We Protest: Boomers Knew Great Protest Songs

Recent protests around the world, coupled with the Occupy Wall Street actions cropping up around the country in the past few weeks, has triggered Mister Boomer’s memories of protest marches in the Boomer Age. One thing that appears to be missing from the current spate of demonstrations is music; in our boomer years, music and protests were inextricably linked. Music was written specifically to address issues of concern for protesters, or adopted for relevant content. All the major protestations of our time were included: the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Liberation Movement, Environmental Movement, and of course, the Vietnam War.

So, pick up your sign, pack your gas mask and acoustic guitar, hop on the bus and see how many of these protest songs — and songs picked up by protest groups — you can recall.

Civil Rights
We Shall Overcome: This song had its origins in gospel music, possibly dating as far back as 1901. Through the years, lyrics were adapted and altered, and mixed with the melody of another spiritual. As a result, We Will Overcome was first published in 1947 in a publication that was directed by Pete Seeger. He was taught the song, and, beginning in 1959, along with folk singer Joan Baez, helped make the version we know today the most well-known anthem of the Civil Rights Movement by singing it at rallies and demonstrations.

Blowin’ In the Wind: Written by Bob Dylan and first published in 1963, Mr. Zimmerman has said he adapted the melody from a Negro Spiritual called No More Auction Block, and the lyrics were inspired by a passage from Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory. Though considered a general peace and freedom song, it was most identified with the Civil Rights Movement.

A plethora of 60s musical stars recorded the song, starting with Peter, Paul and Mary. The Kingston Trio, The Hollies, Jackie DeShannon, The Seekers, Sam Cooke, Etta James, Elvis Presley, Bobby Darin and a host of others recorded the song. Stevie Wonder had a Top 10 hit with it in 1966.

Women’s Liberation Movement
I Am Woman: Co-written by Helen Reddy and Ray Burton, the song was first published in 1970. It became a number-one hit when Reddy recorded it in 1972, the same year Gloria Steinem published the first stand-alone issue of Ms. magazine. The song became a hit after Reddy had performed it on over a dozen TV variety shows. The National Organization for Women (NOW) picked up the song to play as the ending to their 1973 gala event in Washington, D.C. Betty Friedan reported that women got up and sang along, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Environmental Movement
Big Yellow Taxi: Written by Joni Mitchell, she recorded the song in 1970, which was the year of the first Earth Day. Lyrics from the song — like They paved paradise/And put up a parking lot and Hey farmer farmer/Put away the DDT now — hit home with environmentalists. The song was sung at rallies and made it to number 26 on the Billboard charts. Proof of the song’s staying power is that it is still being performed and recorded by musical artists today. Incidentally, DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972.

In the Year 2525: Written by Rick Evans and recorded by the duo, Zager and Evans, the song debuted on an independent label in 1968. It was picked up for national distribution by RCA Records in 1969 and hit Billboard’s number one spot for six weeks.

While some hate the song for its overly dramatic lyrics picturing a world doomed by mankind’s own hands, others saw it as prophetic verse in a time of change.

Don’t Go Near the Water: The Beach Boys got all topical and socially aware with this one in 1971. It was an especially poignant environmental message coming from The Beach Boys, since they had made a career out of fun, in-and-around-the-water music.

Whether these songs had assisted in raising awareness or not, the National Environmental Protection Agency was established in 1970 and President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Water Act in 1972.

Vietnam War
Fortunate Son: John Fogerty wrote this song in 1969 and it was recorded by Creedence Clearwater Revival that year. The lyrics tell the story of a man who is drafted, being that he is not the “fortunate son” of a politician or millionaire.

I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag: Anyone who has seen the film Woodstock knows Country Joe McDonald’s singing of this quintessential protest song of the Vietnam War in 1969. The song was first recorded in 1967 by Country Joe and the Fish. The band was booked alongside the biggest acts of the day, and also regularly performed at Vietnam War protests. Getting several hundred thousand people to chant, And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for? made the song the voice of a protest movement.

War: Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong in 1969, it was first recorded in 1970 by The Temptations for Motown and placed as an album track on Psychedelic Shack. After college students wrote to Motown requesting the song be released as a single, the company was worried that its lyrics — War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin’! — might offer more controversy for The Temptations than it would prefer. As a result, the song was re-released as a single with Edwin Starr singing vocals in 1970. As the War raged on and protests got more vocal, the song hit number one on the Billboard charts.

Give Peace a Chance: John Lennon composed and sang the song first at his honeymoon “Bed-In” in June of 1969. It was recorded and released by The Plastic Ono Band that same year. Sources state the song was sung by a half million demonstrators at the Vietnam Moratorium Day in Washington, D.C. on October 15, 1969. It became the most widely known song of the Vietnam War protests. It was simple to remember, simple to sing, and impossible to forget.

Protest songs all have timely, concise lyrics that relate directly to a cause in such a way that it resonates with listeners. They all have a catchy melody and a refrain that, in many cases, can be easily sung by a crowd. So, what is Mister Boomer’s choice for best protest song of all time? That belongs to Bob Dylan for The Times They Are A’Changin’. Mr. Zimmerman put our parents’ generation on notice as he threw down the gauntlet in no uncertain terms. Your old world is rapidly aging, is a phrase us oldsters should keep in mind these days, for it does appear the times are changing, once again.

Eve of Destruction? Back to the Garden? Ohio? Where Have All the Flowers Gone? There were a multitude of great protest songs from our generation. Which ones conjure memories of your boomer years?

Another Boomer Legend Passes On: Steve Jobs

The passing this week of Apple Computer founder, Steve Jobs, has prompted Mister Boomer to ponder the qualities of the Boomer Generation that have made a striking difference in the daily lives of every generation that has followed. Surely, generations before us were inventive and savvy in the technology of their day, but boomers have taken it to another level in just a few, short decades. Much of our modern tech-savvy ways can be directly attributed to the work of Steve Jobs.

Here was a man — himself a boomer — whom people are comparing to great inventors of past technological ages, particularly in the field of communications: Guglielmo Marconi, Samuel Morse, Robert Fulton, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison among them. Each adapted and expanded on the technology of their era to develop tools and products that changed the way people conducted their daily lives. Unlike previous generations, however, there has never been a time when the pace of change has advanced so quickly, and never before had a generation embraced that change with such gusto as the boomer generation. To wit:

We were the first TV generation. Boomers didn’t invent TV, but we became a huge part of the first audience for TV programming. We grew up watching TV, before any other generation had that opportunity. Perhaps that contributed to our ability to not fear new technologies.

We were always among the first adopters. Every new technology requires “first adopters,” who are the people who inevitably want new technologies as soon as they surface. The buzz generated by first adopters — and their analysis of the functionalities of these new products — further advance the development of products. Perhaps this is most evident in the field of technology over any other area. Among the products we embraced whole-heartedly:

  • Transistor radios. The idea of portable music devices can trace its direct lineage back from the iPod to the compact disc; the Walkman to the cassette tape; 8-track tapes to reel-to-reel; and all the way back to the transistor radio. What would have happened to the technology chain if boomer teens didn’t take it for their own, to make it a financial — and more importantly — social success? And what might have happened if Steve Jobs didn’t weigh in here? He not only took existing technology — namely, the MP3 player — and made it cool and desirable, but completely reshaped the way music would be purchased. He displayed typical boomer behavior to reinvent the old to make the new, then applied it to daily life in a meaningful way.
  • Push-button telephones. Our parents may have been the first purchasers, but boomers were the ones who used them the most in daily communications. When we were old enough to go out on our own, we helped hasten the replacement of older technologies with what would ultimately become today’s digital network. Again, Steve Jobs took existing technology — a burgeoning cell phone market — and stood it on its ear with the game-changing release of the iPhone. What rock ‘n roll had done to the music of our parents, Steve Jobs had done to the world of personal communications.
  • VCRs. Despite the arguments for or against Beta vs. VHS, we are the generation that saved our parents’ VCRs from perpetually blinking “00:00.” We hear today that kids can figure out technology so much faster than their parents, but we were the first generation to which that sentiment was attached. Again, Steve Jobs had an important part in the whole process. Not only had he helped facilitate the distribution and enjoyment of video and movies through the iTunes library, he helped transform their very existence. Through the purchasing of Pixar Studios he announced loud and clear that digitally created images would henceforth play an integral part in the moviemaking process. This was no more felt than in the world of animation. With the release of “Toy Story,” animation no longer had to be defined by the decades-old method of hand-drawn animation cells. And who among us would have ever thought that it would be possible to view videos on our hand-held telephones?
  • Personal computers. The IBM PC may have been the first, but once again, Boomer Steve took an existing technology and made it cooler for his generation, and much easier to use. Boomers have always enjoyed a level of instant gratification. Jobs played to that quality perfectly with the release of Macintosh computers. The visual nature of its graphical user interface — another existing technology — made it a simple transition for boomers, who were by this point parents and even grandparents themselves, to embrace. That in turn made it easier for the next generation to embrace technological change, and so on. It has been argued that the Windows operating system itself may never have existed without the competition represented by Steve Job’s Apple Computer.

Steve Jobs’ poignant words in 2005 reflect the very nature of boomer philosphy heard so often in the music of our day: there is no time like the present … live for today.

Mister Boomer heard a radio interview this past week in which a guest opined that in a study of four and five year olds who were given iPads, they as a group intuitively knew how to operate the devices and had no trouble doing so. These children will grow up in a completely different world thanks to the efforts of one boomer — Steve Jobs — and the boomers he employed.

Mister Boomer often recalls the ’60s and ’70s with great nostalgia. Yet in those times, very few of us could envision the world of communications and technology as it is today. It took a few boomer visionaries like Steve Jobs, and a whole lot of boomer willingness to embrace the change for the better, that has shaped our world today. Mister B is reminded of a quote from Bobby Kennedy that seems apropros to Mr. Jobs:
“There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

On a personal note, Mister B’s life has been changed dramatically due to Apple products. First, he has been a great fan of Macintosh computers since their introduction, and has been using them on a daily basis since 1986. Of course, he, along with hundreds of millions of people around the world, owns an iPod. Mister B bought one for his wife shortly after the release in 2001, then promptly bought his own in 2003. It’s still in operation today. Indeed, misterboomer.com would not have appeared as it is today were it not for Mister Boomer’s Macintosh. These posts are written, edited and posted on an iMac, which is the fourth Apple computer Mister B has owned. Thank you, Mister Jobs. Our world is a more connected place because you saw what could be, and made it happen.

What do you think about the passing of our fellow boomer, Steve Jobs, boomers?