top of page
  • Ethan Wolfe

Music Retrospective

Listened by Ethan Wolfe (he/him)

From the Days of Black and White: Modern American Roots  

The 1960s were a socially, politically and artistically tumultuous period for America. The Civil Rights movement swept the country, the Cold War heated up, second-wave feminism gained momentum, anti-war protesters rallied against the war in Vietnam, and early gay-rights pioneers begun to build a movement. Inextricably tied to these political movements was a broader social discourse of changing norms surrounding drugs, dress, and sexuality. Welcome to the counterculture decade.

While the current perception of these movements may be marred by the brutal responses that sometimes ensued, it is important to remember that they were instrumental in bringing about significant change, and dismantling cruel establishments. I believe that a key ingredient to their success was joy. Joy inspired through the collective experience of visual art, poetry infused into speeches, and, most memorably and  effectively, through music. There were concerts that contained political messages or were directly  tied to political action, songs that were sung at marches and protests, and other musical messages  of change were broadcasted and distributed all over the world. Music brought together young  and old, men and women, Black and White, into an experience of collective joy that the things they were fighting against would soon end. The musical movements that emerged would also go on to provide the groundwork for the music to come over the next fifty years, and which we are still hearing today.  

Folk Revival:  

The Folk Revival was a rediscovery of music that had originally been brought to America largely  by Irish and Scottish migrants, and which had taken on a distinct style in its new home. The revival actually began in the 40s but experienced limited commercial success, and as many of the key figures of the movement such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger had a strongly socialist bent, it was repressed by Cold War paranoia and McCarthy era censorship. In the 60s the movement gained steam as more artists embraced it, the most notable of which were Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. They were a sort of juxtaposition within the movement: Bob Dylan was known for his incredible songwriting, and a voice that many found grating—Joan Baez for her beautiful, shockingly clear soprano voice and mostly performed covers. Another important figure is Doc Watson, a blind folk guitarist from the Appalachian mountains in North Carolina, whose encyclopedic knowledge of folk music allowed many songs to be preserved.  

It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry  

Bob Dylan  

Girl from the North Country  

Bob Dylan  

I Am A Poor Wayfaring Stranger  

Joan Baez 

Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right  

Joan Baez  

Blues Stay Away From Me  

Doc Watson  


Country music in the 50s and 60s really didn’t exist as we know it today. A majority of it sounded closer to 50s pop, the ‘country’ part limited to rural themes in the lyrics, and acoustic guitar. There were, however, a few outliers who began to build the sound of country as we know it today. Townes Van Zandt created a kind of lonesome cowboy sound, with finger-style guitar, poetic lyrics that feel reminiscent of Bob Dylan, and a nostalgic, melancholy singing style. If you listen to modern indie folk, particularly artists like Sufjan Stevens, you can pretty strongly hear the influence. Johnny Cash became the most famous of his peers, known for his soulful voice and his great musical story-telling, but he produced such a mountain of records he can be hard to get into. I recommend starting with Orange Blossom Special and Hello, I’m Johnny Cash, or if  you're looking for his 50s stuff, Sings the Songs that Made Him Famous (feat. The Tennessee Two) has some great songs as well. Dolly Parton didn’t start making her best stuff until the 70s, but she started off in the 60s singing duets with Porter Wagoner. Predictably she sounds fantastic, and she also began to introduce more of an Appalachian sound (particularly through the steel guitar) into a genre that had traditionally been dominated by sounds hailing from west of the Mississippi.  

Velvet Voices  

Townes Van Zandt  

I’ll Be Here in the Morning  

Townes Van Zandt  

Danny Boy  

Johnny Cash  

To Beat The Devil  

Johnny Cash  

Please Don’t Stop Loving Me  

Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton  

Rock n’ Roll:  

American Rock didn’t really come of age until the 70s, and the 60s rock scene was largely  dominated by bands from the UK. However, the late 60s began to produce some pioneering  voices in the American rock scene. The most well known (and deservedly so) is Jimi Hendrix,  but there were some other, slightly less known voices who helped create the sound of American 

rock to come. Janis Joplin was an early example of what would evolve into the hard rock sound, with her incredible stage presence and one-of a kind vocal style. The Velvet  Underground laid the foundations for the more alternative New York City sound, and The  Allman Brothers Band paved the way for the Southern rock scene.  


Janis Joplin, Big Brother & The Holding Company  

Ball and Chain  

Janis Joplin, Big Brother & The Holding Company  

Sweet Jane  

The Velvet Underground  

Candy Says  

The Velvet Underground  

Ramblin’ Man  

The Allman Brothers Band  

Blues Revival:  

The Blues Revival was spurred on largely by White college students who discovered the blues  through recordings made in the 30s. These recordings inspired folk record labels like Arhoolie to  track down the musicians in them to press new records, many of whom had returned to lives of  sharecropping and playing at parties and church gatherings. As the blues existed primarily as a  live act, there aren’t really particular albums that stand out, nor were there particular performers  that towered over the rest, as each brought their own particular skill set and quirks. The sound  was also highly regional, so I’ve tried to provide a sample of the different ‘blues’ across America: Lightnin’ Hopkins represents ‘Country Blues’, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee the ‘Piedmont sound’, Howlin’ Wolf for ‘Chicago Blues’, R.L. Burnside for ‘Hill Country Blues’, and Mississippi John Hurt for ‘Delta Blues’, where it all began.  

Lonesome Graveyard  

Lightnin’ Hopkins  

Big Wind (Is a’ Comin’)  

Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee  


Howlin’ Wolf  

Jumper On The Line  

R.L. Burnside  

Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me  

Mississippi John Hurt 


Motown is technically considered a regional style of soul music, but it experienced such individual success and was so distinctive I decided to make it its own category. The name comes  from its home in Detroit, which at the time was the heart of the booming American auto industry, earning it the nickname ‘Motor City’, then abbreviated to the simpler ‘Motown’. Compared to other soul variants, Motown sounded a lot closer to the pop created by all-White groups of the era, and produced many of the first Black superstars. Stevie Wonder went on to become an industry giant. The Isley Brothers experienced major success in their time, and a later reprise through their music being sampled in hip-hop tracks such as “It Was A Good Day” by Ice Cube and “Big  Poppa” by Biggie Smalls. The Impressions was the Motown group of Curtis Mayfield, a major voice in soul who knew how to fully utilize the orchestral arrangements commonly found in the genre. Smokey Robinson & The Miracles just made great pop songs and made hit after hit in  their golden age. Edwin Starr didn’t manage to last outside of his era, but “Twenty Five Miles” is just a damn good song.  


Stevie Wonder  

This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)  

The Isley Brothers  

Choice of Colors  

The Impressions  

The Tracks of My Tears  

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles  

Twenty Five Miles  

Edwin Starr  


In the 60s both “Soul” and “R&B” were kind of used as catch-all terms for Black music,  encompassing sounds tied to folk, psychedelic, gospel, pop, and what would come of age as true  soul music in the 70s. As such I’ve decided to list a range of different artists in order to try to  cover the range of Black music at the time. The Chambers Brothers were an integrated band with  a White drummer, who got famous through the folk circuit and were known for their rich  harmony. Sly and The Family Stone were a fully integrated group including both men and  women, Black and White, who pioneered the psychedelic soul sound in the 60s and funk in the  70s. The Ed Hawkins Singers are really a gospel group, but I’ve included them anyway because  they absolutely kick ass, and a gospel cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind” is something  I never knew I needed but fell in love with on first listen. James Brown is considered “the  godfather of soul”, and though much of his most remembered work emerged in the 70s he was still packin’ some hits in the 60s when he started out. Curtis Mayfield is another leading soul figure, who blended insightful and strongly political lyrics with simply beautiful orchestral  arrangements and instrumentation in a way no artist has matched before or since. 

So Tired  

The Chambers Brothers  

Everyday People  

Sly and The Family Stone  

Blowin’ In the Wind  

The Ed Hawkins Singers  

It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World  

James Brown  

Move On Up  

Curtis Mayfield


bottom of page