Let Freedom Sing: A Change Is Trying to Come

“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.” – Harry S. Truman

With the Red Scare almost behind us and the ’60s straight ahead, America entered the second half of the 20th century, an era of broader freedom of speech in music — but not without a fight. In 1954, the Houston Juvenile Delinquency Commission censored Elvis Presley’s first single, “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” due to concerns about its influence on young people, by removing it from all local record stores and jukeboxes. Three years later, “Wake Up Little Susie” was similarly banned in Boston after it was deemed too sexually suggestive for teenagers. Then, in 1963, “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen caused another stir – this time with the FBI – which launched a six-city, 30-month investigation that resulted in a determination that the allegedly dirty lyrics were, in fact, “unintelligible at any speed.”

While those instances of censorship came at the hands of various government agencies, Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center, points out: “Censorship comes in many forms and comes from many directions. But, today, it almost never comes from government. That’s an important thing to note.”

In fact, one source from which censorship frequently comes is the music industry itself. Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child,” which addresses interracial dating, ran into that particular wall. After being turned away by 22 record labels, Ian and producer Shadow Morton found the song a home with Verve Records. “Society’s Child” went on to be an international hit in 1966, though Ian often encountered hostile audiences when she performed.

Likewise, Johnny Cash waged a war against the industry over its lack of support for “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” Cash was riding high from I Walk the Line when he made Bitter Tears, an album of Native American-themed songs. “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” the album’s lead single, told the story of a Native American who was among the soldiers that raised the American flag at Iwo Jima. Radio stations wouldn’t play it and Billboard wouldn’t review it, so Cash fired back with an open letter to the music industry, published as a full-page ad in Billboard on August 22, 1964:

DJs — station managers — owners, etc. Where are your guts? … These lyrics take us back to the truth … you’re right! Teenage girls and Beatles-record buyers don’t want to hear this sad story of Ira Hayes … This song is not of an unsung hero. … Regardless of the trade charts—the categorizing, classifying, and restrictions of air play, this is not a country song, not as it is being sold. It is a fine reason, though, for the gutless to give it a thumbs down. … I had to fight back when I realized that so many stations are afraid of ‘Ira Hayes.’ Just one question: WHY??? … ‘Ira Hayes’ is strong medicine … So is Rochester, Harlem, Birmingham, and Vietnam.

“I talked about them wanting to wallow in meaninglessness and their lack of vision for our music,” Cash later observed. “Predictably enough, it got me off the air in more places than it got me on.” Still, because Cash put his money where his mouth was, the song peaked at No. 3 on the country singles chart, with the album making it up to No. 2. He later stared down ABC censors over a lyric in Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” which the two performed on The Johnny Cash Show in 1971. The network wanted a single word changed from “stoned” to “home,” but the country outlaws refused to blink. “Johnny Cash was rebellious, but it’s not like there’s a laundry list of causes that he was dissuaded from pursuing. He was his own man. He’s iconic. He’s absolutely an iconic symbol of freedom of speech in music. He absolutely is. But he also didn’t get pushed around,” Paulson says.

Svetlana Mintcheva, programs director for the National Coalition Against Censorship, would contend that Cash was onto something. “One of the most important things that has happened in the latter half of the 20th century is the recognition of the arts, including visual arts and music, as protected expression. Before that, it was not clear,” she explains. “We protect expression so that ideas can freely circulate. And the question was, does entertainment serve ideas or is it just fun? The courts consistently concluded that art is also about ideas, even if you express an idea in color or music, it’s still about ideas.”

On a related note, Paulson points out that “what people miss when they talk about these issues is, free speech is one thing and censorship is something else. And, sometimes, censorship limits free speech. But just because Johnny Cash was a purveyor of free speech doesn’t mean he was frequently censored. Bob Dylan is another example — an icon of free speech who has never suffered significant censorship challenges. And that’s the way it should be.”

“Censorship reflects society’s lack of confidence in itself.” – Potter Stewart

One of Bob Dylan’s most profound expressions of free speech came in 1963 with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which was adapted from the slave song, “No More Auction Block for Me.” Not only did the song become an anti-racism anthem for a whole generation, it also inspired other artists to dig a little deeper into themselves, Sam Cooke among them. As attorney and music archivist Herb Jordan tells it, “Dylan had written ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ Sam Cooke was listening to it and thought, ‘This white kid is writing songs that express the things that are dear to us, that we should be addressing.’ He said, ‘Well, no, no, no. We can’t have that. Not that he shouldn’t write that song, but we can’t allow other people to be the only ones carrying the torch for this.’”

Inspired by Dylan and infuriated by being turned away from a whites-only hotel in Shreveport, Louisiana, Cooke responded with “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which, to Jordan’s ears, “was as magnificent and moving a song as you will ever hear. And it came out of a sense that the job of an artist is addressing the conditions that had been absent from black music for far too long. So he stepped up. I don’t know if he ever wrote another protest song in his life, but that says it all.” The following year, Nina Simone used “Mississippi Goddam” to freely express her outrage after the assassination of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the church bombing that killed four black children in Alabama.

The civil rights movement was gaining momentum, yet the instances of African-American voices feeling empowered to express themselves in popular music were still few and far between, even as Motown put itself on the map. “A lot of people were critical of Motown until Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield did ‘War,’ and then, of course, Marvin Gaye did ‘What’s Goin’ On’ in the ’70s,” Jordan observes. “But through that era of the Summer of Love, with Bob Dylan singing about ‘Oxford Town’ and the folk movement picking up those themes of the day, it was, incredibly, missing from the music. You’d find instances here and there, like Nina Simone with ‘Mississippi Goddam.’ But it’s interesting that they did a complete suppression of freedom of expression. What, to me, makes it remarkable is that the subject matter was so ripe for commentary. The conditions were a setup to speak, as an artist, on the things that went on around you. And, yet, you’ll hear some people bemoan their conditions, but it’s never a sense of defiance. Defiance was not allowed and it didn’t appear in the music very often.”

Perhaps it didn’t appear very often, but it did appear, at least, occasionally – enough to lay a solid groundwork for what would come next in the “race music” lineage. As Paulson explains, “There are some extraordinary recordings made, particularly in the ’60s and early ’70s, that were socially conscious, that said a lot about the human condition, that actually foreshadowed the political content of rap. I’m talking about the work of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, songs like ‘Choice of Colors’ and, of course, his later work — the Superfly album and talking about the condition in the ghettos. And Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On.’ Although R&B is associated with sexuality, the soul of the ’60s and ’70s was rich with ideas and social consciousness. And that social consciousness got channeled big time into rap in the hands of NWA and Public Enemy and others.”

“The free expression of the hopes and aspirations of a people is the greatest and only safety in a sane society.” – Emma Goldman

With folk music inspiring soul music, and soul foreshadowing rap, roots music was as big of a tent back then as it is now. When singer-songwriter MC Taylor, of popular indie folk duo Hiss Golden Messenger, considers that era, he sees how easily the lines could be blurred: “I think we have Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. And we have people like Nina Simone and Albert Ayler, who were very obviously drawing on folk or vernacular music. It depends what we’re talking about when we say ‘folk’ music. I think that it’s nice to define it more broadly because it’s easy to stretch those boundaries, and it makes people uncomfortable to think of someone like Nina Simone or Albert Ayler or someone with black skin, frankly, as American folk music. But I think it’s important to push that.”

And push it they did – both with race and gender. While African-Americans strode forward, women gained ground of their own. Joan Baez, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Hazel Dickens, Alice Gerrard, and numerous others wrote and sang songs of, for, and by the people, if not the feminist perspective. Combining both of those forces, civil rights activist Anne Romaine and Freedom Singer Bernice Reagon, who later founded Sweet Honey in the Rock, began the integrated Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project tour with black and white performers of old-time Southern music. Among the artists were Johnny Shines, Sparky Rucker, Ralph Stanley, Billy Edd Wheeler, Ola Belle Reed, Mable Hillery, Elizabeth Cotten, Bessie Jones, and Hazel & Alice.

hazelaliceAs an almost accidental feminist songwriter, Alice Gerrard (of Hazel & Alice) remembers, “It was, in my opinion, the single most important thing that gave permission to Hazel [Dickens], who already had all this stuff in her background … it gave her permission to talk about it and validate it. What it did for me was made me much more conscious of what was going on.” That newfound consciousness led Gerrard to pen “Custom Made Woman Blues,” a bluegrass tune as feminist paean that has influenced many folk females over the past 40 years. “I think I wrote that song because I was kind of feeling, in my own life, like maybe this was sort of happening to me,” she recalls. “We went to play at a festival in Canada and we were doing a workshop, Hazel and I. I sang that song at that workshop and I got a standing ovation. They made me do it again. I sort of realized there’s something that speaks to women in the song at this particular time. We were kind of clueless, on the one hand, and then, as we gradually saw how people responded to some of this stuff, we thought, ‘Oh, yeah. There’s something going on here. There’s something to it.’”

Looking back now, the fact that two women upended the male-dominant field of bluegrass in the mid-1960s is evidence of their courage. The fact that they did it by singing about women’s issues is a testament to their talent. “The thing that is so beautiful about their music, to me,” Taylor notes, “is that they had these protest songs or women’s empowerment songs, but they were also drawing on this well of American music. And it was all sort of mixed up together. You could hear what you wanted to hear, depending on what your disposition was. That’s what makes those records so magical.”

While Hazel & Alice were shaking up bluegrass, Loretta Lynn was doing some shaking of her own on the country side of the aisle. Lynn’s remarkable career has included 16 No. 1 singles from more than 50 albums, 10 of which also went to No. 1. In 1967, her Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ album topped the charts and was the first gold record ever achieved by a female country artist. And she did all that while raising six kids. That was Loretta Lynn-style feminism, but it didn’t come easy. Some of her feminist-leaning cuts — “Rated X,” “Wings Upon Your Horns,” and “The Pill” — were also her most controversial songs, often getting banned, but always getting heard.

Singer-songwriter Lori McKenna, a mother of five who has penned hit songs for country artists like Hunter Hayes and Little Big Town, sees Lynn’s contribution as priceless: “If I were the same age as Loretta Lynn — she married at 15 and I married at 19 — if I started writing songs the exact same time as she did, I know I wouldn’t have been half as brave as she was. The courage she had right from the start … the honesty is remarkable. I think she saved people. I think she saved marriages — and gave some women the strength to end some. I think she was the voice that many women needed to hear. The voice that said, ‘You are not alone.’ The voice that said, ‘Don’t sleep with a married man.’ It is impossible to measure the impact she had on the world, but it’s easy to imagine — at least in my eyes — that it was enormous.”

Even as female and African-American artists’ voices were finally being heard, freedom of expression was not yet in the clear. The 1970s saw a couple of monumental moments in the battle against censorship. After President Richard Nixon urged radio broadcasters, in 1970, to screen pop songs for drug content, Vice President Spiro Agnew singled out the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends” for the line “I get high with a little help from my friends.” The Federal Communications Commission, following that lead, designed a pamphlet that suggested stations could lose their licenses if questionable lyrics were played. Then, in 1978, Randy Newman’s “Short People” was the target of a proposed statewide ban by Maryland’s House of Delegates due to its political incorrectness. Paulson explains, “In the ’50s and ’60s, you saw songs being suppressed because they were perceived as being un-American. By the ’70s and ’80s, the concern was more whether we were offending people.” For “Short People,” at least, Attorney General Francis Birch concluded: “The long and short of it is that we feel that the bill cannot measure up to Constitutional scrutiny. We hope that we have correctly sized up the situation.”

Randy Newman got off easy. John Mellencamp, Sheryl Crow, and the Dixie Chicks would not, because the ’90s were coming, with Tipper Gore, Clear Channel, and Walmart in the driver’s seat.


This is the second article in a three-part series about free speech and censorship in American roots music for No Depression. (Read part one: “When Roots Music Says the Unsayable.”) Part three in this series will address the 1990s and Millennium. It will be published on January 23, 2015.