Pop Culture Music 1960's Protest Music Essay

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Music has more influence over large groups of people than any other cultural product. With the power to unify, bridge, build, or protest, music can connect large groups of people to transform values, patterns, and habits. With the ability to provide an incredibly comprehensive framework to package and present a viewpoint or an idea, music serves to open up conversations and spur reflection and action relating to the issues of the day. In times of social and political conflict, a musician's role becomes particularly important. Music serves as an indicator of social progress as it incites a call for unity and action. Positive change for society is often found through songs pushing for positive social change. Musicians often serve as humanity's conscience. Progressive revolution for society is often the result of Popular Music pushing for positive social change. US Protest songs, 'Strange Fruit,' and 'Fortunate Son' enabled people to transform values and adopt new patterns of behavior by infiltrating the consciousness of generations. Often with simple verses, these songs are generally less about aesthetics and more focused on purpose, specifically through the written lyrics. Highlighting the use of Popular Music as a tool of social commentary, this paper analyses the lyrics and social impact of Billie Holiday's 'Strange Fruit' and Creedence Clearwater Revival's 'Fortunate Son' to reflect on the civil unrest in the 20th Century.

The increasing multiculturalism that is found in American culture, consciousness, and values can be traced back to the mid-20th Century, 'when politically-charged music helped project a new vision of American Society' (Eyerman, 452). Throughout this time, the concept of generation became commercialized. This encompassed both cultural and political modes of thought and behavior, something which did not go unnoticed either by marketing promoters, or social theorists. Generational self-awareness linked rebellious working-class urban musicians with disaffected suburban middle-class youth, 'who had all the material comforts imaginable but were still searching for something different' (Eyerman, 453). Being 'young' became a factor that old transcend and overcome both traditional barriers of race and religion and eventually, economic division.

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Since social activism often carries significant risks, a sense of political efficacy is needed to overcome the dread of the consequences of challenging the status quo. People need to believe they are not alone, that they can trust other potential protestors, and that their collective action will bring about the desired change. 'Movements try to frame that issue, that is, assign meaning to and interpret relevant events and conditions in ways that are intended to mobilize potential adherents and constituents, garner bystander support, and demobilize antagonists' (Klandermans, 80). United States Protest Music has a considerable influence and rich cultural history. The goal of protest songs drew people together around a central mission. Often with simple verses, these songs are generally less about aesthetics and more focused on purpose, specifically through the written lyrics.

Along with the technology to perform for audiences at a mass scale with the public production utilization of the radio, inspiration was plentiful for 20th-century songwriters, and protest songs became ingrained within American music. They found inspiration in issues like multiple wars, the great depression, worker's rights, and unionizing, as well as women's rights, and of course, civil rights, particularly on the topic of race. Songs were integral to each of these movements, and artists of this Century were not afraid to mix 'high' and 'low' cultures, which had previously remained separate, but now were blending the realms of experience and expression like never before. 'Besides its form, the content of this new music was also distinctive' (Eyerman, 458). Along with the intimate connection with the collective identity of a rising generation, this encouraged the development of a new sort of song, which readily disclosed cultural and political criticism into its lyrical content.

Billie Holiday's 1939 song 'Strange Fruit,' has a silky melody and uses Abel Meeropol's poem as lyrics to reflect on the civil unrest in the South, using the transparent metaphor of fruit to evoke a vivid image of the lynching of black Americans. The song became a piece of pop culture; it was something to enjoy in a smoky bar, and to initiate a conversation afterward, signifying disappointment with the status quo in a haunting and memorable way.

Strange Fruit was undoubtedly not the first protest song, but it was the inaugural song of what became the Civil Rights movement. Different from the brass workers' anthems of the union movement, it did not stir the blood; it chilled it. Protest songs had previously functioned as propaganda, but Strange Fruit proved protest could be art.

It is a song so memorable that many performers have since tried to put their stamp on it, yet, Holiday's performance outlives them all. In 1999, Time magazine named her initial studio version of 'Strange Fruit,' the 'song of the century.' Although lynching was seemingly on the decline by the time of Strange Fruit – the disturbing photograph of a double hanging in 1930's Indiana moved Meeropol to pen what has remained a vivid symbol of American racism, or a stand-in for all the more subtle forms of discrimination affecting the black communities of the United States. Perhaps only the visceral horror that lynching inspired gave Meeropol the necessary conviction to write a song with no precedent, one that required a new songwriting vocabulary.

Meeropol taught high school in the Bronx and published topical songs, poems, and plays under the gentile alias, Lewis Allan. Initially published under the title Bitter Fruit, the poem was first found in 1937 in a New York Teacher magazine. The title was shortly changed to evoke a haunting sense. 'Strange' puts the reader or listener in the shoes of an observer who catches something out of the corner of their eye; the hanging shapes from afar and moving closer towards a sickening realization.

The song's form is short and was able to shock listeners in a mere three stanzas and twelve lines, keeping to the original form of the poem. It is not complicated rhythmically, seeing as the piece follows a consecutive rhythm pattern where each pair of lines ends rhyming together in AABB format. Again, this maintains the integrity of the poem. The meter is quadruple, with the tempo often played slowly similarly to a dirge — the rhythm, is layered and homophonic with the piano repeating the minor chords in B-Flat while Holiday sings. The slow tempo and homophonic relationship throughout the song ensure the song is never too fast or busy for a listener to miss a single lyric. The minor key helps push a gloomy atmosphere as minor keys have been proven to evoke a bluer emotional response than major keys. It is suspected that this was because the emotional impact of music is due to the way it mimics our 'voice when we cry out in happiness or yell in anger' (Williamson, 64).

The contrast of the song is overlapped with Holiday's singing and the trickling of the piano keys. The piano begins in a lower, quieter range, the piano contradicts Holiday's voice's precise ambiance. Her voice is an octave higher than the piano, overshadowing it and putting her lyrics in the front of the song, to ensure they are not ignored. Holiday's chosen vocal dynamics and articulation play a role in her lyricism as she swells her voice to deliver the final lines of the song 'For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop, Here is a strange and bitter crop' (Meeropol, lines. 10-12), but they are limited as not to dispel the raw texture of the tune, creating an even more haunting sound. The song carries a low timber and melancholy aching tone, achieved through the soft, low chords of the piano and Holiday's limited articulation. Holiday's This beautifully contrasts the painful wailing of the trumpet during the lyrical interludes. Holiday's legato sound punches sharply on lines such as 'for a tree to drop' and 'here is a strange and bitter crop,' which calls attention to the words and makes the listener think of these images. The most significant change to the texture of the song is at the end, where the multitude of instruments swell following the final line to signal the ending and act as a final cry of protest before being silenced.

'Strange Fruit' helped begin the Civil Rights protest movement. 'A declaration of war, It even continues to influence the civil rights movement today' (Margolick, 36). An anomaly of work, 'Strange Fruit,' helped light the fuse of the singing protest movement in America, and if it didn't, it fed the flame.

During the mid-1960s, the collective identity of the counterculture was articulated through mass protests and demonstrations, but perhaps even more significantly through 'the increasing multiculturalism that is to be found in American education, historical consciousness, and popular values and behavior can be traced back to the 1960s, when politically-charged music helped project a new vision of American society' (Eyerman, 452). The different movements of the 1960s contained a critique of the role of the military in American life. A significant determiner of the movements of the decade was a massive protest against the dominant position of the military in political, economic, and cultural life. The predominance of military values and priorities meant that other important social goals, such as race and poverty, were not adequately addressed. It also meant 'that aggressive and violent behavior had become defining characteristics of American culture' (Eyerman, 454).

The Vietnam War began as a fight for independence that spiraled out of control as the US got involved. The war itself was profoundly unpopular in the States, especially with the young men who were sent to fight a war in which they never believed. This unpopularity, coupled with the American tradition of protest created an opportunity for musicians to tap into the feelings felt by their audience; Many musicians who protested the war were young themselves, and some had even fought in Vietnam. Despite being drafted and serving his country, Fogerty was labeled as a rebel. The governmental administration painted anyone who questioned its policies as 'un-American. The same administration shamefully ignored and mistreated the soldiers returning from Vietnam.

When Creedence Clearwater Revival's 'Fortunate Son,' released in 1969, quickly became synonymous with the anti-war movement. The furious lyrics, coupled with the most 'rock' sound CCR ever recorded, dramatically emphasized the disparity between the rich and poor, with the boys of the wealthy staying home and their marginalized peers being drafted. They were deemed a powerful symbol of the counterculture's opposition to the US infiltrating the Vietnam War and solidarity with the soldiers fighting in it.

While there were plenty of ways to secure a draft deferment, they all seemed to benefit the wealthy. Young men could receive a deferment for going to college, be diagnosed with medical or mental issues, or simply know the right people. From Fogerty's autobiography: ''Fortunate Son' was not inspired by any one event. Julie Nixon was dating David Eisenhower. You would hear about the son of this senator or that congressman who was given a deferment from the military or a choice position in the military. They seemed privileged, and whether they liked it or not, these people were symbolic in the sense that they weren't being touched by what their parents were doing. They weren't being affected like the rest of us'. (Fogerty, 64)

'Fortunate Son' decries the idea of wealthy Americans avoiding service. With lines such as 'Some folks are born silver spoon in hand, Lord, don't they help themselves' and 'I ain't no millionaires son,' it was clear whom Fogerty was addressing. While singer John Fogerty fought in the Vietnam War, he was not as overtly patriotic as those who got to stay home. 'Fortunate Son' was not a standard CCR hit. Straight-forward, and hard-hitting, the song jumps into an apparent attack on the wealthy. It is now in the top group of class-consciousness songs to ever become a hit record. Set to a hard rock sound that demonstrated the rage many were feeling regarding the draft and economic disparity, the song itself is simple. While the chorus is I, IV, and V format, the verses invert the same chords. Fogerty spits out the words in a gravelly tone, clearly enveloped in rage: 'It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no fortunate one' (Fortunate Son, ln.6). While the actual title of the song is not found int eh recorded version, it does appear at the very end of the live ending to the song, which Fogerty uses to this day.

Sitting out the war is the privilege of the fortunate, the sons of Senators and millionaires were happy to wave the flag while shirking the duties of defense that they lay on those who were not as fortunate. When Fogerty himself was drafted into the war in the mid-60s, he gained extra insight into the plight of the young men being sent to war. Throughout the song, with the line 'it ain't me,' Fogerty exclaims that he is not a fortunate son, and he is certainly not a millionaire's son, which means that he and the people like him will have to go to war. In the Zippy track, he explains that the only people who can avoid the fight are those 'born with silver spoons'. It is a quick blast of bitterness that makes its point.

Throughout the 20th Century, music was central to the creative role of consciousness and cognition of collective action. The rate of change in this era was remarkable, but it may be argued that music plays a vital role in all social movements in their formative stages (Eyerman, 451). Plato understood music’s potential and banned all forms except the orderly Lydian from his Academy to discourage dissidence (Freeman, 100. The Catholic Church long forbade the augmented fourth or ‘tritone’ (the “Devil’s Interval”), favoring instead the tightly regulated forms of music like Gregorian chants. However, while censorship of music has run rapidly for centuries, the mass media surge in popular culture during the 20th Century provided the groundwork that was essential to develop a widespread and long-term air of collective dissent within the country.

The partnership and idealism so easily observed in American music in the 1900s steadily gave way to cynicism and alienated individualism, ultimately resulting in the absence of strong revolutionary music movements pushing for social change in the US. Toward the end of the 20th century, many Americans grew disenchanted with the rise and fall of promises for equality on all levels. The steady transformation of pop music from anthems of idealistic discontent to laments of unmet dreams turned songs “into products manufactured for private consumption on a mass market rather than the vehicles for collective identify formation and shared consciousness-raising…” (Eyerman and Jamison, 451).

Despite failed promises, social movements in the 20th Century contributed to considerable social progress, aided in no small part by music, particularly songs that called for a change of action; Protest Songs. During the mid-20th Century, social movements not only “provided singers with an audience, but also a sense of mission over and above commercial gains” (Eyerman, 458).

Popular music in the 20th Century functioned as another kind of social theory, 'translating the political radicalism that was expressed by relatively small coteries of critical intellectuals and political activists into much different and far more accessible idiom' (Eyerman, 464). The intricate balance between popular culture and politics dissolved into its parts, leaving both fundamentally different than before but diffusing the revolutionary potential into different and often destructive directions. Through US Protest music, processes of personal and political change linked into a joint project of liberation, and at least some musicians became movement intellectuals, leaving their artistic identity behind in pursuit of some more significant, more all-encompassing societal role.

Billie Holiday's choice to step out of her contract with Columbia Records to record 'Strange Fruit' was a testament to her passion regarding the conversation of civil rights (Margolick, 34). Her harrowing rendition of the song lingered in the hearts and minds of men and women, black and white alike. It created conversations on the morality of Jim Crow Laws and the ever-continual lynching of innocent black people in the Southern states. While a beautifully haunting melody, 'Strange Fruit' provided the footbed of pop culture to cross the lines political in nature, and got the everyday individual discussing a country's deplorable habit.

Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” allowed many across the nation to cope with the pain, anger, and sorrow that accompanied the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War. This song became an anthem of those who struggled under the weight of economic disparity and highlighted the hypocrisy many lawmakers, and upper-class individuals displayed by keeping their sons home but funding the impending slaughter of American and Vietnamese men and women.

The songs discussed above, 'chipped away at the edifice of official propaganda and ideological strictures' (Payerhin, 5). They created a multitude of constructive comments and points of reference to help define a societal critique, and form and collective identity for listeners. Crossing racial, gender, and economic lines, these pop culture songs paved the way for social mobilization to heal the injustice of minority groups within the US. Protest songs aggregate, reinforce, and propagate common symbols and beliefs that allow social movement participants and leaders to construct effective action. 'Strange Fruit' and Fortunate Son influence independent public discourse by framing the respective issues of reactionary racism and anti-war propaganda that influenced pop culture consumers who worked to shift the paradigms in which they lived.

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