ASHTABULA, Ohio – Popular music at the time of Vietnam protests and Kent State shootings, 1967-70, reflected the counterculture’s influence on society, but not necessarily by addressing controversies of the day, according to Bradley Keefer, associate professor of history at Kent State University at Ashtabula.
Keefer was scheduled to speak on music of the era as part of the university’s commemoration of the May 4, 1970 shootings. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down all of the live commemorative events, including Keefer’s address, but he shared a sampling of the Top 40 hits, as well as his thoughts on the era and the songs.
“The popular, top-40 AM radio listeners were not hearing much different music than what they had been hearing for a while,” he said. “Fluffy, feel-good acts like the Partridge Family, the Cowsills, the Jackson 5 and the Archies kept turning up on the radio, despite the great events that were sweeping the nation.”
Feel-good songs that were part of the Billboard Top hits in 1967-70 included:
• The Archies: “Sugar, Sugar.”
• Foundations: “Build Me up Buttercup.”
• Jackson 5: “ABC.”
• The Partridge Family: “I think I love you.”
• Bobby Sherman: “Hey Little Woman.”
• The Cowsills: “Hair.”
“Long hair was the symbol of youth rebellion against conventional behavior that included free love, no bras, infrequent bathing and communal living,” Keefer said. “‘Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In’ (TV show) both celebrated and spoofed this culture with featured go-go dancers, it’s a Mod Mod world, sock-it-to-me time, and bizarre acts like Tiny Tim.”
In 1968, President Richard Nixon appeared on Laugh-In and said, “Sock it to me,” which some people say helped get him elected over Hubert Humphrey, who turned down the invitation, Keefer said.
But there were some changes coming to the Top 40 as a handful of famous bands moved toward newer sounds.
“Both the Rolling Stones and the Beatles had taken their fame as pop acts and begun to shift their musical and cultural perspectives toward the fringes,” Keefer said. “The Beatles discovered Eastern religion and acid while the Stones toyed with ‘His Satanic Majesty’ on their respective albums, getting away from the blues-driven pop sounds that had made them household names.”
The Beatles came out with “I am the Walrus” and the film and LP “Magical Mystery Tour,” followed by the “psychedelically influenced, brilliantly produced Sgt. Pepper album,” Keefer said. “This music and its performers seemed to confirm the worst middle-class fears of a generation gone wild.”
This drug culture didn’t just affect the Beatles’ music. Other examples of the period:
• Three Dog Night: “Mama Told Me Not to Come.”
• Jefferson Airplane : “White Rabbit.”
• Jimi Hendrix: “Purple Haze.”
The music’s loud, dissonant and often “heavy” forms of blues drew young people as fast as it repelled the older crowd, Keefer said.
Some British and U.S. performers who defined the party culture also included Black Sabbath and the Who.
Less jarring artists utilized sound effects to enhance the sense of other worldliness:
• Cream: “White Room.”
• Led Zeppelin: “Dazed and Confused.”
• Lemon Pipers: “Green Tambourine.”
Message songs, rooted in the folk tradition of storytelling activism, produced many of the era’s most memorable songs while using stories and images:
• Mason Proffit: “Two Hangmen.”
• Melanie: “Lay Down” and “Candles in the Rain.”
Keefer said he always ends his presentations with “Two Hangmen” and “Candles in the Rain,” because they convey messages of defiance and hope.