicuity, intensity of expression and mass involvement -- and generated a momentum large enough to wrest open vistas for the exhibition and assertion of socio-political/socio-cultural innovations, directed mostly against the then dominant American sensibilities. These movements that till now had been restricted either to the few who had spawned the ideas, or, at best, to the immediate region of their activity, in the sixties, found a national audience as the various interplaying factors pitchforked them to being the cynosure of most hotly contested debates raging in average American households at one end, to the most exclusive conclaves of decision making, at the other. Often, the dividing line between the two got obfuscated under the perceived commonality between the political and cultural objectives and by the joint enterprise in realising them as it happened with the transient conjoinment of the two major political movements -- the Civil Rights and Anti-war -- and the nascent alternative cultural current -- the Counterculture.
This article has been divided into two sections. Opposition to the escalation of American involvement and the subsequent war fought by America in Vietnam gave birth to myriad socio-cultural/socio-political responses. The first section deals with the socio-political build-up to the Vietnam War. In the second section, the socio-cultural dimension of the Anti Vietnam War protest is explored using the most widely understood language of the epoch, especially by the American youth -- music -- and their most celebrated of cultural icons -- the musicians.
GENESIS OF THE PEACE MOVEMENT IN AMERICA
The Second World War left behind its progeny in the form of a bipolarised globe. The Soviet bear and Uncle Sam were looked in a bitter struggle for the rights over ideological and political dominance over the Third World which was sprouting its nascent head a fledgling inflorescence of newly independent nations. This struggle manifested itself in the form a pathological paranoia harboured by the general populace of the capitalist and communist worlds against each other, pushing the earth to the brink of potential annihilation. The sword of Damocles had been substituted by a deadly stockpile of nuclear arsenals between the two blocks, locked in a bitter arms race and capability enhancement. At the receiving end of this death rite was the Third World. In an effort to keep the emergent regimes in the newly independent countries under their servitude by carrying on covert operations to bring the opposition to the ruling regimes to power in order to serve their own interests, the Soviets and the Americans were sponsoring either anti-state insurgence or government repression, even direct action if the prevalent circumstances so merited, depending on their respective ideologies and or plain strategic interest. Hence, near civil war conditions and post-war intrastate upheavals prevailed almost all over the third world, thereby pitifully stunting the developmental endeavours of the newly independent states.
But not everyone was comfortable with the status quo. The 1950s experienced burgeoning numbers of uneasy consciences asking uncomfortable questions, proposing alternative global orders - a more accommodating polity; advocating global disarmament and nuclear stability, if not denuclearisation, all over the Western World and especially in the United States. Alongside, in third world nations, a budding unease over such blindfold allegiances was gathering momentum. They craved for their own political space, extraneous to the encompassing ideological fence.
The proponents of peace could be broadly categorised into two schools. Namely, liberal internationalists and radical pacifists. The ideological inspiration for the former club came from the nineteenth century preoccupation with free-trade, international law, and arbitration. The liberal internationalists nurtured the dream and the cause for a federal world government. This school of thought had a wide, even if loosely knit, support base among the intellectual elite such as liberal politicians, scientists and other establishment stalwarts. Most of them were extremely wary of both Soviet adventurisms in the third world and rabid anti-communism in America. They identified drastic and comprehensive disarmament as a primary imperative to a stable world order.
The smaller but more cohesive in nature was the school of radical pacifists. The pacifists rejected the war in principle, refusing either to sanction or to participate in it. This school traces its genealogy to WW1 and post WW1 days when a group of people in England and United States chose to completely deny the activity of war. Their philosophy was rooted in Christian peace idealism, as represented by the Quakers – the chief proponents and practitioners of pacifism. They also drew from non-violent civil disobedience as propounded by Gandhi. Herein the pacifists became radical insofar as their stance was a political innovation in America. They differed from the pacifists of the traditional genre over the fact that latter’s absolute rejection of war and military service never got translated in terms of activism. Likewise, the radicals were also critical of the liberal pacifists efforts to bring about social reforms from their armchairs; their ideas never materialised into direct action.
Right through the 50s several organisations mushroomed up all across America, generally adhering to either of the two schools of protest in a broad based ideological sense. Few amongst them were devoted to the expedition of the test ban treaty, others advocated long term objectives like comprehensive disarmament, still others proposed a homogenised world order and so on. Ultimately it was one thread which held this motley crew together. And that was a movement towards the establishment of world peace.
Transition into Anti-war Movement
The end fifties was witness to a fresh stream of radical emergence -- the New Left. Still smarting from the trauma of McCarthyism and seeking to moult out of the claustrophobic dogmatism of the Old Left, looking to redefine the scope of protest, were a collection of dissatisfied intellectuals threaded together by the works and ideas of social philosopher Paul Goodman, historian William. A. Williams, sociologist C. Wright Mills and cultural philosopher Herbert Marcuse. By 1963, the New Left ideals had pervaded the minds that comprised the constituency from which the Peace Movement drew its followers, thereby injecting a degree of radicalism into the movement and adding a splice of intellectual freshness. Then came 1965. Lyndon Johnson finally committed the nation to war in Vietnam. With this as an external stimulus, both New Left and the people involved in the Peace and Civil Rights movements found a common cause: Stop the war. Finally, the Peace Movement had moulted into one with a more radical edge -- The Antiwar Movement – born out of the coalescence of various different schools of protest. This coalition had been made possible by one fundamental strain of commonality, that the actual evil was the authority.
Role of Organisations in the Change:
Even though there was no central leadership governing the Peace Movement, the role of organisations, especially the ones that sprouted during the New Left upsurge, in providing the impetus for the peace movements radical transmutation into the Anti-war movement, cannot be viewed under shallow light. The march into mid-sixties, widened the base of the Peace Movement. They gained dynamic inertia and innocent freshness from the burgeoning students' activism in University campuses all across the nation. By 1963, the Peace Movement canopied a loose array of peace organisations: older ones like Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), War Resistor’s League (WRL), and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF); and newer ones like the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), Committee for Non-Violent Action (CNVA) and the Student Peace Union (SPU). These organisations’ areas and the Student Peace Union (SPU). These organisation’s areas of interests and causes for concern often overlapped with those of Civil Rights groups such as the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and with the New Left Nurtured, Students –led SDS (students for a Democratic Society).
Along with the aforementioned interrelation the final pitch for the transition of the Peace movement to an Anti-war movement came from the three motifs that distinguished the former from its antecedents in history- the motif of madness the motif of moral numbness and the motif of personal morality. The first, motif of madness, was "the sense, that the organised twentieth – century was devolving into institutionalised insanity" in the industrial nations. This sense is best celebrated in Allen Ginsberg’s "Howl":
The second motif, that of moral numbness, pointed to the overriding "apprehension that the Cold War and arms race were crushing democratic that the Cold War and arms race were crushing democratic participation and critical moral judgement in policy making". The common American psyche had been morally and spiritually bridled by years of post-WWII, governmental propaganda. This ignorant slumber had to be rubbed off the eyes of the American man – drifting perilously close to being an American machine. Wrote Lewis Mumford, the urban historian and critic: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the Negro streets a dawn looking for an angry fix...
"We must conquer our moral numbness and inertia: the state that since 1945 has enabled us, in America, to accept the indiscriminate extermination of human life, by atomic and bacterial means, as a conceivable act of a sane government engaged in war".
Finally, the motif of personal morality was manifested in the individual responses to one's moral stimuli. This response either found expression in the activities of the dissident groups in the organisations or led to individual action. Hence, this motif always had a shifting perspective which contributed, both positively as well as in a negative sense, to the movements diversity and freshness and also, its unpredictability.
However, it was the organisations that initiated and fomented the interplay between the first two motifs: the realisation that something was seriously wrong with the American monolithicity and that the drugged tranquil in the American mind had to be effaced by a heightened consciousness that could look under the fig leaf of governmental propaganda. The third motif would only reinforce the first two.
Albeit, the Peace movement did not have any accepted leadership coalition, the organisations definitely gave if some direction, however diverse their organisational ambitions were. They also infused into the Peace movement the motion that would carry it beyond its gravity, to the domain of war opposition and sustain the Antiwar movement through a decade.
The Political Perspective
In the previous section, we dealt with the various factors that lent their characters to the Anti-war movement, helping it to evolve a unique character of its own. By the time the year 1963 came to a close, the peace movement was rapidly in the process of reconstituting itself into an Anti-war phenomenon. This motion was paralleled by an augmenting American involvement in Vietnam. "The reorientation of peace advocacy to war protest began as intervention was challenged during Kennedy's brief presidency and by the end of Lyndon Johnson’s first year in office, lines were drawn which would define the contest over the war".
Let us consider John F. Kennedy’s ascendance to presidency as the point of departure for the purpose of this analysis. In 1961, the French Indochina stood split in two. The northern regions were under the communists who had wrestled independence from the French amidst the post-WWII confusion, constituted the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh. South Vietnam was ruled by the Ngo Dihn Diem government with American support. When the French withdrew from Indochina, America, faced with the potential threat of communisation of the entire South East Asia by the Chinese and, by extension, Soviet expansionist designs, could not afford to leave South Vietnam as the Communists’ fodder. Hence, in order to gain a niche in South East Asia, America stepped into the Vietnamese quicksand by continuing support to the French installed government in the south. A co-operative regime would facilitate the dual purpose of monitoring the activities in communist Asia as well as containing the threat from North and North sponsored insurgency activities in the south. For a while in 1960 there was considerable public out cry in America against supporting a regime with not only a narrow popular base but also overtly dictatorial proclivities. By supporting the Ngo Dinh Diem, America held the possibility of becoming the "real loser in Vietnam", screamed the media. But then the issue slowly shifted out of public inspection.
John F. Kennedy upon assuming office had no option but to endorse the continuance of American support to the Diem government. While Attorney General Robert Kennedy maintained that the U.S. administration was engaged in a "struggle" not an undeclared war in Vietnam, the presence of U.S. troops in Vietnam increased from 3164 in December 1961 to 11,326 in December 1962. Along with this, U.S. Army helicopter companies, armoured personnel carriers and military advisors were supplied by America, in order to supplement the 526,000 man South Vietnam army in their offence against some 17,000 Vietcong -- an epithet attached by the Diem regime to all insurgents, who were assumed to be communists even if otherwise. Back in the political nerve centre of America – Washington, in 1962, one could detect a slight shift in White House’s policy on Vietnam. Direct action would be allayed favour of political action, directed from America, in order to ensure at the helm, an anti-Communist government in South Vietnam. As 1963 came around, military observers in Saigon either smug in the imminent success as presaged by U.S. , or, sceptical of the escalating costs and over expansion of U.S. resources, the White House enterprised a plan of American military phasing out from Vietnam. Whether or not this plan would have materialised will be a suspended query as, in November 1963, destiny stamped its presence in reality with the stunning assassination of John F. Kennedy; As Phil Ochs said:
Meanwhile in Vietnam, there was growing resentment against the widespread atrocities perpetrated by the Diem regime against the population in general and the Buddhists in particular. This resentment ultimately culminated into a coup, orchestrated by the South Vietnamese military junta, that ousted the Diem government and assassinated the President and his brother, on the first of November, 1963. The development further raised the American hope that disengagement from Vietnam would eventually become possible without "abandoning South Vietnam to the communists". Though White House claimed no prior information regarding the coup, the success of the junta quite bluntly implicated Washington, to an extent that the U.S. found itself more deeply committed that far to Saigon. There was a definite flowering out of positive feelings when John Kennedy became President. The Civil Rights Movement was giving out positive vibrations. There was a great feeling of reform, that things could be changed. That an innovator could come in... Things looked incredibly promising.
Then came the Bay of Pigs, the beginnings of Vietnam and the assassination was the big thing. It mined the dream November 22, 1963 was a mortal wound the country has not yet been to recover from.
Lyndon Johnson assumed the Presidential office with the promise of adhering to the Kennedy programmes. In January 1964, Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara, in his deposition before the Congress said that there was irrefutable proof looking the Vietcong insurgency in the South to the communist –led Hanoi government in the north and yet in February he iterated, though not in logical consistence with Los previous claim, that a good majority the U.S. troops would be pulled out of Vietnam by 1965.
Johnson posited the increased American involvement in Vietnam in the light of his overt concern to protect the South Vietnamese "from the acts of terror perpetrated by the communist insurgents from the North" and that it was American self assumed, moral responsibility to set up a tryst with peace for the people of Vietnam. Then when the Vietcong guerillas struck U.S. bases at Pleiku on the 6th of February, he ordered immediate retaliatory strikes" by the Air Force, "across the 17th parallel, ostensibly to protect American non-combatant ground force. On 24th February the Air Force initiated regular bombing raids on military and industrial targets in the North". This operation was given the sobriquet-Rolling Thunder and was marketed as a policy of 'sustained reprisal’. The U.S. of America had finally and formally been committed to war in Vietnam, all for the sake of nothing but setting up the ‘tryst with peace’ which would not come until 1975.
MUSIC AS AN INSTRUMENT OF
ANTI-VIETNAM WAR PROTEST
The following analysis has been divided into three sub-sections: the first sub-section deals with the development of a theoretical foundation for locating the potential in music to be a viable and cogent instrument of understanding socio-cultural history in general and the element of protest in it in particular. The second sub-section deals with the influence that gave the element of protest in music its multi-hued and multifaceted character. In the 60s, this aspect of it helped music to emerge as a coalescent strain that bonded the various parallel movements together through a constant process of interactive accommodation and appropriations, thereby, helping it to morph into a powerful and pervasive anti-establishment stream. The third sub-section tries to elicit the responses and stimuli to the Vietnam War through music and the musicians. I have taken 1970 as the benchmark year, following which the youth movements in America ---of which music was such a vital part --- experienced sustained dissipation both in terms of its youth base as well as commitment.
A Theoretical Base:
There is a disarming pervasiveness innate to music. It generates a cathartic feeling that percolates down to one’ s soul. The ones, together, make the many. Hence the mass appeal of music. Besides such simplistic analysis, the cardinal reason why music is an especial tool for studying socio-cultural history, is that the final aural experience of the listener is a multilayered product that embodies the experiences contained in lyric-writing, composing, arranging and performing/recording, in case of songs, or, just the latter three in case of musical pieces. The chain of making music is completed with the ‘listener’ whose role is largely interpretative. If there are separate actors fulfilling each of the above- stated roles, the scope of interpreting the final acoustic product, which is a multifaceted representation of different understandings of the same thing, opens up immensely. This ‘multifacetedness’ of the final product diminishes with one ‘actor’ performing more one role. Hence the message contained in the product can be construed more accurately with minimum ‘ notional transformations’ between the initial conception of the piece and the final experience of hearing it.
Using music as a tool for historical analysis has some innate advantages. On one hand, the musical product can yield different perspectives of understanding of the same process, thus broadening the horizon of the listener. On the other hand if there are lesser number of minds behind the production of the sound that is interpreted by the listener , then a song, more particularly, a ‘ topical’ song, in terms of both musical and lyrical content, can paint quite an accurate picture of its chronological situation and socio-cultural-political milieu of the times. Waterman and Bascom who where studying topical songs in Africa in their endeavour to reconstruct the cultural history of Saharan Africa have noted:
Let us now take a brief look at the behavioural aspect of the musician who "no less than any other individual is also a member of the society. As a musician, he plays a specific role and may hold a specific status within a society and his role and status are determined by the consensus of the society as to what should be the proper behaviour for a musician." Since the intended nature of the activity of making is to engage the minds of as many as possible there exists an apriori ‘one to many’ correspondence between the music maker and the final recipients of it; but the converse of this might or might not be true. Hence the activity in itself breeds special class or caste with a complementary class or caste of followers of a particular brand of music, or even more specifically, a particular set of musicians. This class or caste of followers is quite amorphous and lacks a codified structure. This caste/class usually comprises volunteers who choose to adhere to a group of other volunteers whose musical taste and preferences brand them together. Hence, almost inevitably, musical personalities end up being social trendsetters, idols --- partly because they find themselves on a platform of ascendancy and partly because the society expects them to be in such a position. Thus, the musician as a member of a special caste/class, embodies the potential vested in him for social, political and cultural assertion --- a realisation of which happened in the sixties and shaped the protest content in the music of the era. …the topical songs have been to persists for generations when they commemorate some historic events or when they treat some incident with lasting interest
Another factor which in a way completes the theoretical basis for the usage of music as an instrument of protest is the notion of music as a ‘symbolic device’. Anthropologist/ethnomusicologist Alan P. Merriam has noted :
The symbolic content in music actually subsumes the above analysis within itself in the sense that the basic purpose of using music as a mode of expression or communication which, as a form, lacks the rigid and codified structure of a spoken language and hence, the preciseness in communicating a particular idea, is to intentionally obfuscate this precision by adding other dimensions to the final understanding of it. Susanne Langer comments in this regard : A good deal of the discussion on music as meaningful part of human existence has centred upon its role and function as a symbolic device.
…music is a ‘significant form’ and its significance is that of a symbol, a highly articulated, sensuous object, which by the virtue of its dynamic structure can express the forms of vital experience which language is virtually unfit to convey. Feeling , life, motion and emotion constitute its import.
Emergence of Music as an Anti-Establishment Current in the 1960s:
The use of music as a form of social protest is unique to the American socio-cultural heritage. In Europe, literature, philosophy , theatre and films have been widely used as media of socio-political and socio-cultural protest as has grass-root level activism been in the third world. But nowhere has music been as widely used to vent feelings of frustration, discontentment, anger, despondency, etc., as in the United States of America. Substantiating this claim would take us beyond the scope of this paper. Here, we will try and restrict our focus to the development of music as an anti-establishment current in the sixties and its subsequent role as an instrument of anti-Vietnam War protest.
The history of protest in America in almost all its scopes, has been linked inextricably to the historical experience of the Afro-Americans. Subjected to relentless oppression by the whites who tried to instill a sense of self-destructive inferiority into the Black psyche, their ability to protest became vital to their will to survive. This stimulus, in the case of the Afro-Americans, became music. Hence, the historical linkage of the element of protest in almost all forms of American music to the genre- Blues, which was developed in the southern plantations by the African slave settlers, is quite apparent. Blues, by the unique circumstances of its birth, has had the notion of protest inherently contained in it. Its developers and practitioners were essentially an oppressed class of people to whom the Blues was an articulation of ravaged emotions fostered by the insurmountable hardships of slave-life. Protest in other forms of music like white Folk, Jazz, Rock and Roll and other genres in America can be traced back to the Blues, especially so, in its lyrical aspect. Reflections of feelings of extreme suffering and privations in the Blues lyrics were in themselves a kind of protest, given the nature of physical, emotional, and intellectual oppression the slave-man might have been subjected to. Hence, the Blues lent its vital characteristic --- the underlying idea of protest --- to all styles of music that it influenced. It enriched the lyrical aspect of white American Folk music that hitherto predominantly comprised narratives and ballads depicting events in history or plain whiskey-laced love songs, by injecting the spontaneity of other driving emotions of the early Blues practitioners. It, along with Folk, conceived and gave birth to Rock ‘n’ Roll, and was particularly instrumental in transmogrifying Rock ‘n’ Roll into an art form in the sixties.
Another domain from where protest in music drew its inspiration was the Afro-American church. Recourse to religion in times of despondency has always been characteristic of general human behaviour. Black churches were born out of protest and gradually grew into institutions that housed all the important activities of the community. The congregation was a place where people came not only to sing and pray to God but also to further the bondage and interact between themselves. Hence a great majority of strategies to secure their rights to a respectful living were formulated and finalised in the churches. As for the music --- besides the cathartic aspect of the very act of singing --- it was "to create a communion of the participants who interacted with each other and their concept of God for the collective good."
In the sixties, the movement by the blacks to secure their civil rights reached its high-noon. Led by Dr. Martin Luther king Jr., thousands of Blacks, armed with Christian values and Gandhian ideals, took to the streets in massive non-violent demonstrations. Along with the masses came the music --- out of the churches and down to the streets. Songs like "We Shall Overcome"--- "a modern adaptation of the old Negro church song, "I’ll Overcome Someday" far outgrew the gravity of the church and the Civil Rights movement to become emblematic of protest anywhere.
Alongside the rise in Black assertion, the ascendance of music as a mode of socio-cultural and socio-political expression reached its zenith in the sixties, riding on the remarkable accretion of white youth involvement in culture and politics. The constituency of youth came largely from two sources, the college and the university campuses --- where the nascent dynamism of the New Left led to the formation of instrumental organisations such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) --- and the Counterculture, which comprised youth who were disenchanted with, and thereby rejected (at least in principle), the society and polity engendered by the post-WWII, industrialised capitalist society in America. The Antiwar movement of the sixties almost entirely owed its character and charisma to the sum total of these two youth bases which, midway into the decade, ephemerally shed their demarcations and became an embodiment of the youth of America. Let us now take a brief look at the reasons behind their inevitable yet transient conjoinment from the viewpoint of the currents generated by the musical processes and products of the times. They are as follows:
(i) A basic foundation in anti-establishment:
The musical process which had initially galvanised the youth of America in the post-WWII society cutting across class divide was, undoubtedly Rock ‘n’ Roll. While the music of Rock ‘n’ Roll came from the Blues (it is no coincidence that the early practitioners and purveyors of Rock ‘n’ Roll were Blacks like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Dominoes etc.) the lyrical aspect of it operated within the narrow precincts of teenage sentiments (dealing primarily with emotions pertinent to teenage life such as falling in love, heartbreaks, etc.) which constituted a huge majority of the stream’s popular base during the fifties. Hence "although teenagers created their own culture within the locked framework of their high-schools, they never fond during the fifties either an organisational form or a belief system that could bring them together into a coherent social movement."
Even though the teenage mass was yet to morph their musical and political beliefs, one overarching influence of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the fifties was on fomenting the nebulous anti-establishment ideas growing root in the minds of the teenagers. This streak was manifested in the form of a rebellious attitude against the most apparent advocate of the establishment --- parental authority. In the sixties, the New Left provided this ‘organisational form’ and ‘belief system’ and the Counterculture, whose entire ethos was built around music --- the mode of communication it espoused --- sought to dismantle the prevalent norms of recording and playing it. Dictated by the rules laid down by the recording industry and radio airplay standards, Rock ‘n’ Roll music hitherto came in three to four minute capsules. The bands that emerged out of the Counterculture hub of the nation --- San Francisco, such as the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, Santana , etc. , disembodied music from such constrictions by playing lengthy sets where one song could stretch for the better part of an hour. The New Left, especially its SDS incarnation, in its capacity was instrumental in providing an intelligent audience that afforded these bands the musical space to practice their wares. It is no mere coincidence that there was an unanteceded rise in the number of universities playing venue to such and other bands in the sixties. This fostered the miscibility between the New Left and the Counterculture.
(ii) A concurrent urge to disinter unexplored alternatives:
The musical spirit among other factors that brought about this concurrent desire was inspired by the music of the Black ‘hipsters’ of the 1930s --- jazz. In fact, the Counterculture borrowed its actuating spirit from the hipsters’ philosophy of self-realisation through the unleashing of natural instincts, catalysed by marijuana smoking. This influence is reflected in the spontaneous, jazz-based improvisations that characterised many bands of the era and almost all San Francisco Bay Area bands. If the music of the Counterculture belonged to jazz then the lyrics definitely belonged to the ‘beat’ poets and writers of the fifties who added the dimension of ‘mystical quest’ to the hipster philosophy of existing at the level of total spontaneity. This quest would be facilitated by ingestion of hallucinogens like LSD (popularly called 'Acid'), mescalin etc. 'Beat' figureheads, like Allen Ginsberg, Herbert Hunke, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, William Burroughs, etc., were intellectual anarchists whose lifestyles and works became as inspirational to the Counterculture drop-outs as to the campus/youth intelligentsia. Hence, the 'beats' were the bridge between the campus student movement and the complementary Counterculture youth movement. Also, another factor that expedited this intermingling and interaction is the sheer physical proximity of San Francisco --- the nerve centre of Counterculture activism and University of California, Berkeley - one of the most important esplanades of New Left idealism and assertion. The remarkable increase in the drug usage among the youth in the sixties could be attributed to a pervasive realisation that the answers to the problems afflicting an industrialist capitalist society probably lay beyond the purview of western scientific objectivism. In its symbolic aspect ingestion of drugs could also be construed as an open defiance of the existing order, authority, paradigm. Drugs like marijuana, LSD and other hallucinogens opened new vistas for interpreting reality. In music this was manifested in 'Acid Rock' -- the sound of the 1960s Bay Area. Acid-Rock was the love child of Hipster and Beat ideals. Played under the influence of LSD (hence Acid Rock), it could transport the audience (also under a similar spell) to the realm of 'sonic-vision' born out of spontaneous improvisation and a transmutating hallucinogenic universe.
Through the course of the entire discussion above, we have tried to elicit the different genepools for protest through music in America. The Blues , Folk, Gospel, Jazz, 'Beat', Rock 'n; Roll and their subsequent confluence in the music of the Counterculture in the sixties --- when their interplay was fomented by a convergent New Left movement -- lent their unique characters to the content of protest in music, thereby, helping it to develop into a cogent medium of expressing and engendering the view that actual canker lay with the 'establishment'. Lyndon Johnson committing the nation to war against Vietnam in 1965 whipped up the intensity and immediacy of anti-establishment protest to an unprecedented crescendo( in which as we will try to elucidate in the next sub-section) music played a pivotal role through the decade of sixties.
Anti-Vietnam War Protest Through Music:
Protest through the process of making music as we have discussed before, emanates from an interplay of the social behaviour of the musician, the symbolic aspect of the piece of 'heard'-music and interpretative capacity of the listener. For the purpose of this analysis it might be useful for us to delineate the two broad categories under which anti-War protest through music could be placed. The first is the category of musicians in whose social behaviour and musical creations, the element of anti-war protest is explicit in the sense that there exist varying degrees of direct activism and political intervention in their music and social conduct. The second is a category of musicians, primarily of the Counterculture current, in whose creations and behaviour the element of protest is implicit and not as apparent as in the case of the former. The protest content in this category is derived from the social mores they espoused and engendered.
Musicians who could be placed in the first group are Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Buffy Saint-Marie, Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan and others who were as important as anti-war activists as they were as musicians at least 'til the end of the sixties. And, in whose music the element of anti-war protest was quite stark. The second category would encompass bands like the Byrds, the Grateful Dead, CSNY, Santana etc. in whose music, the strain of anti-war protest is located as a derivative of the protest-content in simply being representative of the Counterculture which, in its philosophy and practise, had emerged in protest against established American norms and sensibilities. The contribution of this category to the anti-Vietnam War movement should not be viewed in terms of their direct involvement in the Anti-War movement itself. Their input should be seen in the light of the widening youth base for such a movement in sixties America. This contention is borne out by the fact that the two categories stated did not always exist as watertight compartments. It was only natural that an era characterised by an effort towards holistic heightenment of consciousness and awareness would always foster miscibility between these two categories. Bands like the Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe Mcdonald and the Fish were equally important under both categories.
Folk music, inspired in spirit and content by the Blues and Gospel music which had transformed the Civil Rights movement into a "singing movement", became a bridge that joined the left wing idealism with the post-WWII generation in America. This was part of the American Old Left's design to reinvent folk music as music "for the masses" just as "the Communist Party had stood for 'the people', whether the actual people embraced it or not". Hence from the forties through the sixties, folk music with its topical lyrics was a regular feature at Peace Movement demonstrations. Even outside the scope of demonstrations, the music played its part in fostering consciousness and awareness among the listeners. Folk lyrics narrated profound tales in simple, yet incisive words, ranging from Woody Guthrie's "Going Down the Road Feelin' Bad" -- a song about a man's disenchantment with status quo and on the look out for more congenial climes:
to Bob Dylan's anti-nuclear bomb ditty: Going down the road feelin' bad
Going down the road feelin' bad
Going down the road feelin' bad, bad, bad
Lord, I ain't gonna be treated this way...
As the years trudged to the early sixties, another genre of music was making its presence felt as an alternative to folk as a mode of social addressal with meteoric emergence of the Beatles. This form was Rock music. Rock, especially in its stylistic aspect, was maturing fast out of its prior image of being a medium for venting teenage angst. Oh, what did you see my blue-eyed son
Oh, what did you see my darling young one
I saw a new born baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept dripping
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleeding
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And its a hard, and its a hard, its a hard, its a hard
And its a hard rain's a-gonna fall...
An America, college campuses contributed greatly in providing Rock with an audience that comprised the intelligentsia, not just moonstruck teenagers. This was done by bringing Folk and Rock physically close to each other along with other styles of music which would ultimately result in giving Rock its musically variegated hue. "The University of Chicago continued to be an important place where the student movement put its music together." 1962 was a landmark year in this regard. Joan Baez then a fresh young folk-singer/song writer, stopped over and performed at the university's Mandel Hall. Later in the year, the same venue played host to Blues-legend Muddy Waters and Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Rock music was fast emerging as a cultural instrument that galvanised the nations youth -- from vagrants to college-bred intellectuals. The demarcations between Folk and Rock were in the process of getting effaced - Bands like the Byrds, Peter, Paul and Mary, reinterpreting Folk lyrics, especially those penned by Bob Dylan, much to the dislike of Folk purists, through Rock instrumentation. By 1964, Folk Rock interpretations of Dylan lyrics -- "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Blowing in the Wind" by the above mentioned bands respectively had taken the songs to the popular music charts -- a feat unwanted in the folk music paradigm but undeniably reflecting the mass-base. Equally revealing was Joan Baez's voice taking "We Shall Overcome" to the top of the pop charts in 1963. The final spark that fused Folk and Rock together was ignited, much to the shock to purists, by the blue eyed boy of Folk himself -- Bob Dylan. In July 1965, just when the war in Vietnam had begun to assume gargantuan proportions, Dylan appeared at the Newport Folk Festival replete with a solid-body electric guitar (replacing his acoustic one) and backed by the Paul Butterfield Blues Brand. Folk and Rock had been inextricably amalgamated.
However, Folk music was the cardinal medium of direct Anti-war protest through music. This was probably because Rock musicians were very decidedly musicians and performers first and then activists. Also, Folk music with its minimalist and acoustic instrumentation could afford spontaneous responses at demonstrations without the infrastructure that a Rock performance would necessitate. Easter Saturday, 17th April 1965: Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Phil Ochs sang before the twenty thousand who had marched into Washington -- the largest single anti-war demonstration in the history of America. Judy Collins invoked the spirit of the times through Dylan's "Times they are a-changing":
Since Folk and Folk-Rock lyrics had a distinct topical flavour to them, in most cases, it was but natural that the notions these songs dealt with, the stories and the ballads they narrated, the direction they proffered, would creep into the conscience of the listeners and stir up the dormant sensibilities. Hence, the journey, from a stage in 1964, when an opinion-poll indicated that "one out of four citizens did not even know the United states was involved in fighting, and two of three paid little or no attention," to the Washington Anti-war demonstration of April 1965, owed a considerable bit of its magnetism to the medium of music. Come senators congressmen please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside and its raging
That will soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
Oh the times they are a-changing...
A great number of youth were being drawn into the political arena like new-born moths at the sight of their first flame, riding on anti-war anthems like the P.F. Sloan written and Barry McGuire sung "Eves of Destruction". In August 1965, within five weeks of its release, the song soared to the top of the charts. Trailing an introduction of "two funeral thumps of the kettledrum leading into a pounding rhythm," the surly voice of McGuire belted out a "thunder and brimstone sermon:"
and then the refrain: The Eastern World, it is explodin'
Violence flarin', bullets loadin'
You're old enough to kill but not for votin'
You don't believe in war but what's that gun you're totin'
And even the Jordan river has bodies floatin'...
In the previous sub-section we have discussed the process of conjoinment of the political and cultural streams brewing in the anti-establishment underbelly of America. This conjoinment was proclaimed to the world at the "Human Be-In". On the 14th of January 1967, thousands gathered at the Golden Gate Park, San Francisco to solemnise the occasion, with Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, providing the sound-track thus announcing the arrival of the San Francisco sound. It was a day of historic significance when "Berkeleyites and Haight-Ashbury weirdos gawked at one another. A group of anarchists called the Diggers... passed out thousands of tablets of highest-quality (and now-illegal) LSD, manufactured for the occasion by the renowned acid chemist Augustus Owsley Stanley III..." It was a case of ephemeral symbiosis. The Counterculture lent the New Left music and mystique and the New Left lent the Counterculture a short term political goal -- stop the war. And you tell me over and over and over again, my friend,
You don't believe we are on the eve of destruction...
Now, vital to the experience of the San Francisco sound was the concerts the Bay Area bands played. Besides their free-form, improvisational music that covered a sizable gamut of musical influences -- from blues to eastern classical and Latin -- these bands pioneered performer - audience interaction, later emulated by other bands, that made the concert experience a cathartic one; as the late Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead put it:
This made the concerts akin to church communions and an alternate assembly for the youth, outside of direct anti-war/anti-establishment demonstrations but equally important symbolically. The rise in popularity and frequency of such concerts expanded the horizon of anti-war protest through music. And this reached its zenith at the Woodstock Music Festival in the August of 1969. ... And playing the music is a real immediate, satisfying thing. It's like if its going good, every body knows it's going good, everybody in the band and everybody in the audience... You know, it's a faster thing. You don't have to worry about the form or anything -- It's really cleansing somehow.
Music provided the Anti-war movement with the much needed impetus by infusing into it the energy of the youth of America. And once having done as, it proceeded to suggest what the nature of the protest against the war in Vietnam should be. Music became the canvas on which the Anti-war protest pointed its anger, frustration and celebration. Anger at the governmental juggernaut's attempts to browbeat the protestors into compliance. Frustration at not seeing the fruits of its efforts to bring about systemic changes. And celebration of the ephemeral victories that it perceived it had gained.
Musicians responded to these emotions with an array of songs that now have become emblematic of that time. The most potent of the emotions stated is anger. During the frantic days of anti-war protest, this anger was directed against and fomented by the violence unleashed on the anti-war and Civil Rights demonstrators by a vindictive and a paranoia-struck government. From 1967-1970, the flashpoint period for anti-war and Civil Rights movements, the state had adopted increasingly violent methods to instil fear in the hearts of the demonstrators. Below stated are few gory incidents that took place at various anti-war demonstrations:
Violence begets violence. The musicians responded to these incidents by radicalising their lyrics to suggest to the demonstrators and activists to meet fire with fire. In 1969, the Jefferson Airplane in their album -- Volunteers, screamed:
- Chicago Police crackdown on 10000 peaceful anti-war demonstrators on the 27th of April, 1968.
- Oakland Police club, gas, boot 2500 anti-war demonstrators on October 16th, 1967.
- National Guardsmen and Mississippi State Police attack a dormitory of Jackson State University, killing two students on May 14th, 1969.
- May 4th, 1970 -- National Guardsmen fire on anti-war demonstration leaving 4 students dead in Kent State University.
In the song "The War is Over" (1968), Phil Ochs "hinted as broadly, as he decently could that the time was ripe for something stronger than just marching and carrying signs:" Look what's happening on the streets
Got a revolution
Got to revolution...
Neil young could still hear the reverberations of May 4th, Kent State University killings in Ohio. In the elegiac song "Ohio" he sang: So, do your duty boys and join with pride
Serve your country in her suicide
Find a flag so you can wave goodbye
But just before the end even treason might be worth a try
This country is too young to die...
While Country Joe Mcdonald exhorted: Them soldiers and Nixon coming
We're finally on our own
This summer I hear them calling
Four dead in Ohio...
The symbiotic link between music and the movement is borne out by the sudden upsurge in retaliatory violence by the anti-war activists against governmental institutions. Best examples of activists targeting government institutions are the series of bombings of State and Federal offices such as the bombings of the CIA building in Ann Arbour, Michigan; a U.S. Army recruiting station in the same state; the school board building of Michigan's Macomb Country; a building in nearby Roseville and 10th and 13th precinct stations in Detroit. These incidents defeated the basic ethos of protest through music which is non-violence. And its one, two, three
What are we fighting for?
Don't ask me and I don't give a damn
The next stop is Vietnam...
In the sixties, the musicians in their capacity as public figures and creators of lyric and sound helped the Anti-Vietnam War movement find its most important ingredient -- the mass base -- and to a lesser extent -- its direction. The decline of relevance of music to the Anti-war protest towards the last two, three years of the decade is actually these creators' will to move away. Certain events like the killings of Dr. Martin Luther Jr. and Robert Kennedy, insidious decadence pervading the Counterculture as evident in the Altamont Freeway concert deaths in December 1969, increasing indulgence in violence by protestors and violent counter-offensives by a paranoid government, all contributed to the musicians' wilfully distancing themselves from the movement. They were at that juncture when they were probably ready to forsake activism and rediscover their artistic commitment -- other creative directions besides socio-politically relevant music which was becoming fallow from compulsive topicalisation.
Earlier in this submission, we discussed the role of three motifs -- the motif of madness, the motif of moral numbness and the motif of personal morality -- which through protracted interplay, shaped the peace and subsequently, the anti-war movement. Music in the sixties, when it emerged as a force that galvanised the youth into the movement, was the lovechild of two of the same motifs, namely, the motifs of madness and personal morality. Genesis of this force is the intrinsic dual ability of music of address the society as well as the polity. Also music has no organisation to bridle its individualism with organisational constraints. It is a medium that is free to narrate whatever story it wants to. Music was the crowbar with which the Anti-war movement tried to prise open the locked doors of post-WWII American conscience. And symbiotically, they initiated and sustained, for over a decade, a unique socio-politico-cultural current of which there has been no emulations since. Together, they imbibed and nurtured many dreams and realities of the 1960s; from the dream of:
to the reality of: ... disappearing through the smoke-rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time
Far past the frozen lakes and the haunted frightened trees
Out to the windy beach, far from the twisted reach
of crazy sorrow
And yes to dance beneath the diamond sky
With one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sand
With all memories and fate
Driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow...
Indeed, this is the question that still evokes silent replies -- when will we ever learn? Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the soldiers gone
Long, long time ago
Oh, where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to the graveyard, everyone
Oh, when will we ever learn?
Oh, when will we ever learn?
BIBLIOGRAPHYNEWSPAPERS AND PERIODICALS
Carawan, Guy and Candie, "Sign for Freedom: the Story of the Civil Rights Movement through its Songs", Pennsylvania: A Sing Out Publication, 1990, 1992.
De Benedetti, Charles, An American Ordeal: Anti-war Movement of the Vietnam Era, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1990.
Dunsoh, Josh, Freedom in the Air: Song Movements of the Sixties, New York: Internation Publishers, 1965.
Ennis, Philip H. The Seventh Stream: The Emergence of Rock 'n' Roll in American Popular Music. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1992.
Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and Other Poems. New York: City Light Books, 1956.
Gitlin, Todd, The Sixties years of Hope, Days of Rage, New York: Bantam Books, 1987.
Merriam, Alan P., "Anthropology of Music", North-western University Press, 1964.
Mumford, Lewis, In the Name of Sanity, New York: Harcourt, 1954.
O'meally, Robert G., "The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
Pichaske, David, A Generation in Motion, New York: Schimer Books, 1979.
Tilly, Charles, "Social Movements and National Politics" in Charles Bright and susan Harding, eds., Statemaking and Social Movements: Essays in History and Theory, pp.313, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984.
Dylan, Bob, "A hard rain's a gonna Fall", New York: Warner Brother Inc., 1963.
_________, "Mr. Tambourine Man", New York: Warner Bros Inc., 1965.
_________, "Times they are a-changing", New York: Warner Bros. Inc., 1964.
Jefferson Airplane, "Volunteer", New York: RCA, 1969.
McDonald, Joe, "Fixing to Die Rag", McDonald Music Co., BMI, 1969.
Ochs, Phil, "War is over" Barricade Music, 1968.
Sloa, P.F., "Ever of Destruction", New York: MCA Inc., 1965.
Young, Neil, "Ohio", Cotillion Music, 1970.
New York Times
BACK TO THE MAIN PAGE