dance divider bar

1950s: Rock and Roll Rocks the System
Rock and roll, by its very nature, was also considered dangerous during its early days in the 1950s. For the first time, music crossed over racial boundaries; integrated audiences listened to music born of the blending of black and white musical styles and performed by both black and white artists. This musical integration was controversial in a country where the United States Supreme Court had to mandate school integration in 1954. Not only was rock and roll interracial, but it was irreverent and raucous, expressing a spirit of crazed abandon which was revolutionary.

Although rock’s earliest manifestations dealt most frequently with such teenage concerns as love, sex, cars, dancing, and good times, the music often rebelled against the status quo and represented a threat to mainstream white America. During the 1950s a genuine teenage culture arose in America--one with buying power and its own tastes in music which were contrary to the pop music (Frank Sinatra, Doris Day) most adults preferred. Rock and roll, with its emphasis on rhythm, provided an outlet for feelings of isolation, frustration and angst many American teenagers were experiencing. A song like 1958’s “Yakety Yak” by The Coasters is a classic of teenage rebellion, hardening parents and school authorities in their opposition to rock and roll.

The vast majority of 1950s rock and roll subject matter was frivolous, often using nonsense syllables as an integral part of the lyrics. A few songs, however, did touch directly on more serious social issues. The Robins’ “Riot in Cell Block #9” from 1955 was a story song describing poor conditions leading to a prisoners’ revolt. In 1958 The Silhouettes released “Get A Job”, a song whose realistic lyrics reflected a recession mounting in America. In each case, humor softened the message, making the songs less threatening in the paranoid political climate of the Cold War and McCarthy years. In a similar vein, Barrett Strong’s 1959 “Money (That’s What I Want)” has become a classic depiction of the haves vs. the have-nots that has been covered by various artists over the years.

dance divider bar

1960s: The Times They Were A-Changin’
Although 1950s rock and roll may have been revolutionary in its energy and its flouting of social conventions, it was not self-consciously political. In the 1960s, however, a generation of baby boomers matured against a social and historical backdrop which included the threat of nuclear proliferation, the winding down of McCarthyism, the struggle for civil rights and the war in Vietnam. Teenagers and young adults began to view their parents’ values and politics as increasingly reactionary and an anti-establishment counterculture was born. As the mouthpiece of this generation, rock music began to influence social change in addition to reflecting it.

Of the myriad of music styles popular in the early 1960s, folk music was the first to become socially relevant. The most important figure of the 1960s folk boom was Bob Dylan who invented the singer-songwriter genre. Inspired by people like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, Dylan wrote deeply resonant topical songs, some of which ("Masters of War,” “Blowin’ in the Wind") were first published in Broadside, a mimeographed magazine started by Seeger in 1961 for the express purpose of generating contemporary topical songs. Seeger’s plan worked and the 1960s saw a topical song explosion on a scale which hadn’t been seen since the union-organizing days of the 1930s. Although Dylan essentially renounced conventional politics after his 1964 album, The Times They Are A-Changin’, the trend he helped put in motion was profoundly influential. In addition, Dylan’s social unconventionality and his attitude of superiority to mainstream culture would prove to be central to the lifestyle and music of the San Francisco psychedelic scene in the mid-to-late 1960s.

Always supportive of populist causes, 1960s folk music first embraced the civil rights movement. Although music had not been a direct organizing force in the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycotts of 1955 and 1956, by the 1960 lunch-counter sit-ins, “freedom songs” had become central to the movement. Northern singers such as Dylan, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary traveled south to sing at rallies and churches. Supplemented by hundreds of amateur singers as well as black and white college students working as civil rights volunteers, these performers helped make 1964 and 1965 “freedom summers.” Dylan, Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, Odetta and Harry Belafonte performed during the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington in 1963 where he gave his famous “I have a dream” speech. Also in 1963, Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” broke onto traditional southern R&B stations and became the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement. Through folk music, performers spoke out against injustice and discrimination, spreading their socially-conscious stance to a generation of young Americans and musicians who began to incorporate meaningful lyrics into their songs.

Another type of music heavily associated with the civil rights movement is soul, a genre which combines the passion and vocal techniques of gospel music with the secular subject matter and instrumentation of rhythm & blues. As performed by such artists as James Brown and Aretha Franklin, soul dominated both the pop and r&b charts in the 1960s with both blacks and whites buying the same records. This soul explosion coincided with the spirit of integration which inspired the struggle for civil rights. By the mid-1960s such songs as Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions’ “Keep on Pushing” expressed the hopes of African-Americans for a better life. Unfortunately, although soul music triumphed on the pop charts, black artists and business leaders (with the notable exception of Berry Gordy, Jr. at Detroit’s Motown Records) were still largely dependent on white music industry professionals. In April 1968 the golden age of soul came to an end with the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.--an event which caused unmistakable hostility in black neighborhoods all over the United States.  James Brown’s 1968 “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” reflected a new political thrust among the black community. Instead of focusing exclusively on integration into white mainstream America, the more separatist ideas of black power and black pride were beginning to take hold with a younger generation of African-Americans.

By the mid-to-late sixties, musicians in the San Francisco Bay area, including such bands as the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service, began to influence both rock music and society at large. Centered around leftist politics, hallucinogenic drugs, tribal spirit and music, the hippie counterculture challenged authority and galvanized young people already alienated from an adult world. Long hair and rock music became symbols of the struggle against social convention. Beginning in 1965 when Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters staged the first acid tests backed by the music of the Grateful Dead, psychedelic experiments influenced a generation searching for meaning in an increasingly confusing and disturbing world. By the “Summer of Love” in 1967 hippie culture swept the nation. As the Vietnam War escalated, the anti-war movement became strongly associated with both the folk and psychedelic scenes. Rock festivals became gathering places not only for music fans but for non-conformists and social rebels of all kinds. The power of rock music as a catalyst for social change is exemplified by the rock festival at Woodstock in 1969 where 400,000 people participated in a group cheer denouncing the draft and U.S. involvement in southeast Asia.

dance divider bar

1970s: Rock and Roll and the Me Decade
The early 1970s saw the end of both the Vietnam War and of rock’s revolutionary or political commitments (at least for the time being). Rock had become more a part of the institutionalized culture than a force against it. In a decade which saw the rise of disco (Donna Summer) and glam rock (David Bowie), image and elaborate stage shows often became more important than content. With a few exceptions, mainstream rock in the “Me Decade” effectively ignored sociopolitical causes. Such songs as Bob Seger’s “Feel Like a Number,” Jackson Browne’s “Before the Deluge” and “I Don’t Like Mondays” by the Boomtown Rats are personal protests, taking the approach of the individual against the system. A few artists like John Lennon ("Give Peace A Chance,” “Imagine,” “Woman Is the Nigger of the World") and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young ("Ohio") recorded socially relevant songs, but these kind of topical songs were more throwbacks to the 1960s than true products of the 1970s. Soul music also continued to express the African-American experience, capturing the increasingly troubled nature of the times in such songs as Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City.”

Two other styles of music which came to the fore in the 1970s were punk and reggae. Iconoclastic British punk bands like the Sex Pistols ("Anarchy in the U.K.") and The Clash ("Rock the Casbah”; London Calling, Sandanista) were aggressively political in their lyrics and in their rejection of orthodox culture. Reggae, the popular music of Jamaica, was the voice of the people, protesting social conditions and a violent, corrupt government. During a period when the horror of the Vietnam War was fresh and when Jamaica seemed close to civil war, Bob Marley and his band the Wailers performed such protest songs as “I Shot the Sheriff” and “Get Up, Stand Up”, becoming reggae’s biggest superstar.

dance divider bar

1980s and 1990s: Rock Redevelops a Conscience
In 1980, the murder of John Lennon shocked the world. Ironically, this tragedy seemed to regalvanize audiences and disperse some of the negativity, apathy, and alienation which had characterized the rock of the previous decade. In the 1980s rock suddenly developed a conscience again. Unlike the streets-oriented protests of the 1960s, however, rock music’s engagement with social causes in the 1980s and thus far in the 1990s have been much more involved with corporate culture. Such efforts as MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy, no nukes concert 1979), Live Aid, Farm Aid, capitalize on rock’s broad appeal by focusing on raising money for human rights causes through concert and record sales. Along with such fundraising efforts, two other innovations of the 1980s--the introduction of the compact disc and the 1981 debut of MTV--continue to increase music’s exposure to a global audience. The advent of CDs caused entire music catalogues to become available and introduced older music--such as 1960s protest songs--to new listeners. Now, in the mid-1990s MTV has an international presence, making any socially-conscious song far more effective. For example, “Sun City” by United Artists Against Apartheid (Steve Van Zandt) was played widely on MTV reaching a global audience. MTV’s Rock the Vote initiative in the 1990s has been dedicated to increasing young people’s participation in the democratic process. Musically, several trends of the 1980s and 1990s have been involved in social protest.

Indirectly, heavy metal, which had begun in the late 1960s and 1970s, can be construed as a form of social protest. This guitar-based rock with amplified guitar and bass reinforcing each other continued the trend of rebellion against authority and mainstream culture. The sledgehammer rock and sometimes satanic overtones of a band like Black Sabbath fed into teenage disillusion and found ready acceptance in the US, especially among white teenage males. However, figures such as Ozzy Osborne used shock value and a tenuous connection with black magic more to sell records and concert tickets than out of any deep socio-political convictions.

Also arising in the 1980s was heartland rock as exemplified by Bruce Springsteen and John Cougar Mellencamp ("Crumbling Down,” “Little Pink Houses"). Springsteen began his career in the 1970s and was initially hailed as the next Bob Dylan in the post-folk singer-songwriter mold. Springsteen quickly outgrew this restrictive label and became an international superstar. His music, harkening back to rock’s blues and folk roots and arising out of Springsteen’s working class background, found broad populist support. Several of his albums have a socially conscious slant. Nebraska (Columbia, 1982) is an acoustic album in the spirit of Woody Guthrie which, while not overtly political, gives thought to the state of the nation ("Seeds"). Born in the U.S.A. (Columbia, 1985) looked more ironically at the same subject with the title track focusing on the plight of veterans in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. During the Born in the U.S.A. tour, Springsteen also involved himself with community groups working on such issues as labor, hunger and homelessness. Springsteen’s other philanthropic commitments have included his participation in USA for Africa We Are the World and Amnesty International Human Rights Now. Springsteen’s socio-political orientation continued in 1986 when his cover of Edwin Starr’s “War” became an international hit. In 1992 Springsteen returned to the Top 10 with “Philadelphia,” a song about AIDS--the main public health issue of our times.

Another dominant music of the early 1990s was grunge, a music based on both punk and heavy metal which emerged from Pacific Northwest. Such bands as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden cultivate a “grungy” feel in their music and in their anti-fashion appearance characterized by flannel shirts and jeans. Like rap, grunge reflects such grim socio-economic realities as unemployment, broken homes and the apathy and hopelessness of the so-called “Generation X,” perhaps best exemplified in Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Pearl Jam has also been involved in social protest in its crusade against Ticketmaster’s monopoly on ticket sales. Grunge began in the 1980s, but it was in 1991 that Pearl Jam’s Ten and Nirvana’s Nevermind were released, making Seattle a major rock center in the 1990s. In 1994, at the height of his success, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain committed suicide, shocking his fans and the music world.

Perhaps the most socially-conscious music of the 1980s and 1990s is rap. Rap music, a phrase coined in 1976, began in New York dance clubs with DJs interspersing instrumental breaks from popular records with other songs. Using turntables, sound mixers and such techniques as “scratching” and “sampling,” rap developed into an independent form of music that reflected the African-American experience in poor, city neighborhoods. One of the most important early rap songs is “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five which depicts the vicious cycle of ghetto life. The emergence of rap coincided with the ambiguous social legacy of the 1960s civil rights movement and the resurgence of black nationalism in America. Among the mainstream media and general public, rap sometimes has the negative reputation of violent and/or sexually explicitly lyrics. While this is often true, a case can be made that strong language is necessary to accurately capture a sense of a violent, chaotic society. Groups like Public Enemy ("Fight the Power") express the rage and alienation many poor, urban African-Americans feel. Furthermore, rap’s critics also often ignore rap’s more positive aspects including its encouraging renewed black cultural pride and its outspoken confrontation of tough social issues. Such songs as “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” by Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel and Digital Underground’s “The Danger Zone” have explicitly anti-drug lyrics while performers like Salt ‘n Peppa ("Ain’t Nothing But a She Thing") and Queen Latifah ("Ladies First") demonstrate a strong female presence in rap. The diversity of rap music expresses a range of African-American experience and continues to grow as a music form into the 1990s.


The preceding overview gives an idea of rock’s connections to social protest throughout its history--from rock and roll’s de facto rebellion against the status quo to outright statements about social problems. Nearly every aspect discussed above is represented in some fashion in the artifacts, displays, films and interactive terminals of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Although we do not offer guided tours of the museum, it is our hope that these materials will help teachers prepare students, enhancing their museum visit.

Suggested Songs

The following are examples of songs which could be used for lessons relating to the Civil Rights Movement and to the anti-war protests of the 1960s.

Civil Rights Movement
“Abraham, Martin and John” Dion (Laurie, 1968) song written about Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy
“If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)” Peter, Paul and Mary (Warner, 1962)

“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” Bob Dylan (Columbia, 1964)

“Keep On Pushing” Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions (ABC-Paramount, 1964)

“People Got to Be Free” The Rascals (Atlantic, 1968)

“Respect Yourself” The Staple Singers (Stax, 1971)

“Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud(Part 1)” James Brown (King, 1968)

“Stand” Sly and the Family Stone (Epic, 1969)

“Think” Aretha Franklin (Atlantic, 1968)

recorded April 15, 1968; Franklin was a personal friend of Martin Luther King, Jr. and had performed at a number of events with Dr. King.

“We Shall Overcome” Joan Baez (Vanguard, 1963) recorded live at Miles College in Birmingham, Alabama; based on music from a 1794 hymn

NOTE: Movin’ On Up, a CD anthology of songs relating to the Civil Rights Movement, was released by The Right Stuff, a division of Capitol Records, Inc. in 1994.

Vietnam War
“Alice’s Rock & Roll Restaurant” Arlo Guthrie (Reprise, 1969)
short version of his 18-minute tale “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” “Blowin’ in the Wind” Bob Dylan (Columbia, 1963)

covered by Peter, Paul & Mary (Warner, 1963) and Stevie Wonder (Tamla, 1966)

“Born in the U.S.A.” Bruce Springsteen (Columbia, 1984)

“Draft Dodger Rag” Phil Ochs (Elektra, 1965)

“For What Its Worth (Stop, Hey What’s That Sound)” Buffalo Springfield (Atco, 1966)

“Fortunate Son” Creedence Clearwater Revival (Fantasy, 1969)

“Give Peace a Chance” John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band (Apple, 1969) recorded in a hotel suite in Montreal, Canada; new version by the Peace Choir (featuring son, Sean) charted, 1991).

“Ohio” Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (Atlantic, 1970) written by Young after four students killed at Kent State University.

“Viet Nam” Jimmy Cliff (A&M, 1970)

“War” Edwin Starr (Gordy, 1970) covered by Bruce Springsteen (Columbia, 1986)

Of course, there are many more songs on these two topics as well as on subjects ranging from apartheid to AIDS. For other song ideas, please see the following:

Chilcoat, George W., “Popular Music Goes to War: Songs About Vietnam,” International Journal of Instructional Media vol. 19(2), 1992, pp. 171-181.

Cooper, B. Lee, “Popular Records as Oral Evidence: Creating an Audio Time Line to Examine American History, 1955-1987,” Social Education, January 1989, pp. 34-40.

Cooper, B. Lee, “Popular Songs, Military Conflicts, and Public Perceptions of the United States at War,” Social Education, March 1992, pp. 160-168.

Cooper, B. Lee, “Social Concerns, Political Protest, and Popular Music,” The Social Studies, March/April 1988, pp. 53-60.

The Green Book of Songs by Subject rev. ed. (Professional Desk References, Inc., Nashville: 1994).

Marsh, Dave and Bernard, James, The New Book of Rock Lists, rev. ed. (Duke & Duchess Ventures, Inc., and James Bernard: 1994).