“I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.
You’re taking my life from me.
I can’t breathe. Will anyone fight for me?”
— “I Can’t Breathe,” H.E.R., 2020
Music born of angry times of domestic disunity in American history leave indelible marks on us that speak loudly about who we are rather than who we propose to be.
It was true when slavery tore the union asunder. It was true in the 1960s as the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War set generation against generation.
It’s true now in a nation geographically and culturally torn between its legacy of the rule of law in a democratically elected republic and a brooding nationalism that foments fallacious conspiracies and aspires to autocratic rule, achieved through violence if necessary.
Nowhere do those conflicts echo as completely and indelibly than in the words of songwriters who etch them into the lasting narrative of who we are and how we see ourselves as Americans.
In 1862, composer George Frederick Root’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” was a rallying call for the Union and abolitionists.
Protest music chronicled Black Americans’ struggle to end Jim Crow and assert their rights as human beings starting in 1939 with “Strange Fruit,” the anti-lynching song jazz legend Billie Holiday continued to sing at great personal loss as federal authorities set out to crush both the music and the musician.
Woody Guthrie’s folk songs championed the dispossessed and displaced in the mid-20th century, and “This Land Is Your Land” became a staple of the Civil Rights movement. In 1962, Bob Dylan spotlighted unending U.S. Cold War military adventurism with “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Two years later, R&B legend Sam Coooke released his heartbreaking and timeless “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
Among the most durable antiwar songs of the late 1960s has been “Fortunate Son.” In it, John Fogerty and his band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, exposed the futility and unfairness of the Vietnam War, a conflict fought largely by poor and minority draftees while the well-born or well-connected often got a pass.
“…(S)ome folks inherit star-spangled eyes. They send you down to war. And when you ask ’em, ‘How much should we give?’ They only answer: ‘More, more, more,’” Fogerty sings in the 1969 release. For emphasis, he adds, “It ain’t me. It ain’t me. I ain’t no senator’s son.”
The song touched a nerve, as had “Saigon Bride” by Joan Baez in 1967 and Buffalo Springfield’s haunting “For What It’s Worth” in 1968. On a concert stage in 1969, Jimi Hendrix’s guitar mastery turned the “Star Spangled Banner” itself into a dystopian, off-key, antiwar classic. A year later, Edwin Starr released his raw, primal “War!” And in 1971, Graham Nash followed up with “Chicago | We Can Change the World” and Cat Stevens offered his mellow “Peace Train,” according to George Plasketes, an Auburn University media studies professor and a leading scholar on American pop culture. The songs flourished as weariness over carnage across the Pacific and racial inequity at home spread from the counterculture left into the heartland, particularly among its restive youth who saw their government sacrifice their generation to a deceitful and open-ended strategy of containment, not victory.
“We didn’t have the internet and social media, so music was the primary form of expression — and it still is, obviously,” said Plasketes. “It was an abundant playlist.”
Driven by Fogerty’s unforgettable melody, his lyrics called out Washington’s duplicity in prosecuting the conflict years before publication of the Pentagon Papers established it as fact.
The previous year, Communist North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive had inflicted heavy damage and casualties on U.S.-backed South Vietnam and eroded support for the war among Americans. In its aftermath, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, the most trusted newsman in America, visited Vietnam and concluded in an hourlong special upon his return that the war was unwinnable. A month later, a despondent President Lyndon Johnson abandoned his re-election bid. Back-to-back assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had traumatized a nation for which President John Kennedy’s assassination was still fresh and painful.
Fogerty’s rock anthem is a postcard from that dissonant and unmoored moment: A year that produced Woodstock and the first footprint on the moon; the start of Richard Nixon’s presidency and the end of the Beatles; diabolical murders by Charles Manson’s blood cult and, perhaps strangest of all, the New York Mets winning the World Series.
Fifty-two years have passed. Soldiers and anti-war flower children of that time are grandparents. The riven America they see today seethes with a domestic enmity and the adrenalized tingle of the instant just before a fistfight.
A nation that never honestly dealt with its original sin is explosively divided over social and economic equity for the descendants of enslaved Black people. At the forefront are disparate rates of arrests, incarcerations and deaths for Black people at the hands of our justice system. The country is engrossed by live trial coverage of a white Minneapolis cop accused of killing George Floyd. Its verdict could ignite a second consecutive summer of fire and blood.
The simple precaution of wearing a face covering — or the failure to wear one — to dampen the COVID-19 spread became a freighted political statement, sometimes a confrontational flashpoint.
And, for the first time in U.S. history, radicalized elements loyal to the loser of a presidential election overran the Capitol to halt the Constitutional process for verifying the Electoral College vote and overturn the legitimate outcome. They came within seconds and a matter of feet from seizing then-Vice President Mike Pence, whom some indicated they planned to hang as a traitor for following the law. Five people died, and the seat of American government remains a dystopian scene, ringed with steel fencing, razor wire, barricades, and thousands of armed troops.
Among the artists who set the national angst to music half a century ago, Fogerty remains and has done it again with “Weeping in the Promised Land,” a heartbreaking lament for these times with a swaying cadence and the soulful lyrics evocative of Black Gospel music.
While “Fortunate Son” aimed broadly at authority and privilege, Fogerty’s latest work is unabashedly specific to people and events that shaped the past year’s headlines. True to the title’s Old Testament allusion, he presents former President Donald Trump as a “fork-tongued Pharoah” downplaying the pandemic and “shouting down the medicine man” ― Dr. Anthony Fauci. Without naming names, his lyrics invoke Breonna Taylor, whom Louisville, Kentucky, police shot to death in her bed, and then Floyd’s nightmarish curbside killing:
Out in the street, on your neck with a knee,
all the people are crying your last words, “I can’t breathe.”
These are hard truths imparted as no other art form can match, Plasketes said.
“What they sing resonates on such a different level, one that I/we can trust as being closer to the truth, a perspective that, to me, is more genuine, intense, sincere, meaningful than the words spoken and expressions from the political realm or those hackneyed ‘thoughts and prayers’ from the pulpit,” he said.
There is a profusion of new, sharp-edged protest music, voicing the rage and defiance of a new generation unwilling to acquiesce to institutional brutality in America.
Black artists are producing this era’s most significant and powerful work. Among the most persuasive voices, beginning a decade ago, is Kendrick Lamar’s and his unflinching “Alright.” Taking a more mournful but no less gripping approach is “I Can’t Breathe” by H.E.R. Released after Floyd’s death, the potency of the music is enhanced by fresh video of protest marches nationally and a series of drawings of recently killed Black people.
Beyoncé brought her star power to “Lemonade,” a painfully poignant visual album in which the mothers of Michael Brown (Ferguson, Missouri, 2014)’ Trayvon Martin (Sanford, Florida, 2012); and Eric Garner (Staten Island, N.Y., 2014) are shown holding photos of their slain Black sons. “Freeze Tag” by Dinner Party stops a listener cold with its all-too-real refrain, “if I move, they gonna shoot me dead.”
Some music has gained greater legacy media traction to punch through the pop culture barrier to cross-generational, multi-racial audiences. Notable among them are John Legend’s inspiring “Glory” and Andra Day’s soaring “Rise Up.”
It’s tough today, however, to make the leap into the broader American consciousness because the internet affords today’s performers with greater freedom and a diffuse, virtually limitless number of distribution channels compared with the ’60s and ’70s. Then, radio airplay, record sales and television appearances, with their censors, were the gatekeepers which could (and did) make or break artists, Plasketes noted.
“Back then we were broadcasting,” said Plasketes, who came of age during that era in Chicago’s robust media market before moving south to Ole Miss in the mid-’70s. “Today, we’re narrowcasting, we’re microcasting, we’re nichecasting.”
Fogerty was there then and now. His music bookends both troubled eras, binding them together in our collective consciousness. And that has value because it abides as a necessary reminder that we’ve yet to realize our own high aspirations.
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