For pretty much my entire adult life, I have believed – or rather, never really questioned – what generation after generation of pop-culture writers have told me: that the dizzy idealism of the 60s was punctured by the bad-trip nightmare of Altamont, which prepared the way for the disillusion and solipsism of the 1970s, etc. But the more I read about post-war American politics (after finishing Thurston Clarke’s inspiring book about Bobby Kennedy, ‘The Last Campaign’, I’m now ploughing through Rick Perlstein’s razor-sharp ‘Nixonland’) the more I see that this reading of contemporary history is itself solipsistic, or at least impossibly cosseted. The sixties were great, I suspect, if you were in a band, or at an Ivy League college with a draft deferment, singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ and hitch-hiking to see Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival. But if you were an African-American, a policeman, a member of the American working class eligible for Vietnam, a politician, or just about anyone else, then the 1960s were insane – insane as in psychopathic, rather than insane as in zany. For millions of people in US cities, the decade was violent and scary, obscured by a fog of incomprehension and genuine foreboding. Those protest songs were written because there was a great deal to protest about, but somehow it’s the songs themselves, sincere and decent and hopeful, which have come to represent the times. We remember “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”; somehow, the lonesome death of Hattie Carroll doesn’t seem quite so meaningful.