It’s a truism that says you can learn a lot about the cultural climate of an era by looking at its popular culture and art. Case in point: the Vietnam era and the late 1960s produced an abundance of politically charged art, ranging from literature to cinema and music. Of course, it’s natural for the underground of any era to be politically motivated, so such a deluge of antiwar protest art isn’t really that surprising. What is notable, though, is when mainstream, middle-of-the-road musicians and performers start releasing songs that are socially aware. Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs Present State Of The Union: The American Dream In Crisis 1967-1973 offers a compelling look into how older, more established artists faced the radical changes in society during such a turbulent era.
State Of The Union’s unifying theme isn’t necessarily as radical as one might think. If anything, the issue that appears to be most prevalent is that of the changing mores being promoted by the younger generation. Most of the songs deal with changing sexual freedom (Ray Stevens’ “Mr. Businessman”) , divorce (Mel Tormé’s “Take A Letter Maria,” The Four Seasons’ “Saturday’s Father”), poverty and income inequality (Buddy Greco’s “Cardboard California,” Johnny Tillotson’s “Welfare Hero”) and the cognitive dissonance that comes from realizing you are growing older and the times are changing without you (Bing Crosby’s “What Do We Do With The World,” Paul Anka’s “This Crazy World,” Dean Martin’s “Can You Believe This Town?”) A few of them address the positive racial changes of the era (Della Reese’s “Brand New Day,” Teresa Brewer’s “Save The Children,” Eartha Kitt’s “Paint Me Black Angels”). Unsurprisingly, nothing found here is explicitly anti-Vietnam War—and understandable sentiment, considering the patriotic nature of the mainstream America and the concern one might have of alienating their audience. The closest that subject is broached is on “4th of July” by the Beach Boys, and even then the song remained unreleased for two decades.
Two songs in particular stand out. Elvis Presley—virtually a man who embodied teenage rebellion yet became a wholesome singer as his career moved on—offers “Clean Up Your Own Back Yard,” an unabashedly straightforward attack on moralists and puritanical busybodies passing judgment on others. For 1969, such a release from him is shocking considering he had established himself as an odd portrait of moral virtue in the eyes of music listening audiences. Then there’s Roy Orbison’s absolutely bizarre “Southbound Jericho Parkway,” an epic seven minutes number dealing with the suicide of a businessman driven to killing himself because he came to realize he sacrificed his family and his happiness in order to be successful. It’s an absolutely bleak number that is punctuated by the macabre sound of actually happy, cheerful, upbeat music. It’s a truly weird number, one that should be heard be fully appreciated.
State Of The Union is an extremely interesting collection, offering a glimpse into a changing world from the point of view of musicians and artists grappling with a world changing around them, as they strive to continue their careers for a truly neglected demographic; sounds for the Silent Majority.