Friday, August 14, 2009

Did Protest Songs Make A Difference?

This was a research paper I wrote in 10th grade about the impact of protest songs on the public opinion of the Vietnam War. It is not a very conclusive paper but I think it sparks some new ideas into the debate about how music affects the way we think and act. Did protest songs simply tap into a market that was there or did they persuade individuals against the war in Vietnam? Did actions of protesters influenced by these musicians make a difference or were they empty acts of rebellion? Does our nostalgia for the Woodstock generation cloud what actually happened in that era or does our sentimentality reflect the strong impact those events had on our culture?

John Lennon said it best: "All we are saying is give peace a chance." His song sums up the entire mentality of the Anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Other songs by the politically minded musicians of the time convey similar messages. These visionaries spoke out against what they thought was wrong and started an entire movement to change the world. Through their music, they sent out a message of peace and tolerance and taught Americans to be more conscious of the impact of their actions on the world. They helped create awareness of the problems in the Vietnam War by calling out the government, exposing the horrors of war, and demanding a change. Once the movement was underway, their music propelled the movement by defining the anti-war culture, bringing in more protestors, and using music in demonstrations.

Prior to any major involvement from musicians, there were only a few minor demonstrations that occurred in 1963-1964 (Burns 71). After their release, popular protest songs converted more people to the movement. By November 16, 1969, as many as 250,000-300,000 protestors marched down Pennsylvania Avenue while countless others around the country supported the cause (Herbers "250,000"). As artists released more and more protest songs, the movement expanded dramatically. Simply reading and interpreting the lyrics to these protest songs can help to understand the ideas and awareness created by the music, which won over people and made the Anti-Vietnam War movement so powerful.

By definition, protest songs intended to call out the government for its actions. Although these songs did not definitively state their purpose as Anti-Vietnam War, they did set the stage for other protest songs that rallied against the Vietnam War. Bob Dylan released the protest song, "The Times They Are A-Changin’" in 1964 very soon after the United States’ involvement in Vietnam began. His song is one of the first to protest the government’s actions.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside
And it is ragin'.
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.

Dylan tells the senators and congressmen, who represent government as a whole, not to just stand by and wait for the war to continue, but to take action instead and get U.S. troops out of Vietnam (Dylan). John Fogerty, of Creedence Clearwater Revival, sent a similar message in the song, "Fortunate Son."

Some folks are born made to wave the flag
Ooh, they're red, white, and blue
And when the band plays "Hail to the Chief"
They point the cannon right at you
It ain't me, it ain't me
I ain't no senator's son
It ain't me, it ain't me
I ain't no fortunate one
Some folks inherit star spangled eyes,
Ooh, they send you down to war
And when you ask them, "How much should we give?"
They only answer "More! More! More!"

In "Fortunate Son," Fogerty challenges the government in a way similar to Bob Dylan in "The Times They Are A-Changin’." Fogerty expresses his rage about America’s mixed up priorities of fighting an unjustified war rather than helping the people who are not "fortunate sons." The instrumentation in the song supports a strong "we’re not going to take it" attitude that makes it even more effective in conveying the song’s message (Fogerty). Other songs of the era, while not explicitly "protest songs," promoted the idea of questioning authority that propelled the protests. The Who’s "My Generation" exemplifies this sort of "subconscious protest song."

People try to put us d-down
Just because we get around
Things they do look awful c-c-cold
I hope I die before I get old

This is my generation
This is my generation, baby

Why don't you all f-fade away?
And don't try to dig what we all s-say
I'm not trying to cause a big s-s-sensation
I'm just talkin' 'bout my g-g-g-generation

Townshend accuses the older generation of being out of touch with his generation and putting his generation down. "I hope I die before I get old," demonstrates Townshend’s contempt for the older generation’s corrupt ways. He also tells the older generation not to try to "dig" what his generation is saying because they’ll never understand. Along with other songs, "My Generation" helped bring in a new era of questioning authority and being innovative instead of doing what the establishment said and being traditional, which was an essential component to the Anti-Vietnam War movements (Townshend).

Other songs released during the "flower power" era painted the picture of war for the American people. They described the effect the war had at home, specific events involving the war, and the violence that occurs in war. Jimmy Cliff recorded the song "Vietnam" to tell the story of a woman, Mrs. Brown, who loses her son in Vietnam; Cliff uses this story to show the people how the war doesn’t just hurt the soldiers but their friends and family back home as well (Cliff).

"Ohio" by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young told the story of the tragedy at Kent State University, Ohio (Young). This incident occurred the weekend after President Richard Nixon made a speech announcing an incursion into Cambodia by U.S. troops on Thursday, April 30, 1970. Students burned the Army ROTC building on their campus when they heard this news. The National Guardsmen that came to the campus claim that students were demonstrating peacefully until they started to throw rocks at the guardsmen. The guardsmen supposedly had to take action for self-defense. The guardsmen killed four students, injured eight others students, and left another student paralyzed. The demonstrations ended on May 4, 1970 (Morrison 329). The song brought this travesty to the attention of the public and secured it as one of the most infamous events related to the Vietnam War.

Many protest songs cried out for change. Artists asked the American people for "peace, love, and understanding." A verse from Edwin Starr’s "War" sums these ideas up very well.

Peace, love and understanding, tell me
Is there no place for them today?
They say we must fight to keep our freedom
But lord knows there’s got to be a better way

Starr’s song is best known for its catchy, obviously anti-war chorus that screams that war is good for nothing. Starr’s fellow Motown artist, Marvin Gaye, wrote "What’s Going On," which was an effective way of telling protesters what to value when they are protesting.

Mother, mother

There's too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There's far too many of you dying
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today
Father, father
We don't need to escalate
War is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know you've got to find a way
To bring some understanding yeah today

Aw, picket lines, picket signs
Don't punish me with brutality
Talk to me so you can see
Oh what's going on,
Tell me what's going on

Gaye’s song elaborates more on the basic ideas presented in Starr’s song: peace, love, and understanding. The music itself is very soft and tender which Gaye uses to convey to the protesters how they should protest. Unlike other protest songs, Gaye preaches peace instead of angrily challenging the government or the war (Gaye).

After many protest songs flew to the top of the charts and the movement was underway, the songs themselves and the ideals they taught were applied to the cause itself. Protesters used song lyrics for slogans on banners, picket signs, and chants. The protesters often sang the protest songs as well. At the protests on November 15, 1969, protesters sang John Lennon’s song "Give Peace a Chance," as a way of expressing the need for peace and the end of the Vietnam war (Frankel).

The protest songs defined the culture and mentality of the Anti-Vietnam War movement. It is very evident that songs that called for change and helped to create the "everything is possible" attitude of the era. The musicians that wrote popular protest songs helped in creating a new libertarian, drug experimenting, war protesting counter-culture (Burns 95). This counter-culture became powerful, influential, emerging into what would be the most memorable element of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Some protesters failed to follow the peaceful examples that had been set in the protest songs and caused riots, made mischief, and increased tension between the government and protesters. At President Nixon’s inauguration parade, demonstrators got out of control and threw smoke bombs and stones at Nixon’s car (Franklin "Parade"). The Manson family murders showed us how easily some can manipulate lyrics to justify any behavior and misconstrued the message of the songs. Thousands of other protesters had a peaceful counter-inaugural march during Nixon’s inauguration (Franklin "Counter-Inaugural") but the media’s attention was often diverted to the violent, misbehaving activists.

Music shaped the ideals, magnitude, and direction of the Vietnam War protests of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Artists such as Lennon, Dylan, and Gaye provided a unifying message from a counter-culture intent on urging the U.S. government to pull troops out of Vietnam. Driven by the Anti-War culture, the government ended its involvement in the Vietnam conflict. On January 15, 1973, President Nixon announced progress in peace negotiations and the suspension of offensive action in North Vietnam which was later followed by a unilateral withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. Without the efforts of the musicians and protesters, peace would not have been achieved as rapidly. The legacy of these songs gives Americans a peaceful alternative to hatred and violence.
Works Cited

Burns, Stewart. Social Movements of the 1960’s. New York: Twayne, 1990.

Cliff, Jimmy. "Vietnam." Wonderful World Beautiful People. A&M, 1969.

Dylan, Bob. "The Times They Are A-Changin’" The Times They Are A-Changin’. Sony, 1964.

Fogerty, John. "Fortunate Son." Willy and the Poor Boys. Fantasy, 1969.

Frankel, Max. "Parade Marshals Keep It Cool." New York Times.16 Nov 1969: Frame 11.

Franklin, Ben A. "Thousands of War Foes Stage Counter-Inaugural March Down Pennsylvania Ave." New York Times. 20 Jan 1969: Frame 2.

Franklin, Ben A. "Young Demonstrators at Parade Throw Smoke Bombs and Stones at Nixon’s Car." New York Times. 20 Jan 1969: Frame 3.

Gaye, Marvin. "What’s Going On." What’s Going On. Motown, 1971.

Herbers, John. "250,000 War Protesters Stage Peaceful Rally in Washington; Militants Stir Clashes Later." New York Times. 16 Nov 1969: Frame 13-14.

Lennon, John. "Give Peace A Chance." Boombox, 1969.

Morrison, Joan and Robert K. Morrison. From Camelot to Kent State: The Sixties Experience in the Words of Those Who Lived It. New York: Times Books, 1987.

Starr, Edwin. "War." Motown, 1970.

Townshend, Peter. "My Generation." My Generation. MCA, 1965.

Young, Neil. "Ohio." Four Way Street. Atlantic, 1970.

Monday, August 3, 2009


This was my college application essay from last year that I came across. The ending is a little cheesy but I feel like most of what I said still applies to how I think now.

Our culture’s constant quest for intricate, but inconsequential details has stalled human progress. We find ourselves lost in a barrage of statistics, names, locations, events and ideas so that we simply lose sight of any deeper meaning to all elements of life. College feeds into this conspiracy of indoctrinating the masses with this pursuit of supposed knowledge. Only a select few look beyond the rush of trivial information from books, computers and television in an attempt to find the answer to ultimate question: Why?

Preachers and philosophers have corrupted that question. They have bastardized the word to hold only the question of our purpose as predetermined by God, Allah, or ourselves. Existence for sake of being is something we apparently cannot accept or allow. I am neither a preacher nor a philosopher, so I ask "why" not for our purpose in life, but for conditions, perceptions and answers to life and the ordinary. The answer to any inquiry is pointless without this awareness.

Society is expected never to ask "why?" Society’s structure goes unquestioned and untouched while it overlooks injustice, absurdities, and illogical reasoning. Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist hippie, but the powers that be censor the controversial, repress the rebellious and manipulate the masses. The status quo stands steadily as a sacred, stubborn, and unstoppable cow rooted in apathy, nostalgia and self-interest. As generations age, they look behind rather than ahead. People cling to television reruns, decrepit nostalgia-based musicians, and the ways things were "back in the day." The cliché of how people fear change is completely true. The majority of us try to sustain normalcy and our subjective sense of sanity (however insane it may actually be) despite any drastic upheaval.

Tip sacred cows, even the ones you hold most sacred.

Yet, curiously, those who question the norm revolutionize and better the mundane lives of the majority. Those who make an impact on the world are those who transform it, not those who try to maintain the status quo. Consensual insanity should not determine reality. Innovators disprove and defy conventional wisdom. From Socrates to Malcolm X, endless numbers of individuals have altered human philosophies towards art, society, and truth. Their skepticism of the social equilibrium combined with their courage of their convictions opened up humankind to a better world.

Socrates was sentenced to death for corruption of minors because he taught them to question society. Your freedom of speech protects your ability to question today's order... use it responsibly and often.

Too easily, we surrender to mediocrity. We seem to aspire to it. We fall into lock step with uneventful schedules and 9-to-5 complacency without ever questioning why. We should refuse to accept the common idea that the purpose of college is finding a job to make money or a passage into "responsible adulthood." College should enlighten us in order to escape from the barriers of monotonous life. We should seek to push the frontiers of thought and art forward instead of declining into the nostalgic pitfalls created by our society. College can nurture our growth to push progress forward in a way that can shape the world. With nothing but thousands of dollars in tuition to lose and everything to gain, one has to ask "Why not?"

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Ravi Shankar Reminiscences About John Coltrane

I found this today on Ravi Shankar's webpage and thought it warranted posting here. One can only imagine what could have been if these two had gotten to collaborate together. Fun fact: John Coltrane named his son, Ravi Coltrane, after Shankar.
"What a blessed musician he was – John Coltrane! Like some great creative musicians of different forms and eras he gave so much –like a magic pot being filled with his golden music spilling over and feeding his ecstatic admirers. Maybe that is why his mortal body couldn’t take it anymore – and he died so early, leaving his adoring listeners who miss him so much!

I first met him in New York around ’64. My dear friend Richard Bock of World Pacific brought us together. We had a few sessions in my hotel room where I was staying and I had also gone to hear him once where he was performing. I was very impressed meeting him because from my early years I had met or seen performing many of the legendary jazz greats – and formed the opinion that most of them were very unsophisticated and earthy individuals, being addicted to alcohol, or drugs or both. But John seemed so different. He had sophistication, dignity and at the same time such humility! Dick Bock had already told me that John had given up eating meat, had become a vegetarian, and was reading books on Shri Ramakrishna and also doing yoga.

He had heard me perform and had most of my LP records that were available and was told by Dick Bock that he was a great admirer of mine and Indian Classical Music! In our sessions he asked me many questions about the basis of our music: the way we learnt from the beginning, how much was written down, how much was memorized, how much was fixed, how and when we started improvising, etc. He did not have his instrument with him, but I had my sitar and he was taking notes from my answers. There came the question of the drone, which is an essential part of our music. I explained that a continuous drone is maintained by the 4 or 5 stringed background drone instrument ‘tanpura’, which registers mainly the tonic and its fourth or fifth note to establish the ‘raga’ (or melody form) that the artist is performing. He said that he had been experimenting with the drone effect in some of his compositions after hearing me play, and said that the effect was also very calming and soothing. I had heard, just before meeting him, some cassettes of his latest compositions and I said, “John, if you don’t mind I will ask you a question. I just heard some recordings of your new compositions and I was very intrigued” …he looked perplexed. I continued, “I was so impressed and found it amazing and touching as well, but in places I felt you were crying out through your instrument and it was like a shriek of a tormented soul. I have heard the same from many other great jazz performers which is quite understandable because of their pain and the hurt of generations comes out in their music. But seeing and knowing you I thought that the interest and love of our tradition and music has helped you to overcome this…” I will never forget the expression on his face, and the words which he said with such a deep feeling which brought tears to my eyes. He said, “Ravi, that is exactly what I want to know and learn from you… how you find so much peace in your music and give it to your listeners."