Chronologies of the lives of four historical figures from the 1960s as seen through the lens of popular music.
Much has been written about John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, and Thomas Merton: their upbringings, careers and impacts, as well as their untimely deaths. But perhaps one overlooked aspect surrounding these men is popular music, which is ironic given how the music of the ’60s spoke of the turbulent times in which they lived. In his enlightening book, English examines the connections between these men and music, adding a new wrinkle in chronicling their life stories. Each chapter covers one figure, describing the songs he listened to from youth to adulthood, how ’60s music connected with him, as well as his brushes with some of the popular singers and entertainers of the time. For example, John F. Kennedy, who grew up loving Irish songs, represented the bridge between the American songbook and the pop music of the pre-Beatles era; some of the interesting music-related anecdotes involving JFK include his friendship with Frank Sinatra and how the Broadway musical Camelot became synonymous with the Kennedy family. Gospel and spiritual music was part of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, but the civil rights leader was also fond of secular popular music, from The Sound of Music to the Staple Singers. The chapter on Robert F. Kennedy shows how he and his presidential ambitions (the latter of which is linked to the song “The Impossible Dream” from the musical Man of La Mancha) ran concurrent with the countercultural movement of the late ’60s. He had a genuine interest in the folk rock music of Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan, and English points to the little-mentioned SRO show held for him in Los Angeles that featured the Byrds and Sonny and Cher. The inclusion of Merton, who was known for his pro–civil rights and anti-war views, is an inspired choice. Though lesser known, Merton is no less fascinating due to his conversion from a reckless young man to a cloistered Trappist monk. Yet when it came to music, the religious iconoclast was a true fan whose listening tastes included John Coltrane, the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles. This is certainly no heavy-hitting biography, but beyond merely highlighting these men’s favorite songs and what tunes were popular at the time, English gives background information on the songs and performers for additional context. Well-written and reverential, his book gives a real idea of how current events and pop culture collided during the tumultuous decade.
An enlightening, accessible book that will appeal to academics and casual music fans as well as history and pop-culture trivia buffs.