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Byron Williams: What was going on then

Byron Williams: What was going on then

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The social tension that erupted over the summer had some suggesting it was a reenactment of 1968, when racial strife and the Vietnam protests combined to make America a cauldron of unrest.

Regardless of the historical comparisons between the current moment and the generation of the 1960s and early ’70s, there is one area where there can be no comparison, in my view: protest songs.

Long before individuals became “woke,” there were myriad singer/songwriters some 50 years ago who had their pulse on America’s social and political climate, capturing the zeitgeist of the moment.

I’ve selected five songs that I believe best represent the symbiotic relationship with the times that defined the era:

5) "A Change is Gonna Come" — 1964, Sam Cooke

Inspired by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Cooke describes the hardships African Americans endured, coupled with an indomitable hope rooted in the historical Black church. Throughout the song, Cooke’s anguish and his belief in what is possible simultaneously run a parallel course as he stands proxy for a people seeking a new reality.

4) "Mississippi Goddam" — 1964, Nina Simone

If Sam Cooke offered a mantra for hope, Simone, in a song she composed in less than an hour with a show tune melody and recorded live at Carnegie Hall, took a more cynical approach with similar objectives. "Mississippi Goddam" reflects the spirit of civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer, who famously said that her participation in the movement was based simply on the fact she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

3) "For What it’s Worth" — 1967, Buffalo Springfield

There is no song that captures the mood of the opposition to the Vietnam War like "For What it’s Worth." It is theme music for a decade that defined grass-roots change. It is routinely included as part of the soundtrack for any movie involving the era. From Academy Award-winning films like "Forest Gump" and "Coming Home" to Ken Burns’ award-winning Vietnam mini-series documentary, "For What it's Worth" requires no dialogue. One need only watch the scene with this track playing over it; your mind will do the rest. If you identified with the song at the time of its release, you may be experiencing some mild discomfort to know that, if the current generation has embraced it, you may very well be the object of its ire.

2) "The Times They Are a-Changin’ "1964, Bob Dylan

My first complete literary project, “1963: The Year of Hope and Hostility,” discussed in some 340 pages how that year was seminal in America’s social and political growth. The times were indeed a-changin’. Dylan achieved the same effect in roughly three minutes. Written in 1963, released in 1964, Dylan's song foresaw the overt change in America’s politics, criticism of the media and warned that social discontent would not remain passive on college campuses. Many were prepared to take action, holding legislators in Washington accountable. It was a call to action that became the anthem for an increasingly frustrated and cynical youth.

1) "What’s Going On" — 1971, Marvin Gaye

OK, I cheated. This is not only my favorite protest song; this is my favorite protest album of the era. Gaye, in his indelible soulful style, critiqued the Vietnam War ("What’s Going On"), urban reality, the post-civil rights movement ("Inner City Blues") and his concerns for the planet ("Mercy, Mercy Me").

Ironically, Motown founder Berry Gordy was opposed to the release of the initial single, "What’s Going On," until it reached No. 1. But after his financial epiphany, Gordy demanded an entire album. Because of "What’s Going On," Motown artists such as the Temptations, Edwin Starr, Stevie Wonder and others were inspired to exert their protest voice.

What the aforementioned songs have in common is the pathos of the lyrics. The lyrics didn’t suggest how or what to think, but captured the growing discontent, and they remain relevant today. Because greatness is often measured through hindsight, another columnist will surely come along to critique his or her favorite protest songs of this era.

But this is my subjective list; and because there are only five, I acknowledge that some great music is being left on the cutting room floor. If there was something you felt was an egregious oversight, by all means drop me a line.

If you’re wondering, my list is based on research as an author, not as one trying to relive my past. I wasn’t old enough to appreciate these songs when they were originally released.

* * *

In last week’s column I misquoted the Rev. Martin Luther King. I wrote: “The choice is no longer violence or nonviolence, but violence or nonexistence” instead of “nonviolence or nonexistence.”

The Rev. Byron Williams (, a writer and the host of “The Public Morality” on WSNC 90.5, lives in Winston-Salem.

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