Where Have All the Socially Conscious Folk Singers Gone?
Buffy Sainte-Marie opens the Stanford Live season on Sept. 22 (Image credit: Denise Grant)
By Nicholas Jennings
In the not-so-distant past, music had the power to change the world. Fuzzy, pie-in-the-sky thinking? Not at all. Back in the 1960s, songs were real rallying cries that won over hearts and minds. And those stirring anthems actually galvanized movements and helped to stop racism and bring an end to war. Seems like a strange dream today.
Can’t start a fire without a spark, Bruce Springsteen tells us. The spark that ignited protest songs in the 1960s was the civil rights movement. Calls for racial equality grew louder after thousands of African American protesters were arrested and many others killed by the Ku Klux Klan. A turning point came when the Freedom Singers performed at the Newport Folk Festival, where they linked arms with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary and sang “We Shall Overcome.”
Like Pete Seeger before them, Baez and Dylan took up the cause of singing against social injustice with zeal. Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in Their Game” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” spurred other folkies to comment on issues of the day, none more so than Phil Ochs, whose “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” served as the clarion call for the anti–Vietnam War movement. One of the era’s most powerful anti-war songs was “Morning Dew” by Canadian folk singer Bonnie Dobson. Inspired by her fear of a nuclear holocaust, it became a signature song of the Grateful Dead.
Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the civil rights March on Washington, August 28, 1963
Canada’s Buffy Sainte-Marie penned “Universal Soldier” in the Purple Onion coffeehouse in Toronto’s bohemian Yorkville district. At the San Francisco airport while en route to Toronto, she witnessed badly wounded American soldiers returning home from Vietnam. “I got talking to some of the soldiers and started thinking about who was responsible for war,” she recalled. “Was it the generals? The politicians? Then I realized that we’re the ones who voted for the politicians, so really everyone’s responsible.” “Universal Soldier,” Dylan’s “Masters of War,” and many of Ochs’ compositions became catalysts that led the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.
Can’t start a fire without a spark, Bruce Springsteen tells us. The spark that ignited protest songs in the 1960s was the civil rights movement.
Born on the Piapot Cree First Nation reserve in the Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan, Sainte-Marie was adopted by family relatives and raised in Massachusetts. It wasn’t long before interest in her indigenous heritage led to powerful songs like “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone” and “My Country ’Tis of Thy People You’re Dying” that highlighted the plight of her people. It’s something the 76-year-old music legend has continued doing, mostly recently with her award-winning album Power in the Blood.
Musicians continue to respond to a disturbing world around them. Whether it’s singer-rapper J. Cole paying tribute to Michael Brown and Eric Garner, both victims of police shootings, in his harrowing “Be Free” or Fiona Apple calling out Trump for his misogyny in her caustic “Tiny Hands,” the protest song tradition is alive and well.
Nicholas Jennings is a Toronto-based music journalist and author of several books on Canadian music.
Upcoming Event: Friday, Sept 22
Canadian folk legend Buffy Sainte-Marie performs at Bing Concert Hall.