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The Canadian Literature of Rock 'n' Roll
paper is a historiographical work chronicling some of the references
made in relation to generation and folk music in Rock ‘n’ Roll. In
his opening notes to the book “Axes, Chops and Hot Licks,” Ritchie
Yorke writes “every experience; personal or collective, can be
chronicled in word and song.”1
The 1960s generation, the baby boomers, were aware of the generational
factor, which allowed them their power and also used the vehicle of
folk music, as a form of protest. The main concern of music purists
regarding folk music and the boom generation seems to be that folk has
always been the music of the people, delivered free. The boom
generation, and music for that generation, including folk music, was a
for-profit capitalist enterprise. The quotes used look at the issue of
the comfort level of pairing traditional, not-for-profit folk music,
with the 1960s for-profit music industry of the baby boom. By the late
1960s some of the boom generation had become “hippies [who] embraced
the beliefs of the past… to create a counter culture.”2
Mainstream culture was capitalist, white, middle-class oriented. The
youth generation’s counter culture, while eventually proving to be
based in the capitalist, white, middle class, tried its best to shed
all three images.
are best defined by Doug Owram, in his book Born at the Right Time.
He notes that a generation is an age group shaped by history.3
It is not enough on its own to be a generation, or a member of a
generation, the defining factor is that history must somehow intervene
with that generation to make it stand out. Tom Brokaw uses this
approach in his book, The Greatest Generation, when he looks at
the generation that was directly affected by the Second World War, the
eventual parents of the baby boomers, the generation that fought in
generation forever associated with the 1960s, the baby boomers, born
after the end of the Second World War, were so great in numbers, so
affluent and so vocal in a critical sense, of the society they had
been born into, it should come as no surprise
generation was shaped by history. The generation of numeric largesse,
they also made certain that history was shaped by them. As their
generation came of age, around the early years of the 1960s, they
looked closely at the world they were inheriting, and were not
impressed by what they saw.5
As with any such judgement one can only stay critical for a certain
length of time before either moving on, or taking some form of action.
lot of what the boom generation attempted in the 1960s did not survive
much beyond the decade, but in becoming increasingly unwilling to
accept the adult values they saw placed in front of them they decided
to take action that their numbers allowed by bestowing on them the
power of numbers.6
In taking up the challenge of protesting almost everything the
parental generation held dear, the collective force of the baby boom
became known as the counter culture.7
Some of the symbols rejected by the younger generation included the
clean-cut hair cut, which was replaced by long, shaggy hair. Neat and
presentable clothes were replaced by kaftans and sandals; more jeans,
considered working men’s clothes were also seen. As the boom
generation reached college age, those fortunate enough to have the
opportunity to attend dropped out favouring experience over education.
The ideal of the early marriage closely followed by two children, a
house and car was rejected in favour of cohabitation and communes.
the outside, rather than the domestic world,
rebellion was based on dismay with what they saw, their new visions
based on idealism and hope.8
For most of the 1950s the boom generation had attended school with the
threat of nuclear war hanging over their heads. They had been trained
like unfortunate puppies to hide under their school desks in the event
of nuclear war attacking their school. Hence, it was understandable
when this generation not only took an anti-nuclear stance, but and
anti-Vietnam War stance also. Their third major stance was an
anti-capitalist stance, but how realistic this was considering the
Russians who were the world’s other nuclear power did not operate a
capitalistic society is unclear.
it clear in their minds what they were against both within the family
home and on a global scale, the boomers had a platform for themselves.
As Myrna Kostash notes in her book Long Way From Home, “[the
baby boomers] were by self-definition simultaneously critics of the
social order and prototypes of a new one.”9
If this observation is to be taken at face value, then the boomers
were changing more than individual items, they were, to some degree,
engineering a new social order for society.
advance, speeded up by the event of two world wars within thirty
years, also allowed the boomers opportunity to get their message(s)
across. Radio, which had been in its infancy at the beginning of the
century, was now in every home. Audio cassettes which had been used as
propaganda tools by Hitler against the allies in the Second World War
were now owned by most teenagers. Television, which had been
non-existent prior to the Second War was now entering homes on a
massive scale. The workplace was seeing the installation of more and
more conveyor belts. In this sense, the world was changing in a
technological revolution under the guise of automation.10
group was not just large in numbers due to the birth rate. More of the
younger generation were better educated than ever before. This fact
alone made it an articulate youth generation. By the end of the
decade, and keeping in mind that numbers could have been higher except
for the fashionable value of dropping out of school, 68 percent of the
youth had attended college and 44 percent of the generation had a
father who had earned a college degree.11
Thus, it should have come as no large surprise when one of the centres
of political mobilisation of youth was on college campuses.12
Campuses were convenient rallying points, as the parents were absent,
and unlike in a place of work, the younger generation had time to
spare, which they used to effect.
of the biggest changes to affect society at the time, and one of the
few enduring legacies of the boom generation, was the advancement of
women within society. A tradition of women’s movements was
reawakened for a few reasons. Firstly, again, there was the issue of
numbers. Then, with the idea of liberation generally in the air, the
issue of women’s liberation was just one of many causes to be taken
up. Looking back to the tradition homemaker/family caretaker role of
their mother’s generation, the young women of the 1960s decided they
wanted more than that. The right to higher education, which was in
place, but not encouraged; the right to a career; and generally, just
the right to determine the path of their own lives was demanded in the
re-negotiation of gender roles which began anew in the 1960s.13
the sexes combined in a struggle against the control of the older
generation, a common language was adopted by the younger generation.
That language served to criticise the parental generation, communicate
with each other, and express hopes for the future. That language was
popular music, an art form that exploded in size in the 1960s.14
Thus, in looking at protests by the younger generation in the 1960s,
music has to be considered.
Szatmary, in his book Rockin’ in Time: A Social History of Rock
and Roll gives three reasons for the explosion of emotion which
came to be known as Beatlemania. For Szatmary, the phenomenon had its
roots in a dull wartime, the post war baby boom and in the economic
The war and the Depression that preceded it, had both been times of
hardship across the country, irrespective of class and as such the
country had seen fifteen consecutive years of economic hardship, food
rationing and death. They were years when it had been hard to be
optimistic, and as such, by the end of the war in 1945, a time that
coincided with the start of the baby boom, people everywhere were
ready to start having fun again and centring on their own needs. This
consideration of self would come to fruition when the boomers who had
been born into this mentality, and, hence, never known any different,
adopted it as a way of life in the Sixties, where despite professing
to be a collective body, there was a lot of thinking along the lines
of “our way, or no way.”
cycle of generation is on going, both in everyday life, and in musical
inspiration. In 1996, Ottawa born Alanis Morissette was citing Joni
Mitchell as an influence and an inspiration for her career.16
In that sense, the youth of the Sixties have become the parental
generation of the 1990s.
music was not an invention of the 1960s, it had been around, in many
countries of the world, for hundreds of years. That folk music
re-emerged in the 1960s, should be no surprise, being as it is the
musical genre most closely associated with a message, and most
messages, in music, being protest.17
This lineage of protest via a group in song over a long time frame
gave folk music what no other music attempting criticism in the 1960s
This was to be a vital element as the younger generation expressed its
differing views of the world to a mass audience.
not only gave folk credibility, but the message conveyed, and by
association, the messenger.19
This, almost immediate, credibility was one of the few advantages the
younger generation had when they embarked on their crusade to oppose
the status quo. There had always been folk music around, but in recent
years it had been in the background as stars such as Elvis Presley and
Little Richard climbed up the charts. As the 1960s began, folk slowly
started to emerge once more. Groups such as Peter, Paul and Mary and
the Kingston Trio followed on the heels of Woody Guthrie and Pete
Seeger. Then came Bob Dylan, and folk music with a cutting political
message was back in the mainstream.
being associated with protest, folk music has always been rooted on
locales, events and personalities that are historically specific.20
With the American presence in Viet Nam escalating, domestic unrest due
to racial prejudice and the general feeling of rejection of American
society by the younger generation, songwriters, such as Dylan, had
more than enough material for their folk songs. Referring to both war
and racial prejudice in Blowin’
in the Wind, Dylan asks the American people how long such things
will be allowed to go on, emphasising that the only people who can
stop such things, are the people themselves, by deciding to stop them.
placing the choices for the future on the shoulders of the ordinary
person, as well as, or instead of, just the politicians, Dylan was
echoing President Kennedy’s Inauguration Address from 1961 when the
new President had urged Americans everywhere to consider what they
could do for America (ie, themselves), rather than what the nation
state could do for the individual. Hence, both in Washington and in
the coffeehouses there seemed to be an element of self-reliance as the
1960s dawned. In this individual responsibility was a rejection of
mass society and mass culture – the 1950s ‘Big Brother’
combining folk music with the events of everyday life the new folk
singers were adhering to the tradition in which in folk music ideally,
there is no separation of art and life.22
Music is seen as “of the people” therefore, the two are seen as
inseparable. Because of the technological advances in recording music
it was now possible for leaders, such as Dylan, not even to be
present, for the message to be delivered. This was to serve the 1960s
combination of the professional recording studio with the tradition of
folk music was responsible for part of the rediscovery of folk.23
Folk music was accessible and relatively cheap. It was not long before
the latest sound from the coffeehouses of New York was reaching the
West Coast, technology was what made 1960s folk a national, or even,
ordinary folk now had means of relaying their message(s) to each
other, and to anyone else they cared to reach, yet at the heart of the
folk music revival, before it became a commercial enterprise
indistinguishable from any other, it was a movement that was committed
to preserving the legend and lore of the common people.24
Unfortunately with technology and commercialisation came the curious
sight of folk becoming part of the capitalist society it was fighting
folk was still succeeding in getting its message across in the 1960s,
it participated in the passing of the torch from the 1930s protestors
to the 1960s generation.25
It also gave itself a crusade to aim for. In the 1960s this was the
Civil Rights issue. Usually, folk had been perceived of as a class
struggle, but by the 1960s it took on a racial struggle. The idea of
crusading, of a religious commitment had always been close to the
heart of the folk tradition, where in the traditional class struggle
victory was envisioned as part of the New Jerusalem. 26
Rights and folk music blossomed around the same time as each other,
and were mutually useful to each other.27
Civil Rights gave a subject matter to folk, while folk publicised the
Civil Rights struggle. Thereby, the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s
helped to breathe new life in to folk music.28
the generation of the day, the baby boomers, who were now in college,
were combined with folk music and a solid issue on a national scale
the scene was set for a mass movement. As with any large movement,
they needed a leader. In the case of the folk music scene that person
was Bob Dylan.29
Dylan was aware of the issues, was young enough to be accepted by the
boom generation, was a good enough songwriter and singer to get the
message across, hence, all the pieces of the puzzle came together.
What must be kept in mind, however, is despite the fact that they were
involved with the issue of Civil Rights, the American (and for that
matter, the Canadian) folk music scene was a movement largely
involving white musicians and audiences.30
Canada, folk music was almost as strong, and almost as popular, as it
was in America. Looking back in 1998 Ian Tyson, who in the 1960s had
been Ian of Ian & Sylvia fame noted that Canada could also produce
very strong folk artists.31
The difference between the Canadian brand of folk and the American
version was said to be that Canadian folk singer-songwriters were
never taken in by the preachy political side of folk music.32
When one listens to lyrics such as those of Gordon Lightfoot’s Black Day in July, a commentary on the race riots in Detroit in
1967, that argument may not stand up to too much scrutiny.
centre of Canadian folk music was The Riverboat coffeehouse in the
Yorkville district of Toronto, which became the most important and
successful folk club in Canada.33
It was here that people such as Gordon Lightfoot, Ian & Sylvia and
Joni Mitchell sang when they were in town. It paid the best wages to
the artists, thus attracting the best of the folk genre.34
mentioned before, the problem of commercialising folk music was that
eventually it became part of the capitalistic society it was arguing
against. Maynard Collins acknowledged this point in his 1988 biography
of Gordon Lightfoot, Lightfoot: If You Could Read His Mind when
he noted that the minute a professional singer, such as Lightfoot,
began to sing in a commercial setting, he distanced himself from the
The music was authentic, but the setting was not. In order to survive
as a genre, folk would have to accept some changes.
Lightfoot became the leading minstrel of Canadian folk, the way Dylan
was in the U.S. As such he created, partly due to expectations a
musical mythology, accessible by the common man, of English Canada. He
was the collective historian of a generation.36
As well as Black Day in July Lightfoot also penned Rich Man’s Spiritual a kind of parable in folk song form.37
A parable being a story with a lesson.
contrast, Joni Mitchell arrived on the music scene a couple of years
after Gordon Lightfoot. Her musical heritage was also different to
Lightfoot’s. Mitchell was steeped in the English folk song
The English folk tradition was older than the North American version,
dating back hundreds of years. This did not stop Mitchell from
becoming a commercial success, just as Lightfoot had, with her
composition Both Sides Now receiving
a Grammy Award in the category of Best Folk Performance.39
(Melhuish, 80) Again commercial success was encroaching on the purity
of the genre, sending mixed signals to the audiences and critics
considering the youth generation of the 1960s, the baby boomers, in
relation to the music of the era, it is plain to see that this music,
popular music, was the music of their generation. At the beginning of
the 1960s, the boom generation embraced folk music to use as a vehicle
for protest, in return, folk music benefited from such a large central
audience. In other words, the two entities served each other.
youth generation of the 1960s stood out because of its large numeric
base, and for the political stance it took. Singers such as Bob Dylan,
from the U.S. and Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell in Canada,
combined commercial careers in a genre usually reserved for its
non-materialistic base. In marrying up an old art form, folk, and a
new commercial setting, the for-profit music world, some old
conceptions sat uncomfortably and had to be worked around.
it was said, lost his folk credibility the moment he stepped on a
stage, because at that moment he distanced himself from the folk base,
the ordinary person. Yet, despite these misgivings, both the folk
genre and Lightfoot flourished in the 1960s, as did many other
Adria, Marco. Music
of our Times. Toronto: Lorimer, 1990.
Brackett, David. Interpreting Popular Music. Berkeley: University
of California Press, 2000.
Collins, Maynard. Lightfoot:
If You Could Read His Mind. Toronto: Deneau, 1988.
Edmonds, Alan. The Years
of Protest 1960/1970. Toronto: McClelland, 1979.
Simon. Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music.
University Press, 1996.
Simon. Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock.
Simon and Will Straw and John Street. eds. The Cambridge Companion
to Pop and
Rock. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Myrna. Long Way From Home: The Story of the Sixties Generation in
Canada.Toronto: J. Lorimer, 1980.
Martin. Oh What a
Feeling: A Vital History of Canadian Music. Kingston:
Quarry Press, 1996.
Doug. Born at the Right Time. Toronto: University of Toronto
Geoff and Greig Dymond. Mondo Canuck: A Canadian Pop Culture
Odyssey. Scarborough: Prentice-Hall, 1996.
Greg. Hand Me Down World: The Canadian Pop-Rock Paradox.
Szatmary, David. Rockin’ in Time: A Social History of Rock-and-Roll.
Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 2000.
Yorke, Ritchie. Axes, Chops and Hot Licks. Edmonton: Hurtig,
1 Yorke, Ritchie. Axes, Chops and Hot Licks. p. xi.
2 Szatmary, David. Rockin’ in Time. p. 56.
3 Owram, Doug. Born at the Right Time. p. 158.
4 Brokaw, Thomas. The Greatest Generation.
5 Edmonds, Alan. The Years of Protest, 1960-1970. p.10.
6 Owram, Doug. Born at the Right Time. p. 187.
7 Edmonds, Alan. The Years of Protest, 1960-1970. p. 25.
8 Owram, Doug. Born at the Right Time. p. 159.
9 Kostash, Myrna. Long Way From Home. p. 131.
10 Edmonds, Alan. The Years of Protest, 1960-1970. p. 7.
11 Szatmary, David. Rockin’ in Time. p. 152.
12 Frith, Simon. Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock. p. 29.
13 Edmonds, Alan. The Years of Protest, 1960-1970. p. 10.
14 Adria, Marco. Music of Our Times. p. 73.
15 Szatmary, David. Rockin’ in Time. p. 121.
16 Pevere, Geoff and Greig Dymond. Mondo Canuck: A Canadian Pop Culture Odyssey. p. 48.
17 Szatmary, David. Rockin’ in Time. p. 85.
18 Owram, Doug. Born at the Right Time. p. 189.
19 Frith, Simon. Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. p. 40.
20 Kostash, Myrna. Long way from Home. p. 137.
21 Frith, Simon and Will Straw and John Street. ed. The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock. p. 121.
22 Frith, Simon. Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. p. 39.
23 Szatmary, David. Rockin’ in Time. p. 88.
24 Adria, Marco. Music of Our Times. p. 9.
25 Owram, Doug. Born at the Right Time. p. 190.
26 Collins, Maynard. Lightfoot: If You Could Read His Mind. p. 126.
27 Szatmary, David. Rockin’ in Time. p. 89.
28 Owram, Doug. Born at the Right Time. p. 189.
29 Szatmary, David. Rockin’ in Time. p. 93.
30 Adria, Marco. Music of Our Times. p. 15.
31 Potter, Greg. Hand Me Down World: The Canadian Pop-Rock Paradox. p. 82.
32 ibid. p. 86.
33 Collins, Maynard. Lightfoot: If You Could Read His Mind. p. 86.
34 ibid. p. 88.
35 ibid. p. 131.
36 ibid. p. 147.
37 Adria, Marco. Music of Our Times. p. 10.
38 ibid. p. 67.
39 Melhuish, Martin. Oh What a Feeling: A Vital History of Canadian Music. p. 80.