A Study of Musicology and Social Discourse in Mid-Twentieth-Century America

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Brent Briggs


This thesis carries out a historical and musicological exploration of popular music from the United States during the mid-twentieth century in an effort to understand the complex connections between the music and social discourse. This work analyzes historically significant songs to provide answers for the following questions: Which consistent musicological patterns can be observed in mid-twentieth-century American discourse? Which characteristics gave the most influential mid-twentieth-century music its power? How are differences in the counterculture movement, the civil rights movement, and the anti–Vietnam War movement reflected in prominent mid-twentieth-century song messaging?

This study of music as popular culture shows how music evolved to effect social action on a mass scale. Many historical and sociological works group the entire era of mid‑twentieth‑century discourse under the “counterculture” umbrella.[1] However, a more nuanced view of the era, through the lens of music, highlights three prominent movements associated with distinguishing music portfolios. Because it offers the most significant, multifaceted, and well-known music catalog, the music of the counterculture (a movement searching for something) helped to establish a baseline for comparing the music associated with the civil rights movement (a movement in support of something) and the anti–Vietnam War movement (a movement in opposition to something). The goal was to examine differences in how music interacted with these three movements/discourses to establish musicological distinctions and determine their significance.

Across movements, documented historical accounts and music chart ratings were used to determine the popularity and historical significance of songs. The first step was to compare messaging in the songs to discourse doctrine and the timing of social action—protests, for example—to test relationships between music messaging and discourse-related attitudes and activity. Studying these relationships helped this author evaluate how messaging in music reflects multiple relationships to discourse.

Trends in the music industry during the mid-twentieth century responded to audience demands, rather than creating them. For example, the industry responded to working-class youth demands in the 1950s and to educated middle-class youth demands in the 1960s.[2] The music industry, including radio, had to develop unique business strategies to deal with the rock music market because this youth audience could not be controlled.[3] Therefore, one might conclude that the messaging in mid-twentieth-century music that helped organically drive discourse did not result from market manipulation or top-down intentions, leaving the music a true indicator of audience beliefs.

Perceived authenticity provided a basis for and was a determining factor in how much influence music had across mid-twentieth-century discourse. Music that adheres to expected aesthetic traditions or builds upon them in a recognizable way is more meaningful to audiences.[4] Mid-twentieth-century music might have seemed radical at the time, but in retrospect, this music built on established traditions and never veered from accepted musical aesthetics too rapidly to be absorbed into popular culture. The most important artists of the time capitalized on established musical traditions and other principles to carefully establish and maintain a sense of authenticity that gave their music the ability to motivate social groups to action.

Counterculture music developed as an identity-defining force under the umbrella of the youth-driven music distribution industry, a development that allowed counterculture music to carry its own sense of authenticity and trust among young audiences. Simon Frith states that students and other youth culture members viewed rock music as vital—the “most important” form of expression throughout the counterculture movement.[5] Rock music in its many manifestations was inextricably linked to counterculture politics in the 1960s.[6] All along the complicated trajectory of mid-twentieth-century discourse, audience acceptance of authenticity drove the most reflective songs to popularity and, in some cases, to persisting longevity.

The civil rights movement that preceded and then paralleled the counterculture movement demonstrated a different relationship with music. Most notably, civil‑rights‑affiliated music tended not to be antagonistic but instead welcomed and enlisted supporters from all walks of life, especially white youth who could have easily focused their ideological and activist attention elsewhere. Civil rights music never lost its meaning in the movement, unlike the counterculture movement, which wandered in focus over time.

Civil rights music embodied a harmonistic interplay between three primary genres: folk or folk-rock, soul, and blues. Each genre brought civil rights issues to its respective audience in an aesthetic format that embodied authenticity for that audience. Civil rights music reflected the nature of a “movement for something” in that it remained overwhelmingly optimistic and inclusive across genres throughout mid‑twentieth‑century discourse.

Like the civil rights movement, the anti–Vietnam War movement had concrete goals that could be achieved through policy demands, namely ending the draft and the war. This agenda gave music related to the movement more focus than counterculture music. Although anti-war music did verge on the antagonistic, as the broader category of counterculture music did, it never reflected any real disillusionment with the cause. On the other hand, anti-war music never offered the hope or inclusion of civil rights music either.

Anti-war music took its meaning from various audiences—idealists, soldiers, and activists. The differences among listeners were significant; for example, soldiers in Vietnam used music in a way that is mostly unseen in either the counterculture or civil rights movements. They commonly appropriated songs that were not written to represent them or their situations. This practice lends to the assessment that in discourse movements, where purposed music does not exist, participants will find music to make their own and apply it as needed.

Although many opportunities and potential focus areas for studying the social impact of music abound, one of the most beneficial opportunities for understanding and developing social solutions through music is in working with the youth. Mid‑twentieth‑century American discourse was youth discourse after all and was observably driven by music. Music continues to be important to young people and shapes youth identities and belief systems.[7] The coming-of-age process in any generation could itself be seen as an act of discourse. This thesis finds that musical analysis is a valuable tool in forming an understanding of the youth and working toward a better future.


[1] See, for example, Robert C. Cottrell, Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Rise of America’s 1960s Counterculture (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).

[2] Simon Frith, Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock ‘n’ Roll (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981), 62.

[3] Frith, 91.

[4] For an in-depth explanation, see Leonard B. Meyer, Emotion and Meaning in Music, 7th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965); and Jenefer Robinson, Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and Its Role in Literature, Music, and Art (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2009).

[5] Frith, Sound Effects, 4.

[6] Frith, 4.

[7] Daniel J. Levitin, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (New York: Plume, 2014), http://rbdigital.oneclickdigital.com.

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