1960s Protest Music: International and Civil Unrest

The 1960s were full of political turmoil on the American home front and on the international stage.  It was a time of civil unrest and the Cold War.  Additionally, the U.S.A. was tangled in Vietnam. All this hostility  led to a burgeoning art scene, flourishing youth movement and amazing music.

Differently, the 1960s musical protest movement was outspoken and unabashed.  Artists didn’t hide their messages in metaphors.  Moreover, this coincided with a collection of citizens questioning the glory of war  for the first time in history.  They weren’t seeing war the way their parents had.

In the beginning…

In the beginning, there was Dylan.  Dylan wrote a number of significant songs in the early 1960s before many of his musical counterparts did.  Dylan questioned government and regular citizens alike.  He called for peace overseas and he called for peace at home.

In particular, “Masters of War ” (1963) accused the government of cowardice and evil while using youth as pawns. Also, he expressed outrage with the arms industry and the money being made.   This thread would continue through out the decade.  Dylan would write many more songs with similar themes.

 The Upswing

In the mid 1960s there was a massive increase in political turmoil.  After Kennedy was shot in ’63 and Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as  president, America’s presence in Vietnam increased significantly.    From there, the protest music rolled in faster.

In 1964, Canada’s own Buffy Sainte Marie wrote “Universal Soldier”.  It wouldn’t become as popular until the next year when it was recorded by a white man. Written in 1962, Buffy wrote the song about the fear people were feeling over imminent war.

It would later be blacklisted from radio stations across the U.S.A. This song was responsible for her first record deal and would be covered several times through out history.

Nina Simone released “Mississippi Goddam” that same year.  She sang about black struggle in the southern states.  She wrote the song in response to the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers.

Nina’s song epitomized civil unrest in the United States. She first performed the song in New York City at Carnegie Hall.

In 1965, Phil Ochs (perhaps the biggest lyrical genius of the time) spun the protest anthem “Draft Dodger Rag” and the haunting “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” which points out society’s inability to change.

That same year saw the release of Country Joe and the Fish’s song “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag”- the classic anthem of the movement.  In this song, the band pokes fun and puts blame on the government and citizens alike for their role in perpetuating the unpopular Vietnam War.  Moreover, this ragtime song uses dark satirical lyrics in a way that sounds up beat and fun.

 Nixon Era

American elected Nixon in 1968.  He promised to decrease troops in Vietnam.  However, troops were also moved into neutral Cambodia.  Additionally, civil unrest at home hit an all time high. As a result, the second half of the decade birthed some of the greatest protest anthems.

The Doors released “Unknown Soldier ” in 1968.  Around the same time, Gordon Lightfoot also released “Black Day in July” about the fierce Detroit City Riots and the tensions in black communities.


In 1969, Creedence Clearwater Revival released “Fortunate Son”. In that same year Jimi Hendrix performed a striking rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock.

College protests broke out across the nation.  Government officials and police often put the protests down with severe force.  In 1970, Canada’s own Neil Young wrote “Ohio” in response to the Kent State Massacre where four students were killed by National Guard after protesting involvement in Cambodia.  CSNY released the haunting track.

What does it mean?

Overall, international and national turmoil characterized the 1960s.  From said turmoil, nations across the world created powerful, politically-charged music. This music brought anti-government sentiment to a main stream audience.    Still the question remains, has anything changed?

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