The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum

Contributed by Joe Knap, Bay High School, Bay Village, OH


In most decades of modern American history, the arts, and specifically music, both influence and reflect values of the time period. During the 1960s, the connections between music and society are particularly evident as rock and roll (and its many sub genres) “came of age” with entertainers beginning to take active roles in political, social and cultural movements. By listening to and analyzing the lyrics of selected examples of popular music from the era, students will develop a greater understanding of the historical and political forces as well as the emotional climate of the decade.

This lesson breaks the decade up into various thematic sections (The Early Sixties, The Transition, The New Generation, The Counter-Culture, Anti-War Protest, Woodstock Nation, The Dark Side, Altamont and Epilogue), each illuminated by a group of songs. The songs are studied from two perspectives. First, approaching them as primary sources, students will consider from an historical perspective what the songs reveal about the attitudes of this decade. Secondly, the lyrics will provide an opportunity for literary and poetic analysis.


The students will be able to:

  1. Gain an understanding of the controversial and complex nature of the era.
  2. Identify social and political attitudes and beliefs of the time period.
  3. Analyze both the content of the songs and the stance of the poet.
  4. Identify and interpret literary devices such as metaphors, similes, symbols, connotative and denotative language, antithesis, irony, point of view, and theme.
  5. Listen critically for the mood, tempo, and tone of the music.
  6. Recognize the rationale for the choice of the musical selections within each thematic section.


This unit was designed for an eleventh grade high school American Studies course. The material could be adapted to other grade levels through modifying the musical selections.

Time Frame

This unit takes approximately ten 40-50 minute class periods. It may be condensed by limiting song selection or expanded if integrated within existing units of study.


Tape or CD player, lyrics, and study sheet.

Procedures and Background

Day One
Distribute study sheets and lyrics (see below) and review objectives, goals and expectations for the unit. The song “American Pie” by Don McLean may be used as a starting point as it contains allusions to some of the events and figures to be studied. Tell the students that at least 30 specific references to musicians, songs, and events from the late 1950s through 1972 may be found in the song. Many of these will be mentioned during the unit and it is the students’ job to locate them during the ensuing class discussions.

Days Two through Nine
Proceed through the songs and topics listed below. Suggested topics for discussion are included with brackets.

  1. Songs in boldface type are played in their entirety with complete lyrics provided.
  2. Thirty to sixty second segments of the other songs are taped in medley fashion, to give a feel for the topic, style, or mood, or to highlight a specific line from the lyrics.
  3. The optional study sheet may be developed from the information below. The bracketed paragraphs are guidelines for the teacher and are not meant to be part of the study guide for the students.

The Early Sixties
“She Loves You” by The Beatles
“Twist and Shout” by The Beatles
“I Want to Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles
“Can’t Buy Me Love” by The Beatles
“A Hard Day’s Night” by The Beatles
“Fun, Fun, Fun” by The Beach Boys

[Play a medley of brief, 30-second segments of the beginning of each song. Discuss the nature of the “pop” lyrics and the lack of serious, social content. Relate to the prevailing attitudes in America in the early 1960s and discuss the early 1960s as being somewhat of a continuation of the 1950’s. Did “The 1960s” really begin about 1965?]

The Transition
“Gina said when she was just five-years old,
‘There’s nothing going down at all.’
Then one fine morning she turned on a New York station,
And she couldn’t believe what she heard at all...”
“Rock and Roll” by Lou Reed

“Something’s happening’ but you don’t know what it is,
Do you, Mr. Jones...”
“Ballad of a Thin Man” by Bob Dylan

“The Times They Are a-Changin’” by Bob Dylan
[Discussion will include the prophetic statements by Dylan in this 1963 song. Paradox and antithesis abound. It may be worth noting that these literary devices are favorites of rock lyricists who are portraying confusion, rebellion, and turmoil in their songs.]

“Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan (covers by Johnny Winter, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix)

[A brief discussion may include the scope of Bob Dylan’s influence, not just on rock music (as evidenced by the above medley), but also on society’s attitudes. A review of Dylan’s entry in the New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll will provide a good starting point.]

“Outside of a Small Circle of Friends” by Phil Ochs
[This song provides spirited discussion in most classes. As a primary source, it reflects many of the “anti-establishment,” “counter-culture,” liberal, youthful attitudes of the later 1960’s. Highly influenced by Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs rails against hypocritical non-involvement with typical concerns of the era (including an allusion to the Kitty Genovese slaying in N.Y.C.) With the startling happy-go-lucky, honky-tonk piano playing, the song naturally leads into a discussion of irony. Also, each stanza maintains a consistent structural pattern- the first two lines outlining the problem, the third line proposing a solution, and the fourth rejecting involvement for some humorously hypocritical reason. The last two lines of each stanza serve as the refrain justifying the decision.]

The New Generation
“People try to put us down”
“My Generation” by The Who
“Down on Me” by Big Brother and the Holding Company (Janis Joplin)
[Discussion of the segments of these songs may focus on the divisions created between “straight” society and the “counter-culture,” fueled in large part by the Vietnam War.]

The Counter-Culture: Love, Peace and Drugs
“San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” by Scott McKenzie
“Revival” by The Allman Brothers Band
“59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” by Simon and Garfunkel
“Higher” by Sly and the Family Stone
“Eight Miles High” by The Byrds
“White Rabbit” by The Jefferson Airplane

[A medley of segments from the above songs reflects the growing and changing nature of the “counter-culture’s” peace, love and happiness attitude from the mid- 1960’s to the end of the decade. (Interesting note: According to Sly’s mother, “Higher” was originally a gospel-inspired song- not drug related.)]

Anti-War Protest
“Call it peace, or call it treason,
Call it love, or call it reason,
But I ain’t marchin’ anymore”
“I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore” by Phil Ochs
“War” by Bruce Springsteen
“I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” by Country Joe McDonald
“Wooden Ships” by Crosby, Stills and Nash

[The above songs reflect the growing anti-war sentiments, whether it is a specific anti-Vietnam song by Country Joe, or a more universal anti-war song such as “Wooden Ships.” The former provides strong examples of irony, while the latter provides a good opportunity for literary interpretation and discussion of connotative language. Discussion may also involve identifying the speaker and situation, and how each song conveys information about the era.]

Woodstock Nation
“Alotta freaks!” by Arlo Guthrie
Stage Announcements by Max Yazgur
“Woodstock” by Crosby, Stills and Nash
Stage Announcements from Woodstock
“With a Little Help from My Friends” by Joe Cocker

[Woodstock may be discussed as a culmination and high water mark of the 1960’s communal yearnings and positive “vibes.” The stage announcements and Max Yazgur’s speech reflect the spirit of cooperation and caring for one’s neighbor. While Woodstock, for whatever reasons, may have symbolized much that was positive about the era, the next segments will illustrate the reverse side of the coin.]

The Dark Side
“I want to see the sun blotted out from the sky”
“Paint It, Black” by The Rolling Stones
“The Sounds of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel
“The Seven O’Clock News/Silent Night” by Simon and Garfunkel
“The End” by The Doors

[The above songs may be used to counter or balance some students’ overly naive or one-sided view that the 1960’s were only an exciting, wild, and “groovy” time to be growing up. With Vietnam, poverty, and racial tension hanging over society’s head, some songs reflected fear, depression and nihilism. For over 25 years “Sounds of Silence” has been a favorite of English teachers trying to reach students with a relevant yet literary work. Discussion will include imagery, symbolism, and figurative language. “The Seven O’Clock News/Silent Night” catalogs many of the major negative events of the era, effectively reflecting the more somber emotions of the time.]

“The day the music died”
“Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones
“Jumping Jack Flash” by The Rolling Stones
[If Woodstock symbolizes the positive elements of the 1960’s, then Altamont shows the destructive elements. Following Woodstock by a mere five months, this disastrous concert in the final month of the ‘60’s cast a dark shadow on the rock music world and signaled the end of an era. Reflecting the increased violence in society, Altamont is the definitive death of the optimistic era. Indeed, it takes prominence in “American Pie” perhaps being “the day the music died.” (Although most interpretations of “American Pie” credit Buddy Holly’s death as being the day the music died, a careful reading of the lyrics suggests a case may be made for Altamont.)]

“I know it’s only rock and roll, but I like it” The Rolling Stones
“Find the Cost of Freedom” by Crosby, Stills and Nash
“Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf
“Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World” by Neil Young

[The final songs are played primarily as a counterpoint to the depressing nature of the previous segments. These songs speak to the continued energy of rock music and the youth culture.]

Day 10
“At this point, students are asked to identify in writing as many specific allusions in “American Pie” as they can find. The teacher, in the discussions held above, should try to include, either directly or indirectly, information which would allow students to make the connections. The students’ ability to use the discussions to identify allusions may be one form of assessment. Reviewing the meaning of the song serves as a good summary and wrap-up to the unit.

In order of their appearance, allusions in “American Pie” include the following:

Lyrics - music used to make me smile
Allusion to - ”happy days” good-time ‘50’s music

Lyrics - February .. shiver, bad news… widowed bride
Allusion to - Buddy Holly’s death

Lyrics - Chevy, drinking, American Pie
Allusion to - Good-old, youthful ‘50’s attitudes

Lyrics - book of love
Allusion to - ‘50’s song by the Monotones

Lyrics - I know you’re in love with him
Allusion to - ‘50’s attitude about love

Lyrics - kicked off your shoes
Allusion to - ‘50’s sock hop

Lyrics - rhythm and blues
Allusion to - the style of music which provided rock and roll’s beat

Lyrics - lonely teenage ... pick-up truck
Allusion to - lyrics from ‘50’s song

Lyrics - moss grows fat on a rolling stone
Allusion to - The Rolling Stones and the increasing big bucks

Lyrics - jester… coat from James Dean
Allusion to - Bob Dylan, leather jacket

Lyrics - king
Allusion to - Elvis

Lyrics - queen
Allusion to - maybe Connie Francis?

Lyrics - voice he got from you and me
Allusion to - Dylan as folk singer

Lyrics - thorny crown
Allusion to - dubious honor of king of rock and roll

Lyrics - courtroom was adjourned
Allusion to - lull in rock music before Beatles

Lyrics - Lenin read a book on Marx
Allusion to - John Lennon

Lyrics - Quartet
Allusion to - The Beatles

Lyrics - practiced in the park
Allusion to - perhaps first major concert at Shea Stadium (or less likely, their last show at Candlestick Park)

Lyrics - dirges in the dark
Allusion to - for the “Paul is dead” hoax

Lyrics - Helter Skelter
Allusion to - Charles Manson and/or Beatles’ song

Lyrics - Birds
Allusion to - The Byrds

Lyrics - fallout shelter
Allusion to - perhaps the Cold War scare

Lyrics - eight miles high
Allusion to - title of a Byrds’ song

Lyrics - players
Allusion to - other bands breaking out in 1967- Joplin, Hendrix

Lyrics - jester on the sidelines in a cast
Allusion to - Dylan’s motorcycle accident

Lyrics - sweet perfume
Allusion to - smell of marijuana

Lyrics - Sergeants… marching tune
Allusion to - Beatles’ 1967 release, St. Peppers

Lyrics - All in one place
Allusion to - Maybe Woodstock, more likely Altamont

Lyrics - a generation
Allusion to - The Who’s “My Generation”

Lyrics - lost in space
Allusion to - 1969 moon landing

Lyrics - Jack Flash
Allusion to - Rolling Stones song “Jumping Jack Flash”

Lyrics - Devil
Allusion to - Mick Jagger ("Sympathy for the Devil")

Lyrics - angel born in hell
Allusion to - Hell Angels, the security force at Altamont

Lyrics - sacrificial rite
Allusion to - the stabbing of a man in audience near the stage

Lyrics - girl who sang the blues
Allusion to - Janis Joplin

Lyrics - smiles and turned away
Allusion to - Her death

Lyrics - sacred store… man said the music
Allusion to - Bill Graham who operated and then closed the

Lyrics - wouldn’t play
Allusion to - Fillmore East and West because of the greed

Lyrics - in the streets the children screamed
Allusion to - Chicago convention or Kent State?

Lyrics - Father, Son and Holy Ghost
Allusion to - Most likely JFK, RFK, MLK

Lyrics - caught the last train for the coast
Allusion to - They died


The final evaluation of the unit will evolve from a series of assessments made throughout the unit. Daily evaluations may include observation of student reaction, question and response, and the assessment of any homework and quizzes. Periodic evaluations may include in-class writing exercises or tests. Ideas for end-of-the unit writing assignments are outlined below. The final evaluation of this unit should answer two questions: 1. Does incorporating this unit increase the students’ interest level? 2. Does the unit enhance the students’ understanding of the current curriculum?

The conclusion of the unit may include an essay/paper reflecting the students’ understanding of some area of this unit. Using higher order thinking skills such as comparison/contrast, cause effect, synthesis, or evaluation, students may be asked to react to one of the following prompts:

  1. Select an historical event from this time period and discuss in terms of the views and attitudes illustrated in discussion of this unit.
  2. Select a song from the era (i.e. “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore,” Phil Ochs; “Monster,” Steppenwolf) and give a literary interpretation of it, or discuss it as either a representative or non-representative example of that time period.
  3. Select a contemporary song and analyze the attitudes it reflects from today’s society

Selected Recordings

In order of their appearance above:

“American Pie,” Don McLean, American Pie, EMI Records, CDP 7 465552

The Beatles’ medley all from: The Beatles 1962-1966, Capitol Records 97036

“Fun, Fun, Fun,” Greatest Hits, The Beach Boys, Capitol Records, 29418, 1995

“Rock and Roll,” Lou Reed, Rock n Roll Animal, RCA, AFL 1 -0472

“Ballad of a Thin Man,” Real Live, Bob Dylan, Columbia, 39944

“The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Bob Dylan, Greatest Hits, Columbia Records, 9463

“Like a Rolling Stone,” Bob Dylan, Greatest Hits, Columbia Records, 9463

“Like a Rolling Stone,” Johnny Winter, Raisin’ Cain, CBS Records, 36343

“Like a Rolling Stone,” The Rolling Stones, Stripped, Virgin Records, 41040

“Like a Rolling Stone,” Jimi Hendrix, The Monterey International Pop Festival, Rhino, 70596

“Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” Phil Ochs, The Best of Phil Ochs, A & M Records,


“My Generation,” The Who, Live at Leeds, Decca Records, 79175

“Down On Me,” Janis Joplin, The Monterey International Pop Festival, Rhino, 70596

“San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in your Hair),” Scott McKenzie, ) The Monterey International Pop Festival, Rhino, 70596

“Revival,” The Allman Brothers Band, Idlewild South, Polydor, 833 334

“59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” Simon and Garfunkel, Collected Works, Columbia,


“Higher,” Sly and the Family Stone, Woodstock, Cotillion Records, SD3-500

“Eight Miles High,” The Byrds, Twenty Essential Tracks from the Boxed Set:1965-1990, Columbia, 47884

“White Rabbit,” Jefferson Airplane, The Monterey International Pop Festival, Rhino, 70596

“War,” Bruce Springsteen, Live, 1975-1985, Columbia Records, 40558

“I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die-Rag,” Country Joe McDonald, Woodstock, Cotillion Records,


“Wooden Ships,” Crosby, Stills, and Nash, So Far, Atlantic, 19119

Stage Announcements, Woodstock, Cotillion Records, SD3-500

“Woodstock,” Crosby, Stills, and Nash, So Far, Atlantic, 19119

“With a Little Help from My Friends,” Joe Cocker, Woodstock, Cotillion Records, SD3-500

“The Sound of Silence,” Simon and Garfunkel, Collected Works, Columbia, 45322

“7 O’Clock News/Silent Night,” Simon and Garfunkel, Collected Works, Columbia, 45322

“The End,” The Doors, The Doors, Elektra, 74007, 1967

“Sympathy for the Devil,” The Rolling Stones, Hot Rocks 1964-1971, London, 606/7

“Jumping Jack Flash,” The Rolling Stones, Hot Rocks 1964-1971, London, 606/7

“Find the Cost of Freedom,” Stills, and Nash, So Far, Atlantic, 19119

“Born to be Wild,” Steppenwolf, Live, Dunhill Records, 50075

“I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore,” Phil Ochs, The Best of Phil Ochs, A & M Records, 003704

“Monster,” Steppenwolf, Live, Dunhill Records, 50075

Museum Connections

The “I Want To Take You Higher” exhibit contains a wealth of information on much of what appears in this unit. From Janis Joplin artifacts and letters to a large exhibit on Woodstock, the display contains countless connections to this unit. Film segments at the Rolling Stones exhibit include footage from Altamont. The movies “Mystery Train” and “Kick Out the Jams” trace the roots of rock and roll through the 1950’s and 1960’s, reflecting some of the attitudes and influences discussed in this unit, and “Feed Your Head,” the film which goes along with “I Want To Take You Higher” explains the emergence and influence of the late 1960s scene, especially in San Francisco, The Hall of Fame, and the “Come See About Me” and “The Beat Goes On” interactive displays also contain material on all of the musicians covered in this unit.