The Most Barbaric Sound: Rock and Roll Bands and the Vietnam War Come to Oakland City College

Oakland City College in the mid to late 1960s, despite its remote location and a mostly conventional student body, still experienced the cultural difficulties of the times. Music was one such cultural issue, perhaps an odd one since dancing was banned on campus.

A photo of a bustling Oakland City College campus in 1967.

Nevertheless, OCC students had been allowed to be entertained in the early to mid-sixties by a few folk singing individuals and groups, the main entertainment, however, being classical or religious musical presentations.  Still, young people at the college wanted to listen to and be entertained and instructed by “their music,” and college leaders slowly began to take notice. By early 1967, although there was a popular regional rock and roll band of young men called the Corvettes who sometimes performed at the college, the school had yet to have a national touring rock and roll group on campus. All this changed in December of 1967 when the campus witnessed the arrival of the rock band “Salvation and the Army,” to highlight the college’s annual homecoming celebration.

A 1967 scene from the college sandwich shop- The Oaks. The student body at OCC was more conventional than most campuses in the 1960s, but would still experience its share of counterculture disturbance.

The Cincinnati group seemed safe enough to the conservative OCC administration. The band had just returned from a European tour and had previously fronted major rock groups like the Outsiders and The Association at other rock concerts. The local Princeton newspaper called them a “swing and show soul band” and reported the group offered “a wide variety of music, including rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and ballads. The five musicians are former members of top rock and roll groups in the country and have been together for two years. The musicians are currently students at the University of Cincinnati.” 

Students packed the old college gymnasium and loved what they heard, and afterwards the Student Government Association promised more of these types of occasions.

But not everyone was happy.

The so-called generation gap was profoundly evident in an OCC music professor’s reaction to the rock and roll band’s performance, a reaction that was sarcastic to say the least.

December 9, 1967. . .a most historic moment in my life.  I have just returned home from the gymnasium of the OCC campus where a “group” has been performing (?) the most barbaric sound my ears have ever heard.  My head still throbs, and my eardrums manifest a dull sensation of pain.  To call their sound music would be the greatest degradation of the term.  To call their sound sound would be questionable.  Never have I heard such an amplification of terror pain and sheer agony.  The disheartening thing was how so many more people were in the audience than we could ever hope for when presenting a program of serious music.  But I suppose, the thing that people object to about classical music is that they have to think to understand it.  Listening to the other type requires nothing but to sit there and let one’s mind become inoperable as that hellish sound numbs his brain.  I cannot understand what it is about this sound that people like.  As a musician I can certainly testify that it is not intellectual.  Therefore, it requires absolutely no intellect to appreciate it. The music fits no definition of beauty I have discovered.  However, it did show me how a madman having some kind of fit would behave.  Conclusion: a person who can appreciate this type of sound requires a low I.Q., absolutely no knowledge or feeling for Beauty, and a strange craving to see someone act as if in the world’s worst pain. . .. I wondered how and why the student body of Oakland City College could support such a degradation of the highest of all the arts.

Salvation and the Army

But not all professors felt this way. An English professor popular with the students, Virginia O’Leary, quickly penned a letter in support of the student’s choice of music. 

The people who participated in the concert were celebrating their own being, their existence, and perhaps most of all they were celebrating the reality that only the fact that they were human beings aware of their youth, their own exuberance, and their own power to vibrate forcefully drew them together.  For that evening they could leave behind those things which divide them every day—the sectionalism, the sectarianism, the intolerance, the misunderstanding of their society and themselves, just to be. And if that outside listener heard in those sounds of celebration “terror, pain, and sheer agony,” perhaps he heard reality, the reality that many young people cannot care only about themselves; that they care too about their potential contribution to society. I think I can understand.  And the sounds of youthful exuberance, positive sounds of celebration, are music to my ears.

Popular OCC English professor Virginia O”Leary supported students on many cultural issues

As it turned out, rock and roll was here to stay. Other national top-forty groups such as Rush, The New Colony Six, and Chase came to campus in the next few years, continuing “the sounds of youthful celebration at OCC.”

The rock band Chase pulled in a huge crowd when it came to the OCC campus in 1972.

A more divisive and disturbing cultural issue on the campus was the growing specter of the war in Vietnam. Early in the war, Oakland City students’ beliefs were not anti-establishment when it came to the conflict. One Collegian editorial opinion in late 1965 came out strongly for American involvement in Vietnam and its position was favorable to the student body. 

If we eliminate the Communists from South Vietnam, the liberty bell will toll throughout the world.  If we flounder in defeat or in semi-defeat, as would be the case in neutralization, the Communists will have a standing invitation to increase aggression all over the world, possibly as close as South America. All responsible and freedom-loving Americans can see the truth in the above statements, and most will agree with them.  It puzzles me then, how groups of students in California will vigorously protest against alleged infringements upon freedom of speech one month, and later turn around and protest our presence in Vietnam by attempting to stop troop trains. . .. We are involved in this crisis; let us follow President Johnson to its logical conclusion—American victory!

One of the fun 1967 May Day events at OCC. As the war in Vietnam accelerated in the mid to late 1960s, OCC students tried to carry on such normal college activities.

Another editorial quickly followed which also supported the war.  Specifically, the piece related the college student body’s positive reaction to a pro-Vietnam involvement petition.  “The petition, which is being circulated at many colleges across the nation, in effect has a deeper meaning.  In fact, it is a reaction to a reaction.  In other words, a reaction to the fact that many college students have rather violently protested our involvement in Vietnam.” Rather proudly, the writer asserted, “the fact that the petition has circulated here leads us to believe the OCC students have finally concerned themselves enough to take a stand and throw out that complacent attitude that had almost become a tradition here.  In addition, the fact that over 460 OCC students who signed the petition actually support our policy in Vietnam and do not mind expressing this opinion makes us even happier.”

A few college members, however, quickly disagreed with these editorials.  William Cathey, an English professor, for example, wrote, “I feel that war in Vietnam needs close examination.  There are some unanswered questions in mind.  Is our participation there necessary?  If it is, then on what grounds? Political?  Economic?  Moral?  Also, if it is, is it really worth the price of the life of any unwilling and innocent person?” 

Cathey was only one of several on the campus who began speaking up about the acceleration of the war. 

Small and remote as the school was, it could not escape the struggle in Vietnam.  The draft quickly came to loom over the campus, with many male students receiving deferments for the time being.  The Collegian reported on several of these young men. 

Adrian Scripture, a freshman, was to be drafted November 7 but has been deferred until the end of the term.  Steve Hanger, a sophomore, is to take his physical October 3.  If he does not get a medical deferment, he will be drafted.  Don Wade, a junior, did not return to school this fall because he was scheduled to take his physical.  Joe Huey, a senior, enlisted in the navy before he was drafted.  He left around the first of September.  Larry Williams, a junior, enlisted in the Air Force but withdrew.  His classification is 1-A, and he took his physical September 8.  He has been deferred for the academic year.  Larry Emge, a senior, took his physical September 6.  However, he has been deferred for the academic year also.  Austin Odom, a senior, left September 26 for active duty at Fort Knox, Kentucky; however, he may soon be transferred.  His wife, the former Kathy Fuess, is living with his parents in Fort Branch and attended OCC.  Jim Walters, a senior, was to be drafted October 17, but he had been deferred for the academic year.

Events such as this 1967 basketball game in the old gymnasium were played under the ever growing shadow of the conflict in Vietnam.

As the war in Vietnam accelerated in the fall of 1965, students’ feelings about the draft intensified.  A Collegian reporter polled several OCC male students and faculty members regarding their opinions concerning college students who attend school sorely to avoid the draft.  The results were mixed.  One student declared, “It shows that the men who dodge the draft by going to school are cowards.  They don’t want to sacrifice for their country.  They merely want a few years pleasure for their greedy vanity.”  Conversely, another offered, “Why should a young man feel shame when faced with the decisions of either college or draft, to make that choice of more benefit and less detriment to his well-being?  I do not feel it unpatriotic to choose life over death.” 

The practice of paddling freshmen who refused to wear beanies shown here led to a fierce reaction from one returning student from the Vietnam War

One OCC student recalled the treatment he and some others at Oakland City College gave a returning Vietnam veteran in 1967.

Tradition at the college demanded all freshmen wear a green beanie and sophomore males enforced the rule diligently. If freshmen were caught without a beanie, they were soundly paddled. One new student, however, had just gotten back from Vietnam and sent out the word at the beginning of the school year that he did not have time to play kids’ games and was there to get an education. One day several sophomores, including myself, caught the non-beanie-wearing freshman when he was coming out of the science building. He put up some fight, but there were just too many of us. We held him down and paddled him.

So fierce was the fight that shortly after the incident, the school banned the practice of enforced beanie wearing, and the former student who told of the incident would carry disgrace about his part in the paddling episode for the rest of his life. “I’m ashamed now of what I did at that time. None of us realized what the Vietnam vets had been through, especially a bunch of dumb college sophomores acting tough.”

Like the rest of the nation, the college would eventually come to possess a profound ambivalence about the war. On the other hand, the issue of the war never came to divide the Oakland City campus as it would most other schools.  It did, however, increase a sense of student unrest on campus. In May 1968, for example, an article appeared in the college newspaper noting a distinct “anti-war feeling here.”

In October of 1969, discontented young people and others across the nation organized and held a national moratorium against our nation’s involvement in Vietnam. The moratorium shut down classes for a short duration on many campuses. At Oakland City College, a group of students, a half dozen or so, showed up at an all-school convocation wearing black armbands and singing songs to protest the Vietnam War. The day before, the same group of protesters had gathered in front of the school gym to sing anti-war songs, their youthful faces filled with righteous confidence. Their efforts, however, yielded little success in terms of stirring up the larger student body against the war.

Members of the first Oakland City College Student Court, formed in the fall of 1972.

The spirit of protest lingered in another way. By the early seventies, even through the war had begun winding down, the spirit of youth demanding to be heard persisted, and OCC college students often raised their concerns with college administrators regarding the right of having more say in school policy that directly affected them. This lead to a unique event, the creation by school leaders of a student court at the college where students who ran afoul of the administration could appeal and be heard. Theoretically, the court’s ruling was suppose to be the final rule, although this would not always be the case. Still, the court demonstrated how even tiny Oakland City College was impacted by the cultural times of that era.