Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Down in the boondocks

What the anti-poverty pop songs of the 1960s tell us about the sorry state of America's concern for the poor today.

This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.....Our chief weapons in a more pinpointed attack will be better schools, and better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities to help more Americans, especially young Americans, escape from squalor and misery and unemployment rolls where other citizens help to carry them. Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.

-- President Lyndon B. Johnson, Jan. 8, 1964

Most pop music is, and will always be, about the eternal themes of love and death and the pursuit of happiness, but if you listen harder you can also hear the political and social background noise of a generation. Like when I came of age in the so-called "Me Generation" of the late 1970s, amid the nihilistic twin peaks of disco and punk rock. Or 1967's Summer of Love, ushered in by Sgt. Pepper, "A Whiter Shade of Pale," and "San Francisco." or Madonna hailing the Reagan years with "Material Girl."

In the mid-1960s -- at roughly the same moment that LBJ delivered his famous War on Poverty speech -- there were a lot of songs about poor people. It's striking today when you tune into an oldies station and one of these drifts across the air-time continuum. Plaintive pop songs about issues of money and class, often told through the prism of a boy from the wrong side of the tracks and a girl from a mansion high on a hill (rarely the other way around, interestingly). If you're a music buff, it's easy to start rattling them off.

Dawn, go away I'm no good for you...Just think what the future would be with a poor boy like me. That rich guy you been seein' must have put you down. So welcome back, baby, to the poor side of town. I love her, she loves me, but I don't fit in her society. Lord have mercy on the boy from down in the boondocks. And his mama cries.  Cause if there's one thing that she don't need, it's another hungry mouth to feed -- in the ghetto.

"Down in the Boondocks," written by the great and recently departed Joe South, sung by Billy Joe Royal, and released in 1965, arguably marked the zenith of the genre of poor-people songs. Here's some more of the lyric:

One fine day I'll find the way to move from this old shack
I'll hold my head up like a king and I never never will look back
Until that morning I'll work and slave
And I'll save ev'ry dime
But tonight she'll have to steal away
To see me one more time

Songs like these would not have been popular in the 1960s but for one thing. People cared. They wanted the boy from the wrong side of the tracks to get the woman of his dreams, and they ached that the girl from the poor side of town could not so easily escape the cruel fate of her birth. The context is important. Most of America was prosperous and optimistic in the decades after World War II, -- and so it truly bothered many middle-class people that so many millions of citizens were left behind. And politicians picked up on this.

If you care about politics and the American conversation, I'd urge you to read a riveting book that came out a couple of years ago called The Last Campaign, about the short and tragically fated presidential bid of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. What's most striking is how eliminating poverty wasn't a throwaway line on the stump, but the cornerstone, the moral underpinning of RFK's campaign. It meant so much to him that Kennedy spent several critical days of the campaign on an Indian reservation in South Dakota -- a state that did not have a major primary -- because he just felt he needed to go there.

Said Bobby Kennedy: "If we believe that we, as Americans, are bound together by a common concern for each other, then an urgent national priority is upon us.  We must begin to end the disgrace of this other America."

Three months later, RFK was dead and when Elvis released "In the Ghetto" in 1969, the song's sentiments -- and Kennedy's ideal of our "common concern" for the poor -- already felt like quaint relics of another time. Today, a half-century later,  when "Dawn" or "The Poor Side of Town" come over the radio, it feels as distant as that music that NASA sends into faraway space for alien civilizations.

I don't need to recap the current state of affairs, when an American presidential election can take place and the incumbent can ignore poverty while his challenger lashes out at the poor as detestable victims "who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it,." Nor am I going to launch into a long discussion of how we got here, although you probably know that the War on Poverty foundered on our long national wound of racial strife and on the end of the Industrial Revolution, turning middle class wealth and altruism into scarcity and competition. They are reasons, but they are not excuses.

We are so accustomed in the 21st Century to ignoring the problems  of America's poor that when we see pictures or read a journalistic account of life in the deepest pockets of the Rust Belt, in places like western Pennsylvania or eastern Ohio, it can be shocking. There was such a piece in the Washington Post this weekend, the story of a young girl's desperate struggle to escape poverty, that echoed the lyrics of Joe South: