Aaron J. Leonard. Whole World in an Uproar: Music, Rebellion, and Repression 1955-1972. Repeater Books, 2023. 319 pp.

REVIEW BY Evan Sennett, Indiana University


A mesh of thumbprints and a gaggle of names: Nina Simone, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Johnny Cash, and Buffy Sainte-Marie. They come together, on the cover of Aaron J. Leonard’s new book Whole World in an Uproar, to form the distinct outline of Bob Dylan, who, for some, is emblematic of the sixties. But he is not the only emblem of the era. The time period hosted an army of emblems who, in hindsight, each appeared either to stand for or against the status quo – a standard which shifted throughout the decade.

As someone who never experienced the sixties, I find it really difficult to imagine what it must have felt like to relate to those representatives in real-time. To read backwards into the mythology of the sixties is to be confronted with conflict. The decade presented a series of iconoclasts. These were activists and artists who gestured toward the general instability of the time, and were themselves figures of instability.

This is the paradox of the decade, a feeling of whiplash that can be felt by enthusiasts of sixties music, especially by those who were not there to experience it for themselves. Leonard’s new book serves as an apt reminder that these so-called icons released their music into a culture of hostility, and the United States government often surveyed, profiled, and even punished them in response to their radical creations.

In his previous book, Folk Singers and the Bureau (2020), Leonard covers the forties and fiftes, and frames the theme of hostility in much more tangible terms. The FBI considered the folk and blues artists from this period security threats, due to their association with the Communist Party of the United States (CPUS). In Leonard’s new release, a work he affectionately refers to as his “Sixties book,” the story of hostility becomes much more difficult to place (1). This is not to say that hostility wasn’t present at all – quite the contrary. Leonard makes a strong case that sixties music was built from, and often revolved around, a general culture of hostility. But as the music industry made its transition into the new decade, repression quickly became a difficult knot to untie:

Disentangling the impact of personal decisions, tragic events, and repressive initiatives in the decline of the first wave of rock ’n’ roll is near impossible. What is clear is that this musical movement was met with considerable hostility – tolerated only to the degree that it could reap enormous profits. This was a circumstance that would change little in the coming years. (23)

There is no doubt that hostility was a fundamental ingredient to the music of the decade. But putting a finger on where that hostility was at any given time becomes a less straight-forward task. Despite this complexity, Leonard manages to craft an entertaining read-through of the sixties music landscape. While this historical overview may feel a bit too familiar for some connoisseurs, it is still engaging to flip through the greatest hits of the decade – the arrival of the Beatles, the “summer of love,” Woodstock, and so on – played out in the context of “hostility” and repression, which unifies all of these well-known events.

Leonard’s primary method for locating this tension comes from his reading of special documents released by the National Archives and the FBI. These sixty-plus year old files prove that the US government had its eye on many of the sixties music icons previously mentioned.

Scans of these FBI profiles are scattered throughout the pages of the book. At times, I wondered if this could make for an interesting coffee table piece, something that a casual fan might peruse in no particular order: today I feel like skimming through Nat King Cole’s FBI file… But as Leonard admits in his “Appendix” section, the FBI files themselves were difficult to obtain. This is partially a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, which slowed the process of acquiring enough tangible evidence which might have filled a picture book – not that the coffee table was ever Leonard’s intended destination. But this also means that Leonard’s catalog of FBI files only covers 33 different public figures, only some of whom were musical artists. And while the page-count of those files reaches nearly four thousand, some of these files were destroyed or still awaiting release by the time Leonard’s book came out earlier this year.

What we are left with is a relatively slim archive, with many gaps still left to be filled. Nonetheless, Leonard proves a general sense of hostility towards several musical artists from the sixties, and convincingly argues that there was a kind of dialectical bond between these artists and the powers which attempted to repress them. In Leonard’s history of the decade, there are always two “forces” at play: the “forces highly motivated to keep” musicians and activists “out of the public sphere,” and, ironically, “the forces it unintentionally set loose” (6, 7). Each time the FBI profiled an artist, it seemed to fuel the very transgressions the government sought to keep out of hearing distance. And while most of these musicians had no idea they were being tracked by the FBI at the time, the tremors of cultural tension could still be felt by listeners. Conflict became music. For Leonard, this strange dance between opposing forces resulted in “works of wonder” (7).

Leonard illustrates the sixties as a dense period, every moment containing tensions, bursting with hostility, and pregnant with creativity. Perhaps Leonard’s sketch of the decade is a bit too vague at times. His sense of “hostility” becomes a kind of catch-all term which links together disparate events. Leonard even points out that the opening years of the sixties, a time which is generally mythologized under the leadership of John F. Kennedy as “a period of great hope and boundless optimism,” also fits into his narrative of hostility (34). These early years proved to be especially dangerous ones for the nuclear era and ultimately “set the stage” for a complex and hostile decade to come (35).

The book moves chronologically, from a brief overview of the early Cold War, to an entire chapter for each year of the sixties, ultimately gesturing to the early seventies by the end. Along the way, we meet many musical acts who functioned as transgressive forces. Leonard breaks each chapter into manageable chunks, divided into sections typically focusing on only one musical act at a time. Yes, you could read through them all in order, as presented. But I could also see this book functioning quite well as a reference piece, a kind of encyclopedia of sixties music and repression. A reader might easily pick out only the passages that interest them, skimming through the others at will.

That being said, those who do choose to read Whole World in an Uproar cover-to-cover will find a coherent argument to chew on. The mission is to investigate how music managed to make its way “on the FBI’s radar” time and time again (10). This is a mission which is often convincing, but at times a little vague – what is the FBI’s “radar” exactly? Where is it? What counts as being on the “radar” and what does not?

These unanswered questions leave the book with a general vagueness, which has the effect of coming across as paranoid. The FBI is always looking, but we are not always sure where they are, or how closely they are looking at any given artist, at any given time. This is not a completely ungrounded paranoia, as many of Leonard’s extracted profiles prove the presence of the FBI’s surveillance of the music industry, at least for some specific artists. Nor is this to suggest any kind of “grand conspiracy” (229). As Leonard clarifies, this time period was one in which many complex mechanisms were at play:

all of which resulted in the music and the artists producing it contending with both conscious and reflexive reaction. Regardless of the specific tack, the effect was the same: a generalized brake – or worse – on artists trying to bring forward pathbreaking music. (229)

Still, I would have appreciated more specificity here and there. Leonard’s evidence is not always presented in a tangible form. Instead, we get a series of artist profiles that are at times convincing and at other times a bit too loose.

Leonard makes a concerted effort to touch on most of the notable names in the music industry at the time, especially the ones who are well-remembered and celebrated today. Even when artists were not working under direct surveillance, Leonard still attempts to show how they fit within his overarching narrative of hostility. Johnny Cash, for example, is presented to us without reference to any FBI profile. Regardless, he still falls victim to what Leonard calls “background suppression” (98). The idea here is that, even in less radical music acts, hostility was still present. As Leonard argues “there was a multitude of times when those targeted did not even know it was being done to them” (98).

Despite Cash’s public statements about the mistreatment of indigenous people, he does not appear to have experienced any direct forms of censorship as a result of this political stance. Still, Leonard points out that “the fact that he had to” make political statements at all “is revealing of the difficult terrain anyone making stinging socially conscious music would confront” (99, Leonard’s emphasis). Cash’s activism should be noted, but this particular example does not demonstrate “music and repression” because Cash’s message was never repressed. There are several moments like this in the book which come across as attempts to make some of the more recognizable names carry an argument beyond its limits.

Since Cash’s name is on the cover, one would have hoped that he would have played a larger part in describing this “world” of hostility, Leonard’s ultimate narrative goal. Cash’s inclusion here feels motivated by marketing purposes. His name will help sell the book, even if he doesn’t play a significant role in it.

Other names have more clearly earned their spot on the roster. In a section on Harry Belafonte, Leonard exposes a career-spanning relationship with repression. The notable civil rights activist who had ties to Martin Luther King Jr., anti-war protest, and communism confronted the baggage of hostility during the entire decade of the sixties. Even though Belafonte took measures to separate himself from any political party, as Leonard observes, he nevertheless remained a subject “of increased scrutiny by the considerable US intelligence apparatus” (145). In Belafonte’s case, a former financial manager of his had gone on to become a CIA informant, which makes his government profile especially “gossipy” (145). By the end of the decade, Belafonte attempted to continue his activism by airing one of his songs set against footage of police brutality from the Democratic National Convention. The protest film was to air on the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” only for the segment to be pulled by the network (171). Belafonte’s work is a prime example of music emerging from a hostile world, met with hostility.

When taken in parts, some of these sections don’t show very strong examples of repression. The picture Leonard attempts to paint ends up being more convincing as a whole. This becomes especially interesting with public figures who have a more ambiguous relationship with authority.

Take, for instance, Leonard’s handling of Bob Dylan. Dylan not only makes the cover of Whole World in an Uproar; he is referenced on more pages of the book than any other single entity, with the exception of the Federal Bureau of Investigation itself. Dylan stands out as a particularly difficult icon to place on a political matrix. This goes beyond Leonard’s “Sixties” project, but I am sure anyone who has spent any amount of time with Dylan’s work has experienced his mystifying qualities – his inability to give straight answers in his music, and certainly in his interviews.

Leonard’s book reveals that the FBI was just as mystified by Dylan as the rest of us. He argues that Dylan “was a subject of a more particular kind of FBI attention” (68). After receiving an award by the Emergency Civil Rights Committee, Dylan’s acceptance speech was met with a roar of boos from his leftist crowd when he made a sympathetic remark about Lee Harvey Oswald (this happened only a few weeks after the JFK assassination). Apparently this remark, along with his girlfriend Suze Rotolo’s association with communism, caught the FBI’s attention.

Dylan’s own FBI file is one of those documents that was not released in time for this book, which forces Leonard to speculate on its contents. All of the negative attention directed toward Dylan from the left and the right, is possibly the reason why he retreated from the public eye during the latter half of the sixties. It also informs much of his more mystifying material for the rest of his career – something Leonard does not focus on at length. But this would have been a worthwhile question: how does the hostility of the sixties continue to inform music now? It might just reveal ways in which we still live with the hostility of the past.

One needs only to look at a recent Dylan LP to see how the sixties still holds a ghostly influence over his music. On the back side of his Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020) is a giant portrait of Kennedy. The dead president carries an ambiguous glimmer in his eye – a complex expression coming from a symbol of authority, which we are invited to look back into. Should we trust him? Admire him? Fear him? If hostility rests behind those monochromatic eyes, Dylan is not paralyzed by it. In fact, hostility only appears to spark more from Dylan. By acknowledging the sixties in such a pronounced way, Dylan might be suggesting that we still live with the consequences of that time, its hostility lingering on. But how bad can hostility be if it generates art? Kennedy, Dylan, and his audience form a tense triad. Our mutual glances are like stakes in a circus tent: if you removed one of us, the whole tent would collapse. But by suspending this gaze with unresolved tension, the tent somehow remains standing and the circus can continue.

Leonard’s book promises a wide-reaching story of music and oppression during a concentrated time of hostility and conflict. This story is supposedly so far-reaching that it had the Whole World in an Uproar. To make good on his title, Leonard touches on many of the important foreign influences from the time: Cuba, the Soviet Union, and Vietnam to name a few. And, of course, the British Invasion marked a transatlantic phenomenon with, among others, the Beatles, the Kinks, and the Rolling Stones. You know the story. At the end of the day, however, Leonard filters all these world powers through the context of the music industry in the United States. And it is through the authority of the US government that this hostility emerges. A better title might have been, Whole Country in an Uproar.

The US was a contentious place for creative people, which ironically sparked further creativity throughout the 1960s. But we should be careful to label this phenomenon correctly. Otherwise, we mythologize the rest of the world as merely in the service of US culture. In that same light, we should be very careful about how we talk about the icons from the sixties. We often forget that those mythological figures who appear to us as icons today were iconoclasts, working against the hostility of the United States. On this point, Leonard manages to treat them like real people, working under real, strenuous conditions. Their stories are familiar in many places, and in others as complex and mystifying as the music that we love.