(Above: Demonstration in Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1967. Photo credit: WOOD-TV)
(Above: Demonstration in Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2020. Photo credit: John Rothwell)
I missed being alive in 1968 by about a year or so.
That’s not to say that I haven’t studied it extensively. One doesn’t teach media history to college students and not spend time on the 1960s, especially the latter part of the decade when, at least in television, some of the horrors of a wicked world appeared in living rooms across America in living color for the first time. A point that I make to students in my media history and media literacy classes at Grand Valley is that yes, this is a cycle: history does repeat itself, in a sense, and we can easily find patterns in behavior and in reaction on the media side of the equation.
Boy, has 2020 given me material for the fall.
(That is, of course, assuming we can all get in a classroom in the fall. The continued spread of COVID-19, fueled in part by people’s refusal to just stay at home, may move us to what they call a “staggered hybrid” class. Half the group meets on Monday, half on Wednesday, and the rest gets filled in online from the relative safety of a dorm room or apartment. We’ll see how it goes.)
The summer has been marked by Black Lives Matter demonstrations that, in many cities, have been co-opted as excuses to damage property. We had a good-sized melee up the road in Grand Rapids. Over the last few weeks police have been identifying vandals, mostly White, who came up to town for a little fun. (One young man, from a rural town south of me and two counties removed from GR, explained that “he was bored.” That was his excuse for causing thousands of dollars in damage, and he’s now looking at ten years in prison.)
While it’s been interesting to watch the social media postings of students present and former as they take part in or express support for the movement, I also can’t help but think “we’ve seen this before.” Maybe this generation will succeed where others haven’t. But it’s not like there haven’t been attempts, even in popular culture, to affect change.
Take this pleasant-enough record from 1968. Coming off of the success of “Like To Get To Know You,” which for my money is one of the most perfect pop records ever made, Spanky and Our Gang decided to release something with a message to address the inequality they saw around them. The single, “Give A Damn,” was passed over without audition by many radio stations just for the title alone. (Yes, in 1968, the word “damn” was still problematic on the radio. Note how Joe South specifically avoids it in “Games People Play,” and radio stations years earlier passed on The Kingston Trio’s “Greenback Dollar” because of the word’s appearance in the chorus.)
For those music directors that did decide to drop the needle on the tune, they were faced with a tough decision. The lyrics don’t pull punches.
If you’d take the train with me
Uptown, thru the misery
Of ghetto streets in morning light
It’s always night
Take a window seat, put down your Times
You can read between the lines
Just meet the faces that you meet
Beyond the window’s pane
The lyrics go on from there, imploring listeners to picture themselves raising children in the ghetto, putting their children to bed “with rats instead of nursery rhymes.” And yet the rodents are not the most insidious thing lurking, for that’s really in the heads of those who live there:
And wonder if you’ll share your bed
With something else which must be fed
For fear may lie beside you
Or it may sleep down the hall
Damn indeed. And that’s just the first half. Of course, it’s also sung in the voice of Elaine “Spanky” McFarland, who I’d listen to sing the phone book. This is some powerful stuff.
But too powerful for AM radio? It depended where you were. Nationally, “Give a Damn” stopped at #43. A visit to ARSA, which keeps track of the wonderful world of local airplay, shows us that “Give A Damn” was a #8 record on KHJ in Los Angeles. It was also #8 in Buffalo, New York, but in NYC – where commuters would have indeed had the chance to put down their Times – WOR only advanced it to #14, and they’re the only station reporting it that high (WMCA peaks it at #25. WABC? WNBC? Nothing.). Even little Jackson, Michigan’s WIBM bumped it up to #9. I see KSTT/Davenport, Iowa at #15. Cleveland’s here. Des Moines and Tulsa are here. What cities aren’t on the first page of the list? The ones with the racial problems and tensions running highest. There’s no chart data for Chicago. Detroit is missing, as is Washington, DC. (In Grand Rapids, it’s an “also-ran” on WLAV, making it to #28.) KFRC/San Francisco bumps it to #16, and it gets no higher than #28 on KXOK in St. Louis. The voices of these cities decided that this wasn’t a message that they could take a chance on spreading, and left the song off of the airwaves. (That’s assuming that the figures that we do see weren’t in fact “paper adds” – a practice I learned about while writing my dissertation by which music directors would put songs on playlists to appease record promoters and then not necessarily spin the songs during daylight hours if at all.)
For stations that truly dared to get the word out, Spanky and Our Gang released a one-minute edit of the record that they labeled “Public Service Announcement.” The idea that a broadcaster would subtly slip this into a commercial break in 1968 brings chills, and it’s positively unfathomable today. Someone prove me wrong. I’ll wait.
Fast-forward to 2020. A week ago I took one of the rare ventures out of Quarantine Central to pick up things for the home. I keep an old-school iPod in the car, which I refuse to shuffle. The letter G came up, and I got to listen to this song. I hadn’t heard it in a while, and the gravity of everything going on today hit. Damned if a 52-year-old record can’t bring a tear to the eye of a 51-year-old guy. Immediately I thought of my media history students: I bet they haven’t heard this one. Then again, they have heard the story, because they’re living it. The question is – will their kids have to live it, too?
As I was heading back in to my tiny rural town, I noticed that a house in the middle of nowhere had added a new decoration that wasn’t there the last time I drove by: a giant Confederate flag flapping in the breeze over the garage. The more things change, indeed.