J. Edgar Did Not Dig No Rock and Roll

There was a cultural revolution in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. It began in the 1950s, not with Elvis as much as with Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Not only were these two artists Black, they were singing about sexuality and flaunting theirs on the stage. Elvis picked up on it–and probably felt it as genuinely as the other two. A little more than ten years later in 1968, Elvis was just a Las Vegas attraction and Little Richard was doing a gospel thing. Chuck Berry, on the other hand, was still playing his guitar like he was a-ringin’ a bell, despite some time in prison earlier in the decade. His licks were borrowed and expanded on by guitarists like Keith Richards and John Lennon, who recognized him in their playing as the true king of rock. In fact, Bob Dylan remarked on his radio show once that if rock and roll was called something different, it should be called Chuck Berry. (Bob Dylan Theme Time Radio Hour–Eyes. It’s on YouTube)

Mostly white and mostly male, rock music was turning the culture of the US (and by default much of what we call the West) upside down and inside out. Mop-tops from Britain were tripping on LSD and growing out their hair, poets in the USA were singing songs beyond the understanding of the old and straight (and the young and straight, for that matter). Revolution was being debated in some pop songs and urged on in others. A counterculture with politics as confused as the understanding of its adherents’ parents was tossing out the old and blasting in the new. One thing was certain. The counterculture had no use for the US war in Vietnam and it liked smoking marijuana. In addition, most of its partisans dug Black America and thought it should be free. Many of its artists made these positions clear, either through their work, their statements or the way they lived..

If nothing else, the support for Black freedom was enough to garner the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s director J. Edgar Hoover. His racism was quite well-known well before the decades in question. His ultimate obsession with it and the consequent focus on it by the Bureau would continue after Hoover’s death in 1972. It would also be the cause of numerous murders of Black radicals, the snitch-jacketing of others, illegal surveillance of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. the framing of activists and a multitude of other excesses by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.

As author Aaron Leonard describes in his newest book The Whole World in an Uproar, the FBI also spent a fair amount of its time watching and investigating certain musicians whose politics and countercultural activities drew its prurient and political interest. Like Leonard’s previous texts Heavy Radicals,The Folk Singers and the Bureau, and A Threat of the First Magnitude: FBI Counterintelligence & Infiltration From the Communist Party to the Revolutionary Union – 1962-1974, he utilizes the Bureau’s own notes and reports as the backbone of his research. Unlike those previous works, most of the persons and groups discussed in The Whole World in an Uproar did not belong to leftist political groups or exist in relatively “normal” lifestyles. This made them more difficult to infiltrate and harder to classify according to traditional criteria. That in itself created circumstances that were occasionally comical or completely off the mark.

In his preface, the author discusses how these differences caused him to modify his approach, too. He tells the reader: “this book turned out to be a different one from that originally conceived. It also marks a departure, to a degree, from my work so far….” Consequently, his references included many other sources, ranging from memoirs to music and regular media sources. In the end, Leonard tells a much grander tale than one that would have stuck more closely to FBI sources, precisely because so many of its subjects existed outside of traditional FBI understanding. After all, that was the essential nature of the cultural revolution, the counterculture of the long Sixties–creating and existing outside of the traditional understanding in US and western culture.

In writing Whole World in an Uproar, Leonard presents a greater structure of repression beyond that undertaken by law enforcement agencies like the FBI. His narrative illustrates the overall culture of cultural repression existing in modern societies. By presenting stories of events, movements, bands and musicians from Buffy St. Marie to Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and the Doors to the Fugs, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the 1967 March on the Pentagon to Woodstock, the Black Panther Party to the Yippies and the Students for a Democratic Society Leonard provides the reader with an extensive yet concise survey of the popular music of the period and its meaning. It was a meaning that meant one thing to those in power and their enforcers and something quite different to those playing the music, dancing to the music and spreading the culture within which the music thrived.

Repression in this period meant anything from busting people for marijuana (yes it used to be very illegal in the US) to setting them up on drug charges. This was experienced by members of the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Abbie HOffman, the Grateful Dead, myself and millions of others. It also took the form of conspiracy to riot charges or framing Black Panthers for murder. The person that busted you could be a long-haired acquaintance or a jackbooted highway patrolman, an undercover girlfriend or a high-school principal. If you were not white-skinned your chances of going to prison were–just as they are today–considerably greater than if you were white-skinned. The uniformed cop who knocked you down at a protest or the undercover who busted you at a rock concert for smoking weed didn’t seem to care as much. Indeed, they often seemed to delight in hurting those they cuffed and tossed into the back of their vehicles.

Aaron J. Leonard has written a very readable history of the period we call the Sixties. What it occasionally lacks in detail, it makes up for in temperament. He skillfully captures the spirit of the time while filling in many details regarding the reaction of the reactionaries to the attack on puritanical and political restraints instigated and carried out by the counterculture and New Left. Like Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane sang in their song “Volunteers of America,” the forces of the Sixties cultural revolution really were “outlaws in the eyes of Amerika.” Whole World in an Uproar is a great trip back for those who were there and, more importantly, an excellent and very readable history for those who weren’t.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com