The sixties will be remembered as the Age of the Great Rejection. Racism, militarism, Big Brotherism, censorship, commercialism, sexism, organization, inhibition, liberalism, conservatism, Mr. Chipsism, poverty, pollution, bureaucracy, reason, progress, deliberation, efficiency, domestic tranquility (the indictment read in the fifties by Paul Goodman and Herbert Marcuse)—even the virtues that are really virtues, like consideration and patience and humility—the sixties exploded Western civilization, clearing the way for pioneers and exploration. This wholesale negation, this angry no, was much misunderstood by America’s elders and by establishment apologists, who took it to be simple nihilism. It was exactly the opposite. First, it represented a great opening of the mind and spirit, a rejection of stultifying conventions and a demand for meaningful choices. Second, the angry no grew directly out of a fervent affirmation of American ideals. As sixties people saw it, the real negativism, the real leveling, the real sellout was to be found in the America they had known as adolescents: a betrayal of the ideals of freedom, justice and equality as articulated in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and Memorial Day speeches. Whatever Spiro Agnew might have said at the close of the decade about “nabobs of negativism,” sixties people saw in him—as in Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Billy Graham, Lawrence Welk, Bob Hope, Clark Kerr, Robert McNamara, many of their teachers, most of their entertainers, and all businessmen, politicians, and generals—the real denial of American tradition. Their elders’ easy accommodation to injustice, corruption, and patent lunacy maddened children of the sixties, whose no was a no to a no: a yes. It is in this context of denial as affirmation that the decade must be viewed. Only by grasping this yes in the no can the high moral seriousness of sixties protest be understood.
(“This is a land full of Power and Glory,” celebrated Phil Ochs in what he once called “the greatest song I’ll ever write.” This was the same Phil Ochs who, in “The War Is Over,” suggested, “Just before the end even treason might be worth a try.” Ochs contained a lot of Guthrie.)
For in one corner of their schizophrenic souls, children of the sixties took themselves and others very seriously. They all believed in things like ethics, equality, and justice—everything they’d been taught in eighth-grade civics class and seen in Frank Capra movies. They expected, especially in America, everybody to get a fair deal. And they could see that nobody was getting a fair deal. You can always recognize a bad check by the way it bounces, a phony politician by the hollow sound when you knock on his head, a rotting corpse in Mississippi or Indochina by the evil odor that seeps out from under the locked closet door.
Moreover, thanks largely to sputnik and the Protestant temper of the fifties, they were a very motivated bunch of kids who felt personally guilty and individually responsible for the gap between reality and possibility. If their neighbor was unloved, it was up to them to love him. If people were being killed—and there are in the twentieth century so many ways to kill a man—it was their responsibility to save them. If the system was a fraud, it was up to them to fix it. And by action more direct and more effective than mere voting and letter writing, immediately.
What is the price-current of an honest man and patriot to-day? They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret. At most, they give only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and God-speed, to the right, as it goes by them. . . . Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. . . . Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.
—Henry David Thoreau on liberals in “Civil Disobedience”
A less aware or educated generation or one distracted by a war or a depression might have ignored the injustices and irritations that so troubled the sleep of sixties children. It would have slumbered blissfully and ignorantly and quite comfortably. A more cynical generation would have been less obsessed, less righteously angry. It could maybe have laughed or shrugged its shoulders. A less motivated generation would have despaired and retreated to the safety of distances.
Undistracted, innocent, and responsible, children of the sixties brashly attacked injustice, irritation, and idiocy head on. The undertaking was, though quixotic and naive, supremely heroic.
And it was massive.
Between September 16 and October 15, 1968—one month of one year of the decade—over two hundred separate incidents of protest were reported in the New York Times and the Washington Post. How many hundreds, how many thousands of marches, rallies, and demonstrations in Carbondale, Illinois, or Wapakoneta, Ohio, or Tallahassee, Florida, escaped the media (and thereby the consciousness of the nation)? How many American boys, convinced they could not participate in an immoral and stupid war, slipped quietly across the Canadian border that month? How many hundreds of thousands of friends and family were lost because of the rigid moral stands young Americans took?
“If you decide to burn your draft card then burn your birth certificate at the same time. From that moment I have no son.”
—Victor Lundberg, “An Open Letter to My Teenage Son”
Moral and ethical considerations weighed heavily on all Americans during the sixties. It was a time when you could not, in good conscience, carry a card that assimilated you, however peripherally, into the U.S. Army; when you would refuse to buy fruit sold by exploitive California growers or plastic wrap manufactured by the makers of napalm; when you gave more than your cheap vote and a feeble countenance and Godspeed to the right, lest it pass you by. When protest was a condition of daily life. When people sat in, marched, seized and occupied almost as casually as they rolled joints or turned on their favorite FM station. And if protest meant going down, then that was okay because you were going down in a good cause and that was the kind of commitment you were making.
Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-failin’,
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest,
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty,
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden,
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,
Where black is the color, where none is the number,
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls call see it,
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard,
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.
—Bob Dylan, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” 1963
Public dissent took many forms during the sixties. Each act was as much a reflection of individual circumstance as of personal philosophy. In the summer of 1961, Freedom Riders protested segregation in southern bus terminals by the simple act of taking a bus ride. In 1963, Martin Luther King registered a very moving protest by delivering a speech to fifteen U.S. senators and two hundred thousand other folk gathered before the Lincoln Memorial. In May 1965, Columbia University students registered their protest against militarism by throwing lemon meringue pies, during the NROTC officer awards ceremony. In August 1965, blacks in Watts ghetto protested racism by setting Los Angeles ablaze. In 1968 the Poor People’s Campaign protested poverty by constructing Resurrection City of plywood shacks in Washington and moving in for the spring. At Amherst College, students protested by smashing dining hall dinner plates that depicted Lord Amherst killing an Indian. Cassius Clay protested by refusing induction into the army, thereby losing the best three years of his fighting career and becoming a myth to millions of young people. At the 1968 Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medals around their necks, protested American racism with black gloves and clenched fists raised high. Late in the decade it was customary to protest the war in Vietnam with a general strike on Moratorium Day. Faculties and students studied the war; the the names of war dead were read in public ceremonies, hurled against the White House and the vastnesses of America; and speeches by the thousands reminded everybody that still a hard rain was falling.
Amid the chaos of causes, organizations, and styles, it is possible to distinguish four strains of sixties rejection, each with characteristic music: the nonviolent protest of the pacifists; the violent protest of the radicals and the anarchists; the holy goofs, who parodied corruption and injustice in weird carnival nightmares; and the artists, who moved on from attacking the topical and the specific to challenging the human condition. In the popular imagination and with much help from the news media, these strains tended to be associated with individuals like Martin Luther King, Jr., Tom Hayden, Malcolm X, Ken Kesey, and Abbie Hoffman. But the archetypes were probably not as pure as they were drawn, and most people of the sixties resonated to anything that moved—which was all four.
The nonviolent approach that characterized Ban the Bomb marches, early stages of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, and almost all environmental protest was borne of Gandhi’s nonviolent civil disobedience—orthodox Christianity, with a pinch of Tolstoy and a dash of Thoreau. It sought to confront injustice directly, but it was assiduously nonviolent. In many cases it acted by not acting, by simply refusing to become an accomplice to the crime, or by behaving as if discrimination, trespassing laws, and organized power structures simply did not exist. It accepted its role as victim and applied, to reverse the cliché, the subminimal force necessary to get a job done.
It lost. It marched in the teeth of dogs and the barrels of guns with flowers and smiles. When beaten, it went limp, got hauled off to court, and then chose jail over bond or fine, thereby making itself an embarrassment to injustice. It expected to lose battles in order to win the war. And it lost plenty of battles.
You may choose to face physical assault without protecting yourself, hands at the sides, unclenched; or you may choose to protect yourself making plain you do not intend to hit back. If you choose to protect yourself, you practice positions such as these: To protect the skull, fold hands over the head. To prevent disfigurement of the face, bring the elbows together in front of the eyes. For girls, to prevent internal injury from kicks, lie on the side and bring the knees upward to the chin; for boys, kneel down and arch over with skull and face protected.
Orangeburg, South Carolina, 1960
This type of protest continues in “No Nukes” and “Save the Whale/Seal,” identified by its peaceful and orderly demonstrations, usually with proper permits and along predetermined routes (often with police escorts), by its polite but firm refusal to comply, and by its assumption that ends are inseparable from means (as the popular slogan went, killing for peace is like fucking for virginity). The nonviolent protester assumes that laws and institutions grow directly out of prejudices and that once you change hearts and minds by pointing out injustices again and again, institutions will take care of themselves. But you take your time, and always you turn the other cheek. As much as you hope for change, you accept the fruits of your protest as inevitable, if unjust: privation, pain, jail, even death. They are the necessary costs of changing society, ‘of living the moral life. The cost of freedom, as Stephen Stills observed retrospectively in 1972, lies buried in the ground. (Besides, television and the other news media may record your death and spread the record of your suffering all across the country, and you just might discover—as so often was the case in the sixties—that you win by losing.)
popular archetype: Martin Luther King and the NAACP
moment: Birmingham, Alabama, May 1963, and the high point of non-violent civil rights protest. Police Chief Bull Connor meets five hundred black children with high-powered fire hoses. Then police wade in with clubs and German Shepherds, arrest all the kids, and pack them off in school buses become paddy wagons. The world looks on dumbfounded at a spectacle that, Wayne Morse tells the Senate, would disgrace the Union of South Africa.
slogan: “We Shall Overcome” (someday)
song: Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”
Musically as well as sociologically, nonviolent protest predominated throughout the sixties, especially early in the decade, when the folk music revival brought both the acoustic guitar and sharp public protest out of Greenwich Village coffeehouses and onto college campuses across America. The decade’s most poignant protests were almost all folk-based songs.
Hints of the folk rebellion to come reached America in the hits of the Highwaymen (“Cotton Fields,” 1962), Brook Benton (“Boll Weevil Song,” 1961), Sam Cooke (“That’s the sound of the men workin’ on the chain gang,” 1960), the Kingston Trio, and the Brothers Four. Other indications of what was going on down underground could be found in media coverage of civil rights or ban the Bomb activity or—on the west coast—of anti- HUAC demonstrations:
A friend of mine telephoned me about three weeks ago, it was the day after we read in our newspapers up here what was going on in Birmingham with the dogs, and he said, “Pete, you have to see it to believe it. They have a little dance down there, I don’t even know the name of it (I found out since it’s called the wooble), but they do a song with it, they start with a twist and then a step back and then a step forward and a hesitation somewhere, but they all sing, “I ain’t afraid of your jail because I want my freedom, I want my freedom, I want my freedom; I ain’t afraid of your jail because I want my freedom, I want my freedom now.”
He says you have to see it, though, to see how it works. There’s the Reverend King giving them a lecture in church, he says, “This is to be a silent demonstration today, no songs, no slogans, and if any obscenities are shouted at you from the sidelines, you don’t reply to them. You keep right along the line of march . . . until you are arrested. Then the singing can begin.” So they all file out of church, just as solemn as deacons and quiet as mice, down the street, a couple hundred of them. Along comes a policeman, “You’re all under arrest. . . .” “I ain’t afraid of your jail, because I want my freedom.”
—Pete Seeger, recounting the scene in Birmingham, Alabama, May 1963
Many of the songs of protest that filled civil rights rallies in 1961 and 1962 were spirituals a century old; many of the folk songs that filled Village coffeehouses were protests against men and events buried long before. At first the folk flowering represented a reaching back to the tradition of hand-crafted American music and thirties and forties radicalism. The hip owned a tall stack of Weavers records, and Vanguard Records was truly hip because they recorded the Weavers (and Joan Baez). The image of Woody Guthrie loomed large in the minds of men.
As did the old stories spun by Guthrie and Seeger and Aunt Molly Jackson, stories of Joe Hill and Casey Jones and Pretty Boy Floyd, the battle between striking Colorado miners and Rockefeller scabs at Ludlow in 1914. And the genuine folk songs, protests against work and bosses and hard times, like “Drill, Ye Tarriers” and “All My Trials” and “The House of the Rising Sun.” Songs of the dust bowl and the depression and even old war songs (well, actually a Woody Guthrie song about the war) like “The Sinking of the Reuben James,” with its pointed remark that the worst of men must fight and the best of men must die. The folk scene in 1960 was dominated by the past: the collections of Alan Lomax and Harry Smith and other pioneers, the songs of Guthrie, Seeger, the scattered Weavers, traditional folk material of all countries and races. In fact, folk purists made a point out of tradition: a real folk song cannot have a known author.
This argument, of course, is foolishness. What was significant was that protest singers of the early sixties were grounding themselves musically and sociologically in the past: in Gandhi and Thoreau and Tolstoy and Guthrie and Joe Hill and the IWW.
And sixties protest was learning from the past. While Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, the Chad Mitchell and Kingston trios, even Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan were reviving, impersonating the past, many of them were learning from their elders techniques that would allow them to make new songs of their own. They were learning how to take an old song, change a few words, and turn—for example—a fairly stiff, white, European hymn “I Will Overcome” into a relatively loose, black, American hymn, which could with minimal alteration be turned into a powerful civil rights protest song. They were learning how to take an old tune, change a few notes here and there, make it go up where it used to go down, add a chord that wasn’t there before (as Woody Guthrie once advised the young Bob Dylan), and come up with a song of their own. They were learning how to write their own “Ludlow Massacre” and “Reuben James.”
So that Phil Ochs would cop a tune from Guthrie’s “Tom Joad,” which Guthrie had copped from Leadbelly’s “John Hardy,” and set to it his lyrics about Joe Hill, the martyred labor organizer and one of the wellsprings of early sixties protest. Later, Ochs would take his own 1964 “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” and, by changing a word or two here and there, come out with “Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon.”
Very quickly it became apparent that sixties folk protesters were not just resurrecting a buried past. They were constructing a new, protest of contemporary social and political conditions.
I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self- evident; that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood; I have a dream—
That one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice; I have a dream—
That my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character; I have a dream today. . . .
Let freedom ring from every hill and mole hill of Mississippi. From every Mountainside, let freedom ring, and when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!”
—Martin Luther King, Jr., August 28, 1963
And the songs were printed in Broadside and Sing Out! and they were sung in the streets and coffeehouses of New York and Boston and Philadelphia and across the South and finally on records and on FM stations, and they have thus found their way into American consciousness, a permanent record of early sixties protest.
The most popular song to come out of Greenwich Village in the early sixties, and the anthem of the protest movement throughout the decade, was Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Written in 1962 and sung onto the top forty in 1963 by Peter, Paul, and Mary, “Blowin’ in the Wind” is a classic statement of nonviolent protest. Two concerns dominate the song, and they are the two causes that dominated early sixties protest: racism and militarism, men who are not allowed to be men and the white dove of peace rocked by cannon balls. As the decade unfolded and people of the sixties began to understand just how immense the task would be, “Blowin’ in the Wind” gathered a wealth of associations no other song of the sixties could match. Versatile enough to lend itself to any cause, as timeless as “We Shall Overcome,” Dylan’s simple statement of 1962 carried many through the decade.
There were others as well. “If I Had a Hammer” was a Pete Seeger-Lee Hayes song folksingers had known for years: Peter, Paul, and Mary sang it into national consciousness in 1962. It, too, made a general statement: freedom, justice, love between brothers and sisters all over the land. If the hammer hinted vaguely at barrel-of-a-gun protest, the bell and the song made clear the nonviolent predilections of Seeger and everybody else who sang along: the revolution was love, the means was music.
(Woody Guthrie had written on his banjo, “This machine kills fascists.” Seeger, perhaps in imitation, had written on his, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”)
As folk music flowered and as sixties protest began to define for itself causes and issues other than racism and militarism, folksinger-writers increased both their range and their output: Malvina Reynolds (“Little Boxes,” “What Have They Done to the Rain,” and “It Isn’t Nice”—to block doorways and go to jail), Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton. Paxton’s classic “That’s What I Learned in School” (1962) is remarkably comprehensive in its jabs at education, militarism, racism, capital punishment, politicians, and policemen.
“How did you get to be such puppets? You perform. But when do you think? Dutifully and obediently you follow, as a herd of grade-worshiping sheep. . . . But whether you are strong or weak you perform like trained seals, and like sheep you follow.”
—Bradley Cleveland, “A Letter to Undergraduates,” Berkeley, California, 1964
A great deal of the folk flowering, however, was not as universal as “Blowin’ in the Wind” or even “That’s What I Learned in School.” The air was full of topical songs, throwaway broadsides in which the folksinger turned himself into a radical newspaper, bringing to his audience, in the words of Phil Ochs’s first album, “all the news that’s fit to sing.” It was a trick the youngsters had learned from their elders, a trick as old as Joe Hill and union organization early in the century, a trick Guthrie had learned, and Seeger and Hayes after him. In March 1963 Phil Ochs had written for Broadside a combination explanation of his art and call for more topical songs. In this article, “The Need for Topical Music,” Ochs argued that every newspaper headline is a potential song and that one “good song with a message” would speak “more deeply to more people than a thousand rallies.” At the Newport Folk Festival of that same year, he and Dylan and the Freedom Singers held a workshop that turned the topical protest song into the musical genre of the next few years. Langston Hughes, writing the jacket notes to Joan Baez 2 (1964), observed, “In a worried period, the folk singers, many of them, particularly the city folk singers, are taking the troubles of our times and wrapping them up in songs-documentary songs, musings songs, angry protest songs.”