Rock Music, Politics and Society in the long 1960s – Madeleine Ash

When Innovative Learning Week began in 2012 I remember one of my tutors, semi-jokingly, commenting that having a particular week dedicated to this was a little offensive – it implied that what the tutors did the rest of the year was not ‘innovative’. Well, this seminar on ‘Rock Music, Politics and Society in the long 1960s’ was almost identical in structure to any seminar I’ve experienced in the History, Classics and Anthropology department at any other time of the year; except it lasted an hour longer. So aside from failing the ‘innovative’ criteria, what was the event like?

This has got to be one of the most appealing topics to investigate in history – a chance to study the ‘swinging sixties’, a heavily romanticized decade that conjures up images of sunny music festivals, peace signs, psychedelic clothing and a country abuzz with new sounds, new fashion and liberation of all sorts – all viewed through the hazy smoke of marijuana, indisputably the drug du jour. Of course, this decade also included the Vietnam War, the Civil rights movement and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jnr. and JFK. It is this, the relationship between political events, the emergence of various genres of music and shifts in societal attitudes, that this event focused on.

Very much music-led, time was split between listening to clips of some of the stand-out songs of the decade, including Bob Dylan’s ‘With God on Our Side’ and ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ as well as John Lennon’s anthem ‘Give Peace a Chance’ and George Harrison’s ‘Bangladesh’; watching excerpts from documentaries (Scorsese seems to have had a strange monopoly on these) and listening to Dr. Ahonon provide some historical context.

It was interesting to obtain a sweeping overview of how various factors interlinked, how musicians took inspiration from political events or movements, and in turn inspired these movements and became figureheads for various causes. It was also interesting to note the first ever concert put on to raise money for charity, now such a common occurrence, was ‘George Harrison and Friends’ at Madison Square Gardens in 1971, to raise money for Bangladesh. This really was the point at which popular music became politicized.

However, despite being an interesting topic, three hours of the same format proved a little long. Perhaps it would have been better to split this talk into two separate ones; there was an awful lot of material to cover. Certainly a very interesting topic, a bit of tweaking and imagination with how it is approached and this could be a great Innovative Learning Week topic for 2014.

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