How Concerts Reflected the Cultural Shift of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Students in the Mid to Late 20th Century

Olivia Thompson, History 250: The Historian Craft, Fall 2019

As the iconic singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan, sang in 1963, “The times they are a-changin’.” [1] This lyric accurately represents the dramatic cultural shift of the United States in the mid-20th century, which brought forth revolutionary viewpoints about the treatment of marginalized populations and an emphasis on peace. It can be argued that popular music was one of the most influential vehicles to relay these progressive ideas to the entire country. America’s youth, however, was profoundly impacted. Students of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln were no exception, for the once-conservative campus began to embrace ideas of civil rights and 1960s counterculture. Musical acts brought to the university reinforced these mindsets, leading to the spread of forward-thinking outlooks. The changing social philosophies of both the music industry and NU students paralleled each other, evidenced by the organization and reaction to concerts in Lincoln during the 1960s and 1970s.

Although the issue of civil rights was predictably controversial at the university in the 1950s and 1960s, the students began to open their minds to more radical opinions, which was displayed by the popular concerts of this period. Typical of this era, UN-Lincoln students were guilty of exploiting the talents of black entertainers, despite seeing them as socially unequal. Louis Armstrong became a beloved guest to the University Student Union, performing there multiple times.[2] Armstrong was famous for “crossing over” into white society by playing segregated concerts and was criticized by civil rights activists as a result.[3] The Union concert was an example of one of these “crossing over” events, evidenced by a student review of his 1955 concert. This article delivered high praise to Armstrong’s performance, as well as his role in popularizing the genre of jazz.[4] However, this review was published the same year that the university’s fraternities came under fire for not accepting black students as pledges as part of their “selective” process.[5] The juxtaposition of these events exhibited the hypocrisy that plagued the majority of the student population during the 1950s.

Harry Belafonte was one of the most commercially popular activists for civil rights in 1964, and he shared his music at the Nebraska Student Union in the spring of that year. A vocal supporter of John F. Kennedy’s civil rights policies and an outspoken advocate for social change, Belafonte rose to fame in the 1950s for popularizing black Caribbean music.[6] Despite his passion for promoting equality for African-Americans in this period, Belafonte had to hold his tongue in order to appeal to the divided opinions of NU’s students. A Daily Nebraskan review praises Belafonte’s restrained approach, stating, “His light-hearted attitude towards civil rights problems entertained the crowd as well making them comfortably aware of his feelings on the subject.”[7] The review also describes the audience as “conservative,” but goes on to describe the standing ovation the reserved crowd gave Belafonte for his performance, displaying some progress amongst the students.

As the Civil Rights Movement progressed, students began to embrace African American artists who could not hold back their passionate opinions concerning the mistreatment of their community. One of the most “radical” songwriters of her time, Nina Simone performed at the Student Union Ballroom in 1964.[8] In an article promoting the then-upcoming concert, a Daily Nebraskan writer celebrated both Simone and her co-headliner, Herbie Mann, for their extensive research and accomplishments in the genre of “ethnic music.”[9] This year was an extremely pivotal one for Simone, having released her unapologetic political anthem, “Mississippi Goddam,” days before her Lincoln concert. Written in response to the 1963 Birmingham Church bombings,[10] this song’s lyrics display her rage concerning the lack of immediacy in the fight for Civil Rights. Targeted at a white audience, the bridge of the song exemplifies Simone’s fury, seen in the lyric, “You keep on saying 'Go slow!'…….. I don’t trust you anymore.”[11] Commonly referred to as one of her first songs solely focused on activism, its message soon became a common theme for Simone’s later catalog. As Simone’s Lincoln concert was one of the first performances after her breakthrough with activist anthems, it can be said that the student body was taking a step in the progressive direction.

Ray Charles is another popular black artist who shared his talents with Nebraska’s students in the heat of the Civil Rights era. Charles was a confidant of Martin Luther King JR and performed many songs that gave commentary on the state of the black experience in America during the 50s and 60s.[12] An example of this kind of song would be “You’re In For a Big Surprise,” a protest song released in the same year Charles played to UN-Lincoln students. In this song, Charles warns the bigoted elite of the U.S. that justice will soon be served to groups facing oppression.[13] Charles performed at the Pershing Center on September 24th, 1966, with the tickets being sold at the Lincoln Student Union.[14] The audience for the Lincoln concert had to be desegregated, for Charles refused to play to separate audiences after 1963. No public outcries or protests concerning Charles’s demands were documented, showcasing the further progression of the University of Nebraska’s students. Many civil rights-related events were held in the weeks following Charles’s concert, including a “Black Power Teach-In,” (which included panelists from the NAACP and the SCLC)[15] and a presentation by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) concerning the civil rights issues of the university’s dormitory system.[16] The combination of outspoken musicians like Charles and politically-motivated speakers showcase the changing mindset of Lincoln’s students.

Although a sizeable group of UN-Lincoln students was outwardly against the ill-treatment of African Americans during the Civil Rights era, many did not feel personally motivated by the issue, for black students made up less than 1% of the entire student body.[17] Once the United States entered into the Vietnam War, a higher demographic of students felt personally affected, and therefore, their positions were much less blasé. Empathizing with the rising discontent of college students across the nation, Nebraska’s students began to voice their disproval with the war, and their taste in music correlated with this. Bob Dylan became a symbol of protest in the Vietnam era, coming to Lincoln at the very beginning of the U.S.’s involvement in the East. Although Dylan personally distanced himself from the passionate anti-war displays put on by his colleagues and fans, the protest songs of his early career, namely The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” were embraced by anti-war groups.[18] Daily Nebraskan writers praised Dylan’s songwriting efforts as early as 1963, referring to him as an “influential force” in their December 6th issue.[19] Dylan performed at the Pershing Center on March 12th, 1966, amid his controversial electric 1966 World Tour.[20] Although some UN-Lincoln students at this time believed protest songs were too radical and reflective of more liberal campuses,[21] increasing dissatisfaction with the Vietnam War led many students to embrace the medium.

A close friend and frequent collaborator of Dylan, folk singer Joan Baez also became an important anti-war voice in the early stages of the Vietnam conflict. With her aggressive hands-on approach to pacifism, Baez was extremely vocal about her opposition.[22] Having been arrested for protesting in Oakland, California mere weeks before, Baez performed at the Pershing Center on November 15th, 1967.[23] The Daily Nebraskan’s review of the concert was reflective of the shift in student opinion. According to author Dan Looker, Baez claimed that an intermission was held “so those who don’t agree with my politics can leave.”[24] Despite this, nearly no concertgoer left, and Baez received a standing ovation from the Lincoln crowd after her performance. Reports of enthusiastic audience support of Baez’s radical interjections (such as “we’ve been murdering each other for 8,000 years and it’s time to stop..”) demonstrate the 1967 student body’s growing pacifist population.[25] The shift between the support of Bob Dylan’s ambiguous protest songs and Baez’s unapologetic and unmoving music revealed the rising discontent of students against the Vietnam conflict.

The period of 1969-1971 was an extremely pivotal time for student opposition to the Vietnam War at the University of Nebraska. After the draft was announced in the fall of 1969, NU students vocalized their discontent with a march on Lincoln’s capitol, with a program of protest songs included.[26] In February of 1970, Daily Nebraskan columnist Jim Pedersen stated, “It is the duty of conscientious Americans to speed to the end of the war using various forms of protests, the mass media, and a revitalized Moratorium as vehicles.”[27] Pedersen’s words were reflective of the UN-Lincoln student activism on campus, especially in the form of anti-Vietnam music. According to a Daily Nebraskan survey in April of 1970 asking for Union program preferences, the majority of students wanted to hear musicians who were heavily involved in the anti-war movement, namely Creedence Clearwater Revival, Donovan, Joan Baez, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.[28] The Kent State massacre in May of 1970, coupled with President Nixon’s announcement of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, led to a more hands-on approach to protesting. The occupation of the ROTC building on May 4th, 1970, showcased the growing rebellious attitudes among the student population.[29] Canadian-American band Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” became a rebel anthem, and the band soon became heavily requested by the student body.[30] The group’s 1969 song, “Monster,” is a scathing critique of the United States’ involvement in the war, chronicling the entire country’s history as “bloodthirsty.”[31] Steppenwolf brought its controversial catalog to Pershing on October 16th, 1971.[32] This revolutionary period of opposition showcased the peak of student resistance, as well as a matching taste in staunchly anti-war music.

Although the university students’ rebellious attitudes became less intense towards the end of the United States’ occupation of Vietnam, many were still pushing for a hurried conclusion. The Peace Treaty Committee of the University of Nebraska was made up of students from nearly every on-campus residence and was primarily concerned with promoting The Join Treaty of Peace Between the People of the United States and the People of South Vietnam and North Vietnam.[33] Resulting from a national student congress mandate, this treaty aimed to “provide a realistic, just, and honorable peace for the Vietnam nation.”[34] Yet again, these student attitudes coincided with the musical entertainment brought to Lincoln. Creedence Clearwater Revival was a quintessential anti-war group whose songs critiqued and embodied the Vietnam experience. UN-Lincoln students had campaigned for CCR to play a Lincoln concert as early as 1970,[35] wishing to hear songs such as “Fortunate Son,” “Bad Moon Rising,” and “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”[36] “Fortunate Son” was an especially crucial symbol of Vietnam opposition, for its lyrics discussed the Draft’s unfairness to marginalized groups and soldiers’ qualms about the morality of the war.[37] Creedence Clearwater Revival finally came to Lincoln’s Pershing Auditorium on May 19th, 1972, one of the group’s final performances before breaking up later that year. This disbandment of the essence of Vietnam opposition marked the end of an era of frequent student protesting, radical pacifism, and widespread anti-establishment attitudes from the nation’s youth.

Progressive music was a crucial element of the spread of liberal ideas among America’s youth in the 1960s and 1970s, with the students of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln being no exception. The conversion of attitudes of UN-Lincoln students directly coincided with the popular music of the time, especially in the areas of civil rights and pacifist philosophies. Concerts booked in both the Student Union and the nearby Pershing Auditorium were reflective of these developing philosophies, for many of the student-targeted acts were vocal about progressive issues. Beginning with the inclusion of more unapologetic black artists, the students’ opinions about social issues began to shift. Social activism in this time came to a peak during the United States-Vietnam conflict. Protest songs became heavily embraced by the liberal students, and this interest continued until the end of the war, with many concerts of this era reinforcing their mindsets.

Endnotes

  1. Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” October 15th 1963, Track 1 on The Times They Are-A Changin’, Columbia Records, 1964.
  2. Roger Henkle. “‘Satchmo’s’ Dixieland Sets Pace For Jazz,” The Daily Nebraskan (Lincoln, NE). March 08, 1955, Page 4. Retrieved from https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1955-03-08/ed-1/seq-4/#words=Armstrong+Louis
  3. Collier (1985), pp. 317–20
  4. Henkle.
  5. Bruce Giles. “IFC Discusses Campus Issues,” The Daily Nebraskan (Lincoln, NE). February 14th, 1955. Retrieved from https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1966-02-14/ed-1/seq-1/#words=1964+Civil+Rights
  6. Karen Beavers, “Lead man holler: Harry Belafonte and the culture industry. University of Southern California, 2008. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/304461000?pq-origsite=gscholar
  7. Susan Smithberger, “Hats Off,” The Daily Nebraskan (Lincoln, NE). November 9th, 1964. Retrieved from https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1964-11-09/ed-1/seq-2/#words=Belafonte+Harry
  8. “Simone, Mann to Appear In ‘Folk, Jazz Wing Ding’.” The Daily Nebraskan . Lincoln, September 14, 1966. Retrieved from https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1964-02-24/ed-1/seq-1/#words=Nina+Simone
  9. “Simone, Mann to Appear In “Folk, Jazz Wing Ding’.”
  10. Ruth Feldstein, “”I Don't Trust You Anymore”: Nina Simone, Culture, and Black Activism in the 1960s.” Journal of American History 91 (no. 4) 2005. 1349.
  11. Nina Simone, “Mississippi Goddam,” Recorded March 1964, Track 7 on Nina Simone in Concert. Philips Records, 1964.
  12. T.V. Reid, The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Present. (U of Minnesota Press, 2019). Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=IeCCDwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PT7&dq=ray+charles+activism&ots=yDF5kXxqDP&sig=YhQjsBafDBrP7MIAY2UtFHSo03c#v=onepage&q=ray%20charles&f=false
  13. Brent Campbell, “RAY CHARLES (1930-2004),” BlackPast, January 29, 2007, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/charles-ray-1930-2004/
  14. “Ray Charles In Concert.” The Daily Nebraskan . Lincoln, September 14, 1966. Retrieved from https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1966-09-14/ed-1/seq-6/#words=Charles+Ray
  15. Toni Victor, “Black Power Teach-In, ‘Power Structures’ Criticized,” The Daily Nebraskan. (Lincoln, NE.) October 29th, 1966. Retrieved from https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1966-10-29/ed-1/seq-1/#words=civil+right+rights
  16. “SDS Begins Program for Dorms, Schools,” The Daily Nebraskan. (Lincoln, NE.) November 3rd, 1966. Retrieved from https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1966-11-03/ed-1/seq-5/#words=civil+rights
  17. Aden Davis, “Minority Progress and Expansion at the University of Nebraska: The Afro-American Collegiate Society Demonstrations of 1969,” Nebraska U: A Collaborative History, UNL, 2018. Retrieved from http://unlhistory.unl.edu/exhibits/show/minority-progress/minority-progress-expansion
  18. James E. Perone, Songs of the Vietnam Conflict, (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001).
  19. “Folk Songs Considered Creative Art of Protest,” The Daily Nebraskan. (Lincoln, NE.) December 6th, 1963. Retrieved from https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1963-12-06/ed-1/seq-3/#words=Blowin+blowin+Wind+wind
  20. “Dylan Concert,” Sunday Journal and Star (Lincoln, Nebraska) March 13th, 1966. 
  21. Liz Aitken, “Misrepresentative Captions,” The Daily Nebraskan. (Lincoln, NE.) April 8th, 1966. Retrieved from https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1966-04-08/ed-1/seq-2/#words=protest+songs
  22. James Dunlap, “Through the Eyes of Tom Joad: Patterns of American Idealism, Bob Dylan, and the Folk Protest Movement,” Journal Popular Music and Society, 29, no. 5 (2006): 549.
  23. Dan Looker, “Joan Baez Establishes Communion of Emotion,” The Daily Nebraskan. (Linoln NE.) November 17th, 1967. Retrieved from https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1967-11-17/ed-1/seq-4/#words=Baez+Joan
  24. Looker.
  25. Looker.
  26. “Nebraska colleges plan feasts, fasts,” The Daily Nebraskan. (Lincoln, NE.) October 9th, 1969. Retrieved from https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1969-10-09/ed-1/seq-3/#words=protest+songs
  27. Jim Pederson, “Vietnam--Dead Issue?” The Daily Nebraskan. (Lincoln, NE.) February 6th, 1970. Retrieved from https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1970-02-06/ed-1/seq-4/#words=Vietnam+VIETNAM
  28. Pederson.
  29. Mike Tobias, "”We Had To Do Something": Vietnam Protests At UNL And One Tense Week In 1970,” NET, Nebraska Educational Telecommunications Commission, September 20, 2017, Retrieved from http://netnebraska.org/article/news/1095577/we-had-do-something-vietnam-protests-unl-and-one-tense-week-1970  
  30. “Union Program Preferences.” The Daily Nebraskan. (Lincoln, NE.) April 9th, 1970. Retrieved from https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1970-04-09/ed-1/seq-5/#words=CLEARWATER+CREEDENCE+REVIVAL
  31. Lee Andresen, Battle Notes: Music of the Vietnam War (Savage Press, 2003), 67.
  32. Larry Kubert, “Entertainment Overview,” The Daily Nebraskan. (Lincoln, NE.) September 9th, 1971. Retrieved from https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1971-09-09/ed-1/seq-5/#words=Steppenwolf
  33. Robert J. Vaslak, “Pros and Cons of the Peace Treaty,” The Daily Nebraskan. (Lincoln, NE.) April 5th, 1971. Retrieved from https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1971-04-05/ed-1/seq-2/#words=Vietnam+Vietnamization
  34. Vaslak.
  35. “Union Program Preferences.”
  36. Andresen, 324.
  37. Andresen, 84.

Works Cited

How Concerts Reflected the Cultural Shift of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Students in the Mid to Late 20th Century