The 1960s are remembered for many things, such as the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and the devastating assassinations of several iconic leaders. One of the critical elements of that tumultuous decade was the music, especially the songs that contained a message for listeners to ponder. These songs not only defined the decade, but in many ways, they are still relevant today.
1. A Change Is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke
Inspired by Bob Dylan’s 1963 song “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and his personal experiences with racism and segregation in America, Sam Cooke wrote his greatest song. He voices Black Americans’ pain, struggles, and determination to fight for their place in a world that normalized unequal treatment because of skin color. Sadly, Cooke died before seeing the end of Jim Crow in America.
2. Get Together by The Youngbloods
Originally performed by the Kingston Trio in 1964, the 1967 cover by The Youngbloods became a top ten hit when the group re-released the song in 1969. The song is an open plea for people to be peaceful, choose love over the fear of their fellow man, and get along with one another. Its message is undoubtedly a timeless one.
3. Respect by Aretha Franklin
Otis Redding sang the popular original version in 1965. Still, it wasn’t until the Queen of Soul put her Grammy award-winning stamp on the song that it became an anthem for the second-wave feminist movement of the decade. Aretha not only demanded R-E-S-P-E-C-T, but she also insisted that men TCB or take care of business, too.
4. Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud) By James Brown
This unofficial anthem of the Black Power movement denounced racism and called for Black empowerment. A group of children intentionally performed the call-and-response chorus of “I’m Black and I’m proud!” to allow them to grow up with pride in themselves. While the song alienated some of Brown’s crossover fans at the time, its message resonated with many Black listeners.
5. Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan
In this protest song, Dylan asks the listener questions about freedom for all people, the recognition of the humanity of others, and the devastation of wars. The song’s appeal to equality was so powerful that it inspired Sam Cooke to write “A Change Is Gonna Come” the following year. It’s one of Dylan’s most covered songs, with over 300 versions recorded since the 1960s.
6. Give Peace a Chance by the Plastic Ono Band
Written by John Lennon and recorded in a hotel room in Montreal, Canada, this anti-war anthem featured performances from notable figures such as Yoko Ono, comedian and musician Tommy Smothers, author and psychologist Timothy Leary, and actress, singer, and songwriter Petula Clark. Other celebrities, such as comedian and activist Dick Gregory and writer Allen Ginsberg were present for the recording.
7. Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater Revival
While this song is typically seen as one of the anthems of the anti-war movement, particularly against America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, it was written to show solidarity with the soldiers fighting in the conflict. It was a criticism of how social class determined that the sons of America’s wealthiest received deferments from the war. In contrast, the sons of lower-income families were conscripted to fight.
8. Revolution by The Beatles
The Beatles released multiple versions of “Revolution” in 1968. A relaxed, more acoustic recording was included on The White Album, and the more up-tempo, rock version was released as a single on the B-side of Hey Jude. John Lennon wrote the song in response to all the political protests and activist movements throughout the 1960s.
9. Society’s Child by Janis Ian
The subject of interracial relationships was more than taboo in the 1960s; it was more or less unthinkable. Influenced by her childhood growing up in a predominantly Black neighborhood, Ian tackled the topic by depicting the story of a young white girl who breaks up with her African American boyfriend because she’s unable to deal with society’s opposition to their relationship. The track was a top 15 hit for the folk singer.
10. Gimme Shelter by The Rolling Stones
Viewed by many as one of the signature songs of The Rolling Stones, “Gimme Shelter” decries the brutality of war and the inhumanities suffered by civilians caught in the middle of the conflict. Even though the social unrest of the 1960s didn’t inspire it, it reflects the anti-war sentiments of the time. Merry Clayton’s searing vocals made an already great song even more remarkable.
11. What the World Needs Now Is Love by Jackie DeShannon
Co-written by legendary songwriter Burt Bacharach, the optimistic track about the world needing a little more love was initially offered to singer Dionne Warwick, who turned it down. DeShannon went on to record it, becoming a top-ten hit. Warwick ended up covering the song the following year and again in 1996.
12. Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In by The 5th Dimension
Combining two songs from the 1967 Broadway show Hair became a number-one hit for the group The 5th Dimension. The single also earned the group two Grammy awards the year after its release. The astrology-inspired lyrics stem from the belief that the world was about to enter the Age of Aquarius, associated with enlightenment, idealism, and philanthropy.
13. White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane
One cannot reflect on the 1960s without considering Grace Slick’s opus composition. The track heavily relied on references to Lewis Carroll’s novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass. “White Rabbit” was one of the first songs to reference drug use that made it past radio station censors to receive widespread airplay.
14. You Don’t Own Me by Lesley Gore
Before Aretha Franklin demanded respect, Lesley Gore emphatically stated that she was no one’s property in this hit track heralded by second-wave feminists. In articulating her independence from a man, Gore tells him he can’t tell her what to do, what to say, or put her on display. That was a bold and inspirational message from a 17-year-old.
15. We Shall Overcome by Joan Baez
“We Shall Overcome,” a gospel turned protest song, is one of the primary anthems of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Baez famously performed it in 1963 at the March on Washington, in which Dr. King gave his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech. Her rendition is considered one of the most poignant performances ever given.
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