Music, Vietnam Era

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The use of music to convey social commentary was certainly not unique to the Vietnam War. However, what made the music so significant was its immediacy and versatility. It quickly captured and reflected public opinion as it developed, and offered avenues of expression regardless of race, gender, status or political orientation. As a result, there was no one song that captured the essence of the Vietnam War.

Words about war have been put to music for generations, but usually in a positive manner. World War I's "Over There" and "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy" seemed to characterize the prevailing mood about America's role in that struggle. Of course, "I Didn't Raise My Boy to be a Soldier" also had an audience, but a smaller one by comparison. World War II 's "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," "Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B," and "I'll Be Home for Christmas" were positive and sentimental favorites heard not only in dancehalls but also on radio. Any antiwar tunes were most likely drowned out by post-Pearl Harbor anger.

civil rights links

Vietnam, on the other hand, didn't really have an original theme or even a cadre of original artists to convey its messages. Many of the artists singing out about Vietnam were veterans of the "Ban the Bomb" and Civil Rights movements. In the early 1960s, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez broadened their focus to include Vietnam, and tailored their songs accordingly. "We Shall Over-come," a Civil Rights anthem, underwent minor lyrical modifications and soon became a staple of the anti-war movement. But generally, artists found themselves singing to a small group of people until 1962, when The Kingston Trio broke into Billboard Magazine's Top 100 Most Popular Songs with "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." The lyrics and melody were non-threatening, and its overall message was softened somewhat by the trio's harmonizing skills. The song peaked at number 21 on Billboard's chart, but still managed to put the issue of war squarely in front of the American public.

anti-war songs

By 1965, music about Vietnam was emerging as a genre of its own, even though it was still competing with music denouncing war in general. The previous year, Lyndon Johnson had won election as president by promising "not to send American boys to fight a war Asian boys ought to be fighting." In March 1965, U.S. combat troops began arriving in Vietnam, the first installment of nearly 200,000 American soldiers destined for deployment that year. The gap between words and deeds was not lost on folk singer Tom Paxton, whose ballad "Lyndon Johnson Told a Nation" zeroed in on Johnson's apparent hypocrisy. It shared air play with Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction," which touched not only on the danger of nuclear war, but also on the irony of young men old enough to fight but too young to vote. The first major anti-war demonstrations were also held in 1965, organized by groups such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and choreographed by singer-songwriters such as Phil Ochs. "I Ain't Marching Anymore," a general antiwar commentary, was quickly followed by "White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land" and "We Seek No Wider War," a response to President Johnson's assurance of his desire for world peace, while at the same time escalating the war in Vietnam.

None of Ochs's songs ever reach Billboard's Top 100. Most pop music radio stations refused to play them due to their content. Agents and producers urged their clients not to do protest music for that very reason. Songs supporting the war seemed to have less trouble reaching American audiences. Barry Saddler's "Ballad of The Green Berets" sold two million copies within two weeks of its release in March 1966, and spent five weeks of that year as Billboard's number one song. Country artists in support of the war also found receptive audiences, given the success of Dave Dudley's "Hello Vietnam," in 1966 and Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee" in 1969. FM stations which would become the flagship vehicle for distributing antiwar songs, were still too few and their signals too weak to be heard.

The "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag" by Country Joe and The Fish, introduced in 1967, was popular not only with antiwar protesters but also with soldiers in Vietnam, even though it was banned from armed services radio. Country Joe's urging to parents to send their sons to war so they "could be the first ones on the block/to have their boy come home in a box" had a gallows humor that soldiers seemed to appreciate. "We Gotta' Get out Of This Place," by Eric Burdon and The Animals, was another GI favorite, and one of the most frequently requested songs by troops, especially in the field. Both the U.S. and South Vietnamese governments prohibited its playing on official airwaves, but pirate radio stations, manned by soldiers deep in the jungle, always had a copy on hand. While it would be another year before US public opinion would turn on President Johnson and the war, music seemed to already be anticipating the mood swing. When the Tet Offensive of early 1968 seemed to prove that the United States was no closer to victory than in 1965, anti-war songs were ready to lead the growing number of protesters. Jim Morrison and The Doors offered "Unknown Soldier," and the Byrds produced "Draft Morning" and "Wasn't Born to Follow" on the same album. Both songs coincided with the growing protest over the war and the opposition to the draft.

winding down

When Richard Nixon became President in 1969, he introduced Vietnamization, the process of replacing U.S. soldiers with South Vietnamese troops. The withdrawal of U.S. forces would seem to indicate there was no more need for music about this war. And, for the most part, the music between 1969 to 1970 became less antagonistic and more reflective; it became an analysis of what had been gained or lost through the Vietnam experience. Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" railed against the preferential treatment some received from the Selective Service system because of their wealth and education. Jefferson Airplane's "Wooden Ships" sought to create a vocal image of dead soldiers finally at rest. Crosby, Stills, and Nash's "Find the Cost of Freedom" covered the same ground. 1970 was also the year Motown became artistically involved with the war, offering Edwin Starr's "War" and Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On?" Starr earned a Grammy in 1970 for "War," and "What's Goin' On?" became Billboard's second most popular song of the year.

After 1970, there were fewer troops in Vietnam, and fewer reasons to write, sing or even buy a song about Vietnam. Most of the music attempted to put the war and all the turbulence surrounding it in the past, and move on. Canned Heat's "Going Up the Country" suggested the way to closure about the war was to embrace a simpler, less complicated life, far away from city tensions. Vietnam-related songs gradually faded from most radio station playlists, to be replaced by disco and later, by heavy metal. Bruce Springsteen's "Born in The USA," released in 1984, may have been the last song to touch on the subject.

There may never be any consensus regarding the music inspired by the Vietnam War. It spanned several categories as well as generations. Even today when a song of that era is played, people who were alive at that time find themselves thinking back to where they were and what they were doing the first time they heard that song. The music, like the Vietnam War, often meant different things to different people.


Loss, Archie. Pop Dreams: Music, Movies, and the Media in the 1960s. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999.

other resources

Capitol Music Special Markets. Vietnam: Songs from a Divided House, 2 disc CD. Hollywood, CA: Universal Music Enterprises, 2001.

John Morello

See also:Antiwar Movement; Art as Weapon; Drugs and Vietnam; Grunts; Popular Culture and Cold War; Teenagers, 1946–Present; Television, 1946–Present.

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Music, Vietnam Era

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