Thesis: Music and the Counterculture

Pages: 12 (4510 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 10  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Music  ·  Buy This Paper

Music and the Counterculture

Music has long been an expression of the society within which the particular kind or genre of music originated in. There is a distinct musical expression that can be identified with most cultures at any given time within the evolution of the cultural tradition and setting. There is a relationship between music and the identities of the people within the society. Western musical idiom easily is associated with the periods of the pre and post World War II era with an evolutionary pattern that leads to and distinctly defines the counterculture experience that began in the 1950s in Paris in the Left Bank student community, and was influenced by "French bohemian intelligentsia (Shuker 57)." It spread to America in the early 1960s, in Greewich Village, New York (Shuker 57). As it spread across the country, the term "counterculture" became a term defined by social theorists associated with the American youth movement of the Viet Nam war era (Shuker 57). It is a period of American history that is defined musically, because the music of the era was an expression of the passions of the American youth about love, protest, and peace.

This essay is a brief exploration of the music of the counterculture movement, and how the music was an integral part of the transition of the American culture from a post World War II era, to a an era that is defined by political activism and distinct and drastic social changes. Not since the creation of the American Constitution had the phrase, "For the people, by the people," represented the power resting with the American public as the progenitors of the American destiny as it did during the counterculture movement; nor have they had it since that, although the recent election of President Barack Hussein Obama, which involved record numbers of young voters may be an indication of an impending new youth movement.

The counterculture movement of the 1960s and the music of that era, which is inextricably woven into fabric of the movement, remains one of the most socially significant times in American history, and continues to be the subject of examination, analysis, and debate. The music from the era reflects a social conscience; one that has since that period matured, but which manifests itself as political, social, and spiritual guidebook for Americans today.

Rock-n-Roll Will Never Die

The early 950s rise of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and other musicians and bands whose work had the fast rhythms and dance beats acclimated American society to rock and roll, but it did not prepare the white heterogeneous American society for that which would follow the 1950s.

"Adult society heaved a collective sigh at the end of the 1950s. They believed that rock and roll had neatly been channeled into mainstream culture. They were soon to gasp in horror. The beast was not dead; it was merely sleeping. What woke it up was the powerful jab of the 1960s counterculture youth (Martin and Segrave 111)."

In the early 1960s, the post World War II generation of American parents experienced the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, braced their selves for the long winter of nuclear Cold War between the United States, Russia, and Communist China, and quietly watched the escalation of the Viet Nam war on television. Then, breaking the quiet with loud music and protest was upon -- the sleeping beast had claws. Groups like The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, The Rolling Stones, Who, and Iron Butterfly, as well as individual headline artists like Joan Baez, Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin (billed individually or with her band, The Big Brother Holding Company), Bob Dylan, and many other groups and solo artists, had the rhythm and beat of rock and roll, but not the love-sick and romantic lyrics of the 1950s. The youth of the counterculture movement made political, social, and religious statements, which were counterintuitive to the conservative beliefs held by their parents, whom the youth of the movement referred to as "the establishment (Gair 62)." The establishment was defined by age, and their conservative or liberal social, political and religious ideologies that prevented people from living as a single community of human beings who might live together naturally but for the obstacles of social racism and sexual bias, elitist political fraud and the hijacking of the American Government from the American people, and religious ideologies that caused people to remain apart. It was not just change in America they were seeking, it was change world-wide, and they would stop at nothing to achieve their perceptions of how the world should live together, in peace.

For their parents, looking to understand how the product of their conservative, or liberal, post World War II economic abundance had yielded offspring whom then wore tied died shirts and jeans, refused to get hair cuts, openly smoked marijuana, and who were sexually promiscuous; there could be just one answer: the music, and the musicians who created lyrics to rock-n-roll beats that were anti-social messages and inflamed the passions of the young hearts and minds. It was the influence of and musicians, the parents believed, that turned adolescents and teenagers into rebellious and angry people so bold as to defy the political system of the United States, and who called the U.S. Government "Big Brother," referring to the secret activities, spying, wire tapping, and, they believed, undermining of the U.S. Constitution.

The parents of the 1960s youth were, in part, right. The music was rocking, the beats and acoustical sounds worked young people into drug induced frenzies; but messages were real, heartfelt, and the product of soul searching -- a high ride and music was the engine that carried them along an exploration of intellectual discovery. If their parents did not readily recognize the government's usurping of their Constitutional rights, then certainly their children did, and they were not going to stand for it. The music lyrics encouraged young people to revolt, and portrayed the U.S. military and government as baby-killing war mongers for profit. The lyrics to Bob Dylan's song, Masters of War succinctly expresses the attitude of most of America's young people about the Viet Nam war:

"Masters Of War"

Come you masters of war

You that build all the guns

You that build the death planes

You that build all the bombs

You that hide behind walls

You that hide behind desks

I just want you to know

I can see through your masks.

You that never done nothin'

But build to destroy

You play with my world

Like it's your little toy

You put a gun in my hand

And you hide from my eyes

And you turn and run farther

When the fast bullets fly.

Like Judas of old

You lie and deceive

A world war can be won

You want me to believe

But I see through your eyes

And I see through your brain

Like I see through the water

That runs down my drain.

You fasten all the triggers

For the others to fire

Then you set back and watch

When the death count gets higher

You hide in your mansion'

As young people's blood

Flows out of their bodies

And is buried in the mud.

You've thrown the worst fear

That can ever be hurled

Fear to bring children

Into the world

For threatening my baby

Unborn and unnamed

You ain't worth the blood

That runs in your veins.

How much do I know

To talk out of turn

You might say that I'm young

You might say I'm unlearned

But there's one thing I know

Though I'm younger than you

That even Jesus would never

Forgive what you do.

Let me ask you one question

Is your money that good

Will it buy you forgiveness

Do you think that it could

I think you will find

When your death takes its toll

All the money you made

Will never buy back your soul.

And I hope that you die

And your death'll come soon

I will follow your casket

In the pale afternoon

And I'll watch while you're lowered

Down to your deathbed

And I'll stand over your grave 'Til I'm sure that you're dead.

This song demonstrates the attitude towards the government and the war, but the manifestation of the counterculture movement attitude that reflected the song were events which were destructive and dangerous. Milton J. Bates () cites author Michael Herr, from his book, Dispatches (1991), whose perspective the on the youth counterculture movement is that of a Viet Nam soldier who is assessing the counterculture from the same distance, in reverse geographical location, as did the American youth, and even Bob Dylan himself, who assessed the Viet Nam war from America. Bates says:

"In Dispatches, Herr represents the 1960s as a period when violence suffused the youth culture, when 'rock and roll turned more lurid and dangerous than bullfighting,' and 'rock stars started falling like second lieutenants.' The rock stars who fell -- Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison… [END OF PREVIEW]

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