Listening to a classic rock radio station, University of Georgia librarian Tim Smolko became inspired to go on a musical and historical exploration with his wife and writing partner Joanna, a musicologist and adjunct professor in the Hugh Hodgson School of Music.
After a seven-year project delving into the ways songwriters from Bob Dylan to Bono reflected on the issues of the Cold War, the pair are celebrating the publication of their book Atomic Tunes: The Cold War in American and British Popular Music by Indiana University Press this May.
“The songs we discuss in the book grapple with controversial geopolitical issues of the time in concise, three-minute packages: Is communism at our doorstep? Are nuclear weapons more of a danger or a deterrent? Could World War III actually take place? What constitutes a just war? Can we trust our leaders? Rarely has popular music addressed such weighty questions as the ones in these songs,” Tim Smolko said. “Although popular songs cannot give a detailed understanding of the conflict, they communicate something that is perhaps just as important as the historical facts: a visceral sense of what it was like to live through the Cold War.”
The book traces the political tenor of the country from the 1940s to the early 1990s, going beyond the well-documented influence of the Vietnam War on popular music to explore even more issues, from the nuclear arms race to the space race, from bomb shelters to the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, McCarthyism and other political subjects tied to the tensions between the U.S. and communist countries.
Tim, a cataloger based at the Main Library who has a master’s degree in musicology, and Joanna, who has taught courses on protest songs, explore a wide variety of musical styles in the book, including blues, folk, country, gospel, rock and roll, punk, heavy metal and new wave.
In the book, the Smolkos talk extensively about the lyrics and melodies, such as the juxtaposition of patriotism and protest in the tones of Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.” They also analyze album covers, concert performances, and the political efforts of artists, providing context through the historical events that underpinned the songwriting.
“Songs are powerful, both as reflectors of history and shapers of history,” Joanna said, adding that she was surprised at the number of heart-warming songs even among a collection that dealt with serious, dark themes. “We were surprised to see how many of these songs seemed to shape events or shape perspectives on events.”
Atomic Tunes is the first book that the Smolkos, who are parents to twins, co-authored together. Joanna, who teaches music privately in addition to her role at UGA, has published a number of journal articles and book chapters and was a contributing editor for the second edition of The Grove Dictionary of American Music. Tim’s first book, Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play: Inside Two Long Songs (Indiana University Press, 2013), won the 2014 Best Research in Recorded Rock Music Award from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections University Press.
Hardcover, paperback and e-book editions of Atomic Tunes are available for purchase from Indiana University Press or Amazon, and an audiobook is available via Audible.