In 1957, Arkansas governor Orval E. Faubus used the National Guard to prevent some African American teenagers from attending a high school populated by white students.
Bassist Charles Mingus had some lyrics for this jazz tune, but the record label, Columbia, only permitted an instrumental version. At least, according to some reports and Wikipedia. It could also be the case that the lyrics came later.
All the same, the song toots and sings against racism and for the integration of schools, which jived with Supreme Court rulings at the time.
Humorist Tom Lehrer finds the silver lining in nuclear destruction!
Nuclear war would kill us all, but at least, unlike an adversarial war, we would all be doing something in common. Dying!
The 1959 song is touching on the concept of mutually assured destruction, early considered here by Frankie Goes To Hollwood’s Two Tribes, and Dawn of Correction by The Spokesmen. It is the premise that countries won’t start a nuclear war because they will be destroyed, too.
In the 1980s, “Star Wars” technology was touted as a way to get around this, by using satellites and other weaponry to shoot down incoming nuclear missiles. Twenty-first century worries about “rogue states” possessing nuclear weapons has revived some interest in this gambit.
Bob Dylan sang just a few years later, similarly, in Let Me Die in My Footsteps – that he would face nuclear fallout before hiding in a fallout shelter.
Lenoir (1929-1967), was a bluesman from Mississippi. He was profiled in director Martin Scorcese’s documentary, The Blues. This song, from 1954, has the singer suggesting that President Dwight D. Eisenhower (in office 1953-61), was not doing enough to create jobs, forcing him on relief – social assistance.
While this 34th President was largely preoccupied with foreign affairs, perhaps Lenoir was thinking of Eisenhower’s efforts to cut back the New Deal programs. The New Deal refers to a collection of Great Depression-era social programs hinged on three “R”s – relief, recovery and reform.
Jean Ritchie is considered the “mother of folk music.” From Kentucky, she has an amazing life story (14 siblings in a one-room Kentucky home, eventually singing with other folk heroes such as Woody Guthrie, obtaining a university education and becoming a folk song historian…).
Black Waters is a poetic, early environmental song protesting strip mining, from the 1950s. Ritchie fantasizes about buying out the mining company to save the land where she was born.
My only sin
Is in my skin
What did I do
To be so black and blue?
From 1955, and written by Fats Waller, the blues as a musical idiom is appended to the color black, as in race. And thus a pleasant number subtly addresses racism. Right around this time we had the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which got the integration of schools started. Rosa Parks decided not to give up a bus seat, too. Still, murders of blacks continued in places like Mississippi, and the civil rights movement had more work to do.
Mento music from 1950s Jamaica is a calypso-type style predating reggae. The controversy surrounding this particular ditty has been well-reported: vague lyrics that may be sexual, which later aroused the disdain of politicians before Louie, Louie. Trade and Industry Minister WIllis O. Isaacs (of ruling Britain at the time) sounded off on Night Food in Parliament, for its loose morals. He may have helped start a tradition of politicians reacting against changing cultural norms.
Pete Seeger borrowed the tune for this 1955 song from a Russian (or Ukranian) folk tune. And since then, other artists have added verses and adapted it. This makes the song a folk song in the true sense of it seeming like it has always been around, and a tradition evolving. Mind you, nowadays we might also call such borrowing and adaptation to be copyright infringement.
Perhaps Bob Dylan, too, copped the rhetorical device of asking “where” and “when” in this song, for his own argument or resignation that solutions to political, social and economic problems are out there blowing in the wind. Both tunes may be depressing for recanting areas for improvement, for bringing peace and ending war… and wondering if we have what it takes, collectively, to learn and better ourselves for the good of all. And perhaps frustratingly, not suggesting solutions. It’s been a long time passing, and when will we ever learn?
Given that Pete Seeger has dedicated many, many decades to teaching us through song, we should hope others will continue his tradition.