John Vanek

1968

UD grad student contributor to book on 1968

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8:18 a.m., Nov. 9, 2011--In 1968, many people thought their world was coming apart. There were the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, struggles for civil rights at home and abroad, and growing opposition to the war in Vietnam. 

While Americans appeared to be splitting into separate camps, the nation’s television and radio venues were bringing together an audience whose musical tastes were as varied as their political and cultural leanings. 

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John Vanek, a graduate student in UD's Department of History, has helped document this pivotal year in a turbulent era by contributing to “The 1968 Exhibit” that opened at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul last month and runs through Feb. 20. 

A native of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, Vanek’s field of research interest is 20th century popular music, particularly with the transnational pathways between American music and the music of the international immigrant communities. 

After graduating in 2008 from the University of Wisconsin, with a bachelor of science degree in history, Vanek interned at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

“A former college roommate connected me to Brian Horrigan, curator at the Minnesota Historical Society,” Vanek said. “They were just starting their research for a potential exhibit aimed at the baby boomers and 1968, the year that generation came of age.”

Hired as a special research assistant and developer for the musical aspects of the exhibit, Vanek was impressed with the amount of musical experimentation taking place in 1968.

Vanek contributed a chapter on the music of 1968 to The 1968 Project, by the Minnesota Historical Society staff, with an introduction by Horrigan and an epilogue by Brad Zellar. The book was compiled by Elizabeth Ault and published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. 

“There was a tremendous variety of music being played on the radio and on television variety shows such as Playboy After Dark and the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” Vanek said. “They key point is that all forms of popular music were being played, and it all shared the same limited radio and television space.”

While artists were putting out protest albums such as “Tape From California" by Phil Ochs, even the traditionally conservative genre of country music was not immune to songs that reflected the reality of American life at that time.

Examples include “DIVORCE,” by Tammy Wynette, and Jeannie C. Riley’s challenge to small town hypocrisy with “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” Vanek said. 

“There were also a lot of people who listened to regular country and easy listening music, and they elected Richard Nixon president in 1968,” Vanek said. “They too wanted to move the country forward, but they disagreed about where forward was.”

Vanek also wrote and produced a one-hour documentary on the music of 1968 that aired on Minnesota Public Radio's 89.3 The Current.

Article by Jerry Rhodes

Photo by Ambre Alexander

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