Historians use song lyrics to help them understand cultures. If only high school teachers followed their lead. Without a doubt, history grades would improve, and the number of history majors would increase. What better preparation can there be for politicians and voters than to know history?
In 2019, Tim and I were at the 60s and 70s songfest in Old Town Square, Fort Collins. We didn’t know any of the hundreds of people dancing and singing. Some wore clothes from the era, ill-fitting, tie-dyed, beaded, and colorful patches. A pang of guilt surfaced remembering how I’d convinced Tim to give away his beige embroidered hippy shirt. He’d resisted for three decades.
The energy, the smiles, and the instant rapport were because of our common history. Coming of age, we’d shared values and experiences. For an evening, we felt the ties that once bonded us together. The singers and dancers were likely folks who attended universities from sea to shining sea a half-century ago. Here we were. Finished raising kids. Careers behind us. But on this day, we were once again the college kids our parents couldn’t understand, and politicians loathed.
Music unifies generations and can be a tonic for the soul. It’s also an expression of values, spirituality, hopes, and aspirations. In the middle of the last century, young people came together to push back on injustices. Later, some of us lost our way, but the feeling we once had comes back when we listen to the songs of our generation. Popular musicians’ lyrics speak to the god-ness within us, awareness, humanity, as well as our anger and frustrations.
In 1962, Bob Dylan’s song Blowin’ in the Wind became a national anthem for many of the hippies.
Yes, ‘n’ how many years can a mountain exist
Before it is washed to the sea?
Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, ‘n’ many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind
In 1970, Neil Young’s song Southern Man addressed the racism of the South. Although there were racists all around the country, the South was the worst offender.
Southern man, better keep your head
Don’t forget what your good book says
Southern change gonna come at last
Now your crosses are burnin’ fast
Joni Mitchell’s 1970’s hit, Big Yellow Taxi, was a rallying call for awareness of the destruction man was causing to the natural world.
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swinging hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone
Songs during the Vietnam era expressed a range of emotions from nationalism to dissent, Ballad of the Green Berets (1966) and I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’ to Die (1967). It tells what concerned us and how we viewed wars, aye and nay.
Ballad of the Green Berets
Fighting soldiers from the sky
Fearless men who jump and die
Men who mean just what they say
The brave men of the Green Beret
I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’ to Die
Come on all of you big strong men
Uncle Sam needs your help again
He’s got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
Put down your books and pick up a gun
We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun
My parents thought little of the Beatles. I couldn’t get enough of them. I don’t know what John Lennon was smoking in 1971 when he wrote Imagine about the “brotherhood of man.” But whatever it was, we need more of it. (As I write these words, August 16, 2021, my thoughts go to my 21-year-old nephew recently sent to Kabul). Lennon’s words speak not only to people affected by injustice but by repeating the word “imagine” he paints a better world with peace and acceptance.
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Livin’ life in peace
Female singers’ messages inched away from the Leslie Gore era, My Town, My Guy & Me.
Don’t tell me about towns like New York, Frisco
I’m not interested in all that small talk, go-go
I’m more satisfied being here by my baby’s side
Just give me my town, my guy and me
The Pill was country singer Loretta Lynn’s best-known and most controversial song. It appealed to women of all music genres’ preferences. It empowered many women to rethink society’s expectations and religious dogmas. Her song speaks to gender equality from dating, to housework, to careers. The seesaw is not only about up or down, but also about balance.
You wined me and dined me when I was your girl
Promised if I’d be your wife, you’d show me the world
But all I’ve seen of this old world is a bed and a doctor bill
I’m tearing down your brooder house ’cause now I’ve got the pill
Another popular country western song questioned the double standards and pointed out the community’s hypocrisy. Harper Valley P.T.A. sung by Jeannie C. Riley resonated with independent-minded women. Slowly, women were preparing to take seats at the table of power.
I want to tell you all a story ’bout a Harper Valley, widowed wife
Who had a teenage daughter who attended Harper Valley Junior High
Well her daughter came home one afternoon and didn’t even stop to play
She said, “Mom, I got a note here from the Harper Valley P.T.A.”
Play Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive or Aretha Franklin’s Respect at weddings and women take over the dance floor.
I Will Survive
At first I was afraid, I was petrified
Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side
But then I spent so many nights thinking how you did me wrong
And I grew strong
And I learned how to get along
And so you’re back
From outer space
I just walked in to find you here with that sad look upon your face
I should have changed that stupid lock, I should have made you leave your key
If I’d known for just one second you’d be back to bother me
Ooh, your kisses
Sweeter than honey
And guess what?
So is my money
All I want you to do for me
Is give it to me when you get home
Re Re Re Respect
The influence of feminist singers from our generation, Joni Mitchell, Aretha Franklin, and Gloria Gaynor, is alive and well in the music of young singers like Beyoncé and Kacey Musgraves.
The dreams and determination that fueled the increase in the number of women heads-of-state worldwide and in the U.S. House of Representatives started with young girls listening to their role models and believing what they heard, “we can do this.”
Like with smell, there is a powerful brain connection between music and memory. Today, half a century later, when I hear Summer in the City (The Lovin’ Spoonful), I’m back walking the streets in London, “the back of my neck getting hot and gritty. Adults can learn much about the young by listening to their music. Our knee jerk “I don’t like” is like “not” reading history, but the more we learn, the more the world makes sense.
Songs from the past that affected us at an emotional level remain in our unconscious mind until we hear it again. Like the whiff of a cigar brings memories of my father, a song can bring back memories. What is the soundtrack of your life?