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Sorry for switching projects.  I will return to the presidents- honest I will.  But I also know that I’d just be churning out mediocre stuff if I did, because my “history writing” energies are focused on finishing my book on McGovern and the Christian Left.

340.  “Bernadette”- The Four Tops (1967):  From the first punch of electric organ, this song is one of the most urgent of the entire Motown era.  A great vocal performance (especially the tight background vocals that are barely audible unless you deliberately try to listen to them).

339.  “Chapel of Love”- The Dixie Cups (1964): The Dixie Cups fall through the cracks when we talk about the great girl groups from the 1960s.  That’s a shame, because this song’s sweet innocence, while antiquated, is a great relic of its time.  I had it stuck in my head for most of the morning of my wedding.

338.  “Mother’s Little Helper”- The Rolling Stones (1966): Showing a remarkable versatility, the Stones go from being snide and condescending toward middle-class girls to middle-class housewives.  This song is intrinsically interesting because one of my professors, David Herzberg, is a historian of the ‘mother’s little helper’ drugs that proliferated in the 1950s and 1960s as the dark, self-medicating side of postwar housewifery.

337.  “Walk Don’t Run”- The Ventures (1960): A bright, shining beacon in rock’s darkest hour, this nifty little instrumental combo creates a tight sound with a memorable guitar melody, and it makes history as one of the very first surf instrumentals ever (although one could neither walk nor run on a surf board…)

336.  “Keep on Running”- The Spencer Davis Group (1965):  They were a great little combo for a little while, giving a young Steve Winwood his start with some great blue-eyed soul vocals.

335.  “Rocksteady”- Alton Ellis (1967):  Ellis took ska, slowed it down to something more deliberative and even sensual, and this song became the namesake of an entirely new genre of music in Jamaica.

334.  “A Sunday Kind of Love”- Etta James (1961):  James gives a great R&B vocal performance with some world class crooning.  Classy and brassy at the same time, James’ artistry shines through.

333.  “Traces”- Classics IV (1969):  These guys had a nice late-60s run that basically invented lounge-rock.  Easy melodies, emotive saxophone solos, this song was made for elevators and department store, but there’s no denying its craftsmanship.

332.  “White Rabbit”- Jefferson Airplane (1967):  Overrated.  But still a trippy journey into the subconscious, and possibly the first recorded comparison of LSD to Lewis Carroll’s flights of fancy.

331.  “The Inner Light”- The Beatles (1968): One of the most important facets of what made the Beatles great was George Harrison’s attempt to bring Indian music to western audiences.  This is truly a work of fusion: the text of the Tao Te Ching set against a classical Indian raga, replete with scales and instruments that most Westerners were scarcely familiar with.  A hell of a lot more groundbreaking than “Revolution No. 9″, don’t you think?

330.  “Guineverre”- Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969):  This spartan number from CSN’s first album shows David Crosby’s fiddly approach to music and his mystical approach to life all at once.  Filled with Arthurian nonsense, it remains a haunting and enchanting piece, using unusual guitar tunings and his peerless harmonies with Nash.

329.  “Devil With a Blue Dress/Good Golly, Miss Molly”- Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels (1966):  Detroit wasn’t just Motown– it also gave us Mitch Ryder soulful rock-revival hit.  The outrageous mock-gospel background vocals give this song a great deal of camp value.  And yet, it paradoxically was one of the first blue-collar, Rust Belt rock songs of the 60s.  It’s a track that transgresses the genre and race boundaries in which we love to put music.

328.  “I Shall Be Released”- The Band (1967): Plaintive, stripped-down and spiritual, Richard Manuel delivers an emotionally aching performance in a tenor that paves the way for Neil Young.

327.  “Israelites”- Desmond Dekker (1968): This was the first time the wider public got a taste of Rastafarian theology.  Dekker subtly draws the connections between the Old Testament story and the wider African diaspora in some excellent early reggae with trademark piss-poor Jamaican production values.

326.  “Maggie’s Farm”- Bob Dylan (1965): Folkies love arguing about this song.  Is Dylan declaring his independence from the folkie movement?  From social issues?  From the rock industry?  He defiantly uses electric guitar on this, so….yes?

325.  “No Particular Place to Go”- Chuck Berry (1964):  This song vintage Berry: lots of kick-ass guitar, and cheeky lyrics (sure your safety belt was stuck, Chuck.  And I’m the pope.)  It’s such a great description of teenage idleness in the 50s and 60s that I use it in my class to make that very point.  I’d rank it higher, but, you know, Berry ripped off his own earlier hit “School Day” to write it, making this the 2nd song plagiarized off Chuck Berry on this list.  (Don’t worry, “Surfin’ USA” is coming)

324.  “I Wanna Take You Higher”- Sly & the Family Stone (1969): Loud and funky, with lots of punchy horns, the exchanges between the vocalists, and the sense of barely-controlled chaos contains everything that made Sly and the Family Stone great.

323.  “Barterers And Their Wives”- The Left Banke (1967):  The Left Banke were a brilliant group that self-destructed far too soon (another ‘lead songwriter is attracted to the lead guitarist’s girlfriend’ scenarios.  You know how that goes.)  But their attempt to synthesize rock music with older forms is perfected in this track off of their amazingly good debut album.   Here, they attempt an English folk tune of their own creation, all the while pointing at the futility of materialism.

322.  “Village Green Preservation Society”- The Kinks (1968): The Kinks had some of the keenest eyes of the 1960s, and while sometimes this could be poignant (“Waterloo Sunset”), it more often ended up on the side of the ridiculous.  “Village Green” is a wonderful send-up of local British movements opposed to any change at all in stodgy post-austerity Britain.

321.  “Sail Away”- The Kingston Trio (1961): The Kingston Trio were hugely important.  They had multiple albums that were #1 for 8+ weeks, invented the modern concept of touring, and took over the folky mantra from the Weavers (although they deliberately avoided the Weavers’ political controversies and were probably too preppy and collegiate.)  This song about escaping to the Caribbean is sad and wistful, and eloquently harmonized (and as un-Jimmy-Buffett as could be).

360.  “Come Together”- The Beatles (1969):  This song is maybe the coolest in The Beatles’ catalog, full of Lennon’s snarky character observations, completely untethered from its throwaway chorus, and also features some of the best bass-playing of Paul McCartney’s career.  It would rank higher if the melody wasn’t completely plagiarized from a B-list Chuck Berry tune, “You Can’t Catch Me.”

359.  “Nowhere to Run”- Martha Reeves & the Vandellas (1965):  1965 was a great year, but believe it or not, this is our first track from that annum mirabilis to appear on our list (remember, ’65 gave us both “Satisfaction” and “Yesterady” among many others.).  In the Motown hit factory, Reeves was celebratory and exuberant while Diana Ross was sultry and demure.  The Vandellas were, I think, the better group, but they weren’t given the best material, since Ross was sleeping with Motown president Berry Gordy and Martha Reeves was not.

358.  “Feeling Good”- Nina Simone (1965):  Simone’s work is full of heartbreak and bitterness, but this track proves the adage that living well is always the best revenge.

357.  “Breaking Up is Hard to Do”- Neil Sedaka (1962):  Sedaka was perhaps the least irritating of the early 60s teen idols.  I always appreciated how Sedaka wasn’t mass-marketed, and frequently showed up at television appearances in dorky haircuts and ugly sweaters.  At least he wrote his own material, which the likes of Frankie Avalon can’t say.  (Frankie Avalon, by the way, is my watchword for “everything wrong with the early 1960s music scene.”)  Anyway, this track has one of the great ear-worm melodies of the era, with an infectious “Down-dooby-doo down-down” vocal riff following it throughout.  It’s a standout track from one of pop’s bleakest eras.

356.  “The Tide is High”- The Paragons (1967):  Admit it, you thought the folks in Blondie wrote this, didn’t you?  As it turns out, its a ska track by a short-lived Jamaican group whose fuzzy 60s production actually fits the song quite a bit better than Blondie’s late-70s mariachi treatment.

355.  “Wedding Bell Blues”- The 5th Dimension (1969):  For years, I thought this track was on the Hair soundtrack or something, because its so theatrical, and you can see it being played out on stage.  Another great testament to Laura Nyro’s ability to write soul numbers so persuasively that one of the era’s preeminent black vocal groups took the song up eagerly.

354.  “Sweet Cherry Wine”- Tommy James & the Shondells (1969):  This song isn’t a radio staple like “Crimon and Clover” or “Draggin’ the Line”, but in a way its the most historically significant song the band recorded.  By the late 60s, James and the crew were breaking free of the mafia and finding a born-again faith.  This song reflects these changes (“sweet cherry wine” is, of course, a metaphor for the blood of Christ), and you can argue that its the first Christian Contemporary song ever recorded.

353.  “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”- Simon & Garfunkel (1966):  I’m a big sucker for counterpoint.   Paul Simon arranges something poignant and beautiful with this track from the Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme album.  He anticipates the baroque direction popular music would take in the next year, and oozes the song with the best elements of folk: beautiful acoustic instrumentation, a reverence for our musical heritage, and a biting social message.

352.  “Hide Away”- Freddie King (1960):  They say that there were three kings of the blues: B.B. King, Albert King, and Freddie King.  “Hide Away” is a great transition point between earlier Chicago blues and the rock instrumental.

351.  “A Hard Day’s Night”- The Beatles (1964):  That opening chord changed music forever.  That F-add-9 is loaded with anticipation, which is rewarded with one of the most energetic and focused of the early Beatles hits, and introduced the 12-string guitar to the pop lexicon.

350.  “Groovin’”- The Rascals (1967):  It rivals the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream” as the most mellow hit of the 1960s.  This tribute to weekend laziness is expertly served by Felix Cavaliere’s easy blue-eyed soul vocals.

349.  “Okie from Muskogee”- Merle Haggard (1969):  Is the song an earnest ode to old-fashioned, rural American virtue?  Or is it an especially clever satire of insular middle America?   In a way the song reminds me of the poetry of William Topaz McGonagall:  scholars still can’t figure out whether he was a brilliant parody of a bad poet, or an actual prodigiously bad poet.  In the same fashion, one can’t quite tell whether Haggard is extolling or ridiculing his song’s Okies.  He played it before country audiences who took it seriously, but he also performed it deadpan on the Smothers Brothers’ show, and plenty of countercultural acts have taken the song in as their own.  Maybe Haggard has the last laugh on all of us in the end.

348.  “Alice’s Restaurant”- Arlo Guthrie (1967):  This takes up almost the entire side of a record, but Guthrie, Woodie’s grandson, takes up the populist dissent tradition from his forebear.  An essay in the craft of hippie storytelling, “Alice’s Restaurant” is a pointed satire of the hypocrisy of the Vietnam War effort, where our hero successfully evades the draft by earning a criminal record from littering.

347.  “So Much in Love”- The Thymes (1963):  One of my favorite doo-wop records, this was recorded when doo-wop was all but dead as top 40 material.  The song is brilliant and simple in its harmonies, and I can’t help but smile at its earnest and endearing storyline about a seaside romance culminating in marriage.  Boyz II Men remade the song in the 90s to great effect.

346.  “Good Times, Bad Times”- Led Zeppelin (1969):  If you were listening to top 40 radio, Led Zeppelin’s first album  must have seemed like a bolt out of the blue.  Although they borrowed liberally from obscure blues artists, this is already an amazingly tight and proficient ensemble.  This raucous track, even with hints of the Yardbirds easily detected (no surprise, given Jimmy Page’s journeyman turn with the group), shows that the next generation of blues-rock has arrived.

345.  “The Dawn Treader”- Joni Mitchell (1968):  This track is from Mitchell’s debut album, released in 1968, just in time to make Mitchell one of the earliest female singer-songwriters to inspire dozens of careers in that vein in the 1970s like Carly Simon’s and Janis Ian’s.  Mitchell’s imagery is evocative even at this early stage in her career, and I found it impressive how she molds the words into the melody.  As good a lyricist as she is, the song would be just as effective in a foreign language, or in a made-up dialect like those Enya uses.

344.  “Girl From the North Country”- Bob Dylan with Johnny Cash (1969):  Dylan’s remake on the epochal Nashville Skyline album works with Johnny Cash and remakes this 1963 song with a greater earthiness and down-home feel than the original.  Interestingly, it borrows some lyrics from “Scarborough Fair” as well.

343.  “Ballet for a Girl in Buchanan”- Chicago (1969):  Chicago was almost shockingly ambitious and daring in their first three albums, and couldn’t be further apart from their 80s power ballads.  This suite was written by James Pankow, their trombonist who doubled as their horn arranger.  Clocking in at almost fifteen minutes, it moves from the band’s conventional jazz-rock into Bach arpeggios, Renaissance aires, and Copland-like Americana.  Two pieces of the suite were pared down as successful singles, “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World.”

342.  “I Can Hear Music”- The Ronettes (1966):  Listening to this track, it becomes clear why Brian Wilson idolized record producer Phil Specter.  The production is lush, deliberate, and elaborate, effectively stealing the show from Ronnie and her friends.

341.  “I Saw Her Again”- The Mamas and the Papas (1966):  A great track that subtly hints at the inter-band love triangles that had developed by this point in time.  I love the false start before the second verse.  This is a fine stepping stone between Greenwich Village folk and psychedelia.

380.  “Flying on the Ground is Wrong”- Buffalo Springfield (1966): While Stills got most of the attention in Buffalo Springfield, that chapter of Neil Young’s career was an important apprenticeship.  His falsetto lift (“then I’m sorry to let you down”) into the bridge is the first great rock and roll moment that he is responsible for as a composer.

379.  “This Will Be Our Year”- The Zombies (1968):  On the verge of breaking up, British Invasion band The Zombies recorded one of the best albums of the 60s, Odessey and Oracle.  (The title isn’t a bad pun.  The band just didn’t know how to spell “Odyssey”.)  “This Will Be Our Year” is one of the finest tracks on that release.  Pitchfork put it on their list of the greatest 1960s songs, comparing it to “the rose-colored finale of a feel-good musical.”

378.  “Songs to Aging Children Go”- Joni Mitchell (1969): Even at this early hour, Joni Mitchell was refining the folky Southern California sound that would lay the groundwork for introspective 70s soft rock.  With her trademark ethereal melodies and evasive lyrics, Mitchell evokes an otherworldly sound from Laurel Canyon.

377.  “A Quick One While He’s Away”- The Who (1966):  The Who were always ahead of the curve, and their mid-decade release A Quick One shows plenty of ambitious themes, and a conceptualization of how an album could work as a cohesive piece.  It narrates a brief interlude of infidelity in a relationship throughout a nine-minute suit.  It prepared the band to work on rock operas in the future, and some fans have speculated that the song narrates the conception of the hero of their rock opera “Tommy.”  It offered one of the first glimpses of rock music as a vehicle for real drama.

376.  “Laughing”- The Guess Who (1969): Never really respected by anyone who mattered in the 60s and 70s, Canada’s best-loved rock group was one of the most reliable hit-producing outfits that thrived in rock’s most competitive years.  Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman prove that they have developed into solid, if unspectacular, tunesmiths by the time “Laughing” came out.

375.  “Time Was”- Canned Heat (1969):  Great psychedelic blues from a band that was once the toast of Woodstock.

374.  “Twist and Shout”- The Beatles (1963):  This is The Beatles’ first appearance on this list, and the only one of their cover songs to crack the top 400.  They take the “Slow jam” feel of the Isley Brothers’ original record, and infuse it with raw Merseyside energy.  Small wonder this song opened or closed nearly every concert they did afterward.  A tip of the hat to John Lennon who nearly shredded his larynx, recording this in one take after a 12-hour recording session, with a head cold.

373.  “Dirty Water”- The Standells (1966): True to the song’s title, the sound is murky and muddled, in the best garage band style.  It’s a lovely warts-and-all tribute to Boston, a city that didn’t contribute very many of the artists on this list.  Including, it seems, the LA-based Standells.

372.  “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”- The Walker Brothers (1966): I can’t think of a single British invasion track that captured the essence of early 60s soul records more than this one.  The were popular enough in Britain, but it’s a shame the band never had a follow-up hit in the U.S.

371.  “A Summer Song”- Chad & Jeremy (1964):  Sure, it is shlock, but “A Summer Song” is a sweet encapsulation of a feeling many teens in the 60s had to face: saying goodbye to a sweetheart as summer tore them apart.  Good British-invasion harmonies and a strong melody carry this track nicely.

370.  “The Pied Piper”- Crispian St. Peters (1966):  Crispian was vain, arrogant, and elusive, but he managed to write a very strong song with multiple hooks that wanders from a low-register drawl to a Beatlesque crescendo.  If his talent and focus had matched his opinion of himself, he could have had a career instead of languishing with the one-hit wonders.

369.  “19th Nervous Breakdown”- The Rolling Stones (1966):  Unfortunately, misogyny directed at spoilt middle-class girls was becoming a calling card by this point in the Rolling Stones.  Even still, one can’t dismiss the power and proficiency of this track that shows by the Stones succeeded in ways that outshone almost all their British counterparts.  For this period in their career, anyway, they dismiss their blues background in favor of a more straightforward rock approach.

368.  “A Groovy Kind of Love”- The Mindbenders (1966): This song has a fine melody that lends itself to a certain sense of intimacy.  I really appreciate how its mellowness contrasts from the overwrought vocals of someone like Paul Anka earlier in the decade.  Despite the title containing the most dated word in the hippie lexicon, Phil Collins managed to make the song a hit again in the 1980s.

367.  “People Are Strange”- The Doors (1967):  I think The Doors are rather overrated, but there’s no question that Morrison taps into something very strong on this track- a sense of alienation heightened by the song’s sudden stops, dreary atmosphere, and Ray Manzarek’s anachronistic barrelhouse piano.

366.  “Blue Bayou”- Roy Orbison (1963):  Orbison’s voice is perfectly matched for a song about longing to go back home.  Linda Ronstadt’s version is more polished and affecting, but it is hard to deny the mournful power in Roy Orbison’s original.

365.  “A Salty Dog”- Procol Harum (1969):  Procol Harum thrived on creating atmosphere without resorting to kitsch.  They are at the top of their game here, evoking a nautical theme for a dramatic number on the high seas that slowly builds up to an almost cinematic conclusion.

364.  “Remember (Walking in the Sand)”- The Shangri-Las (1964):  The Shangri-Las weren’t the most talented of the 60′s girl-groups, but they did record some of the most interesting material.  Spooky and atmospheric, “Walking in the Sand” moved the band into darker territory than many of their contemporaries were permitted to occupy by their producers.

363.  “Eli’s Coming”- Three Dog Night (1969): They would go on to be the top vocal group of the early 70s, but Three Dog Night was just getting started here, with an urgent, organ-laced interpretation of this Laura Nyro song.  Although it pointed to the great things this combo would eventually accomplish, “Eli’s Coming” is also perhaps their least radio-friendly hit.  (It’s the only major song of theirs that the band did not perform when I saw them back in 2009.)

362.  “You’re All I Need (To Get By)”- Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (1968):  Ashford and Simpson were, at this point, becoming a Motown Goffin and King.  They deliver in the songwriting stakes again giving Motown’s strongest vocal duo at the time another big hit.  It is all the more remarkable because Terrell was suffering from brain cancer and was confined to a wheelchair during the song’s recording.

361.  “Hurdy Gurdy Man”- Donovan (1968)  I almost forgot this one, but Jared reminded me that this Donovan hit existed.  Usually a folky, Donovan evokes a mythos and mysticism with this track, with the tambla providing a drone (the single most distinctive element of Indian music, substituting for the universal “Om” sound).  It also helps that the men who would become Led Zeppelin back him up.

And I welcome you to the first part of our countdown, where we determine the greatest songs from that most pivotal of decades, the 1960s.

400.  “Kick Out the Jams”- MC5 (1969):  Loud, brash, and undisciplined, this group worked in the White Panther Party, shouted revolutionary slogans during concerts, and went to Chicago to disrupt the Democratic Convention in 1968 with John Sinclair.  “Kick out the Jams” shows how their amateurish musicianship anticipated the anarchy of the DIY movement and, of course, punk.

399. “Sheila”- Tommy Roe (1962): Buddy Holly didn’t live to see the 1960s, but this charming, but deeply derivative ditty by copycat Tommy Roe is a close enough approximation to what he might have sounded like in 1962.

398.  “I Like My Toys”- Idle Race (1968): Believe it or not, Jeff Lynne was actively emulating The Beatles long before the Electric Light Orchestra tuned up.  The Idle Race was his first project as a teenager, and their first release was a concept album about a child’s birthday party.  From the “Penny Lane”-ish bells to the McCartneyesque sense of levity to the Harrison slide guitar, Lynne’s hero worship for The Beatles is evident from the start.

397.  “Turn Your Love Light On”- Bobby Bland (1961): Bland is one of the most obscure rock and roll hall of famers, but this track gives credence to a great voice, and it sets the table for the direction soul music would take later in the 1960s as it developed.  He reaches deep into the gospel idiom to produce a pretty amazing record.

396.  “Dominique”- The Singing Nun (1962): The tale of the Singing Nun is surprisingly sad, but that shouldn’t take away from this surprise hit song, the only foreign language number (I think) in my top 400.  One thing I do love about the early 60s is that the talent pool was so thin that a French song about a Dominican friar performed on the acoustic guitar by a nun could make it to #1.

395.  “Give Peace a Chance”- John Lennon (1969): Recorded in a bed during his Montreal honeymoon with Yoko Ono, this is Lennon’s clever wordplay at its best, a series of rapid-fire verses with an inane and eminently singable chorus.  Small wonder that nearly every peace march since has adopted this song.  I love how Lennon was still so committed to his partnership to Paul in ’69 that he still credited his first solo record as a Lennon-McCartney release even though Paul didn’t write a word or note of it.

394.  “Freedom Trilogy”- Odetta (1963): Odetta was a national treasure; one of the premier muses of the civil rights movement who performed at the March on Washington, an honor she shared Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary.  This is possibly her finest hour, taking her blues and folks background directly through the old black spirituals just as the civil rights movement was at its highest ebb.  This is a staggering track, one that played a role in shaping American history.

393.  “Creeque Alley”- The Mamas and the Papas (1967): This is a strikingly self-referential track, telling the tale of the group’s formation, and its connections to the others in New York’s folk scene, replete with cameo appearances by members of the Byrds and the Lovin’ Spoonful.

392.  “A Little Less Conversation”- Elvis Presley (1968): By the mid-60s, Elvis was trapped in a never-ending cycle of making cheap, badly written movies with hastily written soundtracks.  Artistically, he had been certifiably dead since he joined the army, but sparks of life and mischief and energy can be seen in this track, peering out of his creative morass, his lethargy, and his diet of fried banana sandwiches.  “Lilo and Stitch” gave this track new life several years ago.

391.  “I Wanna Be Your Dog”- The Stooges (1969): One more proto-punk song I feel obligated to include because of its massive influence on the development of the genre.  Rugged, uncompromising, and committed to its juvenility, Iggy Pop makes a startling debut on record.

390.  “A Shot of Rhythm and Blues”- Arthur Alexander (1961): Arthur Alexander was one of Lennon’s favorite artists (“Anna” from the first Beatles LP was one of his tunes.)  His knack as a tunesmith is evident here, despite the god-awful production (loud brass, abrasive female backup singers), but there was enough in this track to lament that Alexander was one of his era’s lost treasures.  In fact, Alexander is the only artist to have had his songs recorded by The Beatles, The Stones AND Dylan.

389.  “The Wolf of Velvet Fortune”- The Beau Brummels (1967): Better known for their 1966 hit “Laugh Laugh”, the Brummels made perhaps the first foray into fantasy themes on the psychedelic heels of Sgt. Pepper.  Animal metaphors, experimental instrumentation, inchoate lyrics– I’m amazed that this isn’t pegged as the first progressive rock song.  I’m also still trying to figure out of the title is a euphemism for something.

388.  “Questions 67 & 68″- Chicago (1969): Bold as, well, brass, Chicago made its first release a double album forcing first-time listeners to make a commitment.  This one paid off; the best track combines Robert Lamm’s thoughtful songwriting and Peter Cetera’s soaring tenor.  But it is the rhythm section- Terry Kath on guitar, Cetera on bass, and Danny Seraphine on drums, that anchor this magnificent and stately song, which unfortunately tanked as a 45-rpm single.

387.  “I Just Dropped In To See What Condition My Condition Was In”- First Edition (1968): Before he ever sold a single piece of roast chicken, before he ever became The Gambler, Kenny Rogers was hanging out with the Smothers Brothers and released this psychedelic hit.

386.  “Be Not Too Hard”- Joan Baez (1967): Baez’s warm earnestness penetrates this song, an ode to grace with a social conscience.  And by “earnest”, of course, I mean speaking the first verse in lieu of singing a third verse.

385.  “Give Me Love”- Rosie & the Originals (1960): Speaking of songs that Lennon took a liking too, this was also one of his early favorites.  The flip side of a minor hit “Angel Baby,” Rosie attempts to sing it in a deeper, masculine style, in the midst of a boogie-woogie backdrop with a persistent electric guitar part.  It’s one of the strangest girl-group records ever made; insistent and over-bearing in fascinating ways.

384.  “Shantytown”- Desmond Dekker (1967): There’s a fair bit of proto-reggae on this list, including this track by Dekker.  A great example of commercially viable ska, its also a useful window into the rudeboy subculture from that time in Jamaica’s history.

383.  “Monster Mash”- Bobby Boris Pickett & the Crypt-Kickers (1962): Every novelty hit forever afterwards was held up to this standard.  Capitalizing on the popularity of “Mashed Potato Time,” the creative production and sound effects and Pickett’s spot-on Boris Karloff impression makes this a delight to hear every October.  Well, the first couple of times, anyway.

382.  “San Antonio Rose”- Willie Nelson (1966): Just like Kenny Rogers wasn’t the Gambler yet, Willie Nelson was the country rebel or the Red Haired Stranger.  Still, Nelson’s finding his way beautifully here, with a confident vocal with a horn section break appropriate to the tune’s setting.

381.  “Draft Dodger Rag”- Chad Mitchell Trio (1964): Written by Phil Ochs, this was recorded by the Chad Mitchell Trio years after Chad Mitchell abandoned ship, and one of its members was a very young John Denver.  The song is uproariously funny, and a good example of how Tom Lehrer’s satire (think “Vatican Rag”) had a larger impact on popular music.  It works perfectly in the folk idiom with great comic timing to suggest that the guy desperately getting out of service might have been the real protagonist of the Vietnam farce.

As the president-ranking project slowly winds down (only nine left!), I’d like to turn my attention toward some other topics, since the last year has been almost entirely dominated by presidential posts.  I mentioned it in a post a month or two ago, but in the future, I’ll be counting down the top 100 architects of modern conservatism and modern liberalism in America, respectively.  I will comment on the 2014 midterm elections and the table-setting for the 2016 presidential election as they happen.  I will continue to monitor the Rock and Roll Hall of fame and predict the class of 2015 (nominations will come out in October of this year.)

For all this, my next priority is ranking and listing the top 400 songs of perhaps the 20th century’s most prolific decade for popular music, the 1960s.  This endeavor is bold, and certain a bit arrogant, but this is, by no means, a definitive ranking.  Lots of others have made similar rankings, and I drew on their knowledge and expertise to point me toward songs I never even knew existed.

A question, dear readers, may remain: why 400?  Wouldn’t 200 or even 500 be cleaner?  400, to me, represented a happy medium.  If limited to 200, a lot of more obscure, less influential, but nonetheless interesting and engaging tracks were left off.  When I tried to expand beyond 400 to 500, a lot of songs I wasn’t that enthusiastic about started to make appearances.  So, 400 it is.

In doing this, I tried to limit some of the iconic artists.  It seems like 40 or so Beatles songs should be on this list, but I capped it to about 15 or so, to allow other artists a chance to make their presence known.   Other artists similarly stymied for their own good are The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, The Who, and, if you can believe it, Nina Simone.   One thing that became clear as I compiled this list is how, um…bottom-heavy the 60s are.  The first few years of the 1960s were not very good at all until the British Invasion, The Beach Boys, and Motown really reached their peak.  By 1960, most of the greats from the 50s were out of the picture: Elvis and the Everlys were in the army, Chuck Berry was in jail, Little Richard forsook rock for the gospel, Carl Perkins was reeling from a near-fatal auto crash, and Jerry Lee Lewis was rightly ostracized for marrying his 13-year-old cousin.  We were left with a bunch of second-raters, never-weres, squares, posers, instrumental themes from unimpressive movies, and a dreadful number of teen idols named Bobby.  By 1969, The Beatles, The Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Simon & Garfunkel, Aretha, Marvin Gaye, Chicago, Hendrix, Three Dog Night, and Pink Floyd were all on the scene.  So, the competition isn’t even close; the decade got better and better, musically, as it wore on, and it shouldn’t be surprising that there are dozens and dozens of songs from ’69 and ’68 but only a relatively small handful from ’60 and ’61 that make the list.

Also- what do I mean by “song”?  Generally, I mean the rock and roll universe, but I generally believe rock and roll to not really be its own genre after 1960 or so, but rather, a common ancestor to what came after: British Invasion, Motown, R&B, soul, punk, funk, soft rock, disco, and so on.  All of these genres (or their progenitors) are represented here, and I included a few songs that fell entirely out of the rock spectrum, but existed in a kind of conversation with rock and roll, or had a profound impact on rock and roll in some way- so Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, and a few traditional blues artists will make appearances on the list.  Of course, most of the songs on this list will be Billboard hits, although some “deep tracks” from obscure albums will certainly show up.   I respect the hell out of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and other crooners, but their work is outside of this list’s dojo.

The final question- what do I mean by “best” or greatness?  Part of it is musical excellence- a moving vocal performance, a virtuoso guitar solo, a tight ensemble, a memorable hook.  At the same time, I also keep an ear toward creativity and innovation– but not so innovative as to become unlistenable (one reason why Frank Zappa and dozens of the weirder psychedelic rock bands are not on the list.)  Songs that contributed to the development of new sub genres or synthesized existing styles together will be ranked highly, as did those that best captured the zeitgeist of the times.  (When you think of a 60s protest, Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” will almost inevitably play in your head; that sort of thing has to count for something.)   Simultaneously, pop is still more than represented if it passes the excellence test (which something like “Build Me Up Buttercup” does, but “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro does not.)

So, we’ll soon begin, with 20 postings of 20 songs each.  As we go along, post a comment and let me know some of your favorite 1960s songs.

To begin, here’s some stinkers that you can rest assured didn’t make the list:

  1. SSgt. Barry Sandler- The Ballad of the Green Berets
  2. Ray Peterson- Tell Laura I Love Her
  3. Zagger and Evans- In the Year 2525
  4. Richard Harris- MacArthur Park
  5. Percy Sledge- When a Man Loves a Woman
  6. Tiny Tim- Tiptoe Through the Tulips
  7. Anything by Sonny and Cher
  8. The Trashmen- Surfin’ Bird
  9. The Archies- Sugar Sugar
  10. The Crystals- He Hit Me and It Felt Like a Kiss
  11. Bobby Goldsboro- Honey
  12. Victor Lundberg- An Open Letter to My Teenage Son
  13. Napoleon XIV- They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha haas
  14. Anything by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap
  15. Anything by Captain Beefheart

bigpolk Category: Warmonger

Term in Office: 11th president, 1845-1849

Party: Democratic

Home State: Tennessee

 

One day in my 8th grade social studies class, my teacher, Mr. E, told us that James K. Polk was his choice for the greatest American president.  He reminded us that he is the only one who achieved all of his campaign promises: Texas was annexed into the Union, Oregon Territory was negotiated with the British, California was wrested from Mexico, With no disrespect intended toward Mr. E, this is a decadent bourgeois reason for praising a president.  This post is committed to taking down James Polk’s reputation as the “best-kept secret” in the presidential pantheon.  While Polk is undeniably more obscure than other presidents who are ranked ‘near-great’, he was the ringleader in one of the most shameful chapters in the American melodrama, the Mexican War.

It might be helpful to view these bottom five spots in my ranking as being reserved not for presidential failure, but presidential ignominy.  All of the bottom five were, to some degree or other, successful in their aims.  They avoided a civil war (Buchanan), or restored “law and order” (Nixon), established the United States as a continental power (Polk), thwarted Radical Reconstruction (A. Johnson), or stood for the common freeholder against elite East Coast interests (Jackson.)  What I want to explore is how they arrived at these aims, how just these means and ends were, and what their long-term deleterious impact on the United States has been.  Buchanan avoided a civil war by abetting openly treasonous activity, Nixon established law and order by turning Americans against one another in unprecedented ways, Johnson’s lenient version of Reconstruction was a product of his own backwoods racism, and Jackson’s crimes are too numerous to even bother summarizing until we get to his post.

That leaves Polk.  James Polk has many of the markers of a successful president: relevant legislative experience, a vision for America’s greatness, a strong work ethic, a laudable family life.  What makes him one of our worst presidents is the insidious means to which he directed these talents.  I speak, of course, of the Mexican War.  Even a generous account of this era cannot avoid castigating this conflict a brazen and violent land-grab.  This casts a kind of pallor over the entire Polk presidency; it is difficult to talk about very much else because this kind of aggressive expansionism was, and is, shocking.  It serves as such a stark counterpoint to the “shining the beacon of liberty” narrative to which we are accustomed.

In his background, Polk was a semi-obscure protege of his fellow Tennessian, Andrew Jackson.  Polk was a loyal lieutenant for Old Hickory in Congress, and rose through the ranks to become Speaker of the House, the only president to have served in that office.  After a few unsuccessful races against the ascendant Whigs, Polk’s career was nearly toast.  He quietly lobbied to become the Democrats’ vice-presidential candidate in 1844 to embark upon a comeback.  Instead, the Democrats’ convention in Baltimore chose Polk, in no respect a household name, for the presidency.  (Their front-runner, ex-president Martin Van Buren, was bearish on annexing Texas, angering Southern delegates.)  Although critics jeered with the question “who is James K. Polk,” his expansionist record won a small victory over a man who probably would have been an excellent president, Henry Clay.

In the eight months between Polk’s nomination and inauguration, the Texas question had been partly settled.  With the clock running down on him, President John Tyler arrived at a deviously brilliant solution by incorporating Texas not as a diplomatic act that would require a treaty (and thus a 2/3rds vote in the Senate), but as an annexation that would require a simple majority vote.  It accomplished one of Polk’s biggest objectives before he even took the oath of office, Mexico was already irate at the United States for annexing Texas, which had declared its independence from Mexico some years before.  Polk was determined to win California, and seemed intent on starting a war to take it on his own terms, goading, prodding, and yes, po(l)king Mexico.  Here’s the litany.  He sent John Slidell to Mexico as an envoy, but with an insultingly low offer, designed to irritate the Mexicans rather than treat diplomatically.  He sent his navy to patrol Mexican waters.  And, most egregiously, he sent Zachary Taylor across the Rio Grande, into territory that was almost certainly, beyond despute, Mexico’s.   When Mexico understandably fired at what, in any sane interpretation, was an invasion force, Polk urged an obliging Congress to declare war.

It wasn’t even a close contest.  15 months into the conflict, Winfield Scott had conquered Mexico City.  Mexico failed to win a single major engagement, and the United States had nearly every advantage: a corps of nearly 500+ West-Point trained junior officers, vastly superior artillery, and a stable government that could instill confidence (in 1846, Mexico endured four different presidents).

As a consequence of the war, Mexico ceded half a million square miles to the United States in exchange for $15 million dollars (this was less than half of Polk’s original offer for California).  (Jefferson Davis, predictably, tried to cede even more land, but it was voted down.)  The actual size of the country was cut down by almost half.  The cession, along with the acquisition of Texas, lays the basis for the modern American southwest, but also laid a firmer foundation for the toxic, mistrustful, and often exploitative relationship the United States had with Latin America in the years to come.

And its not as if people didn’t know any better at the time- the war had a great many opponents, including the two men we most associate with the Union side of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant.  Lincoln spent his only term in the House of Representatives denouncing the war.  He lambasted the war as “the sheerest deception” and demanded that Polk name the precise spot where Mexico had allegedly invaded U.S. soil, which earned him the sobriquet “Spotty” Lincoln.  Grant impugned the conflict as “the most unjust war ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation…an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies.”  Even some southerners opposed the war, with Georgia’s Robert Toombs “seizing a country…which has been for centuries had been in control of the Mexicans.”  Thoreau went to jail for refusing to pay any taxes that would help fund the war effort.  When the Whigs took over Congress midway through Polk’s term, the House even issued a declaration that the late war with Mexico was a mistake.  I just don’t buy the argument, suggested by Robert W. Merry in A Country of Vast Designs that the spirit of Manifest Destiny made the conquest of Mexico nigh-inevitable, and perhaps semi-justifiable.  Even though, as Merry points out, Mexico was semi-feudal, anti-democratic, and incompetently run, it was nonetheless a sovereign nation at the time of its invasion.  The United States was in the wrong, and that’s just a fact.

Starting a war on absurd grounds for acquisitional gain is lamentable enough, but there is enough evidence to suggest that the war was at least partly conducted in a concerted effort to expand the practice of slavery.   William Dusinberre’s book, Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk expounds this argument.  As one of Jackson’s lieutenants in Congress, he was key in preserving the “gag rule” that prevented slavery from even being addressed on the floor of Congress.  He was not proslavery in the brazen manner of John C. Calhoun, fundamentally an old-school hereditary plantation owner from the most aristocratic state in the union.  Instead, he viewed slaveholding as the key to upward mobility.  In fact, Polk himself had taken that road to moderate wealth.  Although his father owned slaves, he did not inherit any of them, and he did not become a slaveholder until relatively later in life.  Only when he was a successful lawyer did he buy slaves for his investment in a cotton plantation in Mississippi.  Dusinberre’s research demonstrates that Polk was not the kindest absentee master: he dismissed lenient overseers, half the children born on his land didn’t make it to age 15, and infused his work force with young males, ripping them from their families.  How does this relate to the Mexican War?  At the time, remember, Mississippi was the frontier.  If it could furnish a middling guy like Polk was riches, imagine what it could do for other middling white frontiersmen!  The key was having enough territory— expanding into a continental power.  Jacksonian politics was all about elevating the enterprising frontiersman (often at the expense of other races), and the Mexican War fits neatly into its overall trajectory.

In this manner Polk, a man of frail health, labored throughout his four years as president., working all hours of the night, and taking up the portfolios of unreliable cabinet officers (including, yes, Secretary of State James Buchanan.)   True to his word, he did not seek a second term, left office horrified that a man as dull as General Zachary Taylor would succeed him, and promptly died of cholera less than three months into retirement, the shortest ex-presidency in American history.

I’ve already taken Robert Merry, a non-historian who dabbles in history like a more tedious Bill O’Reiley, to task, but I need to do so one last time.  He writes in his conclusion to A Country of Vast Designs, ultimately an apologia of Polk’s behavior in the Mexican War, that moral criticism of his policies “misses a fundamental reality of history: it doesn’t turn on moral pivots but on differentials of power, will, organization, and population.”  Nope.  Wrong.  Moral criticism weaves, effectively, in and out of each and every one of these.  It was the same force that caused one part of his country to fight a civil war against the other: (partly) because they believed it was morally wrong for slavery to expand, and it was morally wrong for one section to break the “sacred bonds of union”.  Polk went to war with a weak and eminently beatable opponent to gain more territory south of the Missouri Compromise line where slavery was permitted.  And he compromised with a powerful Britain to gain some territory in Oregon, but did not exert himself nearly so hard for territory that had already made its opposition to slavery clear.  Is it conspiracy to expand the South’s “peculiar institution” or is it realpolitik?  Perhaps the line between them is indistinct, but this much is clear: the Mexican War is a strong contender as the most unjust in U.S. history, and its legacy continues to poison America’s relationship with Latin America even today.  We could have been a model democracy to the rest of the continent, but chose instead to be a regional bully, stealing not Mexico’s lunch money, but its left arm.

The borders of the continental United States today bear the marks of James Polk’s administration, and under his watch, my country stretched, for the first time, from Atlantic to Pacific.  Whatever good may have later came from these acquisitions does not justify the manner in which they were acquired.  It is probable that debt-ridden Mexico would have sold California for a fair price, if Clay had beat Polk in the general election, or if Van Buren, a convert to the virtues of free soil and free labor by the mid-1840s, had beat Polk for the Democratic nomination.   Polk’s attempt to expand the U.S. violently, and in a manner that encouraged slavery’s growth, set the table for the growing concern of expansion and whether free labor could endure there.  While by his own measure, Polk achieved his aims (although he did fudge a bit with Oregon), his conduct as president deserves a berth among the most ignoble chief executives.

biglbj Category: Flawed Giant

Term in Office:  36th president, 1963-1969

Political Party: Democratic

Home State: Texas

 

For you, Sam.

 

When I publish a presidential review, my “start in the middle, then the next available space lower, then the next available space higher” order frequently juxtaposes presidents  in a way that validates my arguments.  A great example of this was Theodore Roosevelt following Coolidge; it allowed me to contrast Roosevelt’s energy and activism with Coolidge’s lethargy and hands-off approach.

But every once in a while, this creates a sequence of presidents that bites me in the butt and highlights apparent contradictions.  I spent the last post castigating George W. Bush for presiding over an unnecessary and poorly fought war, and ranked him at #36.  And then I go and rank Lyndon Johnson, who presided over an even more costly and divisive war at #6.  (And #37 is also going to be someone whose presidency was underlined by an unjust war that brought out the worst in the American character.)  All of this has the potential to make me look very inconsistent.

To paraphrase LBJ’s opponent in the 1964 election, inconsistency in the pursuit of justice is no vice, so I beg a chance to explain myself.  Let me start by suggesting the wrong way to evaluate Lyndon Johnson.  It goes something like this: “Well, we got a civil rights act, sure, but we also got Vietnam, so the two kind of cancel each other out.”  We conflate Lyndon Johnson’s time in office with the most obnoxious 60s trope of a Kennedyesque “good sixties” with LBJ presiding over the “bad sixties.”  Seriously- watch Forrest Gump, watch Across the Universe, see the Billy Joel ballet (I just threw up a bit in my mouth writing that) “Movin’ Out”, and they follow the same tired trajectory of hope and idealism descending into violence, protest, and mistrust in the literal jungles of Vietnam and the urban jungles of Watts or 1968 Chicago.  Believing that LBJ presided over the collapse of 1960s hope despite some major legislative accomplishments, historians frequently rank him as only slightly above average: recent polls among scholars have put him at #15, #17, and #18.  It also doesn’t help that Kennedy cuts a suave, memorable figure across the 60s, a position cemented by his untimely death.  Crude, calculating, and occasionally merciless LBJ isn’t nearly so attractive or lovable a figure, and as Irving Bernstein points out in his book on the Johnson presidency, we remember him more for what went wrong at the expense of what was right.

Let me suggest a better way to look at this.  On the eve of the terrible day that Kennedy was shot down and LBJ assumed the presidency, the United States faced three outstanding social problems: 1) Jim Crow.  2) The endurance and invisibility of generational poverty.  This problem was in many ways, more insidious than Jim Crow, since poverty did not raise international outcry or threaten our moral position vis-a-vis the Soviets.  3) The brutal logic of the Cold War, which committed us to far-flung conflicts and propping up awful regimes just because they were nominally anti-communist.  Vietnam was only the most recent manifestation of prevailing trend where, under Cold War auspices, the U.S. intervened, either in open warfare or covert operations.

Again, I refer to my Value Over Replacement Player theory— could any of his contemporaries done better?  It would have taken an astonishing, prodigious, once-in-a-generation level of political skill to satisfactorily resolve just one of these problems.  Lyndon Johnson took a jackhammer to two of them.  While racism and poverty both endure (and are heartbreakingly intertwined), public segregation and its odious principle of “separate but equal” were obliterated, and the poverty rate dropped by nearly 50% in the years following the legislation of his era that is collectively called The Great Society.  I study 60s and 70s politics for a living, and as I have said before, those decades were stocked with competent and conscientious senators, some of the best who ever served.  None of them could have done what LBJ did.  He had the right balance of gifts for parliamentary wrangling: he understood the art of the deal, he was an expert in gauging just what it would take to get a crucial vote (a kickback, an appearance on the campaign trail, a spot on a prestigious committee, a ride on Air Force One), he understood when to threaten, when to bribe, when to cut deals, and when a cause was hopeless.

Ironically, he was taught these skills by the man he ultimately bested in the great battle for civil rights in the United States Congress, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia.  Russell mobilized every resource at his disposal to curtail the bill, or render it toothless, (the fate of the 1957 civil rights bill), finally arriving at a rotating roster of Dixie senators to put on the adult diapers and filibuster any civil rights bill for hours upon hours on end.  To overcome this, LBJ cleverly used Kennedy, at best a tepid and reluctant supporter of civil rights, as a martyr figure.  He claimed that a bill disemboweling Jim Crow would be the best memorial his country could give to him.  He wisely let Hubert Humphrey, a less abrasive figure than he, navigate the bill through the Senate, and Humphrey the liberal Democrat and Senate Minority Leader (and conservative Republican) Everett Dirksen corralled the votes necessary to end the Dixie filibuster of the bill.  In the end, all but six senators outside the former Confederacy voted for the bill.*  The result was a law that actually enforced civil rights for all Americans, ending the legal system of public segregation, in schools and in factories, in public places and in voting requirements.

This is not, of course, to downplay all of the important grassroots work it took to get a comprehensive civil rights bill into consideration in the first place.  In fact, public pressure for the bill would not have been very great at all if not for the moral leadership of Dr. King, the courage shown by the young men and women during the Mississippi Freedom Summer, the support of organized labor, and the mainline and Catholic churches taking a strong stand and encouraging their congregants to badger their legislators for a bill.

The amazing thing is that LBJ’s progress on civil rights did not end there.  It was reinforced the following year with the Voting Rights Act, allowing the federal government to intervene and ensure fair elections in regions with a history of voter discrimination.  At the beginning of LBJ’s presidency, a black person could be lynched for trying to exercise his or her right to vote.  By the end, the federal government would, by point of bayonet if necessary, enforce that right, a century-overdue redemption of the 15th amendment.  Do not forget, either, the 1968 civil rights act, which enacted fair housing laws, a problem minorities of all kinds faced in every region of the country.

It is important to note the courage in this.  There is a story, documented in nearly every biography of LBJ where, upon signing the civil rights bill, he tells an aide, “we have lost the South for a generation,” and Dixie went from monolithically Democratic to increasingly Republican, a process that began with Strom Thurmond’s defection to the Republican Party, and the success of Barry Goldwater, who opposed the 1964 civil rights bill as a violation of state’s rights, in achieving the party’s presidential nomination later that year.

Problem #2 to which LBJ dealt a shattering blow: poverty.  Back in 1999, LBJ aide James Califano argued that the Great Society ”saw government as providing a hand up, and not a handout.”  Generally, middle America is okay with government programs that help, well, middle America— you won’t a peep about federal housing loans, or FDIC keeping their nest egg safe.  When Great Society extended that aid to the very poor, or urban minorities, suddenly the language changed, and New Right arguments that we were creating a culture of dependency, or were descending into a new feudalism, gained steam.  But LBJ stood firm, and he was helped by some timely scholarship that underscored the endurance and invisibility of poverty in a society that seemed to have gone from strength to strength since the Second World War ended.  Keyserling’s Poverty and Deprivation, Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands, Harrington’s The Other America, and Galbraith’s The New Industrial State broke ground on how poverty is created, how it escapes the middle class gaze, and how it could be amended.

There was an awful lot of scuttlebutt on the recent 50th anniversary of Johnson’s declaration of war on poverty.  Michael Tomasky over at the Daily Beast argues that the War on Poverty was a striking success.  It did so by targeting root causes— malnutrition (we now have free and reduced school lunches for young students who need them, a signature program from my boy McGovern), no health care (Medicaid), terrible housing (we now have an entire cabinet department committed to Housing and Urban Development, and if you think urban housing is subpar now, trust me, it was much worse in the 50s and early 60s), no meaningful work experience (Neighborhood Youth Corps made strides against this), a lack of education (federal standards and aid were implemented, as were a number of Pell grants, and Fulbright scholarships), and the dreadful lack of infrastructure in rural areas (the Appalachian Regional Commission, targeting perhaps the most chronically poor region in the U.S.).

The Great Society’s first intended beneficiary may have been the chronically poor, but there were many others who reaped its benefits.  Arguably, the most popular and the most successful of these programs was Medicare, subsidizing much of the health care for those above the age of 65 while not imperiling the private medical industry.  Some have argued that Medicare is obsolete because life expectancy hovered below 70 when the program was created and it wasn’t intended to cover everyone for decades, since most Americans were not expected to live that long.  I would argue precisely the contrary point: the high number of Americans living into their 80s and 90s owes a great deal to new medical technology, yes, but also because Medicare made it easier for the elderly, at the most financially insecure point in their lives, to have access to these new treatments and technologies.  (Sadly, LBJ would not be among them, for a cardiovascular system tested by a lifetime of stress, smoking, and deep-fried junk food felled the Texas giant at the age of 64 in 1973.  We were just four years away from Disco LBJ.  God damn it all.)

Just how was Johnson able to do all this?  He was a veritable puppet-master when it came to dealing with Congress, but he also had a strong Congress to work with.  (It is worth noting that out of my top eight presidents, all of them had both houses of Congress aligned with their party or faction throughout their entire term, with the important exception of Harry Truman.)  Throughout his presidency, Congress had not only a Democratic majority in both chambers, but a supermajority.  And yet, previous supermajorities had been scuttled by Republicans and conservative Democrats working together.  LBJ was able to find a way around it, owing to his stellar turn as Senate Majority Leader in the 1950s.  Like so many other presidents, the answer lies in his background.  LBJ learned the hard way to wrangle votes, punish dissent, and get a bill through, as shown in Robert Caro’s brilliant The Master of the Senate.  A self-styled rancher from Texas hill country, he knew how to make arguments that could get western and southern votes for things that would have otherwise been considered liberal east-coast ideas.  Witness the outpouring of environmental legislation, the rise of VISTA, the National Endowment for the Arts, laws mandating that cars be built with seat belts, and so on.

And, of course, there was Vietnam.  As Peter Osnos writes, in The Atlantic, “the tragedy of Johnson’s life was that his war was destined to be lost, and he sensed it would be.”  Worse, the spiraling costs of the war imperiled Great Society, as Johnson grappled over which project would receive the lion’s share of the funds, a dilemma often characterized as “guns vs. butter.”  And yet the dilemma was about more than finance, for the war stripped LBJ of so many of the supporters who made action on civil rights and poverty possible: he lost the mainline and Catholic churches, civil rights leaders, professors, the east coast media, and even labor unions (who were more split on the war than popular memory recalls).  Each faction lent their pulpits to antiwar activists, or led teach-ins, or took part in the demonstrations that eroded Johnson’s political capital and credibility.  And rightly so.  Johnson lied to the American people repeatedly on the nature and scope and chances of success.  He continued to escalate the war even as it grew increasingly unpopular, and failed to convince the country of its stake in preserving South Vietnam, partly because a persuasive rationale did not exist.  LBJ was unable to effectively challenge the raw stupidity and inhumanity of Maxwell Taylor, Curtis LeMay, William Westmoreland, and Robert McNamara’s leadership, partly because LBJ lacked any real military service himself.  His time in the army during World War II as a young congressman was both brief and farcical; FDR eventually had to recall sitting congressmen involved in the war effort.  JFK, on the other hand, had spent enough time in uniform to know that the top brass was not infrequently mistaken.  The war was a tragedy on every front, from the tens of thousands of American lives lost, to the millions of Vietnamese lives lost from our bombings, and our napalm, and our often indiscriminate attacks on suspicious villages.

Still, who could have challenged the groupthink and deference to military wisdom in this age?  Who could have resisted that line of thinking and limited our involvement, risking barbs that he “lost Vietnam” to the communists, one more domino down on the road to Soviet domination?  Maybe John Kennedy could have been that guy; I really don’t know.    In the same way that only Nixon could go to China, maybe only an avowed militarist could have credibly gotten out before fully got in, maybe someone like liberal-but-hawkish Nelson Rockefeller.  Who can say?  Where I find myself on more solid ground is in saying that it would have taken an exceptionally perceptive, imaginative, and bold figure to untie this gordian Mekong knot.   LBJ wasn’t him, but he was just about the only person, by dint of personality, experience, and background, who could have made the gains on the equally significant wars against Jim Crow and against deprivation.

Lyndon Johnson’s presidency is only unsuccessful if you take the perspective of the middle-management suburban dad with a draft-age son over the Appalachian mother trying to feed her children, or the black man in Alabama trying to find a hotel that will allow him to rest while on the road, or over the inner-city youth who learned how to count (and how to love the skin she was in) by watching Sesame Street on PBS.  If you gauge American history in a liberty-centric way (that is, keeping the privileges you have and to hell with everybody else), it is easy to take a jaundiced view of Great Society.  It becomes possible to say that aid to the poor, scholarships for snotty students, and forcing private restauranteurs or theatre owners to admit blacks was an infringement on personal freedom.  Lots of people do think that, and Ronald Reagan began his political career by embracing that perspective.  If, on the other hand, you judge a society by whether its best resources are available for everyone’s mutual edification and advancement, then LBJ is no longer the middling president we see in modern rankings.  He becomes the architect of a much better, and much brighter, future where your background is truly no impediment to your success.

In my write-up on Calvin Coolidge, I tried to make the distinction between a country that was privately wealthy and one that was publicly wealthy.  For a brief moment, Lyndon Johnson had created conditions where the United States was prosperous in both ways.  The economy remained strong with low unemployment and inflation, but at the same time, it became far more wealthy as a set of common resources one could draw upon to achieve success and upward mobility.  I think of this era as one where we recognized that “state’s rights” was a disingenuous smokescreen for apartheid, where we recognized that equality and freedom are meaningless bywords when custom and tradition and manner and even law leave many, white or black, Southerner or Northerner, on the outside looking in.  As I write these words, we are, fifty years later, in danger of losing the very real gains made to the commonweal during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.   As the recent Ryan budgets, and as the derisions of Obama as a “food stamp president” have shown, we have been fighting a war against the poor, rather than a war on poverty.  PBS and NPR always seem up on the chopping block, despite consistently delivering the the fairest and most edifying news in the country today, and despite nearly every poll showing that their readers and viewers have a superior grasp of current events.  Like the very best presidents, LBJ called us to a higher level, to allow the blessings of equality and progress to be achievable for every one, not just the middle-class families in Levittown.  In many ways, the traits that secured his greatest triumphs: a willingness to use the bully pulpit, empathy, artful relations with Congress, legislative experience— also led to the hubris and pretzel logic that led to a deepening, demoralizing Vietnam War that tore the country apart.  You can’t really separate or disentangle the two, and you certainly can’t say that one cancels the other out.  The result of this confusing jumble is one of our most complex presidents, an outsized sentinel of self-assuredness and determination, standing watch over one of America’s most transformative decades.

 

 

*Because I believe in shaming the guilty, the 27 Nay votes on the bill were: Harry Byrd (D-VA), Robert Byrd (D-WV), Norris Cotton (R-NH), James Eastland (D-MS), Allen Ellender (D-LA), Sam Ervin (D-NC), J. William Fulbright (D-AR), Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), Albert Gore Sr. (D-TN), Bourke Hickenlooper (R-IA), J. Lister Hill (D-AL), Spessard Holland (D-FL), Olin Johnston (D-SC), B. Everett Jordan (D-NC), Russell Long (D-LA), John McClellan (D-AR), Edwin Mechem (R-NM), Absalom Robertson (D-VA), Richard Russell (D-GA), Milward Simpson (R-WY), George Smathers (D-FL), John Sparkman (D-AL), John Stennis (D-MS), Herman Talmadge (D-GA), Strom Thurmond (D-but-soon-R, SC), John Tower (R-TX), Herbert Walters (D-TN).  Major props to Ralph Yarborough (D-TX), the only senator from Dixie to actually vote FOR the bill.  Fascinatingly, Vice-Present Al Gore, Sen. Alan Simpson, and Rev. Pat Robertson all had dads who voted against the bill.

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