On 4 May 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on students protesting against the US invasion of Cambodia. They murdered four students—and wounded another nine—at Kent State University. In response, student strikes spread throughout the US, with four million taking part at universities and schools.
The shootings had a huge impact on US music and culture at the time. The rock band Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young rushed out Neil Young’s great protest song, Ohio. This was not the only response from musicians and bands.
Eleven days after Kent State police opened fire on black students protesting at Jackson State College in Mississippi, killing two—one of them only 17—and wounding another 12. In response to these two events, the Steve Miller Band released their powerful song Jackson-Kent Blues. Even the young Bruce Springsteen wrote his protest song Where was Jesus in Ohio, and there were more.
The shootings came at a time of revolt in US society, against war and racism and women’s and gay oppression.
In his new book, Whole World in an Uproar, Aaron Leonard chronicles the part that folk and rock music played in the tumultuous years from 1955 to 1972. He looks at the surveillance and harassment that the bands and singers were subject to at the hands of the FBI secret police.
The book is a welcome sequel to his earlier one, The Folk Singers and the Bureau which looked at the period from 1939 until 1956. In the earlier period, the FBI focussed on the influence of the US Communist Party. By the time we get to the period covered in his new book, Communist influence had pretty much collapsed.
Now the FBI had to deal with Black Power protests and with the mass movement that developed in opposition to the Vietnam War.
One of the most powerful voices of protest was the young Bob Dylan, who wrote some great songs condemning racism and militarism and celebrating resistance. Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues, which attacked the US far right, was pulled from his Freewheelin’ album (1963) by the record company. He was also banned from the Ed Sullivan Show when he insisted that he be allowed to perform the song.
When he received the Tom Paine Award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee in December 1963, he said he saw something of himself in Lee Harvey Oswald. Though Dylan said he wouldn’t have gone as far as Oswald, who had assassinated warmonger President John F Kennedy the previous month. At this point, the FBI opened their Bob Dylan file. By 1965 Dylan had abandoned protest music.
Singers and bands were carried along by the wave of protest. At the start of May 1968, the Grateful Dead performed for students at Columbia University. It was an act of solidarity after the police had just broken their strike
Soon after in July 1968 Gordon Lightfoot released his Black Day in July about the Detroit riots the previous year. The US state deployed troops and tanks on the streets of the city who machine-gunned blocks of flats and murdered 43 people. It was banned by nearly every radio station in the US.
The Woodstock festival, held in August 1969, is often seen as a celebration of peace and love today. But, at the time, there was a powerful anti-war message from Country Joe and the Fish, Joan Baez, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix and others. Indeed, New York State’s Republican governor Nelson Rockefeller considered sending in the National Guard to forcibly disperse the 300,000 people assembled there.
The great band Country Joe and the Fish dedicated their third album Together (1968) to the Black Panther Bobby Hutton, who’d been murdered by cops. At the massive anti-war march in Washington DC on 24 April 1971, they performed their tremendously powerful I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die protest song.
But, as far as Leonard is concerned, Jefferson Airplane was the rock band most determined to challenge the system. Their fifth album Volunteers (1969) is ample testimony to this. He reveals that the band’s lead singer Grace Slick actually tried to slip President Richard Nixon some acid in an effort to “broaden his mind”. But she was not allowed into the event where she hoped to do it. The band had its own FBI file.
Leonard also chronicles the surveillance and harassment of the singers such as Indigenous artist Buffy St Marie. The authorities successfully urged radio stations not to play her songs.
There is, of course, much more in the book than covered in this review. It is essential reading for anyone interested in this period of struggle and protest—and we can only look forward to Leonard’s next volume.