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The sounds of a troubled America

The sounds of a troubled America
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For the past several months, Americans have been obsessed with COVID-19, a national shutdown, and the desire to return to "normal." Anxieties have been building like steam in a pressure cooker. The death of George Floyd blew the lid off, exploding in protests and violence in cities across the country. In the midst of all these tensions come four reminders that music — like all forms of popular culture — reflects the times.

Bob Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul” and the Rolling Stones’ “Living in a Ghost Town” capture the dark mood of the country, while Dion’s “Hymn for Him” (featuring Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa) and Paul Simon’s work-from-home edition of three recycled hits offer hope for better days. These performances by rock & roll hall of famers are the sounds of a troubled America.

Since rock & roll's birth in the 1950s, particular singers and songs have appeared — almost like magic — at moments when audiences needed them most.

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During the Eisenhower years, Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” (1956) and Chuck Berry’s “School Day” (1957) heralded the rise of a new youth culture. Later hits like Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” (1960), U.S. Bonds’ “Quarter to Three” (1961), and the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” (1963) helped teenagers explore their own new frontiers in Kennedy’s America.

Rock & roll was also there when times got bad. A few weeks after President Kennedy’s assassination, the Beatles hit the charts with the innocent “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” which offered escape for baby boomers in despair. Around the same time, Bob Dylan sounded a clarion call with the perceptive “The Times They Are A-Changin.’” When the Vietnam War dragged on and on, songs emerged like the Bob Seger System’s “2+2=?” (1968), John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” (1969), and Edwin Starr’s “War” (1970). As America unraveled, Creedence Clearwater Revival released “Bad Moon Rising” (1969) and Marvin Gaye asked “What’s Goin’ On?” (1971).

Now, along comes Dylan with his dark “Murder Most Foul.” As funereal music plays in the background, his stream-of-consciousness lyrics bombard listeners with nightmarish images and pop culture allusions that resurrect traumas and icons from the nation’s past. Referring to JFK’s assassination, Dylan says, “The day that they killed him, someone said to me, ‘Son, the age of the Antichrist has just only begun.’" Although the 17-minute-long song never mentions COVID-19 directly, the timing of the release suggests that the epic musical journey is linked to the pandemic most foul. The only question is — how? Is the enigmatic Dylan saying that a nation that survived all those horrors can also get past the coronavirus? Or, is he just offering a very dark therapy session? If so, it’s now needed more than ever, given all the social unrest and violence that have been added on top of the on-going plague. 

Not surprisingly, the Rolling Stones opt for a more direct approach on their recent release — “Living In a Ghost Town.” The eerie tune resonates at a time when people are feeling locked down and out. Interestingly, it was composed about a year before COVID-19 hit. "It was written about being in a place which was full of life, and then now that's all bereft of life,” explains Mick Jagger. “When I went back to what I'd written originally lyrically, it was all full of plague terms and things like that.” As the pandemic spread, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards realized that the bluesy song — with a few minor tweaks — captured perfectly the feelings of despair that were spreading worldwide. “Life was so beautiful, then we all got locked down,” sing the Rolling Stones. “Feel like a ghost, living in a ghost town.”

The new recordings by the Stones and Dylan have taken their rightful places alongside other brilliant, dark songs in rock & roll history such as Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” (1965), Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” (1967), Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s “Ohio” (1970), and Marmalade’s “Reflections of My Life” (1970).

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Fortunately, there’s yin and yang in rock music just like there is in life. The flip side of pessimistic rock & roll can be found on optimistic songs such as the Byrds’ “Turn Turn Turn” (1965), the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” (1969), and Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” (2002). Dion’s latest release, “Hymn for Him” (2020), continues that tradition. “Do you walk in the shadows, are your dreams swept with fears,” he sings. “Walk with Him from misfortune, walk with Him from the pain.” The song was originally recorded by Dion back in 1986 when he was singing Christian music. This new version, enhanced by Bruce Springsteen’s gritty guitar licks and Patti Scialfa’s ethereal harmonies, suggests that rock & roll’s legendary “Wanderer” believes that the hopeful message is now more important than ever.

Another rock and roll hall of famer is less sanguine but ultimately just as confident about the future. Paul Simon recently uploaded to YouTube a home video of him performing acoustic versions of songs he wrote and recorded during other troubled times — “American Tune,” “Slip Slidin’ Away” and “The Boxer.” Simon’s heartfelt video, which includes his wish for listeners to “stay safe, stay well,” sends a powerful message that America will survive.

All these songs — the hopeful and the bleak — reflect the public’s troubled mood. They also provide rock & roll catharsis sessions that help listeners cope with stressful times.

As we listen and relate to recordings like Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul” and the Stones’ “Living in a Ghost Town” or more encouraging songs such as Dion’s “Hymn to Him” and Paul Simon’s trilogy of hits, we need to remember what the Beatles sang at another dark moment in time: “There will be an answer. Let it be.”

Richard Aquila is a professor emeritus of history at Penn State University - the Behrend College and a distinguished lecturer of the Organization of American Historians. A specialist in U.S. social and cultural history, he is the former host of NPR’s “Rock & Roll America” and the author of several books, including "Let’s Rock! How 1950s America Created Elvis and the Rock and Roll Craze.”