11 March 2014

Seeger, Dylan, Summer — The Sixties Reconsidered

Ask someone 'when were the Sixties?', and you'll likely get a standard answer that begins with some relationship to the Kennedy administration (1961-3), and probably ends with the assassinations of 1968 or the Altamont Free Concert (1969) or possibly, for those of 'the Big Sixties' school, with some economic event from the early 1970s such as the ending of convertibility to gold of the US dollar in 1971 or the OPEC oil embargo of 1973. There is also a 'Short Sixties' school which runs from 1964 or 1965 up to either of those end points I mentioned. Of course, the fundamental problem with using decades to define eras is that it becomes difficult to fit some events in, as the annexation of several years of the 1970s of the 'Big Sixties' school shows above. (And the pre-Kennedy 1960s have to go somewhere, so they are absorbed by the 1950s.) Also, one could argue that 'the Sixties' take place at different times in different countries. Those with experience of British television of the 1980s may remember how, in the great puppet show that was Spitting Image, Mikhail Gorbachev's reformist administration in the Soviet Union during the 1980s was presented as the arrival of the Swinging 1960s to brighten the Kremlin. I have been pondering the recent passing of Pete Seeger, and what his career might tell us about how historians can structure a narrative of cultural history that preserves a formulation such as 'the Sixties'. While some of Seeger's personal beliefs found expression in the social changes that the United States and other countries underwent in the early 1960s, with the proverbial 20/20 hindsight it becomes harder to show this in the later 1960s. Originally, my dissertation was to be on 'the meaning of Disco'. I have some very clear-cut ideas about that 1970s fad that would be bound to be controversial, but in thinking about how to write on the subject, I concluded that the kind of narrow focus that a PhD dissertation takes wouldn't really help me express them at all. I did, however, conlcude that the personification of 'the meaning of Disco' was Donna Summer. So this blog post is going to outline a proposal of how we might do better to use the careers of celebrated individuals rather than momentous events to capture historical phases. Seeger, Bob Dylan and Summer represent a trio around which one could establish a better understanding of The Sixties. Furthermore, their careers demonstrate how trying to confine the term too tightly to 1961-70 distorts our understanding of exactly how our modern world, which is very mch a creation of The Sixties, came to be. A bullet point summary would go something like • Pete Seeger represents a cultural outlook shaped by a largely in the decade before the Second World War, and the anti-fascist struggle. Its emphasis on a collective struggle against injustice, on an anti-commercial cultural strategy and on making moral compromises with communism generally and the Soviet Union particularly, capture some of the strands that carry on well into the 1960s, especially in the context of the struggle for Civil Rights and against the American war in Vietnam. The folk-music revival that thrived between 1958 and 1965 was associated with a left-wing political outlook that seems a transitional phase between the Old Left of Seeger and the New Left that coalesced around the Port Huron Statement. • Bob Dylan captures a very different cultural mood, one shaped by Democrat party thinkers like Arthur Schlesinger Jr, who in a couple of privately circulated essays among the so-called 'Finletter Group'. Schlesinger believed that two trends were at work in the aftermath of the 1952 election. In one, people were more interested in the quality as opposed to the 'quantity' of life, as material wants were less immediate than they had been in the 1930s and during the war. 'Quality' issues emphasise spiritual fulfillment, a key theme of Dylan's songs. Schlesinger's other theme arose towards the end of the 1950s, when he called for more 'heroic' political leadership. Emphasising the potential contribution of individual in contrast to group action, Schlesinger's theme again finds an echo in some of Dylan's — but also in the Port Huron Statement. Dylan's career is interrupted by the 1966 motorcycle accident, which could be seen as a good career move. Music moved in a very different direction after the accident, and he was spared the risk of seeming 'out of touch'. • Donna Summer captures what really distinguishes the the 1970s from the 1960s, which is the increasing influence of the foreign on American society. The economic crises that followed from 1968 onwards, culminating in the first Oil Crisis of 1973, were largely driven by foreign interests that demanded some crucial adjustment to American domestic policy. Summer returned from Europe bringing a very European sensibility to American culture. Grand Funk Railroad's 'We're an American Band' becomes a key emblem of the mood of the early 1970s, and the fact that it does nothing to divert the coming flood of Disco is telling. Looked at like this, The Sixties almost vanish altogether. We are left with a very short core period, roughly 1964 through 1967 — basically the height of early Dylan. Alternatively, the 1960s embrace an overlap running into the 1970s, and it rather changes the emphases one should use offer in considering the socio-political content of the 1960s. It also drags into The Sixties the early 1970s 'Limits to Growth' themes. These offer a basis to both the neo-liberal economics of the Thatcher-Reagan era and the Green politics that emerged in the late 1980s. While these questions might seem a bit recondite to most people, they are crucial to what I call 'the Public Understanding of History'. A film like The Wild Angels might seem a world away from Silent Running or The Cowboys, but I'm not so sure, and I think I can prove it.

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