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Music of the RNC, Then and Now

Just as all art is propaganda, all politics is art, as the Republican National Convention has reminded us in many ways, including with its music. In the five decades since the Presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater and the rise of the modern conservative movement, Republicans have learned a great, great deal about the power of popular music in the merchandising of ideology for electoral gain. We can hardly picture Mitt Romney at the teleprompter without hearing the sound of Kid Rock croaking the anthem of the 2012 Republic campaign, “Born Free,” and we take it as a convention of the convention that the political values of the Andy Williams era should be set to the sound of Waylon Jennings’ world. About 12 years ago, before the election that gave us the presidency of George W. Bush, I spent some time with Pete Seeger for a story I was writing about him, and he talked about the G.O.P.’s growing skill at exploiting rural music’s claim to authenticity. “They think like Herbert Hoover,” Seeger said, “and they sound like Woody [Guthrie].” 

Call me old-fashioned, but I have a soft spot for a simpler time, an easier time, when the music of the Republican Party sounded like Mitt Romney looks. (I should probably mention, as an aside, that my own political leanings have had an awful habit of changing from election to election.) In the early ’60s, the rec-room liberalism of the folk-music craze infiltrated the pop charts, and records like Peter, Paul and Mary’s rendition of “Blowin’ in the Wind” were Top 40 hits. At the 1964 election approached, pop-conscious conservatives attempted simultaneously to co-opt and parody the folkies by promoting music acts tailored to the Goldwater campaign. A solo singer named Janet Greene was marketed as the “anti-Joan Baez” and provided with confused, defensive mock-folk tunes such as “Fascist Threat” and “Comrade’s Lament.” Greene was outclassed only by a quartet (trimmed to a trio for touring) that honored its idol with the name of the group: The Goldwaters. I have missed them this week. (For more on both Greene and the Goldwaters, I recommend the authoritative Atomic Platters website.)