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From Guthrie to Woodstock: politics and pop music

From Guthrie to Woodstock: politics and pop music

“The artist is first and foremost the reflection of his times, and his ability

to stay a few steps ahead of the rest of the society is his contribution to his society.” 

— Phil Ochs


I’ve been thinking lately about my youth during the 1960s and 70s and the influence that those years had on my thinking and my life. As luck would have it, I’ve recently come across the writing of Aaron J. Leonard, author, music critic and political writer. In this case, the two books: “The Folk Singers and the Bureau” (Repeater Books, 2020) and “Whole World in an Uproar” (Repeater Books, 2023) got my attention, as these two books deal with just that period and the music which spoke to the social-political climate of these years. 

In “The Folk Singers,” Leonard addresses the idea of how the FBI and other governmental agencies attempted to influence and suppress these musicians and their social-political activism. This book takes the reader back as early as 1939 and music artists such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Leadbelly, Josh White, Paul Robeson and Sis Cunningham. Here, Leonard reveals the musical mindset of a time (1939-1956) covering a period when I was just in grade school, by talking about the threat of communism and the HUAC (House Committee on Unamerican Activities) hearings including not only folk musicians like Peter Seeger, but Hollywood moguls and actors such as Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer, Gary Cooper, Ronald Reagan and Robert Taylor during the McCarthy Era. Focusing on the folksingers and the songs themselves, we have LP recordings such as The Weavers “Wasn’t That a Time,” Alan Lomax’s “Prison Songs,” Pete Seeger’s “Songs of Protest and Struggle” — with songs such as “This Land Is Your Land” and “We Shall Overcome.”   

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While this whole period in the 20th century and the artists highlighted are important to ponder and acknowledge, it is the following  decades that I want to focus on and Leonard’s 2022 follow-up book “Whole World in an Uproar (Music, Rebellion and Repression, 1955-1972)”  where he updates the political artist perspective with lots of details and quotes that look at the more pop/rock groups and their attitudes and activism related to the American counter-culture and the politics of that era. I am much more familiar with this period, which takes me right back to my high school and college years and the whole Hip Movement — of which I was a more than willing participant — to the years that included the Vietnam War, the Black Freedom Movement, and a vibrant counterculture whose sacred anthems were the lyrics of the songs by such artists as Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Gordon Lightfoot, Grace Slick, Arlo Guthrie, Phil Ochs, Buffy Sainte-Marie and such groups as Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, The Grateful Dead and Buffalo Springfield. The lyrics of the song “Goin’ Up the Country” by Canned Heat are a good example of the kind of music activism Leonard writes about: “All across the nation such a strange vibration/People in motion/There’s a whole generation with a new explanation/People in motion, people in motion.”   

In Leonard’s introduction to this book, he writes: “The aim [of this book] is to show, through select examples, how the radical music of the Sixties was birthed amid unprecedented upheaval and systemic repression. It is the story of the artists, called to operate ‘far beyond their rightful time,’ who had to contend amid these extraordinary circumstances, producing works of wonder in the process, including Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s song ‘Ohio,’ that is perhaps the most powerful topical song ever recorded — related to the killing of four students at Kent State University by the National Guard.”

There’s also the story of the barring of Bob Dylan’s song satirizing the John Birch Society from broadcast on the Ed Sullivan television show, about which Dylan himself commented: “No one can say anything honest in the United States. Every place you look is cluttered with phonies and lies.” Dylan’s album “Freewheelin’” from this period is full of classic protest songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”  

Later, in 1974, Arlo Guthrie would release his own Dylanesque song “Presidential Rag” with the lyrics: ”You said that you were lied to/Well that ain’t hard to see/But you must have been fooled again by your friends across the sea/And maybe you were fooled again by your people here at home/Because nobody could talk like you/And know what’s going on.” 

While all the great music of the 60s and 70s was going on, Leonard spends a lot of his book talking about the suppression of this music and various musical activities and events. He has pulled up available classified FBI files and other documents that are proof of how various organizations in the government were monitoring and working to suppress and ban this music and these artists as much as they possibly could. As Leonard writes in his conclusion to the book: “Everything from the Black freedom movement to the anti-war movement, the rising of a radical New Left, to the rebellion against the dominant culture, such was the backdrop on which this unprecedented music was able to assert itself — impossible things were then possible. While we cannot see into our future, one no less fraught than that of sixty years ago, it is, for better or worse, wide open. Who can say what wonders, musical and otherwise, await?” 

Or as Marvin Gaye prophetically sings in his hit song from 1971 “What’s Goin’ On:” 

Mother, mother
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today 


(Thomas Crowe is a regular contributor to The Smoky Mountain News and author of the 1970s non-fiction memoir “Starting From San Francisco: The Baby Beat Generation and the 2nd San Francisco Renaissance.”)

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