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Teaching the Cold War Through Songs and Music

Teaching the Cold War Through Songs and Music September 10, 2021

I have been posting about the Cold War as a subject for writing and especially for teaching – this is, after all, a very popular course in colleges around the world. I talked about using films in such settings, and today I’ll discuss how songs and music might be deployed. Whenever I do teach on any topic, particularly on very modern eras, I always find the music of the age very useful for conveying the mood and ideas of the time, and the Cold War is no exception.

There is a sizable literature on the uses of music in the Cold War, particularly in how the two sides used soft power. The Soviets sent Classical music and ballet to impress other nations, the US won enormous victories via jazz and Louis Armstrong. Here, though, I will use more “mass market” songs, folk, pop, and rock, and suggest how they can be used in teaching.

Here is an example. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Communist Party was a very big presence in the US, with a sizable presence in popular culture of all kinds: Communism was definitely cool, in film, writing, and music. This applied to the very strong folk music boom of those years, which produced such celebrated names as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and the Almanac Singers, who later evolved into the Weavers. For the Almanac Singers, think of pro-union songs like “Which Side Are You On”. If you are talking about American Communism, and just why it attracted such fierce hostility and investigation in the 1950s, the music actually supplies a valuable tool for understanding. In 1940 and 1941, the Almanac Singers produced some powerful and very popular songs, which were robust denunciations of war, military intervention, and any attempt to support Britain against Germany. That included bitter attacks on Franklin Roosevelt for boosting US military preparedness in 1940 (!). Anti-war songs like Plow Under are just savage.

You can certainly respect convinced pacifists who reject all wars and violence, even in self defense, or against horrible regimes like the Nazis, even if you don’t agree with those demanding pacifist principles. But something strange happened to the Almanac Singers in late 1941, when all their songs suddenly turned super-patriotic and militarist, as they demanded immediate US intervention in the war. See classics like Woody Guthrie’s The Sinking of the Reuben James.

I have had fun in classes playing the songs, and asking students to figure out what happened to make such a change, and they soon get the point. In June 1941, the Germans invaded Soviet Russia, and the declared pacifism of the American Communists and their front groups evaporated literally within hours. And those various music groups emerge, very clearly, as wholly owned subsidiaries of the Soviets, totally devoted to their interests and their foreign policy. It’s not surprising that later investigators paid very close attention to people’s attitudes before and after that June 1941 watershed, as an excellent means of detecting serious pro-Soviet loyalties.

Nuclear history also offers some wonderful opportunities in popular music. If you want to illustrate changing attitudes to nuclear weapons, you can astonish and appall a class by playing Wanda Jackson’s 1957 Fujiyama Mama, in which she proclaims her womanly sexual power:

I’ve been to Nagasaki, Hiroshima too!
The things I did to them baby, I can do to you!

Amazingly, the song was a huge hit in Japan, where it became a potent weapon in gender politics.

When in 1968, the Beatles sang Back in the USSR, what was their intent? Is this a parody of the Soviet Evil Empire? Or are they seriously trying to make a friendly gesture to the Soviets in a way that made great sense to Leftish Brits like them, while at the same time poking fun at the pretensions of US culture? This can get some good discussions going.

The protest songs of the era are almost too rich for discussion, but one near-perfect item is Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction (1965). Strikingly, and controversially for the time, this emphasized not just the imminent dangers of nuclear destruction, but the fact that both sides, East and West, had their flaws and evils and injustices. Yes, Red China is filled with hatred, but you looked honestly at segregationist Alabama? If you can’t get a whole class out of those lyrics, something is badly wrong. The same is true of the protest songs of Phil Ochs through this time. Take Ochs’s song The War is Over, one of the most radical and confrontational of the anti-war songs of the era, and focus on this line: “just before the end even treason might be worth a try/this country is too young to die.” Now there is a theme for discussion, especially when set aside the actual treason of various Cold War spies and defectors. So, in a world seemingly hurtling towards nuclear war, is treason justified?

Anti-nuclear themes were front and center in such pieces. Before they turned their attention to the Vietnam conflict, protest singers in the English-speaking world were focusing on the nuclear threat. To take one example of hundreds, in 1962, Bob Dylan denounced the Masters of War, and another song warned that A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall. Barry McGuire himself warned that “If the button is pushed, there’s no running away/There’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave.” There actually is an interesting religious angle here. These songs were highly apocalyptic, and both McGuire and Dylan became born-again Christians. There is a segue from the nuclear concerns of the 1960s, as expressed in popular culture, and the born again movement of the following decade, and songs like this illustrate it very well.

In 1973, I met McGuire while he was touring in England, performing his latest songs, which were strongly evangelical and evangelistic, and in fact very End Times oriented. I begged him to play Eve of Destruction, which he refused, claiming that he had forgotten the words. I helped him by reciting the whole first verse and was starting the second, before he stopped me and laughingly conceded defeat. He did sing it. Yes, I am name-dropping, mildly, but the point is important: those songs were very, very, memorable, and did a huge amount to condition attitudes to the respective evils of both sides in the global confrontation. And yes, I do still know all the words.

One problem with anti-nuclear songs is that they became so very abundant, and very much so with the Neo-Cold War of the 1980s. You can find multiple online lists of the best songs in this genre, and that abundance is an important point in its own right in illustrating attitudes. (Do feel free to follow the links in that sentence). The 1980s brought us 99 Red Balloons, and XTC’s Living Through Another Cuba reads like a Cold War class syllabus. (“It’s 1961 again and we are piggy in the middle”). Hmm, stop me before I sing more.

You don’t want to overwhelm a class with those songs, however well they illustrate the scale of liberal and left hostility to the robust military policies associated with Ronald Reagan. And that was doubly true in Britain, and in Europe. You might for instance use Morrissey’s Everyday Is Like Sunday (1987: “Come, Armageddon! Come!”). The great Dutch hit song of 1982 was “De Bom” (The Bomb), a declaration of futility in the face of imminent destruction.

If I had to choose just one piece, it would be from Pink Floyd’s still badly under-rated album The Final Cut (1983). The best piece for class purposes might be Two Suns in the Sunset, in which a man is driving east, looking at the reflection of the setting sun behind him, when a new sun appears in front of him – a nuclear fireball. “Could be, the human race is done.” In his dying moments, he realizes that

Ashes and diamonds

Foe and friend

We were all equal in the end

The album also offers a direct and practical final solution to the nuclear threat, in the track The Fletcher Memorial Home. This envisages gathering the world’s political leaders and militarists, all the tyrants and kings, with commendable objectivity – Reagan and Brezhnev, Thatcher and Begin – and killing them all as humanely and quickly as possible. Of course, Roger Waters didn’t mean that bloodthirsty solution to be taken seriously (Oh yes he did).

Nor were all these political songs confined to nuclear threats and Armageddon-speak. Other Cold War related issues also surfaced easily and often. Witness multiple songs on the 1980 Clash album, Sandinista!

Note that I am not touching on Billy Joel’s much-parodied We Didn’t Start The Fire (1989), which for many years was such a godsend to high school history teachers across the nation.

Like I say, there are many opportunities here. I wish I knew more about the Soviet and East Bloc side of this musical war. Suggestions?

Wikipedia has a lengthy and diffuse List of songs about the Cold War.


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