Despite being in my early 40s, I grew up listening to folk songs and especially protest songs, like Leaving on a Jet Plane, Blowing in the Wind, Sunshine Go Away Today, and pretty much anything by Phil Ochs. It was not what kids typically listened to in the 1980s, but I was exposed to it and it resonated. In a sense the cry for justice is timeless.
But only in a sense.
The basic problem that protest songs from the 1960s have, in terms of being timeless, is that they are fundamentally childish. Not that it’s childish to cry out for justice—that cry is an ancient and very adult cry. But the adult cry for justice is a cry to God. It is childish to cry out to men for justice with an expectation that the cry will be answered.
The protest movement of the 1960s and the folk song movement were both many actions taken by many people so they are complex things with many causes and many aspects. To accurately describe this would take tens of thousands of years. That said, there is some useful painting with a broad brush that we can do.
The key to understanding protest songs is to situate them historically. The people big in the folk song movement were, for the most part, in their 20s or early 30s when the movement was at its height in the 1960s. This means that they were born in the 1940s and grew up in the 1950s. In fact, looking it up, I discovered that Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Art Garfunkel were all born in 1941. To be fair, Peter and Paul were born in 1937 while Mary was born in 1936. Phil Ochs was born in 1940. The major exception I’m aware of was Pete Seeger, who was born in 1919, but some people never grow up.
While decades like the 1920s, 30s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and to a lesser extent the 90s tend to be characterized with particular cultural trends, that’s not so true of the 1940s, and for good reason. The first half of the decade was dominated by World War II, while the second half was the beginning of the post-war boom. The first half of the decade was very much its own thing. With much of the culture being shifted over to a war-time footing, it was a radical change from the 1930s. The second half of the decade featured an aggressive return to a normalcy which young people had never really known after the depredations of the great depression and the war. This attempt to return to a normal they hadn’t experienced in people just settling down to (sometimes delayed) parenthood was aided by the tremendous technological progress which happened during the war. Though every age is made up of many feelings and many trends, one of the dominant feelings the late forties and 1950s was optimism. All of the people who had caused World War II had unconditionally surrendered and we were fixing their countries so that they wouldn’t do it again. Moreover, technology was booming, television was just starting to become a widespread thing, and we would soon have free, unlimited energy because of the nuclear age. Things were, at long last, finally going to become great.
By the 1960s, it became apparent that things were not, in fact, going to become great. The cold war was on. The Soviet Union had gotten the nuclear bomb and was pursuing an aggressive expansionist policy to spread communism and create buffer states to protect themselves. At home, the evil of racism was becoming less overlookable and in the late 1950s the civil rights era was really getting underway.
To someone who was born in the early 1940s and was a teenager in the 1950s, all of their memories would be from the post-war boom when optimism dominated and the general expectation was that life was going to be wonderful. The future, if you look at how it was portrayed, was largely supposed to be great. (There were, of course, premonitions that this would not be the case. The Day The Earth Stood Still was made in 1951 and Forbidden Planet was made in 1956. Again, I’m painting with a broad brush.) The clash of the unreaslistic post-war prosperity and expectations (as received by children) with late 50s and early 60s disappointments produced a specific sort of outrage.
Anyone, at any time, can be outraged that an injustice has happened. Anyone, at any time, can be outraged that the people with the power to fix it have not fixed it. Only people at a time like this could really be surprised that the people with power did not fix it, though. Most people, at most times, are more cynical, by which I mean, they are more realistic. The people who sang Blowin’ In the Wind really thought that there was a real chance of ending war if only everyone would just decide to. Speaking about the song at the time, Bob Dylan said:
There ain’t too much I can say about this song except that the answer is blowing in the wind. It ain’t in no book or movie or TV show or discussion group. Man, it’s in the wind — and it’s blowing in the wind. Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won’t believe that. I still say it’s in the wind and just like a restless piece of paper it’s got to come down some … But the only trouble is that no one picks up the answer when it comes down so not too many people get to see and know … and then it flies away. I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it’s wrong. I’m only 21 years old and I know that there’s been too many wars … You people over 21, you’re older and smarter.
The protest movement was, fundamentally, asking the people in power to fix things. It was a childish thing in that it was underlied by the assumption that the people in power could fix everything if only they decided to. A parent sees this all the time with children; they are certain that if only they ask hard enough the parent can do anything. If only they beg hard enough, they can eat candy right before bed and not brush their teeth and go to the toy store instead of going to bed and everything will be fine because their parents will make it fine.
It is possible to sing protest songs as a general lament of sin and the fallenness of the world, but at least at present, it’s not easy to ignore the childish nature of such songs. It’s not easy to appreciate a flawed thing in the way a child does, paying attention only to the best parts and ignoring the flaws. Children have the advantage that they usually don’t even notice the flaws. I don’t mean that they take them in without noticing, I mean that their limited attention, knowledge, and understanding strains out the flaws so they don’t get them. Perhaps this is one reason that the older one gets, the harder it is to take part in popular culture.
You know too much to enjoy it for what it isn’t.