Sunday, September 30, 2012

If I Had a Hammer

Protest Songs/Message Music: Part 3

A paradigm for 1960s folk music, Peter, Paul & Mary were known for their prolific political activism involving the peace movement and other causes. Written by Pete Seeger (an iconic figure in the folk music revival) and Lee Hayes in support of the progressive moment in 1949, "If I Had a Hammer" was first recorded by their group The Weavers, who inspired the "folk boom" that followed in the early '60s. The folk song was not much of a success until Peter, Paul & Mary recorded it over a decade later in 1962 for their debut album. Released that August, "The Hammer Song" became a Top-10 hit and became an anthem for the Civil Rights movement. The trio even performed it at the 1963 March on Washington, which also featured fellow folk musician Bob Dylan (from this post), as well as Martin Luther King Jr's infamous speech. Here's an excellent TV performance of this timeless classic.
 Our next emotional civil rights-themed ballad comes from British Invasion group The Hollies. Written by Bob Russell (who was dying of cancer at the time) and Bobby Scott, "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" used the old motto for Boys Town for its title, and it was reported at the time that song was about a Vietnam veteran. This vet saw a little boy carrying the dead body of a younger boy away from a burning village, and when asked if the body was heavy, he replied: "He's not heavy, he's my brothers." This statement is a figure of speech (known as a paraprosdokian) in which the second half of the statement causes the hearer to reinterpret the first part. Released in September 1969, this moving tune reached #7 in the US and #3 in the UK, where it was also re-released in 1988 (paired with "Carrie Anne"), reaching #1 after its use in a commercial. While the studio recording features a young Elton John on piano, here's a powerful performance by The Hollies and lead singer Allan Clarke (with introduction by famous radio DJ Kasey Kasem). Now this is beautiful songwriting!
Our next 1960s era anti-war song comes from Canadian folk-pop group Original Caste who were known for their rich, tight vocals and clean sound. Written by group members Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, the 1969 song "One Tin Soldier" was a #1 hit in Canada and managed to reach #34 in the US. Telling an abstract story of a hidden treasure and two neighboring peoples, the lyrics are a parable condemning prejudice and greed. The song was revived in the 1971 when a version by Jinx Dawson and her band Coven was featured in the soundtrack for the film Billy Jack, hitting the charts in 1973 and again '74 after the end of the Vietnam War, and was named the Number One All Time Requested Song of '71 and '73 by American Radio Broadcasters Association. With the beautiful vocals of Dixie Lee Innes, here's a live performance recording (audio only) of the initial group Original Caste.
Our final tune comes from folk/pop group The Kingston Trio, one of the most prominent bands in the revival of folk music in the late 1950s to the late 1960s. Beginning as a San Francisco Bay area nightclub act, the trio released 19 albums that made the Top-100, 14 of which were ranked in the Top-10, and 5 of those hit the #1 spot. One of the group's most successful singles was "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" which reached #21 on the US chart in the 1962. The first three verses were written by Pete Seeger in 1955, and the additional verses were added by Joe Hickerson in 1960, who turned it into a circular song (about the cycle of history and how impossible it is to break). Gaining wider meaning during the Vietnam War, it later has been listed as the "Top 20 Political Songs" (by New Statesmen). Here's a 1966 performance by The Kingston Trio on The Andy Williams Show (R.I.P. Mr. Williams!).

Friday, September 28, 2012


On September 25th, we lost another beautiful voice when crooner Andy Williams passed away at the age of 84 of bladder cancer. In a career spanning over 50 years, the Iowa-born singer recorded 18 Gold albums and had 27 Top-40 singles, and from 1962 through 1971, hosted a popular TV variety show, The Andy Williams Show. Even while the music of the British Invasion took over American radios in the '60s, Williams continued to have hit records, especially in England where his singles outsold records by The Rollings Stones, The Kinks, and The Who. Two of his most popular songs have become American standards: his signature song "Moon River" (which was actually never released as a single) and the Christmas classic "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" (featured here).

Since I'm saving the infamous "Moon River" for a Movie Themes Series (coming soon), here are two other tunes Williams performed on his variety show. From 1965, here's Williams singing the mellow tune "Try to Remember" from the 1960 musical The Fantasticks (a hilarious show I've performed in myself!).

Originally an instrumental hit for Bob Crewe in 1967, here's Williams' version of "Music to Watch Girls By," which reached #34 in the US later that same year, eventually reaching the Top-10 as a re-released single after its use in a Fiat commercial in the UK.

Another sad loss to the music industry and entertainment business, Mr. Williams will be greatly missed.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

People Got to Be Free

Protest Songs/Message Music: Part 2

Today's first protest song comes from one of our favorite roots rock bands Creedence Clearwater Revival, known for their dedication to homegrown American music. Released in September 1969, CCR released "Fortunate Son," a double A-sided single with "Down on the Corner," and first reached #14 on the US chart the week before Billboard changed its methodology on double-sided hits. Eventually, this track and its reverse side combined peaked at #3 by the end of the year, and ["Fortunate Son"] has since been ranked #99 on Rolling Stones' list of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time."  This roots/blues rock song was popular during the Vietnam War and is included in several Vietnam films and video games. Written and produced by lead singer John Fogerty, it is the perspective of a man who is being drafted who is not "fortunate" enough to be the son of a Senator or a millionaire. Featured on The Ed Sullivan Show, here's an excellent live performance that sounds just like the recording! 
Before the dissolution of The Beatles, John Lennon and Yoko Ono formed a conceptual supergroup in 1969 called the Plastic Ono Band with various members including Eric Clapton (guitarist on the left in this clip), artist Klaus Voormann, future Yes drummer Alan White, and The Who's drummer Keith Moon, among others.Written by Lennon and recorded during his 'Bed-In' honeymoon, "Give Peace a Chance" was released in July of 1969 as his first solo single while still a member of The Beatles. Peaking at #2 in the UK and #14 in the US, this song quickly became the anthem of the anti-Vietnam War movement, and is one of Lennon's most famous songs to be included on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's list of the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. Credited to the Plastic Ono Band (an identity to describe works by Lennon and Ono and anyone else who happened to be performing with them), here's a live performance in Toronto in '69, which supposedly gave Lennon the confidence to tell the other Beatles a few days later that he was leaving the band.
Often referred to as the "British Bob Dylan," Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan covered this next protest song in the mid-60s. Originally written and recorded by Canadian singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie in 1964, "Universal Soldier" didn't gain much attention until the budding folk singer Donovan recorded his version and released it as a single in August of 1965, reaching #5 on the UK charts. Sainte-Marie said this folk song was about "individual responsibility for war and how the old feudal thinking kills us all." Since, this tune has been recorded by several other artists including The Highwaymen, Glen Campbell, Joan Baez, and Phil Ochs, as well as several foreign singers. Performing before a captive audience, here's Donovan's version of the consummate anti-war song.
We'll conclude today's post with an upbeat one by American blue-eyed soul group The Rascals (initially know as The Young Rascals). Becoming a big hit in the turbulent summer of 1968, "People Got to Be Free" spent five weeks at #1 in the US, as well as reaching #14 on the Billboard Black Singles chart, and eventually sold 4 million copies. Written by group members Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati, this horn-punctuated plea for tolerance and freedom struck a particular chord in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. After the release of this song, The Rascals refused to tour on segregated bills, and if an African American act was not included at their concerts, the group would cancel several shows in protest. With Cavaliere on lead vocals and rock organ, here's another dynamic live performance by The Rascals in 1969.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

A Day of Protest

Protest Songs/Message Music: Part 1

Associated with a movement for social change, protests songs were often the soundtrack to the turbulent times of the 1960s. With the rise of the Civil Rights movement, the influence of counterculture groups (such as hippies), and the escalation of the Vietnam War, protest songs flourished, often promoting peace or revolution. So, looks like it's about time for a little 3-part series on this influential genre.

One of the key figures in the protest movement was Bob Dylan, who produced a number of landmark protest songs such as "Blowin' in the Wind" (featured here) and "The Times They Are A-Changin.'" While Dylan's era of protest music lasted for a short 20-month period (ending in 1964 when he changed his musical style from acoustic folk to an electrified, rock sound with personal, abstract lyrics), his prolific songbook about everyday injustices and tragedies was adopted by the Civil Rights and counterculture movements (not necessarily written for them). In 1963, Dylan and his then-singing partner Joan Baez had become prominent in the Civil Rights Movement, singing together at rallies including the March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. Written by Dylan in about 10 minutes (and inspired by a hotel check that refused to give him a room due to his unwashed appearance), here's Dylan and Baez performing "When the Ship Comes In" at that March on Washington, featuring other historic footage as well.
After hearing Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," R&B singer Sam Cooke was greatly moved that such a touching song about racism in America could have been written by someone who was not black. Written and recorded in 1963 (and released shortly after his death in late 1964), Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" became a sensation among the black community and became an anthem for ongoing civil rights protests. Although only a modest hit compared to usually light-hearted singles (like "Wonderful World" and "Another Saturday Night" both featured here), this song gained in popularity and critical acclaim over the decades, and is ranked #12 on Rolling Stones' "500 Greatest Songs of All Time." With a lush orchestration, here's the talented Sam Cooke reaching back to his gospel roots to sing the song with an intensity and passion never heard before on his pop recordings (no live footage, just audio with a photo montage).
A prolific protest songwriter in the 1960s (or "topical singer," as he preferred), Phil Ochs was known for being a harsh critic of the American military industrial complex and performed at many political events such as anti-war and civil rights rallies, student events, organized labor events, oh and Carnegie Hall. Released in 1965 on the album of the same name, "I Ain't Marching Anymore" is one of Ochs' best-known songs and was written as American involvement in the Vietnam War was beginning to grow. The song criticizes all of American military history from the perspective of a weary soldier who has been present at every single war since of the War of 1812. Bordering between "pacifism and treason" (according to Ochs), he performed this signature song during the protests outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention, inspiring hundreds of young men to burn their draft cards. Here's a rare instance where Phil Ochs actually performed this tune on live TV.

Originating in Berkley, California, Country Joe & the Fish was a rock band widely known for their musical protests against the Vietnam War from 1966 to 1971, and also regarded as influential on the psychedelic rock scene of San Francisco. Written by Country Joe McDonald in 1965, in supposedly less than 30 minutes, "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" (also known as "The Vietnam Song") was an anti-Vietnam protest song from the group's 1967 album of the same name. Beginning with the "Fish" Cheer, in which the band spells out 'F-I-S-H'  like cheerleaders at a football game (which you can imagine what other four-letter word this chant gave way to), the song's lyrics are a sarcastic invitation for young and able men to join in the Vietnam War. A ragtime-style tune similar to the 1920s "Muskrat Ramble", this song was never a big hit, but it was nevertheless well-known. Here's a live solo performance by Country Joe at Woodstock in 1969 (warning: the language is unedited in this clip). Not gonna lie, this catchy tune really gets stuck in your head!