Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Frederic Rzewski, The People United Will Never Be Divided!

Last week’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post dealt with the 1970s, the phenomenon that was disco, and the movie Saturday Night Fever of 1977.  Likewise, yesterday’s Music History Monday post also dealt with the 1970s: the invention of the Walkman in 1979.  As such, I’ve decided to stick with the 1970s in today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes as well, with music that – like disco – also reflects something of its time.  However, rather than focus on the frivolous escapism that was disco culture, today’s post will feature music that mirrors some of the most profound issues of its time.

The 1970s

I will be among the first to admit that attempts to generalize/characterize the events and spirit of a given decade – the 1950s; the 1960s; the 1970s; etc. – is a fool’s errand.

So color me a fool.

Like music history periodization (Renaissance; Baroque era, Classical era, Romantic era, and so forth), attempting to relate the events of a numerical decade as if they represent some sort of unified whole can be an exercise in random.

I mean, honestly, can we really draw a historical line between the years 1969 and 1970?

Of course not.  But discussing events that occurred during a given decade – like periodization – has its use, in that it allows us to make comparative generalizations between one chunk of time and another.

How To Listen And Understand Great Music

You will forgive me the unspeakable conceit of quoting myself. In my book, How to Listen to Great Music (Plume/Penguin, 2011), I addressed the conundrum of periodization in terms bardic:

“To periodize or not to periodize?  That is the question.  Whether ‘tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of outraged academes by periodizing (and thus to blaspheme through generalization), or to address large-scale stylistic trends without prevarication; ‘tis a fardel to bear, and bear it we shall.  For such utile aids are not to be scorned but embraced lest even greater misunderstanding be our lot.  O Baroque! O Classical! O Romantic!  Though the thorns of spite be your reward, we will invoke you even as we curse you for, like our knees, though poorly made, we cannot walk without you.”

The preceding blather is, in fact, a lengthy apology for the historical generalizations I am about to make about the 1970s, the decade that gave us the shootings at Kent State, Watergate, the reelection of Richard Nixon and Nixon’s resignation, the oil embargo, the fall of Saigon, the caretaker presidency of Gerald Ford and Ford’s pardon of Nixon, the advent of disco, the Iran hostage crisis, the presidency of Jimmy Carter, and the invention in 1979 of the Walkman! (It occurs to me that today, in our presumably more enlightened times, shouldn’t we be referring to the device as a “Walkperson”? A “Walkindividual”? A “Walkthey”?)

President Jimmy Carter (born 1924) giving his “Crisis of Confidence” speech on July 15, 1979
President Jimmy Carter (born 1924) giving his “Crisis of Confidence” speech on July 15, 1979

All of these events notwithstanding, the most challenging aspect of the 1970s for the average American was the economy. Writes the Gregory L. Schneider, a professor of history at Emporia State University in Emporia, Kansas:

“The American economy in the 1970s suffered from high inflation, high unemployment, an energy crisis, a declining dollar, high government spending, and jobs going overseas because of deindustrialization that had been accelerating since World War II. In 1972, Washington Post columnist Joseph Kraft labeled the phenomenon ‘stagflation.’”

It was during his nationally televised speech from the Oval Office on July 15, 1979, that President Jimmy Carter (born 1924 and, bless him, still hanging on as of this writing) identified the problems facing the nation as stemming from a “crisis of confidence.” Although he never used the term, the address was immediately dubbed as being the “malaise speech.”

“It is a crisis [of confidence] that strikes at the very heart and soul of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt of the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of unity and purpose as a Nation. The erosion of confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and political fabric of the nation.”

It was as candid, as timely, and as honest a speech as any ever delivered by an American president, and as such, it was political suicide.


If the 1960s were “about” the struggle for change – as personified by the youth movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, the environmental movement, and the women’s movement – then the 1970s were about disillusionment: a painful and ongoing reminder that real change is slow and is often marked by as many steps backwards as forwards.

The war in Vietnam continued unabated into the 1970s – violent protests notwithstanding – and was then lost in April 1975. The publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 further eroded many Americans’ faith in their government and the military. The criminal actions of Richard Nixon and his cohorts during the 1972 presidential elections led to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974 and damaged the institution of the presidency for decades to come.

Why is this man smiling?  Richard Nixon leaving Washington D.C. after his resignation on August 8, 1974
Why is this man smiling? Richard Nixon leaving Washington D.C. after his resignation on August 8, 1974

On September 8, 1974, President Gerald Ford (1913-2006), after having been in office for just 30 days, granted Richard Nixon a full and unconditional pardon for any crimes that he might have committed as president.  As such, Nixon was never held accountable for his misdeeds.

Talk about disillusionment! I was a hot-headed 20 years old at the time of Nixon’s pardon and I still remember my outrage over the fact that he would not be held accountable.  Instead, eleven of Nixon’s accomplices did time in his place, including the former Attorney General of the United States, John Mitchell; the White House Chief-of-Staff H. Robert Haldeman; advisors John Ehrlichman and Charles Colson; the former FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy; and the CIA operative E. Howard Hunt.  While these and others served their time, Nixon returned to California and cooled his heels in his home in San Clemente, his so-called “La Casa Pacifica.”

My outrage notwithstanding, I would suggest that no one was more disillusioned by all of these events than the American composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski…

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