What’s That Sound? Teaching the 1960s through Popular Music

by Brian Ward

There’s Something Happening Here . . .

There's Something Happening Here..... by Gilder Lehrman on Grooveshark

The 1960s was one of the most dramatic and controversial decades in American history. Opinions about its achievements and failures continue to be divided between those who condemn the decade as the source of much that is wrong with contemporary America and those who hail it as the last time the nation made a concerted effort to realize its best ideals. Yet amid passionate disagreements about the significances and legacies of the 1960s, few dispute that popular music was a powerful cultural, social, and economic force in the period, or that it has played an important role in shaping how the decade has been remembered. Thanks to film, television, oldies radio, and the dusty singles and albums (or more likely CD reissues and downloads) of parents and grandparents, even students far too young to have experienced the decade first-hand often recognize a whole range of sounds as evocative of the era. The Motown soul of the Temptations and Marvin Gaye; the folk revivalism of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez; the folk-rock syntheses of the Byrds; the surfing sounds of the Beach Boys; the free jazz of Archie Shepp and Ornette Coleman; the girl-group sounds of the Chiffons and Crystals; the southern-fried soul of Percy Sledge and Otis Redding; the lush Nashville countrypolitanism of  Eddy Arnold and Tammy Wynette; the country-rock blends of the Flying Burrito Brothers; the progressive, psychedelic sounds of the Grateful Dead and the Doors; the self-reflective meditations of singer-songwriters James Taylor and Laura Nyro; the daring blues-rock-jazz blend of Jimi Hendrix; the pioneering funk of James Brown; the garage rock of the Standells and Seeds; and the avant-garde noisescapes of Captain Beefheart and the Velvet Underground—these and many other styles and artists can be fun and effective vehicles for helping students explore the complexities and ambiguities of this pivotal decade.

From the teacher’s perspective, however, all this music represents an embarrassment of riches. There are tough decisions to make about which styles, artists, labels, songs, singles, or albums to use. Is it best to concentrate on the most critically acclaimed tracks and musically innovative artists from the era, or on the decade’s most commercially successful performers, recordings, or styles? And having made these choices, how can we introduce music into the classroom most effectively? Is it best to use lots of short excerpts to give students a better sense of the range of 1960s music, or should we play a few signature tracks in full—a strategy that gets messy with songs like folkie Arlo Guthrie’s anti-Vietnam, pro-counterculture monologue “Alice’s Restaurant” and Iron Butterfly’s space-blues epic “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” each clocking in at well over a quarter of an hour?

Of course, there are no definitive answers to any of these questions. Part of the tortured pleasure for the teacher comes from trying to select and justify what to play and for how long and how loudly! The good news is that even this agonizing can be turned into a teaching and learning opportunity. Admitting to students the informed arbitrariness of our choices can help students to appreciate the way that histories of any period or event are always, to some extent, constructs of convenience. Certainly, popular and even scholarly understandings of which music and performers most successfully captured the zeitgeist of the 1960s are, in part, the product of creative imaginations, faulty or selective memories, personal preferences, and the manipulation and marketing of certain kinds of musical nostalgia. Films with 1960s themes such as American Graffiti, The Big Chill, Good Morning Vietnam, Apocalypse Now, and Dream Girls, and the torrent of 1960s-themed compilation albums have done much to shape and reshape memories of the decade’s music in ways that underestimate the range of styles which were actually hugely popular.

In some ways, historians and teachers have been complicit in this process. Perhaps understandably, they are drawn to the styles, artists, and individual songs that were most obviously connected to important political trends and social transformations: Motown as the sound of black aspirations; the folk revival as the sound of an emergent New Left; Janis Joplin as emblematic of a new kind of female consciousness; Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” as one-stop shopping for all manner of 1960s social and political anxieties. Yet it never does any harm to remind ourselves that much of the most popular music of the 1960s dealt with traditional themes of good and bad romance—albeit in ways which by the second half of the decade reflected changing courtship patterns and sexual mores—or that they were often driven more by the demands of the dance floor than of the protest rally.

To demonstrate this point, I ask students to guess the best-selling albums of the year for the first half of the 1960s. Most take a stab at Bob Dylan, or the Beatles, or something from Motown. In fact, the best selling albums of 1960 to 1965 were the soundtracks for the musicals The Sound of Music, Camelot, West Side Story (in 1962 and 1963), Hello Dolly!, and Mary Poppinsnot necessarily what one thinks of as quintessential expressions of the turbulent 1960s. In the early 1960s, however, adults dominated the market for albums while singles were the main currency for the pop, rock, and soul styles with the greatest youth appeal. Yet even later in the decade, albums by the Monkees and Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Sound of Brass far outsold the debut albums by Big Brother and the Holding Company, Velvet Underground, Love, and Jefferson Airplane that we conventionally think of as far more redolent of the mood and preoccupations of late 1960s America.

The underlying point here is an obvious but important one: we need to be careful to acknowledge and be prepared to take seriously the sheer range of popular music that struck a chord with different audiences during the 1960s. Indeed, talking about that diversity reminds students that—sex, drugs, and rock and roll clichés aside—there was no single experience of the 1960s shared by all Americans. In a decade characterized by deep social tensions, it should not surprise us that there were important generational, racial, gender, class, regional, and ideological differences among performers and audiences, and within the entertainment industry itself.

Having carefully warned against the perils of over-generalizing about what constituted popular music in the 1960s, what follows is a breathless, highly personal, and flagrantly over-generalized stomp through some of the music I have used to illustrate and prompt classroom discussions of major issues in the history of the decade. Making no claims to comprehensiveness, and fully recognizing that any one of the twelve main selections might be ridiculed or replaced, it suggests ways in which attention to music, musicians, and the music business can help introduce students to major interconnected themes from the period, including civil rights and race relations; science and technology; the counterculture and New Left; drugs, affluence, and consumerism; the Cold War; Vietnam and the peace movement; the sexual revolution; women’s liberation; and ecological and environmental concerns.

1. Aretha Franklin, “Respect” (1967)

With good reason, the African American Civil Rights Movement is sometimes referred to as the “borning struggle” because it galvanized so many other “rights” campaigns during the 1960s. It also spawned a remarkable outpouring of powerful and enduring music: “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke; “People Get Ready” by the Impressions; “The Love You Save” by Joe Tex; “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” by James Brown, and countless freedom songs from the frontline of protest such as “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” and “We Shall Overcome” all spoke directly of the struggle for racial justice. Perhaps predictably, however, I tend to play Aretha Franklin’s version of Otis Redding’s “Respect.” In her own mind, Franklin’s performance was not a political statement but a very personal shout for domestic respect from her then husband. As such it allows students to think about the idea that “the personal is political” which was so central to 1960s social activism, particularly the women’s liberation movement. Moreover, the way in which “Respect” was embraced by the public, especially but not exclusively the black public, as expressive of a revolution in personal and collective consciousness, a call for universal respect, demonstrates how audiences interpret music and co-author its meanings in terms of their own values and needs.

2. John Coltrane, “Alabama” (1963)

The meaning, historical significance, and popularity of “Respect” emerged from a number of intersecting personal and social contexts and were shaped by the song’s empowering lyric (“R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me!”). Yet the uncompromising sound of Franklin’s towering vocal and the urgent, horn-driven production also generated a lot of the song’s power and meaning. I always think it worth taking time to discuss with students how there is much historical significance to be found in the sounds of the music itself—and for that matter in its presentation and iconography: the changes in James Brown’s hairstyles from process to Afro visually expressed important changes in black pride and race consciousness. For example, when Jimi Hendrix sonically shredded “The Star-Spangled Banner,” agonized squalls of noise that sounded much like the sounds of planes, bombs, and machine gun fire, it was hard not to hear it as a powerful anti-war statement or an indictment of American values. Equally compelling was saxophonist John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” a breathtakingly poignant instrumental elegy to the four little black girls murdered in the 1963 Birmingham 16th Avenue Baptist Church bombing, which spoke as eloquently of African American endurance and rising anger as any lyric, speech, picture, or piece of literature from the era.

3. Beach Boys, “Good Vibrations” (1966)

If instrumentals work particularly well to demonstrate the significance of sound and the formal musical characteristics of particular styles, the same principle also applies to songs that do have lyrics. I like to trace the stylistic transformation of the Beach Boys from sub–Chuck Berry rock and roll with unusually rich harmonies and an obsession with California surfing culture (“Surfin’ USA”; “I Get Around”) to the intricate symphonic pop of the Pet Sounds album and “Good Vibrations” single, with its distinctive “space-age” electro-theremin sonic hook. The 1960s was, after all, an era obsessed with gadgetry and developments in science and technology. In particular, the space program and speculation about space and time travel seized the popular imagination, shaping advertising campaigns, spawning hit television series (Star Trek), informing some of the most interesting literature (Kurt Vonnegut’s work), and penetrating popular music (“Mr. Spaceman” by the Byrds; “Mr. Glenn,” an homage to astronaut John Glenn by rhythm and bluesman Little Willie John; “2525” by Zager and Zager—the best-selling single of 1969). The Beach Boys’ musical development reflected the parallel march of technology within the recording industry. To caricature somewhat, 1960s pop began largely in mono, dominated by quite rudimentary, at most 4-track recordings designed for consumption on AM radio or modest dansette record players; it ended with stereo recordings, painstakingly built from multiple tracks for broadcast on high-fidelity FM stations, or listened to on state-of-the-art domestic solid-state hi-fis.

4. Jefferson Airplane, “White Rabbit” (1967)

The ninety hours of recording tape it took to put together “Good Vibrations” also has much to tell us, not only about technological advances and the evolving musical vision of the Beach Boys’ chief composer Brian Wilson, but also about the creative-destructive influences of drugs in the 1960s. Wilson’s drug intake may have helped him imagine and painstakingly produce some astonishing music, but it took a tremendous toll, leaving him psychologically damaged and clinically depressed for years. It certainly never hurts to remind students that chemical excess caused or contributed to the early deaths of major talents like Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison of the Doors, and Jim Hendrix—and was responsible for a lot of aimless, self-indulgent, and sometimes interminable musical noodling. Nevertheless, there is no denying that drugs, LSD and marijuana in particular, were a major factor in 1960s youth culture, particularly on campuses and among those connected to the counterculture. Moreover, drugs inspired or offered subject matter for some of the most innovative music of the era, whether showing the darker side of dependency (Velvet Underground, “Waiting for My Man” and “Heroin”; Steppenwolf, “The Pusher”) or a more giddy, beatific experience of peace, transcendence, and spiritual awakening (Byrds, “Eight Miles High”; Janis Joplin, “Mary Jane”; Steppenwolf, “Magic Carpet Ride”; Jimi Hendrix, “Purple Haze”). Jefferson Airplane’s heady “White Rabbit” offers a good point of entry for a discussion of the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene of the mid-to-late 1960s in which drugs, music, visual culture, and the pursuit of alternative lifestyles mingled.

5. The Monkees, “Pleasant Valley Sunday” (1967)  

One of the favorite targets for countercultural and New Left scorn in the 1960s was mass consumerism, which was itself a by-product of widespread abundance. Both are vital frameworks for understanding the history of the 1960s. As Michael Harrington’s 1962 exposé of American poverty, The Other America, pointed out, abundance was hardly universal: the lowest 20 percent of the population earned a mere 0.05 percent of national income and there were deep pockets of poverty in America’s rural regions and inner cities, especially among its racial and ethnic minorities. Nonetheless, for many Americans unprecedented material well being, yoked to seemingly limitless economic growth, was a hallmark of the 1960s, creating the economic and ideological climate within which the key social reforms and progressive legislation of the decade took place.

For many Americans, the suburbs were a potent symbol of this affluence. Yet for others they symbolized the spiritual and moral vacuity of contemporary America. The suburbs, where traditional nuclear-headed overwhelmingly white families with 2.4 children inhabited identikit houses, were places of soul-crushing social conformity; a land of crabgrass lawns, endless Tupperware parties, and patriarchy that reinforced conventional gender roles and made a fetish out of material progress. Countless songs addressed these themes. Malvina Reynolds’s “Little Boxes,” with its tale of interchangeable houses and people, became a sing-along staple of the folk revival, while Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine” made a similar point about the faddishness of conspicuous consumption. While the left-leaning folk revival and counterculture furnished regular critiques of this kind, the Monkees’ 1967 hit “Pleasant Valley Sunday” is arguably more revealing and rewarding as a teaching tool.

Formed by television producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider to star in a zany television show for teenagers, the Monkees are usually dismissed as exemplars of a prefabricated mass culture: shiny, bright, easily digested, yet ultimately superficial and disposable. That the band did not always play on, let alone write, their early hits (“I’m a Believer” was the best-selling single of 1966) added to this sense that they were somehow fraudulent. Yet the Monkees were never quite the musical novices of legend and quickly began to mock and then subvert their own status as a manufactured product. That shift would find full, if now almost unwatchable, fruition in their surreal-psychedelic film Head, but was already suggested in 1967’s “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” Penned by Gerry Goffin and Carole King—who as habitués of the legendary Brill Building songwriting “factory” in New York had helped to create many of the best teen-beat and girl-group hits of the early 1960s—“Pleasant Valley Sunday” anchored a deceptively jaunty guitar riff to barbed lyrical disdain for suburbia (“rows of houses that are all the same”), where outward appearances (“the weekend squire . . . just came out to mow his lawn), and relentless materialism (“a TV in every room”) served to “numb” the singer’s soul.

6. Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock” (1969)

In “Pleasant Valley Sunday” the Monkees imagine escaping the sterility of “status symbol land” to “new scenery.” This can be used to introduce students to another conspicuous aspect of the 1960s: a “back-to-the-land” trend among some hippies and members of the counterculture, eager to flee the nation’s overcrowded, polluted, and hyper-competitive cities and suburbs for a notionally more peaceful and satisfying communal life in the country. This rustic reverence intersected with broader ecological concerns and a quest for alternative technologies that were less damaging to the environment, such as those collected at the end of the decade in Stewart Brand’s popular Whole Earth Catalog. Seminal texts like Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring and important Great Society–era legislation, like the Wilderness Act of 1964 and a series of Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, both expressed and heightened awareness that mass production, consumerism, unrestricted tourism, automobile dependency, the unregulated use of dangerous pesticides to increase farming efficiency, were all damaging the environment and depleting precious, non-renewable natural resources. In this spirit Canadian folk-emigré Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” condemned greedy developers who “paved paradise and put up a parking lot” and predicted a time when people would have to pay to see trees in a tree museum.

I usually play another Mitchell song, “Woodstock,” which, with its yearning to “get ourselves back to the garden,” is a useful way to introduce students to many of these ideas and concerns. Celebrating the hundreds of thousands who attended the Woodstock festival of art and music in upstate New York in August 1969, the public highpoint of the counterculture, Mitchell sang, “I’m going to camp out on the land; I’m going to try and get my soul free.” Canned Heat’s “Going to the Country” reflected a similarly romantic view of the countryside as a place of spiritual and physical renewal, while the late 1960s/early 1970s vogue for a rootsier, country-inflected sound among white performers like the Byrds (Sweetheart of the Rodeo), the Grateful Dead (American Beauty), and the Band (Music from Big Pink) also tapped into this rural nostalgia, offering a stripped-down musical alternative to the ever more baroque sounds of psychedelic and progressive rock.

7. Bob Dylan, “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” (1963)

In “Woodstock” Joni Mitchell imagined “bombers riding shotgun in the sky . . . turning into butterflies” and the war in Vietnam—and Cold War issues more generally—cast a long and deep shadow over American life in the 1960s. Efforts to contain and rollback communist threats, real and imagined, domestic and overseas, preoccupied the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations, and thanks to the arms race, the whole decade was played out against the threat of nuclear annihilation. Meanwhile, right wing groups like the John Birch Society and the Ku Klux Klan remained convinced that Moscow’s influence could be found in most of the major progressive social movements of the day and in Lyndon Johnson’s “radical” Great Society programs. In the mid-1960s, Rev. David Noebel of the Christian Crusade used his fertile imagination and a cavalier approach to evidence and logic in order to argue that most popular music, in particular the music of Bob Dylan, was linked to communist efforts to undermine the moral fiber of American youth.

By mid-decade, Dylan was widely hailed as the most important musical voice of a generation eager to distance itself from parents and traditional authority, from conventional values, and from the kinds of politics that fueled the Cold War, the arms race, and the conflict in Vietnam. Early acoustic Dylan songs offer students a checklist of the important social and cultural issues of the day. “The Times They Are a-Changing” announced generational schisms; “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” envisioned a nuclear winter; “Masters of War” excoriated the military build-up; “A Pawn in Their Game” and “Oxford Town” attacked racial injustice. For conservatives like Noebel, however, these kinds of criticisms and the relentless challenges to traditional authority and practices, especially when they indicted America’s Cold War fight against communism, were themselves evidence of communist subversion. In “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” Dylan wittily parodied this attitude. By the end of the song, Dylan has succumbed to the paranoia that saw all signs of dissent and difference as communist inspired assaults on American values and launched an investigation of himself.

8. The Beatles, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (1964)

At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Bob Dylan famously plugged in an electric guitar and scandalized the folk community who had been his biggest fans. Thereafter, he largely abandoned acoustic protest songs for a highly influential brand of kinetic electric music, replete with a dense form of imagery that borrowed from the beat poets of the 1950s and greatly expanded rock’s lyrical and musical repertoire. In stylistic terms, Dylan’s embrace of rock was influenced by the work of other folk-revivalists like the Byrds, who had recorded captivating electric versions of songs like Dylan’s own “Mr. Tambourine Man,” having themselves been drawn to the possibilities of guitar group pop by the British beat group invasion that started with the Beatles in 1964 and continued with the Animals, Herman’s Hermits, and Hollies. In the five years between 1964 and 1968, British acts (Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Lulu) had the best-selling singles in the US every year except 1966 when the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” earned that accolade.

Throughout the decade the Beatles exerted a tremendous influence on American music, as the band moved rapidly beyond the relatively simple, if infectious pop of their early hits (“All My Loving”; “She Loves You”) to the more experimental, psychedelic innovations of the 1966 Revolver and 1967 Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band albums. They were also a major cultural and political phenomenon. Spending a little time on the US reception of the Beatles in a course on the 1960s offers students another opportunity (rather like studying the Cold War) to appreciate that American history took place in a complex dialogue with the rest of the globe.

Initially crossing the Atlantic in the wake of their first number one single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the Beatles’ debut on the nationally syndicated Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, ranks with other momentous events like the moon landing and much grimmer ones like the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy as moments seared into popular memory. In many ways, the hysteria the Beatles generated among many American youths—and the equally intense incredulity they inspired among many adults—both expressed and intensified the generational divisions that shaped much of the decade’s history. By 1965, 41 percent of the population was aged under 20 years, a demographic that shaped just about every aspect of the decade’s economic, social, cultural, and political history.

With their scandalous long hair (by the standards of the day) and cheekily irreverent attitude to their elders and the conventions of pop stardom, the Beatles seemed to embody a gesture of mild defiance toward mainstream culture—a gesture that became louder as the decade progressed and the New Left and counterculture gathered momentum. In this context, it is also worth spending some time in the classroom talking about the furor that surrounded John Lennon’s much mis-interpreted 1966 lament that the band might actually be more popular than Jesus. The episode reveals much about generational, regional, and religious matters in the mid-1960s. While complaints rained in from all parts of the country, evangelical groups and civic leaders in the South were at the forefront of protests against Lennon’s blasphemy. The bonfires, marches, and radio bans that followed were an early, if relatively unsuccessful mobilization for the coalition that would later form key components of the New Right and Moral Majority.

9. Country Joe McDonald and the Fish, “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” (1965)

By the end of the 1960s, John Lennon was recognized as one of rock’s most vocal supporters of the peace movement (“Give Peace a Chance”). As American involvement in Vietnam and neighboring states escalated throughout the decade and into the 1970s, so did the number of songs calling for peace, criticizing US policy in South East Asia, or contemplating the personal consequences of the conflict, among them the Byrd’s “Draft Morning,” J. B. Lenoir’s “Vietnam Blues,” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” and “Run through the Jungle,” Martha and the Vandellas’ “Forget Me Not,” Bread’s “This Isn't What the Governmeant,” and Neil Young’s “Ohio,” a lament for the anti-war protestors slain by the National Guard at Kent State University in 1970. From the many options, I usually ask students to listen to one of the earliest anti-Vietnam War songs: Country Joe McDonald and the Fish’s “Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag.” Issued originally in 1965 as a free record with an underground San Francisco newspaper called Rag Baby, “Fixin’ to Die” was relatively unknown until the times, which is to say the anti-war movement, caught up with McDonald’s sardonic attack on the human cost of US foreign policy (“Be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box”). The song reached a slightly larger audience as the title track of the band’s second album in 1967 and a much larger one when McDonald performed the song at Woodstock. Thereafter, it has become embedded in popular memory as a key expression of rising opposition to the war among members of the counterculture and New Left and eventually among many ordinary Americans who identified with neither of those amorphous groupings.

10. Merle Haggard, “Okie from Muskogee” (1969)

It is useful to remind students that “Fixin’ to Die” was nowhere near as well known or as commercially successful in the mid-1960s as Sgt. Barry Saddler’s patriotic “Ballad of the Green Berets”—a 1966 chart-topper that celebrated the “fearless men” of an elite US Army corps working to stem the tide of communism in Vietnam. A far more interesting meditation on conservative opinion toward the peace movement and the youth-led social upheavals of the 1960s is Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee.” This character song by one of the leading practitioners of the Bakersfield country music sound—a rough-edged alternative to the smooth sounds of Nashville country—gave voice to the anxieties and frustrations felt by many Americans about what they saw as the unpatriotic antics of draft-card-burning, dope-smoking, Godless hippies. John Sebastian’s “Younger Generation” and Bob Dylan’s “Tears of Rage” (also recorded by the Band on their first album) similarly tried to see the generational gap from the adult side.

All of these songs can be used to warn students not to exaggerate the extent to which dissent from the mainstream, whether it be expressed in new attitudes towards sex, drugs, race, gender, materialism, religion, political authority, or opposition to the war, dominated the 1960s. Young Americans for Freedom and other conservative groups, including those on the far and sometimes violent right, like the John Birchers and the Klan, were certainly as active and passionate as their counterparts in the counterculture and Students for a Democratic Society about addressing what they saw as America’s problems. In other words, neither radicals nor young people had a monopoly on the culture or politics of the 1960s, nor were they the only producers and consumers of popular music. Although they make for distasteful listening, tracks put out by the Mississippi-based Reb Rebel label testify to a sizeable market for hardcore pro-segregation music. In 1966, the label’s biggest hit, Son of Mississippi’s “Flight NAACP 105”—a tasteless racist skit about how a white Mississippi air-traffic controller misdirected a plane load of civil rights activists away from their intended destination and ultimately to their deaths—sold a quarter of a million copies.

11. Janis Joplin, “Women is Losers” (1967)

Nowhere is the tendency to exaggerate the nature, intensity, and ubiquity of change in the 1960s more apparent than in simplistic notions of a sexual revolution. For one thing, most aspects of the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s were already well underway by the 1950s, even if they were not always recognized by the mass media and were subsequently buried beneath an avalanche of nostalgia for a 1950s, widely and misleadingly re-imagined as a time of universal pre-marital chastity, post-marital fidelity, and heterosexual conformity. The Kinsey Reports on sexuality showed a wide range of sexual practices and predilections among American men and women, while the 1950s actually witnessed the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in American history, many to unwed mothers who contributed to an 80 percent rise in the number of out-of-wedlock infants placed for adoption in the period 1944–1955.

Of course, some things did change in terms of gender and sexuality in the 1960s. The widespread availability of the oral contraceptive pill certainly allowed for much greater sexual freedom for some women, particularly the young and those connected to either campuses or the counterculture. It is well worth asking students to listen to—or better still watch clips of—the be-wigged, satin-dressed female singers from the early 1960s as they devoted themselves to their one true loves, and then fast-forward to the sounds and images of female stars from the later 1960s and early 1970s: it is like taking a crash course in the growth of feminist consciousness and new attitudes towards public displays of female sexuality. From the first half of the decade, the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” or Lesley Gore’s “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” capture the almost reverential tone many female singers displayed toward men. Although one can find rather more assertive female voices in the Velvelettes’ waspish “Needle in a Haystack” and the Marvellettes’ “Too Many Fish in the Sea,” I tend to play “Stop! In the Name of Love”—one of twelve chart-topping singles by the Motown sister act the Supremes. Not only is it a terrific example of the classic Motown sound that was so popular among various demographic groups, but the beseeching lyrics, as the woman begs for her cheating man to come back to her and make her life complete, captures the dominant mood of the female pop and soul songs from the early 1960s.

By contrast, songs from later in the 1960s, such as country star Loretta Lynn’s “One’s on the Way” and later “The Pill,” Laura Lee’s soulful “Wedlock is a Padlock” and “Women’s Love Rights,” and Janis Joplin’s progressive rock-blues “Try [Just a Little Bit Harder]” and “Get It While You Can” are useful evocations of a new female assertiveness and frankness in sexual matters. Perhaps perversely, however, I tend to use Joplin’s “Women Is Losers.” With its punning lament that “Men always seem to end up on top” the song reminds students that for many women the much vaunted erotic liberation of the sexual revolution was something they experienced mainly via the news media and popular culture, while patterns of sexism and discrimination against women continued relatively unchecked. The triumph of Playboy magazine and the relaxation of film censorship codes may have indicated a new openness about sex, but they often perpetuated a cult of relentlessly heterosexual male voyeurism and reinforced old double-standards that treated male and female sexual experimentation very differently. Moreover, traditional gender roles, with men as principle breadwinners and women primarily as housekeepers and mothers, continued to be the norm for many American families. Despite an Equal Pay Act in 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, women were generally paid less than men for the same work, had fewer job and training options, and often encountered prejudice and obstruction when it came to career progression. Joplin’s song, like the whole notion of a “sexual revolution,” invites students to think seriously about how much really changed in the 1960s and for which Americans; it also encourages them to distinguish between fleeting, superficial changes that captured contemporary and subsequent media attention and lasting, substantial transformations in American political, social, and cultural history during that decade.

Bonus Track: The Lovin’ Spoonful, “Do You Believe in Magic” (1965)

Having chosen several tracks that invite students to question some of the myths and legends that have gathered around the 1960s, my final bonus selection resurrects just a little bit of the romantic allure of the era. Set by John Sebastian to an irresistibly catchy riff that was plundered, in part, from Martha and the Vandellas’ Motown classic “(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave”—itself indicative of the play of musical influences across racial lines in the 1960s (see also, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ beat group-influenced “Tears of a Clown”)—“Do You Believe in Magic” evoked a world in which some people really did believe music might set them free. If such sentiments seem hopelessly naïve they can be used to remind students that, for all the legitimate criticisms of the decade’s myopia and naïveté, failures, and excesses, and the curious mix of sentimental hyperbole and savage vilification that surround its place in American popular memory, the 1960s really were, to borrow from the title of a book by historian David Farber, “The Age of Great Dreams.”

Additional Resources

  • Alan Betrock, Girl Groups: The Story of a Sound (Omnibus, 1983).
  • Nick Bromwell, Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s (University of Chicago Press, 2002).
  • David Farber, The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s (Hill & Wang, 1994).
  • Jonathan Gould, Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain and America (Piatkus, 2008).
  • David Hajdu, Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux: 2001).
  • Peter Guralnick, Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom (HarperPerennial, 1986).
  • Mike Marqusee, Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s (Seven Stories, 2005).
  • Scott Saul, Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the 1960s (Harvard, 2004).
  • Suzanne Smith, Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (Harvard, 2001).
  • Richie Unterberger, Turn! Turn! Turn!: The 60s Folk-Rock Revolution (Backbeat, 2002).
  • Brian Ward, Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness and Race Relations (University of California Press, 1998).
  • Craig Werner, A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America (G. P. Putnam, 2000).

Brian Ward is a professor in American Studies at Northumbria University, UK. His major publications include Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness and Race Relations (1998), Radio and the Struggle for Civil Rights in the South (2004), and The 1960s: A Documentary Reader (2009). He is currently working on a book about the relationships between the American South and the world of British popular music.

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History


Already have an account?

Please click here to login and access this page.

How to subscribe

Click here to get a free subscription if you are a K-12 educator or student, and here for more information on the Affiliate School Program, which provides even more benefits.

Otherwise, click here for information on a paid subscription for those who are not K-12 educators or students.

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History


Become an Affiliate School to have free access to the Gilder Lehrman site and all its features.

Click here to start your Affiliate School application today! You will have free access while your application is being processed.

Individual K-12 educators and students can also get a free subscription to the site by making a site account with a school-affiliated email address. Click here to do so now!

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History


Why Gilder Lehrman?

Your subscription grants you access to archives of rare historical documents, lectures by top historians, and a wealth of original historical material, while also helping to support history education in schools nationwide. Click here to see the kinds of historical resources to which you'll have access and here to read more about the Institute's educational programs.

Individual subscription: $25

Click here to sign up for an individual subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History


Upgrade your Account

We're sorry, but it looks as though you do not have access to the full Gilder Lehrman site.

All K-12 educators receive free subscriptions to the Gilder Lehrman site, and our Affiliate School members gain even more benefits!

How to Subscribe

K-12 educator or student? Click here to edit your profile and indicate this, giving you free access, and here for more information on the Affiliate School Program.

Not a educator or student? Click here for more information on purchasing a subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.

Add comment

Login or register to post comments