This song is a masterpiece. Certainly, no other song captured so well the generational divide that existed in the late 1960’s. I watched a clip of William Buckley’s old PBS show on YouTube from 1968 where he and Jack Kerouac, Ed Sanders, and, a sociologist named Jablonsky discuss the hippies. Buckley was skeptical that the Vietnam War alone had a causal relationship to the hippie movement and cited the youth protests in France, which was not involved in the war, as his proof. It was probably the only valid point he made in the entire show. This country has a long history of bohemian movements. What was different in the case of the hippies was that they were no longer confined to the intelligentsia or the artistic elite, nor were they constricted by geography to a few large cities. This was the first bohemian movement to have access to mass communication and mass media and that is what accounts for the universality of the movement.
Thus, the emotional tableau contained in Tears of Rage had become universal for the generation of the 1960’s and 1970’s. This is a tale of wrenching change in a once young and revolutionary republic that was now mature and nearing its second century. You can hear this juxtaposition in the lyrics with the reference to Independence Day contrasted with the helpless dependence of “We carried you in our arms” as well as in the music when you compare the old- timey sound of Garth Hudson’s church organ and horns, the shaking and beating of the tambourine and Richard Manuel’s gospel piano with Robbie Robertson’s distorted, Leslie filtered electric guitar.
The older generation was clearly disappointed that they, “pointed you the way to go” but you did not follow their lead. Instead the younger generation, “ran off to receive all that false instruction which we never could believe.” College education was once only the privilege of the wealthy. With the GI Bill, after World War II more middle class men went to college. However, by the 1960’s young men and women from all across the US and from all socioeconomic strata were attending colleges. However, this change in access to education was not uniquely American. The opening of educational opportunities was, if anything, more pronounced in Europe. This was the source of much of the inter-generational friction.
This societal shift was no less of a sea change than the previous shift from an agrarian society to an industrial society had been. The older generation, while having some pride in how intelligent their offspring were, at the same time, were offended that their sons and daughters were not following in their footsteps. Religious tradition was also a factor as many who left home as Bible believers returned as atheists. However, one must question the value of the religious instruction if eighteen years of parental and church teaching could be wiped out in four years of college.
What comes through in both the lyrics and music is the humanity of the parents and the child. This is not surprising because the members of The Band have said that they all actually got along quite well with their parents. So, while this may have been a song about tension and disappointment it was not about hatred. And this is why the song is timeless. Today’s generation may get along better with their parents than many in the 1960’s but both they and their parents may still experience occasional tension and disappointment.