Essential Question

Since the 1960s, how have artists used musical events to promote change?


“Artists write, and sing, and think, and this is how we get to put our two cents in, and we do it right in front of people, not in secret meetings behind closed doors. We let people know what we think … I don’t know if people go to musicians for their politics. I doubt that they do, you know, but you can rally people to think on serious issues together, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

— Bruce Springsteen, August 4, 2004, Nightline, ABC Network


In August 1971, former member of the Beatles George Harrison gathered a group of musical colleagues that included Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, and many others to perform two benefit concerts at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The so-called Concert for Bangladesh was intended to raise money for and awareness of the refugees fleeing a bloody civil war in Pakistan, a situation made even worse by a devastating cyclone earlier that year.

The concert, which was also recorded as a film and a live album, became a model for how Rock and Roll stars could marshal their celebrity in support of a particular cause.  The efforts of Harrison and his friends ultimately raised millions of dollars for UNICEF and established a new precedent for how Rock and Roll could engage the public in order to promote meaningful change in the world.

The mass gatherings of the 1960s – including the March on Washington, antiwar demonstrations on college campuses, and the Woodstock festival – had clearly demonstrated the power of events to command media attention and to make voices heard. These gatherings instilled in a rising generation of young musicians a spirit of activism that continued well beyond the 1960s. Through the Concert for Bangladesh, Live Aid in 1985, and other notable benefit events, musicians have brought people together for performances that advocate for a wide range of social, political, and environmental issues.

In this lesson, students will investigate ways in which artists including George Harrison, Bob Geldof, and others drew on the experiences of the 1960s to harness the inherent power of musical performance to promote awareness and encourage activism. Students will look at the messages, methodologies, and historical contexts of both the Concert for Bangladesh and Live Aid and will refer to these events to develop a proposal for a benefit performance of their own.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • How a climate of political engagement in the 1960s helped influence a generation of artists to become promoters and activists
    • How music festivals such as Woodstock showed how music could be a powerful tool to organize massive numbers of people
    • The historical circumstances and issues at the root of the Concert for Bangladesh and Live Aid
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Evaluate the message and methodology of a protest event
    • Make connections between musical performances and the historical contexts in which they occur
    • Common Core: Students will research protest concerts by exploring a variety of text and video sources as a basis to reflect on the role of a musician in civic life (CCSS Reading 7; CCSS Writing 1; CCSS Writing 9; CCSS Speaking and Listening 2)