In this episode of My Nuclear Life, host Shelly Lesher interviews Tim and Joanna Smolko, authors of Atomic Tunes: The Cold War in American and British Popular Music. They discuss atomic music across the decades.
Shelly begins the episode by asking Tim and Joanna about the first song ever written about the nuclear bomb. There were a couple of different songs written around the same time, by country and folk artists, but the one that is largely considered the first song about nuclear war is Old Man Atom that ends with the iconic line “The people of the world must pick out a thesis:"Peace in the world, or the world in pieces!"”
Next, Shelly and Joanna discuss the women singer songwriters involved in antiwar music which peaked in the 1960’s. These cold war issues don’t happen in a vacuum, Joanna reminds listeners, they happen alongside the Civil Rights and Equal Rights Movements. Singers like Joan Baez wrote folk songs of protest and social justice. This spike in female driven antiwar songs coincided with The Women’s March for Peace in which 50,000 women marched in 60 cities around the United States to demonstrate against the testing of nuclear weapons. They were called communists, but their work did help push the United States and the Soviet Union into signing a nuclear test-ban treaty two years later.
While the anti-war songs of America and Britain didn’t move the cultural conscious much, songs did have a large impact in the Soviet Union. Young people in the Soviet Union smuggled in western music and copied them on x-ray plates they called records on bones. Few stars were allowed to come behind the curtain, but the young people were getting restless and artists like Bruce Springsteen were invited in. It’s estimated as many as 400,000 people were there and he sang Bob Dylan’s Chimes of Freedom Flashing.
In 1989 David Hasselhoff was already a big star in Germany and he recorded the song Looking for Freedom, which became a big hit that summer. He sang it on the Berlin Wall on New Years Eve. This is probably not the most popular anti war song however, Tim suggests it’s actually 99 Balloons by Nena, a German band’s song about how world war may happen under a false alarm. Joanna explains listening to songs like this helps us understand the world’s events from ordinary people. Songs are emotional and moving, sure, but they’re also a good way to share information.
Learn more about the Tim and Joanna Smolko
Check out their book, Atomic Tunes.
Please leave a 5-star review on iTunes and subscribe to My Nuclear Life wherever you listen to podcasts!
Special thanks: Lexie Weghorn
Cover art: Konstantinos Haasandras via Upsplash
Production costs for this episode provided through National Science Foundation Grants PHY-1713816 & 2011267.