From Sea to Shining Sea Squad: The Blues and Politics

Hi Everyone,

Tom Standage’s book, A History of the World in 6 Glasses, is one of my favorites because it provides a broad history lesson of human kind through a unique lens, solely looking at how different periods of time can be categorized by the most popular drink. Other books like Mark Kurlansky’s Salt and Cod are good examples of this too, they argue that history can be examined in ways contrary to popular models such as the, “Men of History,” model or the progressivism model. They argue that history can be examined through economic and cultural shifts, like where was salt or cod being bought and sold, or where was tea being made and transported?

In the same way, if you were to look at the Cold War you could illustrate history through the lens of popular music. The Cold War was a time standing from roughly 1945 to 1990, which also encompasses the golden age of Rock ‘n Roll music. By looking at the status and evolution of Rock ‘n Roll a person can get a feel for how American culture changed through time during the Cold War.

Rock ‘n Roll traces its origins back to the 1920s and ’30s. During this time the genre of music called the blues was emerging and jazz was already prominent. Musicians like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Blind Lemon Johnson, and Lead Belly were showcasing the earliest and rawest version of the blues that would later transfuse with guitar styles shown by popular jazz guitarists like Django Reinhardt and West Montgomery to later give birth to the classic rock age of the ’60s and ’70s. But before this happened there were many more musicians that incorporated blues forms with jazz techniques. The three, “Kings of the Blues,” were B.B., Albert, and Freddie. They all were terrific blues guitarists that utilized the simplicity of long drawn out notes and relied heavily on their masculine and scratchy voices to portray their “blue” emotions. But, along side them was always a “big band” a huge arrangement of horns, drums, and a piano that was not seen before in early blues music.

This transition of the solo blues guitarist into the blues singer with a huge band behind him coincided with the popularity of the genre. The blues was emerging from its delta origins and spreading to big cities, most notably New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Dallas, where each would develop different tastes. The popularity of the blues also led to the expansion of audience. The blues was developed by African American culture in the south and the spread of the genre to northern cities led an increase of African American popular figures. This led to many artists like Bo Diddley, Etta James, and Fats Domino’s success. Along side the rise in African American popular musicians, many white Americans began to emulate the styles that emerged from the blues. Most notably Elvis Presley, his songs, “Hound Dog,” and “That’s Alright,” were actually covers of past blues musicians “Big Mama” Thorton and Arthur Crudup.

This adoption of the blues into the main stream played a huge role in the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s. As more African American musicians had bigger and bigger audiences, their message could reach more people. Songs like B.B. King’s “Chains and Things,” and Lead Belly’s, “Bourgeois Blues,” spoke of the racism that was present in America before and during the civil rights movement.

Diving into the ’60s, the blues were taking on a new form, a closer form of what we know to be Rock ‘n Roll. Musicians like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Carlos Santana were all putting their twists on the blues form, adding Latin styles, new technologies, and psychedelics into the mix. During this time music began targeting the “big man” that was government. Songs like “If 6 was 9” by Hendrix, “I’d Love to Change the World,” by Ten Years After, and “For What It’s Worth,” by Buffalo Springfield, were all directed towards the U.S. government as a means of protest to, “white-collar conservatives,” and Hendrix put it. These songs established a firm distrust in the government by people and led to huge misconceptions by both sides. The anti-war protestors were cast out to be communist druggies who detested the U.S.A., and the government and soldiers that were trying to stop the spread of communism into south east Asia were characterized as murderous war lords. Songs like “Machine Gun,” “American Woman,” and, “7′ O’clock News” were heavily geared towards withdrawal from Vietnam. Bob Dylan was a huge anti-war protestor during this time with, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” he also calls out politicians during this time essentially telling them their methods were outdated in his song, “The Times They are a Changin.” It’s also crucial to point out John Lennon, who’s “Imagine,” will forever be a song dedicated to his message of peace, but many people also see it as a song that supported anti-American ideas.

During this time the women’s movement was also in full swing. Many women found a voice through song and took to lyrics as a means of feminism. One of the best blues singers of all time, Aretha Franklin, wrote, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” illustrating the gender inequalities of the time. Also, Leslie Gore’s, “You Don’t Own Me,” was widely popular and emphasized the goals of the women’s movement.

There were plenty songs against the idea of nuclear war as well. While playing the Fallout 4, if a person tunes into Diamond City Radio, they will hear a whole plethora of songs themed around nuclear war. This was the case for most of the Cold War, people’s fear of atomic war bled into their music with songs like, “Enola Gay,” and  Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” This use of songs to display fear of nuclear war would be an interesting detail in our game since ours is based around nuclear fallout, however it may be difficult to do so with Twine.

However, it is interesting to see how music has evolved with the different movements of American culture. Musicians took to song to get their message across about various topics in the 20th century, topics like war, racism, and gender equality. It should be noted that the use of music as a means of protest is not solely a 20th century American occurrence, all throughout history and the world people have been using music as a means to protest. However, I believe that the period of the Cold War gets much more attention because it is fantasized today as a message of peace and an example of the power of the people.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *