Boomers Challenged the Male-Female Status Quo … Slowly

Music has always reflected the era and culture in which it was produced. There’s probably no better example of that than the music of the Boomer Generation. Mister Boomer will argue that while society was changing in a myriad of ways after the War, social morĂ©s would follow suit only at a glacial pace. Thankfully, boomers and their music did help to push things along, if only by creating more awareness of the issues.

One of these issues that have spanned the boomer decades is equality between the sexes. Our society had been a male-dominated culture before World War II, and continued to be so into our boomer years (and arguably to this day). A case in point is that while men were at war, women “manned” the factories and shops, but as soon the men returned home, women were once again relegated to the house. It was this very “demotion” that set the stage for the Baby Boom of 1945-1965, so, in some ways, we have this societal male control to thank for our very existence. Yet we’ve been speaking about the unfairness of the situation since.

From the fifties through the seventies, songs sung by and about women reflected the reign of the male. While the role of women was changing, the Ford Motor Company started advocating “more independence” for women at home in the far-spread suburbs (in a self-enriching way) by suggesting husbands buy a second car that the little woman could use while he was at work. Well, at least women could drive.

No better song exemplifies the plight of early boomer women than Sandy Posey’s Born A Woman (1966).
It makes no difference if you’re rich or poor
Or if you’re smart or dumb
A woman’s place in this old world
Is under some man’s thumb

Even with such self-flagellation, the song concludes that she’s glad she was born a woman, and wouldn’t have it any other way.

Three years earlier (1963) Lesley Gore sang what can be described as a plea for women’s independence with You Don’t Own Me, defiantly stating, “Don’t tell me what to say; don’t tell me what to do.” Yet like all revolutions, there would be continual push and pull. The very next year she released That’s the Way Boys Are, which sounds more like a capitulation to the status quo than a call for change.
When he treats me rough and acts as if he doesn’t care
Well I never tell him that he is so unfair
Plus he loves me and I know it but he’s just afraid to show it
‘Cause that’s the way boys are

Also in 1963, The Crystals had their biggest hit with And Then He Kissed Me.
Then he asked me to be his bride
And always be right by his side
I felt so happy I almost cried
And then he kissed me

The song survives as a young girl’s romantic daydream, but it also shows the indoctrination of the generation.

That same year Jimmy Soul electrified dance floors with a catchy tune that would have a hard time reaching the airwaves today: If You Wanna Be Happy.
If you wanna be happy
For the rest of your life,
Never make a pretty woman your wife,
So from my personal point of view,
Get an ugly girl to marry you.

A second male voice enters the song to tell the singer his wife is ugly, and his response is, “she’s ugly but she sure can cook!”

One year later (1964) Dusty Springfield climbed to number six with the Burt Bacharach and Hal David song, Wishin’ and Hopin’.
Show him that you care just for him,
Do the things that he likes to do,
Wear your hair just for him,
‘Cause you won’t get him, thinking and a praying
Wishing and a hoping

Once again a woman is reminded that her place is to please the man. The fact that it reached the Top 10 speaks of how normal the whole sentiment was.

In 1968, a new cigarette that was targeted at women was introduced by (the then-called) Phillip Morris Companies. Their Virgina Slims brand ran print and TV ads with the slogan, “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.” The far-from-subtle message was a woman could smoke whatever she wanted. By connecting their brand to woman’s freedom, some marketing historians suggest that it was responsible for an uptick in smoking among teenage girls at the time.

So it went throughout the sixties and into the seventies. For every song (or commercial) “promoting” female independence, there were more counterparts reflecting the status quo. Take Todd Rundgren’s We Gotta get You A Woman (1970).
We gotta get you a woman,
It’s like nothin’ else to make you feel sure you’re alive.

While the song may be about a friend helping another who just experienced a break-up by suggesting they visit prostitutes, it certainly objectifies women. The singer exclaims, “They may be stupid but they sure are fun,” then later adds, “when we’re through with you, we’ll get me one, too.”

In 1971, a new voice brought the conversation back to female empowerment when Helen Reddy released (in collaboration with Ray Burton), I Am Woman.
I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back and pretend

Once Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem heard the song, they used it to close out the 1973 convention for the National Organization for Women in Washington, D.C., launching it into anthem status for the feminist movement.

Mister B, of course, is male. His closest connection to the subject, however, dates to 1980. That year Mister B joined thousands in a protest march in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment. More than thirty years later the Amendment has not been ratified, and the push and pull seems to continue on all fronts. Boomers took pride that their generation wanted to upend the status quo; we welcomed a blending of the races in our teen years through music, and have always stood for the rights of the underdog.

How about it today, boomers? Surely woman have “come a long way.” Women have run for the highest office in the land, yet still pay more for dry cleaning than men. Can our generation nudge change along again by instilling in our children and grandchildren that all men — and women — are created equal, and will they write — and listen to — the songs that will help to move the society forward? Let’s hope the times they will continue to be a-changin’.

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?