If a single word could encapsulate the year 1968, it would probably be “upheaval.” War, riots, racial strife and revolution shook America to its core. And all of it unfurled to a soundtrack of rock ’n’ roll.
“That year was one of the most violent, bizarre, nightmarish years in American history,” said Richard Aquila, cultural historian. “What was the music saying about the times?”
At 3:30 p.m. Friday, July 27, in the Hall of Philosophy, Aquila, a professor emeritus at Penn State Erie The Behrend College, will present “50 Years Later: The Nightmare Year 1968 and Rock Music,” as part of the Oliver Archives Heritage Lecture Series.
The program is a combination of traditional, musical and cultural history with which the audience interacts, said Aquila, the former host AQUILA and writer of the NPR program, “Rock & Roll America,” and the author of six books, including Let’s Rock! How 1950s America created Elvis and the Rock & Roll Craze.
“It’s now part of the collective memory of those who came of age then,” he said. “The music reflects the hopes and fears of the times. Not just reflects the times, but shapes the times, too.”
The year began with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, a shocking revelation that American forces did not have the war under control. Along the way, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated and cities burned as people took to the streets to protest racism and the war. Richard Nixon was elected president. Young people turned on, tuned in and dropped out.
On the radio, Bobby Goldsboro dominated the charts in January with the maudlin “Honey.” By December, the Rolling Stones were celebrating the “Street Fighting Man” and seeking “Sympathy for the Devil.”
“By 1968, the mood changes,” Aquila said. “Instead of ‘a change is going to come,’ eventually, you’ve got James Brown singing ‘Say it Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud.’ ”
The songs of 1968 reflected that different mood, Aquila said.
Dion’s poignant “Abraham, Martin and John” lamented the murder of our leaders. Otis Redding conveyed resigned despair with “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.” “Piece of My Heart,” by Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company, was a cry of anguish. When the Who said “I want it,I want it,I want it…”on “Magic Bus,” the reply was “You can’t have it!” And, in a nod to lost innocence, Simon and Garfunkel asked: “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”
Aquila cites the Bob Seger System’s “2 + 2 = ?” as the epitome of a 1968 anthem.
“‘2 + 2’ may very well be the best anti-war song of 1968. It captured the changing mood of what was going on in 1968,” he said. “The mood of the country seems to be going down. Unlike earlier, optimistic songs that appealed to a rational approach to solving problems, this is far more cynical. He is throwing up his hands.”
Aquila sees parallels between 1968 and 2018.
The national mood was “like a pressure cooker about to blow, with pressure building, building, building,” Aquila said. “You can sense similar pressures 50 years later. I’m not one who believes history repeats itself, but there are similar reactions.”
The present-day pressure cooker, Aquila said, is cable TV, social media and talk radio exacerbating existing divisions into widening gulfs. Much of it he sees as a reaction to the polarizing presidency of Donald Trump, pointing to Kanye West’s pro-Trump “Ye vs. The People” and Eminem’s anti-Trump “Offended.”
“It’s a new era for protest music,” he said. “But it’s the same type of warning signs you had in 1968.”