The Best Songs of the 1960s Might Surprise You, but then Again, Sometimes the Truth is Shocking

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The 1960’s were a turning point in the history of the United States of America – and the world. Post World War Two, pre-Vietnam, in the throes of the Cold War, the world was unified in strife. And out of that strife came the best music of the 20th century. The momentous musical achievements of the 60s still live on in infamy. Counter culture was becoming the mainstream, and everyone was ready for a chance. These songs ushered in the very change everyone was waiting for, and for that they are commendable. Get ready for some serious flashbacks.

5 “Blowin’ in the Wind” – Bob Dylan

Known as perhaps the greatest musical artist of the 20th century, Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” is one of the most famous folk songs of the 1960s. It has all the classic ear marks of amazing folk music – the poetry of the lyrics is unmistakably Dylan, and further exemplifies the overarching morals of the era. All of the questions we seek to answer (for a complete list of questions, search for the lyrics online) can be answered with that one simple phrase: “The answer is blowing in the wind.” It is intangible, it is ephemeral, and it is almost impossible to understand. But it isn’t hopeless, and if we keep looking we may just find it. It’s Dylan’s hopefulness that comes through in the song, and as long as the wind keeps blowin’, and we keep on livin’, we may just find the answers we seek.

4 “God Only Knows” – The Beach Boys

God Only Knows is a strange sort of love song. It doesn’t proclaim that the world will end upon heartbreak; instead it declares the opposite. Life would go on, but in this current moment, “God only knows what I would be without you.” It’s a simple message that anyone in love can latch on to. Love is, after all, the universal emotion. It does not know gender, race, money, age, or creed. It is something we can feel for anyone. Of course, the song seems to be about a specific kind of love – romantic love. However, I would argue that what makes the song as good as it is, is the fact that it leaves open the possibility that the love they are singing about is a love that stretches beyond a typical romantic relationship. Or maybe I’m superimposing the closing scene of Love Actually onto the meaning of the song. Regardless, it is clear that “God Only Knows” is a great love song and deserves a spot on the 1960s top five list.

3 “500 Miles” – Peter, Paul, and Mary

Made popular by the trio, 500 Miles was an historical American folk song that gained renewed notoriety in the 1960’s. Peter Paul and Mary had a unique folk sound that shone above the rest of the folk acts in the 1960s. “500 Miles” is a sweet sad song made emotionally powerful by Mary’s soothing lullaby voice. It represents the mixed emotions that everyone feels when moving on from someone they love – whether it be a home, a partner, or a country – there is that special sort of bittersweet sadness that accompanies a transition. “500 Miles,” as recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary is the most touching rendition of the song. It has an intrinsic American nostalgia that exists even to this day, and their version will always tug at heartstrings, no matter how many years pass by.

2 “Dancing in the Streets” – Martha and the Vandella’s

A song about love and unity, “Dancing in the Streets” is the quintessential 1960s song. One of Motown’s most famous hits, “Dancing in the Streets” became an anthem to the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. The world was ready for a brand new beat, and meshing perfectly with the flower-power movement, dancing was the way to bring that new beat about. The change that people so desperately sought could only be found through love, art, music, and dance. Martha and the Vandella’s weren’t your typical poster children for the hippie movement, but that fact proves that the movement was going in the right direction. It had a goal that mattered – to African-Americans, women, gays, and every minority that had been marginalized for decades. Dancing in the Streets is the ultimate song of equality, and as such claims its rightful place amongst the top 5 songs of the 1960’s.

1 “Star Spangled Banner” – Jimi Hendrix

Not exactly the song you’d expect from The Voodoo Child, Jimi Hendrix’s performance of the “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock in 1969 was the single greatest moment in rock n’ roll history (followed closely by Dylan “plugging in”). The young kid from Seattle was still relatively unknown when he took the stage and ripped through the most patriotic song to a sea of unwashed hippies. It proved one thing – that those of the counter culture weren’t un-American, they were opposed to the America we’d become – the war mongering machine that government had turned into. And here they were, standing up for their rights as true Americans – black, white, Latino, male, female, gay, straight, whatever you may be. Leaving the entire crowd, the entire country, in awe, Jimi Hendrix’s inspirational, inimitable performance of the star spangled banner signified the biggest shift in American and music and society that there would ever be.

Conclusion

The start of the most amazing five decades in musical history, the 1960s laid the foundation for all the changes to come. These five songs were the first foundations laid, not only for music, but also for greater American (or Western, or worldwide now-a-days) culture. There was a shift, and it there was no going back. Whether it was Dylan or the Voodoo Child, these five songs of the 1960s were remarkable and pioneering. Music would never be the same after these five acts came (and went), and we are all the better for it. So in this case, flashbacks aren’t a bad thing – in fact, they could do us some good.

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