Popular music is the soundtrack to much of our history. When Revolutionary War soldiers went off to war, they did so to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.” Abolitionist songs, sung by groups like the Hutchinson Family Singers, brought the anti-slavery message to hundreds if not thousands. As Americans faced each other in battle, the army in blue took heart from the strains of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” while soldiers in grey rallied to “Dixie.” Nineteenth-century men courted their sweethearts to the tunes of Stephen A. Foster, while slaves in the cotton fields found solace in spirituals. Union organizers led working-class men and women in choruses of “Union Maid,” Doughboys went off to war humming “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” and Depression-era optimists as well as cynics could be heard to sing “Happy Days Are Here Again.” In every era, music has reflected—and shaped—social and cultural change, political choices, and mass protest and support for government policies. Each of us knows that a familiar song from the past can produce a vivid memory of an event, a person, or a movement we were once a part of. Popular music is thus a vital primary source in the classroom, able to evoke a bygone era or provide a starting point for us to present the historical context in which events occurred.
In this issue of History Now, leading scholars of history and music take us through our recent past, moving through the decades from the 1940s to the present day. Each essay analyzes the relationship of a musical genre to a key historical event or movement. We realize that the themes chosen do not exhaust the complex history of modern America; for example, because we have already examined the music of the Civil Rights Movement in an earlier issue, the songs that rallied thousands to demand equal rights for African Americans are absent. We hope you will think of these essays, therefore, as examples, as templates for how historians and history teachers can use music effectively as a window onto our past.
Elihu Rose has chosen to examine the songs that accompanied World War II. In the music itself, we can see the shift from isolationism to participation in a great struggle against Nazism and fascism and we can follow the upsurge of patriotic songs as Americans were asked to make sacrifices to ensure victory. We can also see, as Rose notes, the many emotions that war aroused—“hope, longing, loneliness, and love”—and the variety of ways in which Americans at the front and at home coped with anxiety and danger, from bravado, to religious affirmation, to satire and humor. The very diversity of the music drives home the complexity of a nation at war.
Glenn Altschuler and Rob Summers carry us into the era of rock and roll in their essay on the 1950s. In that decade, African American music and its rhythms seemed to cross a great divide and enter the world of white American teenagers. Parents fretted; critics condemned; but middle-class teenagers purchased the 45 and 78 records of Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and the white singers like Elvis Presley who became idols overnight. Altschuler and Summers raise important and provocative questions: was this music “revolutionary”? Did it produce or did it simply accompany the rise of teenage rebellion? Was this a precursor to the rebellion of the 60s generation? Whatever the answers to these questions, a new genre of music had entered American culture.
Much of the most intense music of modern times has been spurred by opposition to government programs and policies. Kerry Candaele, himself a songwriter, looks at the singers and the songs of the anti-war movement during the 1960s and 1970s. While songs supporting the American policy in Vietnam also filled the airwaves, especially of country music stations, many of the most emblematic songs of this era came from those who opposed the war. They are often angry songs—and emotionally urgent songs, but some are humorous and many are ironic. They were never the dominant music of American youth, for they existed side by side with a music that ignored social and political issues and focused on teenage love and heartbreak. While many saw Bob Dylan or Country Joe or Jimi Hendrix as radicals and even traitors, it is clear that these critics of American foreign policy saw themselves as patriots, urging the country to pursue peace instead of war, to renounce what they saw as imperialism, and to acknowledge the rights of American citizens to free speech, even if it was critical of the government. Candaele does not romanticize the musicians who created this protest music, nor does he make grand claims for its impact on our society. Instead, as he says in his closing paragraph, he sees the value of protest music as a spur to civic engagement: “What anti-war music could and did do,” he writes, “as all protest music has done throughout American history, was to raise the spirits while doing battle, help define identities of activists, and turn passive consumption into an active, vibrant, and sometimes liberating culture.”
Sometimes, as Elizabeth Wollman shows us in her essay on the women’s movement and its music, it is the emergence of the musicians themselves rather than the “message” of their songs that signals a shift in cultural norms or social values. The 1970s saw the emergence of what scholars call “second wave feminism,” a continuation, that is, of the struggle for gender equality, begun at Seneca Falls in 1848, that climaxed with the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the vote. In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, social and political activists organized to press for gender equality as well as racial equality, calling for equal pay for women and equal access to education and participation in sports, as well as the creation of new gender ideals and roles for both sexes. Women songwriters and singers did not necessarily address these issues directly in their lyrics; instead, they demanded a more prominent place for themselves in the music business. They wanted their voices heard; they wanted recognition from their profession; and they wanted their talent to be recognized. There were, of course, feminist anthems, most notably “I Am Woman” and “Respect.” But what Wollman stresses is the importance of the emergence of women’s voices coming over the airwaves, woman guitarists displaying their talents, and women’s challenge to the identification of hard rock as a masculine domain. As women moved into law offices and legislatures, university professorships and Wall Street business firms, a parallel development could be found in popular music, as woman musicians moved into hard rock, punk, disco—and were heard.
By the 1980s, the anti-war movement was already “history.” But, as Douglas Egerton and Leigh Fought show us, musicians of this era became interpreters of a newer protest movement, one that was as global in its scope as it was national. Many, like Jackson Browne, urged Americans not to allow their country to “drift into war” again as it seemed to have done in the Vietnam conflict. But Browne and his contemporaries also had broad, social concerns that reached beyond the American borders. They urged their fellow citizens to extend their democratic vision and to support equality around the world, not simply at home. The disagreement within this song writing community over strategy and tactics mirrored the disagreement within the larger movement for global social justice. For example, some musicians urged a boycott of performances in South Africa as a protest against apartheid. Others believed the best approach was to perform in South Africa but demand that the audience—and perhaps the participating musicians in a concert or recording—be biracial. Although their strategies differed, both groups expressed the growing awareness that America was part of a global community.
In the 1950s and 1960s, African American music began to “crossover” into the white listening-public’s musical venues. White singers “covered” black songs, often, as in the case of Elvis Presley, changing the lyrics to make them more acceptable to the teenagers and their parents who were his targeted audience. In essence, black music sought respectability within the dominant culture. But, as Mark Anthony Neal shows us in his essay, hip-hop and rap—the new genres of the 1990s—made few concessions to the sensibilities of the white middle classes. This music embodied the despair, anger, and disappointment of young African and Latino Americans; but it also reflected their refusal to abandon their cultural and musical roots. Neal notes the cultural radicalism of the music, for it turned the “crossover” process on its head. Hip-hop did not compromise, or “soften” itself in hopes of being accepted by mainstream listeners; instead, mainstream audiences “crossed over” to an undistilled black urban music. Neal’s discussion of hip-hop and rap also raises the critical question of authenticity. Musicians of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s had often struggled with the contradictions between commercial success and musical authenticity, and hip-hop and rap do not escape that same contradiction. Protest music can be used by retail chains as easily, it would appear, as it can be used to raise awareness of social and economic problems.
Finally, Craig Werner brings us to the twenty-first century and its most traumatic event for Americans: the destruction of the twin towers. Out of this tragedy came not only a traditional war—in Iraq—but a new type of global war—the war on terrorism. But the events of 9/11 also produced the need for Americans to express their grief, their anxiety, and their determination to recover from the blows dealt them on a sunny fall day in 2011. More than any other popular musician, Bruce Springsteen captured these emotions in his album The Rising, and its anthem, “My City in Ruins.” Werner takes us through the music of The Rising, analyzing both the lyrics and Springsteen’s own concerns to distinguish himself from the persona he adopts in the music. But it also makes an equally important point: the artist cannot control the interpretation that the listener—or the viewer or the reader—gives to the work the artist has created. And as every historian and history teacher knows, each generation imposes its own interpretation on historical events and on the art that is generated.
A few final words. First, this issue of History Now has been the most collaborative effort in the journal’s history; the entire staff of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History contributed ideas and recommendations for songs and musical artists. They also did Herculean work researching the subjects and locating the historians to write these essays. My thanks to them for this hard work. Secondly, the choice of topics for these essays are illustrative not inclusive. We encourage you to select your own genres, your own list of songs and artists, and those events or movements you believe are critical to understanding and appreciating the American past. And finally, we recognize that some of the lyrics as well as some of the views of the musicians who appear in these pages are controversial. We are confident that you will use your own excellent judgment in how you present this material to your students.
As a special feature in this issue, we include an interview with Mark Dolan on Springsteen. And, as always, there are lesson plans to accompany the essays.
Here’s wishing you all a wonderful summer!