The 1960’s were a turbulent time in American history. The United States had experienced new prosperity in the 1950s, after World War II, with a booming economy and the emergence of suburbia. However, with the Cold War and the possibility of nuclear war hanging over our heads, our increasing involvement in the Vietnam War, and young peoples’ search for personal fulfillment as opposed to materialistic gains, things were about to change.
One of the biggest cultural changes occurred with people, mostly younger college-aged students, protesting the United States’ participation in the Vietnam War. The peace movement began slowly in the late 1950’s but gained real traction starting in 1965 with the formation of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) (Wells). The counter-culture movement, with leaders like Timothy Leary, best known for his catchphrase, “Challenge Authority,” became prominent and vocal against the war (Cold War).
Whereas in the past, the United States as a whole had a more patriotic attitude towards supporting the government, this counter-culture emergence led to more vocal outrage and protests towards what many viewed as a war we had no business getting involved in. The public disdain for the war and its financial cost, along with its cost of young lives, led to popular music reflecting society’s scorn.
Many artists of the time, such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, John Lennon, Merle Haggard, Barry McGuire, Edwin Starr, and Country Joe McDonald are well known for their anti-war sentiments and songs against the war. Bob Dylan’s most famous anti-war song is “Master of War,” in which he actually wishes death upon those responsible for the war. Lennon’s most famous song against the war is “Give Peace a Chance,” which later became an anthem for those striving for peace (Vietnam War).
Edwin Starr’s famous lyrics in his song, “War,” ask us what war is good for. His response of “absolutely nothing” struck to the heart of many anti-war protesters. Country Joe McDonald’s, “Feels Like I’m Fixing to Die” is a more cynical, mocking commentary on the war, with its “What are we fighting for…I don’t give a damn” lyrics (Vietnam War). Barry McGuire, in his song, “Eve of Destruction,” warns us against the possibility of nuclear war and our population being decimated (White).
Although a number of people today might not even recognize the names of some of these artists, other than Lennon and Dylan, they were well-known and popular during this particular era in our history. One can still locate their music on youtube.com. Sometimes their music is played on classic rock stations, relegated to some insignificant moment in our past.
However, their music had a strong influence on our country. Their songs became a mantra for a generation that wanted to change society, and the world. The counter-culture led to many people having the courage to stand up for what they believed, and to voice the dissatisfaction they felt. Their frustration and discontent led to these artists being their voice and thus, helped make these changes possible.
The Cold War Museum. Timothy Leary and psychedelic drugs in the 60’s. Retrieved from: http://www.coldwar.org/articles/60s/timothyleary60s.asp
The Vietnam War. Anti-War and Pro-War Songs about Vietnam. Retrieved from: http://thevietnamwar.info/anti-war-pro-war-songs-vietnam/
Wells, T. (1999). The Anti-War movement in the United States. Oxford UP: The Oxford Companion to American Military History. Retrieved from: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/vietnam/antiwar.html
White, D. Anti-war protest songs of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Retrieved from: http://classicrock.about.com/od/toppickslists/tp/Anti-War-Protest-Songs-Of-The-60s-And-70s.htm