Talkin' 'bout My Generation: The Music of the '60s (55+)

Does art, in the form of music, change society or does it merely reflect the times? The ’60s were a decade of cultural and societal changes that have reverberated into the present day, and the soundtrack of the decade was the seed of so much music that followed. Was this just because the largest demographic, the baby boomers, lived and loved the songs of the time? Or was the music truly great?

We’ll take a close look at the different genres that dominated ’60s music and arrive at our own determinations. We’ll consider “race music”; rock ’n’ roll; commercialized teen idols; the British invasion; protest songs; turning on, tuning in and dropping out; and the beginnings of disco.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course, you should be able to do the following:

  • Describe the evolution of popular music in North America over the 1960s
  • Give examples of and describe different styles of popular North American music of the 1960s
  • Explain how wider North American culture and historical events influenced popular music (and vice versa) during this period

Learning methods

You will learn through lecture and music, with time for questions and answers (may vary from class to class). For Liberal Arts Certificate for 55+students: you will write a reflective essay.


Week 1: Rock and roll is here to stay

The Second World War ended, and a tired and emotionally drained world wanted to put the horrors of war behind them and turn their attention to what was most important; home and family. Out of this came a young generation, eager to take advantage of a new peaceful world, with new technologies and a new optimism. And they wanted their own music. As it happened, blues and jazz were making their way from Memphis and New Orleans, up the Mississippi to a more affluent North. Radio stations began to play “race music” in the North and kids began to dance to a new beat: rock and roll.

Week 2: The peaceful transition

After a few tragedies and legal missteps by leading rock-and-roll artists, music took on a more commercially polished, less edgy style. Marketing frequently emphasized the physical looks of the artist rather than the music, which led to the creation of “teen idols”. By the beginning of the ’60s, the sounds on the radio were softer, more conservative and much less rock-and-roll. Parents could breathe a sigh of relief as their kids listened to Connie Francis and Ricky Nelson; “safe” white teen idols with glowing white teeth.

Week 3: Let’s dance!!

The early ’60s ushered in new sounds. Small groups of musicians began to write their own songs and play their own instruments. The sound of the surf came from California, the British Invasion brought “Swinging England” to North America. Soul music moved from Memphis into the mainstream and a small label named Motown in Detroit started to make a big sound in dance music. But things had changed; the U.S. President had been assassinated and the Cold War heated up with Russian missiles in Cuba. People needed this new music to take their minds off world tensions.

Week 4: For the times, they are a-changin’

The mid-’60s saw the rise of the Civil Rights movement and the beginning of the anti-Vietnam War movement. Protests often turned violent and the world became polarised. Music lost some of its happiness and optimism, becoming a little more introspective and taking on a decidedly political edge that reflected the world of the time. The music no longer asked “Do You Love Me?”; it asked “How Many Roads Must a Man Walk Down?”

Week 5: Turn on, tune in and drop out

The late ’60s continued the urgent call for a Civil Rights Act and the withdrawal from Vietnam. Those years also bought violent protests and, when Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, racial tensions exploded with riots in Memphis and Detroit, homes of music that actually broke down racial barriers. Add LSD to all this and a whole new movement begins, starting in San Francisco; “Tune in, turn on and drop out.”

Week 6: Reality bites!!!

The ’60s started to fade away with the death of Meredith Hunter at a Rolling Stones concert in Altamont, California. Music was becoming more aggressive and more strident as the country became yet more polarised and yet more fatigued by the continuation of the Vietnam War. In 1970 when John Travolta came dancing down the street with two cans of paint, it was the beginning of a new era, and a new music: DISCO. We’ll take a sneak peek at what ’70s music would look like.

Books, materials and resources

Reading material (if applicable) will be available in class. Some course materials may be available online.

Academic integrity and student conduct

You are expected to comply with Simon Fraser University’s Academic Integrity and Student Conduct Policies. Please click here for more details. Simon Fraser University is committed to creating a scholarly community characterized by honesty, civility, diversity, free inquiry, mutual respect, individual safety, and freedom from harassment and discrimination.

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