Main Body

5. New Art and Music for New Consciousness

Clayton Funk

Art and Music for Social Change

customers at lunch counter
African Americans at a Lunch Counter reserved for White customers. African American Odyssey, Library of Congress

After World War II and into the 1960s, Americans were getting used to the idea of Blues and Rock and Roll, and by the 1960s, new changes shook things up and parent’s concerns about Elvis became the least of their worries. We have discussed how racial issues played out in the undercurrents of American mass media, but overall the music that sold the most was produced mainly as a form of happy entertainment.

American culture took a major shift at this time with the expansion of college education.  Thanks to the G.I. Bill that made tuition part of veterans benefits, a college degree that was previously affordable for mostly wealthy families, soon became possible for the middle classes.   In the late 1940s and 1950s, returning veterans who had seen the world now had a chance for advanced study, at trade schools, colleges, and universities, creating a rapidly expanding professional class of young families.

The counter-cultural currents in college of the 1950s among groups like the Beat Poets influenced these students who believed that it was possible to expand consciousness through meditation, the arts, and even drugs for some.
You can learn more about the beat movement at these websites:

With a basic understanding of the beat poets in mind, we can turn to art that grew out of this counter culture in the mid- to late 1960s.

Pop Art with a Social Edge

Counter culture also emerged in the Pop Art movement. A group of artists turned from the whimsical Pop Art forms of artists like Johns and Oldenberg, to social narratives. Pop Artists, Edward Kienholz, Marisol Escobar, and George Segal still worked with themes from everyday life; but instead of creating a sculpture or painting, they created environments called “installations” that displayed a narrative to draw attention to parts of society that usually went unnoticed. The idea was to draw the viewer into a narrative by presenting them with a stage-like tableau of familiar objects and figures, which took down an imaginary boundary between the art work and the viewer. Look through these biographies to get a sense of who these artists were and what motivated their work:

Music and Mind Expansion

One of the outcomes of mind expansion came when young people began to speak up about what they saw as injustices, which were reflected in art and music. Psychedelic experiences were to open the mind past social conventions and politics that they felt led to violence. The umbrella term “Protest Music” is in itself is somewhat confusing because it includes several styles of music, but all are about protest or alternative consciousness. Protest Music quite simply is music that protests something. There were a lot of “somethings” to protest against in the 1960s, including the treatment of Women (the Women’s Movement) and People of color, specifically African-Americans (the Civil Rights movement). Voices were also raised against the Vietnam War, the draft, the increasingly authoritarian government, and a number of issues on college campuses.

Folk Music

Folk music is based on mostly American and British music that was passed down through generations by oral tradition. It is a simple, acoustic music about common people and everyday events. It was not composed for dancing (as was Rock and Roll), but for contemplation. Earlier in the twentieth century, artists including Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger began to add new material, which was often political, to the genre, and by the early 1960s, Bob Dylan started the modern era of folk. Of course Dylan is included here as well as Peter, Paul and Mary, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Joni Mitchell and Country Joe McDonald.

Music in the genre of Folk Rock starts with the simple, direct songwriting style of folk music and combines it with a prominent rock back beat. Folk-rock was first developed by Bob Dylan and played by such 1960s groups as the Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, John Sebastian, The Young bloods, The Mamas and the Papas and the Turtles. The development of new consciousness led to their expansion beyond anyone’s expectation, as counter culture transpired into a revolution.

By the late 1960s controversy over the Vietnam War and the desire to break down social barriers of race and gender reached a new pitch. Some members of Beat communities broke away and formed more separate communal groups. The most prominent group known as “Hippies” left the beat community in the North Beach, San Francisco and migrated to the Haight Ashbury area in the same city.” It is in this new community that art and music would take on new forms called Psychedelic art and music as part of mind expansion.

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Psychedelic Rock (or Acid Rock)

Following the lead of counter culture and cutting edge art of the 1950s, a new generation of counterculture searched for a new consciousness that could rise above social conventions that led to the dead end of war and violence. Dr. Timothy Leary was conducting experiments with psychotropic drugs at Harvard University until he was dismissed out of professional jealously. He carried his influence to the Haight Ashbury community, where LSD became regarded as a drug that could open consciousness. In this psychedelic community were rock bands that played concerts, to raise money for the community and as part of their community rituals of mediation. This genre was called Psychedelic/Acid Rock, emerging in the mid-1960s, as a number of American bands centered around San Francisco began to develop drug inspired free-form, sometimes improvisational song structures, often incorporating elements of world music and free-form jazz in their work, as well as experimenting by altering the sound of their instruments and voices. Among the psychedelic groups were the Grateful Dead, the Doors, Love, Jefferson Airplane, Vanilla Fudge, Moby Grape, and bands led by Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. After some time, the careful control of a drug experiment eventually went out of control and this experiment came to an end.

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The multi-layered genre of “Soul” music was not part of the psychedelic movement, but it did push boundaries of racial perceptions in the U.S. For the first time in the twentieth century, “Soul” was music made and produced by by African Americans. Until this time Blues and Rock and Roll singers often did not make a profit from their recordings, but all this changed with the social unrest of the 1960s. Some of Soul was about protest, some echoed tropes of the Blues with themes from life. Though Soul was performed mostly by African Americans, it was popular among many groups. Like the Savoy Ballroom and the world of Jazz in the first half of the century, Soul brought people of different races together on the same dance floors. Today’s Hip-Hop genres have also reached around the world and brought people together.

For the sake of discussion we will cover examples of Chicago (or Northern) Soul, Motown (Detroit’s brand of soul), and Memphis (or Southern) Soul. Examples of Northern Soul are sometimes similar Rock and Roll. One of the most important figures in this genre was James Brown, who was known as an early influence in funk genres. Brown was a dramatic performer known as much for his dance moves as he was his singing. Earlier influences of soul include Sam Cooke originally with the Soul Stirrers and Jackie Wilson.

The genre of Motown was major force in Soul music, though it also held the most contrast. Instead of the raw, ornery blues influence in much of Northern Soul, Motown had a spit-polished, commercial finish to it. Led by Berry Gordy and located in Detroit, Motown records developed a sound and style so distinct that the label was called a “Wall of Sound,” with orchestras backing many of the singers. The Motown sound is easily identifiable — a strong back beat supported with bouncy bass lines and soulful but very polished vocals. Motown established very high production values and craftsmanship, which gave much of its music a manufactured quality. Singers dressed elegantly and and followed understated choreography in ways that played well on television screens. Among the Motown groups were the Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Marvelettes, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye.

Compared to Northern genres, Southern Soul was more like gospel and Southern Blues. One might characterize it as an honest, funky type of music. Its directness and attention to its R&B roots is direct contrast to the highly polished sound of Motown. Some important soul artists are Otis Redding, Percy Sledge. Aretha Franklin, who is widely regarded as “The Queen of Soul,” actually came from Detroit but she was not part of the Motown genre.


So whether you call it protest, mind expansion, or any other term used at that time, the wide popularity of social and protest themes in these music genres reflected a belief that people could change and that transformation was possible. By the 1970s all this added up to a utopian phenomena that pervaded popular culture.

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A Quick and Dirty Guide to Art, Music, and Culture Copyright © 2016 by Clayton Funk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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