What key lyrical messages and references to American cultural history are present in 'War', 'Ball of Confusion', 'Chicago', and 'Ohio'?

Quick answer:

The key lyrical message of these four songs, all of which came out in the early 1970s, is an aversion and distaste for war. They are also an expression of the unsettled times in which they were written. The songs reflect the violence, protests, and social problems of the late 1960s and early 1970s, such as the Vietnam War, racism, and widespread protests.

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These four songs are representative of the increasingly political nature of pop songs, which began in the 1960s. The trend was most associated with Bob Dylan and other artists from the folk explosion.

Their songs reflect the uncertainty and tumult of the time in which they were written. America was fighting an unpopular war in Vietnam, which led to frequent protests. Certain social issues, such as racism and women's rights, had also been brought to the forefront of culture. Their advancement did not come without significant pushback from reactionary forces. The country had also been shocked by a series of assassinations: JFK, MLK, Malcolm X, and RFK had all been killed within the decade. Much of the music of the period was in touch with the antiauthoritarian, progressive zeitgeist.

Motown's Edwin Starr's most famous song, "War," is an angry, yet funky, denunciation of war and all the destruction it leads to. The unpopularity of Vietnam was only increasing. Starr's 1970 song, later covered by Bruce Spingsteen, captures this feeling.

The Temptations's "Ball of Confusion" also came out in 1970. The group's song is a general "state of the union" song. It analyzes America and sees racism, drugs, and violence scarring not only the US, but the entire world. It was a very different type of song for a band better known for hits like "My Girl" and "Ain't Too Proud to Beg."

Hippie supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Ohio" was written in response to an actual event: the notorious shootings by the National Guard at Kent State in 1970. Students protested against the bombing of Cambodia at the Ohio school, the National Guard was called out, and four students ended up dead. The song is something of a journalistic account of the shooting. It also calls on President Nixon, asking him "how many more" will die in the struggle for rights?

The band's song "Chicago," written by Graham Nash, also reacts to contemporary events, in this case the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The 1968 convention was marked by violent clashes between police and protesters. As with "Ohio," the band is firmly on the side of those protesting and opposed to the violence of the authorities.

You may also want to bring Marvin Gaye's classic What's Going On into the discussion as another example of a timely protest song.

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