The Power of Song: How Protest Music Was Ahead of Mainstream Media

Forty years ago this week, Seymour Hersh broke the story of the My Lai massacre, in which hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians were killed by U.S. soldiers. Hersh later was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting, but he may have been scooped – not by another journalist, but by a then 20-year-old singer/songwriter named Arlo Guthrie.

Two years before Americans learned about civilian casualties from Hersh, Guthrie addressed the issue in “Alice’s Restaurant,” an 18-minute musical narrative that begins with his arrest for littering and ends at the Draft Board, where a Sergeant notes the arrest on young Arlo’s record and asks him if he has rehabilitated himself. Arlo replies with a mixture of anger and sarcasm: “Sergeant, you got a lot a damn gall to ask me if I’ve rehabilitated myself. You want to know if I’m moral enough join the army, burn women, kids, houses and villages after being a litterbug.”

During the 1960s, young Arlo was not the only singer/songwriter running ahead of mainstream media outlets. Protest music actually functioned as alternative media during the Vietnam War era, regularly asking questions and raising issues that were absent from the mainstream media.

War and the MediaTo support this argument, I recently authored a chapter on protest music for War and the Media: Essays on News Reporting, Propaganda and Popular Culture, a book published by McFarland & Company this fall. In my essay, I point to songs such as “Alice’s Restaurant” to demonstrate that protest music offered the public information about the Vietnam War that was not being provided on a regular basis by mainstream media.

For example, during the early stages of the war when it was U.S. policy to deny that American military personnel were engaged in active combat in Vietnam (and most media reports described the situation this way), Phil Ochs suggested that American military involvement was being described as a “training mission” in order to avoid embarrassment should the U.S. lose the war: “Well training is the word we use, nice word to have in case we lose,” he sang in the opening verse of “Talking Vietnam.”

Later in the song, Ochs expresses mock chagrin that the enemy in Vietnam fails to recognize the (false) claim that Americans are only offering assistance and not engaging in combat:

Well the sergeant said it’s time to train

So I climbed aboard my helicopter plane.

We flew above the battle ground

A sniper tried to shoot us down.

He must have forgotten, we’re only trainees.

The chapter I authored includes similar mentions of songs written by Country Joe McDonald, Tom Paxton and Pete Seeger – all of whom wrote lyrics that addressed issues that were absent from the mainstream media. In many ways the essay provided an opportunity to synthesize the work I have conducted over my career as a music critic, as a political reporter and as a media studies doctoral student. I especially enjoyed tracking down some of the influential singer/songwriters from the 1960s, most of whom were happy to talk about their work and lend support to my theory about the role protest music played during the Vietnam War era. Paxton agreed that it filled a void left by mainstream media. Buffy St. Marie called protest music “an alternative news outlet” and noted that she wrote the song “Universal Soldier” at a time when most news reports did not even acknowledge that there was a war in Vietnam.

Some people familiar with my research on this issue have suggested that bloggers are playing a similar role today by driving mainstream media outlets, much as they did when they raised questions about the accuracy of Dan Rather’s reporting on former President Bush’s military records. This is an interesting theory that will require much additional research before it can be proven right or wrong, but I did make a similar observation when I was exploring the work of Bruce Springsteen for an academic symposium at Monmouth University earlier this fall.

My goal was to learn how Springsteen has kept in touch with his working class New Jersey roots while becoming a multi-millionaire and international superstar. I began by searching for connections between Springsteen’s music and the major news stories that have taken place in New Jersey during his career.

When I found none, I realized I was looking in the wrong place. I was looking at the major stories the New Jersey news media had reported, but I didn’t take into account the possibility that the items the news media deemed most important to cover might not be the same as the issues on the minds of working class New Jersey families – and that these working-class New Jersey families have more in common with the messages of Bruce Springsteen’s songs than they do with the news that makes headlines.

A number of media scholars have suggested that there is a gap between the type of news that is reported and what is actually of importance and interest to the citizenry. Much like protest music did in the 1960s, Springsteen’s music fills this gap. For example, people may gain a better understanding of the dire economy from the characters and the stories in Springsteen’s songs than they do from news reports filled with numbers, percentages and statistics.

Regardless of whether it is Bruce Springsteen in 2009 or protest singers in the 1960s, music has always had the potential to be just as powerful and influential as a news report. As Buffy St. Marie explained when I asked about the impact of protest music: “A good song is immediate, small, easy to remember, makes a point quickly and strategically, and is portable, flexible, replicable, transferable to other people and other languages, and can last for generations. A song never goes out of print.”

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