“Look what’s happening out in the streets!” What better line to epitomize the feeling of the Americans throughout the chaos and turmoil of one of the most memorable decades in United States history, than this quote in the Jefferson Airplane song “Volunteers?” The people of the time were utterly awestricken by the horrors they were being forced to endure, and they decided they would do the best they could to publicize their total disgust for the United States’ approach to its people. The 1960’s was a decade to remember, a decade that drastically changed the lifestyles of so many people in the Western World. Not only were the people’s lifestyles changing, but their country and government were undergoing various drastic and permanent transformations. Politics, ways of living, and beliefs were among the most prominent elements of change in the United States. At the beginning of the decade, the country grasped an optimistic attitude toward the future. The gradual improvement in relations between the U.S.A. and Russia made it seem that a nuclear war might yet be avoided. It looked like the country may actually prosper after the ever-so-powerful blow from World War II.
During this time of optimism, a “youth revolution” took place in dress, music, and values, and as a result, accepted ideas about sex, politics and religion were challenged. While at some points they tried to stray away from all the politics, many of these young people took lead roles in a great deal of the political unrest that swept over much of the world. This political unrest often ended in violence, which was a growing and disturbing feature of the 60’s. Another social aspect that coincides with the 60’s is the many civil rights movements and protests. By 1960, many people hoped and prayed for the equality of races in America, but still, as 1960 began, Jim Crow remained the law of the land. As a result of utter frustration, groups like the Freedom Riders and the Black Panthers along with leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X decided to step out in society and defend what they knew was right.
During that “youth revolution,” many other changes were brought about, including the change from the happy and colorful “swinging” aspect of the early 60’s to the new mood of the hippies in the later 60’s. These hippies rejected society’s values and believed in “dropping out” and refusing to take part in the “rat race” for jobs and money. This group of youths referred to as hippies developed a whole new “counter-culture,” which included a minority of the “fake” hippies who merely saw the “counter-culture” as a fashion rather than something they believed in deeply.
The group of hippies proclaimed itself an “alternative society,” and favored very simple and communal living which included free experimentation with drugs, free experimentation of sex, and a strong commitment to “peace and love.” These political and social changes such as the civil rights movements and the new “counter-culture” had lasting effects on one specific element of the decade: rock and roll music. Rock and roll musicians were not much different from any other Americans in that they were forced to go through the same hardships as the rest of the people, such as racial discrimination and unjust government, or Establishment.
The main difference is that many of the “other people” (the people of everyday society) did not have the same opportunity to express their feelings with the world. The frustration with racism and prejudice was blatantly obvious in many acts due to the genre’s increasing aggression and hostility. Also, the country’s cry for peace and love was exemplified no better than by rock musicians on stage. In their search for something different, the youth and rock musicians attempted to find a path leading them away from their problems and the country’s problems. When the “counter-culture” was first introduced to the public of America, the older generations and the “Establishment” thought it was the worst possible thing that could happen to the country. But, in persevering through the hard times during the many civil rights movements and the tolerance of the “counter-culture,” rock and roll was able to prove to the country that it could and would have a positive and lasting effect the world of music.
New political and social developments and disputes started to rise up all around the country, and the public began to take shape around the new ways and attitudes. One element of society which blatantly responded to the actions of fellow Americans and the Establishment was the rock and roll music. The Establishment’s failure to comply with obvious needs for discriminated people.
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in rage all the time.” This is what James Baldwin had to say about the harsh sentiments and powerful echoes among the African American lifestyle in America in 1961. The fifties had seen so much progress in the struggle for equality in races with Supreme Court involvement and various Negro boycotts, but Jim Crow still prevailed as the law of the land in the early 60’s. Although the Supreme Court had passed multiple laws to limit discrimination, like integration in schools, the white community showed massive resistance to these laws, continuing to enforce Jim Crow. The Negro community’s immense frustration in the whites ignoring the laws resulted in countless episodes of African Americans’ fight for what they deserved. One notorious action that four black college freshmen committed in Greensboro, North Carolina was entering a Woolworth’s five-and-dime store, neatly dressed and polite, sitting at the whites-only lunch counter, and ordering coffee. Upon ordering their coffee, the four men were refused any service, and they remained in their seats for the remainder of the day, until the store closed.
The men were infuriated by the utter disrespect given to them for the sole reason that their skin was a little darker than the white people were. That was February 1, and the next day, the students returned with 20 companion, then again for the third day in a row with more than 60 African Americans who were fed up with the discrimination. The students’ courage and will power made the news, which encouraged students all around the country-even some whites-to sit in the wrong section of the store, to the point that two months after that initial “sit-in,” the trend had spread to 54 cities in nine states. These actions greatly affected many opinions about the segregation in stores, and after only a few months, lunch counters in San Antonio, Texas, Nashville, Tennessee, and Greensboro, North Carolina were all integrated. These actions did have a large impact on the progress of the Negro’s stepping up to racism, but they also had a huge impact on music.
Folk music found a topical voice as the civil rights movements grew, and the controversy in Greensboro, along with many similar activists’ responses to inequity were direct events leading to the electrification of the folk scene. Folk music was the lighter, slower style of rock and roll in the early 60’s, and the “folkniks,” folk musicians, had developed a fundamental belief that honest songs had the power to cut through commercialism, hypocrisy, injustice, inequality, war, and man’s inhumanity to man.
These aspects of folk music made it the ideal type of rock and roll to cry out against discrimination of Negroes. Folkniks had always sung songs of freedom and justice, but the many different events concerning civil rights gave them a specific and urgent issue that directly changed their emotions towards the music, as well as the meaning of the music. The songs prior to the civil rights movements consisted of lyrics pertaining to America’s grass roots glories and old slave songs, but the reality of the present horrors in their society successfully eliminated the illusory air of slave songs and spirituals. At that point, they felt they needed to sing about their immediate concerns.
Because many folkniks were white musicians with immense sympathy and love for the African American culture, numerous voyages were organized in which the northern musicians traveled to the “Deep South” in an attempt to have the opportunity to fully identify with the blacks during such harsh times. The folkniks integration with the Negro community in the South brought about a heavy spiritual bond between the civil rights crusaders and the folkniks. In a sense, the movement leaders teamed up with the folkniks, resulting in the injustice’s criticism from more than just one source. Joan Baez and Robert Allan Zimmerman, or Bob Dylan as the world knew him, were the first of the folk musicians to fuse rock’s electric sound with the social and political content, starting an entirely new feeling and sound of rock and roll.
Many people say Bob Dylan was the most influential American rock musician of the sixties. The music Dylan made in the mid-60’s revolutionized rock and roll by transposing the corruption of the country’s society into his music, making room for a new and different sound. Although Dylan and Baez were the pioneers in the establishment and rise of the popularity of folk music, it was Joan Baez who really blended civil rights and rock and roll together to display it to the entire country. Baez wanted to show the country how the musicians felt about the mistreatment of blacks, and that they intended to do something about it. On August 28, 1963, Joan Baez led over two hundred thousand people in Washington, D.C. in singing “We Shall Overcome.” This single action by Joan Baez showed the country that the folkniks did, in fact, care about what was happening in their country. In reflecting on this day (which was the day of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech), Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. stated that this “song [was] the soul of [the] civil rights movement.”
Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were very prominent civil rights leaders in 1960’s. King’s initial collaboration with Joan Baez made a huge impact on civil rights and rock and roll. He was one of the many Negroes who was not afraid to stand up to the country and relay to them what he believed. Through his passive actions as a charismatic leader, King took a step forward in society and inspired hope and resolution to the disheartened African American culture. While King took the more peaceful approach to the civil rights movement, Malcolm X took a more aggressive stance.
In a group of angry African Americans in the United States, Malcolm X called himself the angriest. Malcolm’s childhood marked the beginning of his anger due to his father’s death he believed to have been a white supremacist action, and his mother’s complete insanity. Malcolm believed in radical racial separatism, but he stated that his sole reasoning for wanting to be separate from the whites was because of their cruel and dishonorable treatment of African Americans. Other than the fact that they brutalized his people, Malcolm had no hard feeling towards whites, but he said if they were going to be violent, he was going to be violent.
Although Malcolm X and King had two very different opinions about what should become of the relations between whites and blacks, they each wanted the same thing: equality. They each wanted black people to have the same rights to the same things white had rights to. Their frustration with the American community and their ability to hypnotize their followers made Malcolm and King very prominent leaders of the civil rights movements, implementing great change in the music of the time. As previously stated, King’s more peaceful approach to the problems of discrimination were a huge influence on the folk aspect of rock and roll in allowing the folkniks to sing about peace and injustice, but Malcolm X’s approach to the injustice brought about a more aggressive element to rock.
Although many of the bands that ventured to the United States during the “British Invasion” were not personally affected by the actual racism, their style of music from the time they traveled to America until they became an extremely large aspect of American entertainment, was drastically altered from the happier, more “swinging” sound, to a harder pumping, more aggressive sound. The racism in the country did not affect the attitudes of bands like the Beatles, the Animals, the Rolling Stones, and The Who, but the racism affected the people these bands wanted to entertain and impress.
When people are upset about something, the easiest way to let out the steam can be to get involved in violent or aggressive activity like a loud and edgy sounding concert. One of the best bands to put on a performance that would get your anger pumping was The Who. They established their reputation in America with their explosive live performances. Many people called The Who a regular wrecking crew due to the lead singer, Roger Daltrey’s, twirling his microphone above his head, and guitarist, Pete Townshend’s, hard, rhythmic solos, while at the end of the show Townshend and drummer Keith Moon smashed their instruments to pieces. The foreign musicians easily saw the anger in the United States due to the injustice in racial equality, and they were able to transform the sound of rock and roll into a more appealing sound for the circumstances. This new sound would prove to be a giant step in the history of rock and roll music, opening doors to an entire new array of sounds.
The youth of America thought these new, hard-rocking sounds that developed out of the overbearing essence of anger were a very positive addition to rock and roll. The rough edge to the music was just what the people needed in order to feel that they were not the only ones going through the times of such hardship and sadness. The older generations of 60’s people were completely appalled by the rebellious and risqu attitude of the new wave of rock music. The teenage girls wanted to wear dresses and skirts that were above their knees, and the dry cleaners would charge the cleaning of dresses and skirts by inch.
The older generation’s utter disapproval and disgust of the new way of music was to be expected, because rock and roll was changing, and change is what people fear most. The people who enjoyed the music before it started to change did not want a different type of music to overcome what they like. People are scared of what is different because they are not initially comfortable with the situation; they are too closed-minded to merely inch away from their comfort zones and try something new. The closed-minded view of the older generations caused parents and the Establishment to become very upset with the style and culture influences on the youth by bands like the Beatles, Ten Years After, The Yardbirds, and The Who. If they had known what was coming, they never would have started to complain about the early 60’s.
The depressed and aggressive mood of the musicians of the early 60’s along with the fun and free attitude of the “swinging” British bands was heavily dampened by the introduction of the counter-culture. Fueled primarily by psychedelic drugs, rock music, and heady optimism, hippies, as they were popularly known, developed a counter-cultural party that swept across America with hundreds of thousands of young people who had begun to question the values of the Establishment. Rather than troubling themselves with political and social orthodoxy, they turned on to attitudes like peace, love, and personal freedom.
The epicenter of the counter-culture movement started in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, in a neighborhood know as Haight-Asbury. One may ask “Why San Francisco?”. The answer is publicity. One of the most famous music magazines at the time was Rolling Stone, a San Francisco-based magazine with all the latest news on the most popular artists of the time. The popular “psychedelic” bands of San Francisco and the popularity of magazines like Rolling Stone are the direct effects of what brought the youth to San Francisco. Another appealing aspect of the Haight-Asbury district was that it was a hassle-free place to buy acid, live cheaply, and search for the sorts of values they couldn’t find at home. The Gray Line tour bus that traveled through Haight-Asbury district in 1967 described it as follows:
You are now entering the largest hippie colony in the world and the
very heart and fountainhead of the hippie subculture. You are passing
through the Bearded Curtain. Marijuana is a household staple here,
enjoyed by the natives to stimulate their senses. Among the favorite pastimes
of the hippies, besides taking drugs, are parading and demonstrating; seminars
and group discussions about what’s wrong with the status quo; malingering;
plus the ever present preoccupation with the soul, reality, and self-expression,
such as strumming guitars, piping flutes, and banging on bongos.
The inhabitants of Haight-Asbury were very happy people, reflecting the spirit of freedom and experimentation that had spread across the entire country. The counter-culture’s unique style of rock and roll was know as psychedelic rock, and was a direct representation of the spirit of freedom, Psychedelic rock, also known as “acid rock,” was primarily influenced by drugs, with the intent to musically re-create the “trips” induced by mind-expanding drugs. The people smiled and danced and got high and loved everybody.
It seemed like everybody was just so happyor was that just the drugs? This new rock and roll style that was influenced primarily by drug use developed some of the most significant rock and roll acts in the history of rock. Bands like Jefferson Airplane, the Moody Blues, Status Quo, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Pink Floyd, and the Grateful Dead all rose out of the psychedelic rock scene acting as dominant additions to the rock and roll generation, conveying the mellowness, bright hallucinations, and occasionally dark and disturbing side effects of marijuana, LSD, and other drugs.
The two most prominent and influential bands of the psychedelic movement were the San Francisco-based Grateful Dead, and Britain’s Pink Floyd. Pink Floyd started out as a blues band, but they took that sound, and transformed it into a sound nobody had ever heard before. They used overly amplified electric guitars to produce an endless array of roaring feedback, as well as a variety of other bizarre electronic effects, which became the band’s new experimental sound.
While Pink Floyd was influencing rock and roll from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the Grateful Dead was turning out to be the most enduring band to come out of the late 60’s. Led by Jerry Garcia, the Dead, more than any band embodied the free, experimental spirit of the counter-culture movement. Although their albums were very popular among the hippies, they were never able to capture the excitement of their live performances in the studio. The Dead was re-known for their instrumental jams, which made up the performances, lasting up to four hours. A great deal of hippies followed the Grateful Dead around the country on their entire tour, calling themselves deadheads, and attending every show on the tour.
One of the most famous elements of the counter-culture movement was the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. Woodstock, as it is called, was held in Bethel, New York, August 15 through 17. Among the huge number of bands to play were Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, the Who, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, the Jefferson Airplane, Ravi Shankar, Santana, and Country Joe and the Fish. This immense counter-culture rock festival was an accident waiting to happen. At the start of the planning, the towns of Woodstock and Wallkill, New York denied the organizers any permission to stage in their town. At the denial, a farmer named Max Yasgur loaned his land for the festival. Almost 400,00 people showed up and were admitted to the show without pay, due to the lack of security and low number of tickets sold. In the end, no catastrophes occurred at Woodstock, but the organizers went bankrupt from the lack of ticket sales.
Woodstock would turn out to be the last and happiest affirmation of the counter-culture spirit, which was dissolving in the face of media attention, public hostility, political violence, and an epidemic of hard drugs. Maybe the reason people remember the muddy, wet, and sleepless experience-Woodstock-with such zest is because it was the last stab of a culture that appeared so happy. Whatever the reason, the era of psychedelic rock and the counter-culture proved to have one of the most influential, lasting, and positive impacts on the sound and attitude of rock and roll music as a whole.