Music was a very important aspect of the counterculture – in fact, it may have been the single most important communication medium of the time. Virtually every home in the USA had a record player – and most people had multiple radios as well as TV – although Television was not the main medium for music. The rise of FM radio in the mid 1960’s assured better signal strength and much higher quality.
Book have been written on the music of the 60’s so we will not attempt to replicate that here. Rather I will lay out some of the major musical types, basic timelines and other facts and opinions which will give a historical overview.
For ease of classification, I will break down 60’s music into genres – although, as we will see, the music soon transcended any narrow definitions. What can be said is that the majority of the music is staunchly AMERICAN and that, by and large, it ended up conquering the entire world.
Folk Music was at the roots of many poetic song tracks which fueled the beats and the early counterculture. Songs such as “Blowing in the Wind” asked questions of serious listeners. This was in stark contrast to the age of Elvis (love songs, party songs, etc.) which preceded the hippie movement. Popular folk artists included:
Peter, Paul and Mary
and many many more! Some of their songs were adaptations of earlier works, others originals, but many expressed political and societal views not often heard in the mainstream previously.
Pop Music was typified by the earlier Beatles tracks as well as many others from the British Invasion. As the counterculture blossomed, some of these tracks veered into a form of psychedelic pop…as an example, Incense and Peppermints was a top song by a group called Strawberry Alarm Clock. To the uninitiated (perhaps in drugs?), the words to these songs were foolish. Even to those who “knew”, they often didn’t make much sense – but they were cool, and as always, the desire to be “hip” was part of the youth movement.
Pop music matured into some forms of “Acid Rock”, such as Jefferson Airplane, mid-career Beatle Tracks (Sgt. Pepper) and even the White Album.
Blues and Ballads based tunes made up a very large part of the counterculture. These melodies were lifted directly from the African-American blues music, but amplified greatly and often sung and/or played by white British bands. Examples of the top blues artists include:
Eric Clapton – Cream, Blind Faith, etc.
Taken together, the artists above represent an amazingly large part of the music scene of the late 1960’s.
Mixtures of all the above and more – became evident as the times demanded experimentation and differentiation. Musicians were influenced by both their training and their musical heroes. Classification became more difficult as the styles merged. Some example include:
Sly and the Family Stone – R&B mixed with Soul, Funk and Pop
Chicago – Rock, Jazz, R&B
Rolling Stones – Blues, Ballads, R&B, Pop
Grateful Dead – Country, Blues
Allman Brothers – Country, Blues, Ballads
Moody Blues – Classical, Ballads, Pop
These are just a few examples – thousands of bands emerged out of the time, and many hundreds went onto stardom and popularity.
Music can be a way of socially and politically advancing ideas which could not be expressed in other ways. For example, sexual innuendo in Led Zeppelin songs (squeeze my lemon til the juice runs down my leg) would be unacceptable in any other format…and yet, no one complained at the time! The same goes with African-American and other sexuality, political revolution, discussion of mind-expanding drugs and their effects, anti-war fervor, etc.
Music was a way of spreading ideas, philosophy and statements which the mainstream media would likely not entertain. Moreover, the ideas and words were transmitted to millions – voluntarily.
Live concerts also became a venue for in-person gatherings of the counterculture. Woodstock became a defining moment in that all things seemed possible for a few days. Imagine 1/2 million people getting along and sharing…in very rough conditions. The soundtrack of woodstock became, in many ways, the story of the counterculture.
In a time of great violence (Vietnam, Race Riots, etc.) they sang:
“And I dreamed I saw the bombers jet planes riding shotgun in the sky,
Turning into butterflies above our nation.
We are stardust, we are golden, we caught in the devil’s bargain,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden”
As the hippies matured, so did much of the music. The Beatles and John Lennon went from pop to more serious music such as “Imagine” and “Let it Be”. At the same time, the 60’s were winding down and some of the music reflected a more depressing and “hard” edge – that of heroin abuse, depression, etc. – But “freedom music” persisted, taking other forms such a Reggae, which expressed many of the same ideals of personal freedom and rejection of “straight” society.
Many famous musicians lived fast and died young – but the legacy they left seems to have made it’s mark on history.
If the outsider wants to understand some of the hippie philosophy, I would suggest a study of the following songs:
Jimi Hendrix (too many to list, but here are a few)….
Castles Made of Sand – explains virtually all of life that often goes unsaid
If 6 was 9 – A march to being different
Little Wing, Angel – True love songs, honoring the female spirit(s).
Red House – perfect blues example redone by Jimi (the lyric are not relevant)
Have you ever been (to electric ladyland) – Short introduction with beautiful chording – asking you if you have even been to “the place” (an enlightened state perhaps brought on by love, sex or drugs?).
Axis- Bold as Love – Deep song about the colors of emotions
Note: Many Hendrix songs are much deeper than the words. Jimi used his guitar to expound on the words and speak direct to the listeners emotions or “soul”. You will often find him using words to get to a certain level and then the guitar to soar past. As as example, note the lead guitar breaks in Axis-Bold as Love.
The Beatles – Again, many many examples, but some…
Nowhere Man – Pop song about who we all don’t want to be….
With a little help from my friend – cooperation
When I’m 64 – love and long life
Strawberry Fields Forever – Amazing musical composition
Something – classic love song with spiritual overtones
Here comes the Sun – Optimistic tune
Let it Be – good advice for any times
After the Beatles broke up, Lennon and Harrison continued to write many songs which had political or spiritual overtones – while McCartney delved further into the pop and love songs which he always did so well.
The Beatles were as much about their sound as about the lyrics. Being classically trained, they were able to express very well through the medium of music. For a modern study of the Beatles music, I would suggest a trip to Las Vegas to see the LOVE production, which was curated by some of the surviving Beatles and their families.
Many in the counterculture felt that the Beatles were going through similar changes as themselves – that is, first growing up and experiencing love (songs), then experimenting with drugs – then seeking something deeper in terms of the meaning of life. Lastly, how could all of this be put into practice? Pilgrimages to India as well as interest in peace (Lennon) were part of the learning experience.
To Be Continued…..