First Wednesday: September 1968

In this space ten years ago, I put up a series of monthly posts looking at the year of 1968, then forty years gone. I thought it would be interesting to rerun those posts this year as we mark the fiftieth anniversary of that remarkable and often horrifying year. We’ll correct errors or update information as necessary, but the historic portion of the posts will otherwise be unchanged. As to music, we’ll also update our examination of charts from fifty years ago if necessary and then, when possible, share the same full albums from 1968 as we did ten years ago, but this time – as is our habit now – as YouTube videos. The posts will appear on the first Wednesday of each month.

The month of September was a fairly quiet one in 1968, an intermission of sorts. As one looks at the listings of the month’s events at Wikipedia (which is where I start as I examine 1968), only six events are listed, and five of them are:

The African nation of Swazliand became independent on September 6. A September 11 plane crash in the French Mediterranean killed a prominent French general and ninety-four others. A tour of South Africa by England’s Marylebone Cricket Club was canceled September 17 because South Africans “refused to accept the presence” of Basil D’Oliveira, who was of African descent, on the Marylebone team. Marcelo Caetano became prime minister of Portugal on September 27. And a September 29 referendum in Greece gave more power to the ruling military junta.

The sixth event listed, however, becomes a bit more significant with a second look. On September 7, 1968, Wikipedia says, “150 women protest against the Miss America Pageant, as exploitative of women. It is one of the first large demonstrations of Second Wave Feminism.” (First Wave Feminism, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, earned women in the U.S. and the U.K. the right to vote, Wikipedia reports in a different entry, adding that the term “First Wave” was coined retroactively during the 1970s.)

An interesting account of the 1968 protest in Atlantic City is posted at JoFreeman.com, the website of an American feminist, political scientist, writer and attorney. She writes:

The 1968 protest originated with New York Radical Women, one of the earliest women’s liberation groups in the country. About 150 feminists from six cities joined them to show how all women were hurt by beauty competitions. They argued that the contest declared that the most important thing about a woman is how she looks by parading women around like cattle to show off their physical attributes. All women were made to believe they were inferior because they couldn’t measure up to Miss America beauty standards. Women’s liberation would ‘attack the male chauvinism, commercialization of beauty, racism and oppression of women symbolized by the Pageant.’

The Atlanta City (sic) convention center opens onto a vast boardwalk between it and the beach. The large expanse of boards easily seen from the entrance makes it a great place for demonstrations. Women’s liberation took advantage of this to stage several guerilla theater actions. A live sheep was crowned Miss America. Objects of female oppression – high heeled shoes, girdles, bras, curlers, tweezers – were tossed into a Freedom Trash Can. A proposal to burn the can’s contents was scuttled when the police said that a fire would pose a risk to the wooden boardwalk. Women sang songs that parodied the contest and the idea of selling women’s bodies: ‘Ain’t she sweet; making profits off her meat.’ A tall, Miss America puppet was auctioned off.

Sixteen feminists bought tickets to the evening’s entertainment. They smuggled in a banner reading WOMEN’S LIBERATION. Sitting in the front row of the balcony, they unfurled it as the outgoing Miss America made her farewell speech, while shouting ‘Freedom for Women,’ and ‘No More Miss America.’ The pageant continued as though nothing had happened. This action was quickly followed by the release of two stink bombs on the floor of the hall. All protestors were removed from the hall; five were arrested, but later released.

The outrageousness of challenging the Miss America icon brought the press out in droves, putting women’s liberation on the front pages all over the country. From this, women learned that a new feminist movement was emerging and flocked to join.

The 1968 demonstration also saddled women’s liberation with the myth of bra burning. Forevermore the press would repeat that women burned their bras. They never remembered where this was supposed to have occurred, let alone that it never happened.

One could argue, I think, that of all the events of 1968, that cluster of demonstrations at Atlantic City had the greatest long-term impact, starting with American society and Western culture. Those demonstrations certainly caught folks’ attention. I recall the derision and bafflement my pals and I and our parents expressed toward the women who dared to interrupt an American institution like the Miss America pageant with their complaints and demands concerning things we’d never questioned.

But those complaints and demands triggered a slow process in much of the industrialized world. My friends and I and our parents watched in the coming years as our world was changed by feminist ideas, and most of us changed along with it. As a historian of sorts, I know how things have changed over the past forty years, but I’m of utterly the wrong gender to truly gauge the long-term impact of what those women began at Atlantic City in September of 1968.

So I turned to my wife, the Texas Gal, whose mother was a working mom in the 1960s, when there weren’t many such moms around. “She was a feminist by necessity,” the Texas Gal says of her mother. That functional feminism, the Texas Gal says, “made me always assume that I would work and that I would be able to fend for myself.”

Beyond her mom’s example, the Texas Gal adds: “The other thing that feminism did, long-term, was make it possible to be a career woman and still be a woman. For a long time, a career woman had to act like a man. Now a career woman can act like a woman: she can wear jewelry and dress femininely, she can like animals and quilting and cooking, and she can still be respected in the boardroom.”

With that in mind, it’s interesting to take my customary look at the Top Fifteen records of the time and see the Rascals’ “People Got To Be Free” riding at No. 1 for the fourth week in a row on September 7, 1968 (with one more week at No. 1 yet to come). While writers Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati and the rest of the Rascals had their hearts in the right places, it’s worth noting that after singing “People everywhere just wanna be free,” the Rascals later proclaim, “It’s a natural situation for a man to be free,” with no mention of women. One wonders if Cavaliere and Brigati would be so gender-specific were they writing today.

Exclusionary language aside, “People Got To Be Free” is a great single, and it sat atop a good set of singles. Here’s the Billboard Top Fifteen from September 7, 1968:

“People Got To Be Free” by the Rascals
“Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf
“Light My Fire” by José Feliciano
“Harper Valley P.T.A.” by Jeannie C. Riley
“Hello, I Love You” by the Doors
“The House That Jack Built” by Aretha Franklin
“1, 2, 3, Red Light” by the 1910 Fruitgum Co.
“You’re All I Need To Get By” by Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
“I Can’t Stop Dancing” by Archie Bell & the Drells
“Stay In My Corner” by the Dells
“Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream
“You Keep Me Hangin’ On” by Vanilla Fudge
“Hush” by Deep Purple
“Turn Around, Look At Me” by the Vogues
“Love Makes A Woman” by Barbara Acklin

Actually, that’s not just a good set of singles, that’s a great set. Feliciano’s Latin-inflected “Light My Fire” was an eye-opener, and there’s some solid soul/R&B with the sides by Aretha, Marvin & Tammi, Archie Bell and his boys, the Dells and Barbara Acklin.

And there’s some good rock, too, with Steppenwolf, the Doors, Cream, Vanilla Fudge (the pace of the group’s version of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” is about as glacial as rock gets) and Deep Purple (covering a song written by countryish singer-songwriter Joe South).

The only bit of froth that might have made me push the button for another station is “1, 2, 3, Red Light.” The Vogues’ single is pretty light, yeah, but, as I’ve written before, it’s one of those songs that remind me how I felt about a certain young lady (and it doesn’t seem possible that it’s been forty years).

Let’s see if the Billboard top ten albums from the first week of September provided listening as good as the radio did that week:

Waiting For The Sun by the Doors
Time Peace/The Rascals’ Greatest Hits by the Rascals
Wheels of Fire by Cream
Feliciano! by José Feliciano
Realization by Johnny Rivers
Steppenwolf by Steppenwolf
Aretha Now by Aretha Franklin
Are You Experienced? by the Jimi Hendrix Experience
Disraeli Gears by Cream
Bookends by Simon & Garfunkel

That’s a list that holds up pretty well forty years later. The Johnny Rivers’ album is, as I’ve related here before, one of my favorites and a resident in my all-time Top Ten Albums list. Nothing else here quite approaches that level, but the two records by Cream are superb, as are the albums by Aretha, Feliciano, the Experience and Simon & Garfunkel.

Steppenwolf is pretty good, and the Rascals’ record is a solid collection of their hits (most of which came from the years when the group was called the Young Rascals). And I have fewer problems with Waiting For The Sun than I do with most other albums by the Doors. (It ranks second to Morrison Hotel for me.)

The album I’m sharing today never got to those heights when it came out in 1968, but to me – as I listen in 2008 – it provides an aural landscape that captures that strange, tumultuous, freaky and tragic year as well as anything can.

Sweetwater was an odd band, but that fit right in with the times. As All-Music Guide notes: “An unusual rock group in both the size of their lineup (which numbered eight), the instrumentation employed, and the eclectic scope of their material, Sweetwater didn’t quite get the first-class songs or breaks necessary to make them widely known. Lead singer Nansi Nevens was backed not just by conventional guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards, but also flute . . . conga . . . and cello.”

The group’s first release was all over the stylistic map as well. To cite AMG again: “Their self-titled debut album was the kind of release that could have only been the product of the late ’60s, with the music flying off in all directions, and a major label willing to put it out. Sweetwater blended Californian psychedelia with jazzy keyboards and a classical bent, especially in the flute and cello, but did not cohere into a readily identifiable aesthetic, or write exceptional songs, although they were okay. Perhaps Reprise was willing to give such a hard to market and classify band a shot, figuring that in the midst of psychedelic rock scaling the charts that would have seemed unimaginably weird just a couple of years before, who knew what would sell now?”

All of that is true, yet I find a charm in the album as it wanders all over the landscape. I particularly like the opener, an extended take on the traditional “Motherless Child.” Other highlights for me are “Here We Go Again,” with its swirling vocal and harpsichord-like keyboard; “Come Take A Walk” with its mellow flute (and its hippie-ish lyric, too); “My Crystal Spider,” with its odd shifts in style; and “Why, Oh Why” with its frenetic violin.

The only track that’s not particularly complelling, actually, is “What’s Wrong,” a classic 1960s litany of the ails of society, but then, overt preaching is never as fun to listen to as is subtle persuasion.

Overall, Sweetwater is a pretty good listen, if a bit derivative: listeners will notice a very clear sonic resemblance to Jeffeson Airplane. Sweetwater’s not as good as the Airplane, of course, but not many bands were. And Sweetwater was plagued by bad luck: In December 1969, four months after the band was the first group to take the stage at Woodstock, lead singer Nevins was in an auto accident. Her vocal cords were damaged and she had severe brain injuries; she was in a coma for weeks and needed therapy for years. The band’s second album – for which Nevins had recorded a couple of tracks before the accident – was completed without her and did not sell well. After a third album in 1971, the band broke up.

AMG notes: “The surviving trio of Nevins, keyboardist Alex Del Zoppo and bassist Fred Herrera reunited Sweetwater in 1997, and two years later – to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Woodstock – cable network VH1 produced and broadcast a film about the group, with Felicity co-star Amy Jo Johnson cast as Nansi Nevins; the picture sparked a considerable resurgence of interest in the group, and that same year Rhino released Cycles, a limited-edition retrospective of their work for Reprise.”

Tracks:
Motherless Child
Here We Go Again
For Pete’s Sake
Come Take A Walk
What’s Wrong
In A Rainbow
My Crystal Spider
Rondeau
Two Worlds
Through An Old Storybook
Why Oh Why

Sweetwater – Sweetwater [1968]

(The link is to a YouTube playlist of the full album.)

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