The 1960s were perhaps the decade of the greatest social change in US history. The civil right movement, assassination of JFK and continued Cold War with the USSR changed the USA public, one of the biggest of these events was the Vietnam War.
Youths protested more US soldiers being drafted into Vietnam to fight a war seen as unwinnable by the American population. The US’s fight in this Asian nation saw a huge public outcry as the resuming of war was seen as a huge injustice for all those losing their lives. This movement soon took over the USA counterculture. Soon, all forms of art expressed messages of horror, wrong-doings or information about the war – which gained most prominence in the mid-60s to early-70s. Many songs from this era came a huge part of the memory of the event, with these songs huge at the time and being an influence in the Vietnam War.
Fortunate Son (Creedence Clearwater Revival)
Likely the song most immediately associate with the Vietnam War, CCR’s ‘Fortunate Son’ was penned by John Fogerty. This song almost immediately became an anti-war anthem used to oppose the US military in Vietnam and solidarity with those currently there.
The song outlines the flaws and issues of the Vietnam War, including the lyrics stating he was not a “fortunate one” as he was not a “senator’s son”. In this, Fogerty talks of the unfairness of how the sons of important figures such as politicians were exempt from enlisting whilst the common man was forced to go and fight. As far as it goes, it is perhaps the blueprint for an anti-war song as it is: heavy rock, has soulful vocals, has protesting lyrics, stands up for the common folk and heavily makes its message.
The significant imagery of the song playing in a helicopter as they fly over the Vietnamese swamps below long lives on, making this the perennial Vietnam War song. A Billboard top 3 single, it was ranked #99 on Rolling Stone’s Magazine 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. On top of this, the song has been added to the National Recording Registry for its importance at a time of social uncertainty and social rebellion.
21st Century Schizoid Man (King Crimson)
This hit from King Crimson takes a different approach to depicting war by graphically describing the scenes of war throughout.
A 7-minute epic is short on words, but despite few is impactful in this choice of vocabulary. Each verse consists of 4 lines, with the final returning to the title of the song. Lyrics such as “Politicians’ funeral pyre/Innocence raped with napalm fire” give a disturbing and powerful message of the devastation left behind by a bleak war.
The song too is heavily distorted, with shrieking guitars and muffled yelled vocals by Greg Lake. The screeches of guitars are commonplace, all crescendoing in a high-pitched, awful guitar part. It also is unique as one of few commercial songs with a passage in free time, throwing the song into more war disarray. An aggressive, vicious, violent portrayal of the Vietnam War, the gritty nature of this song lays the groundwork for the metal genre that would become so prevalent in the years after.
Give Peace A Chance (John Lennon)
Whilst still an active member of The Beatles, John Lennon released ‘Give Peace A Chance’ in 1969, a song credited to the Plastic Ono Band and with a Lennon-McCartney writing billing.
This tune was written during Lennon and Ono’s ‘Bed-In’ with the recording being attended by a plethora of famous faces including Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, and Petula Clark in addition to Tommy Smothers playing the acoustic guitar alongside the Beatle. The simplistic and positive message and layout of the song make it the perfect song for a protest march anthem, going on to become one.
Furthermore, the lyrics go more in-depth about the modern era, stating that everybody is talking about topics such as: “ragism”, “bishops” and the “United Nations”. The song became a top 20 Billboard hit and UK runner-up single. Its influence is so great it was included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.
A simple pacifist message, it caught on huge as perhaps Lennon’s best-known solo single.
Ohio (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)
Written by Neil Young, ‘Ohio’ was a song about one of the most infamous events of the Vietnam War. On May 4th 1970, 4 unarmed protestors were shot by the police at Kent State University.
The song makes direct reference to the then-President in the opening line: “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming”. It makes a more blatant reference to the event that inspired the song, saying: “Four dead in Ohio”. This song more uses its lyrical content to describe the horror of war, using a rhetorical question to ask, “What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground?/How can you run when you know?”. The musicality of the song is also made to feel chaotic as it has interweaving guitars, explosive electronic instruments and an uncontrolled ending with the many singers yelling atop of each other.
The Young-penned track was released extremely quickly after the events that inspired it for maximum effect. Released just 2 weeks after the shooting, the finished recording was so powerful it is reported to have brought David Crosby to tears. The song was a Billboard Top 20 and ranked the 395th Greatest Song of All Time by Rolling Stone. It had a clear message, hugely important for its time as one of the greatest protest songs ever written.
We Gotta Get Out Of This Place (The Animals)
The Animals may not have been an American band (as one of the leading acts of the British Invasion), but they clearly captured the imagination of the US audience with the anti-war song ‘We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’.
The message of the song resonated with Armed Forces GIs in South Vietnam, who knew firsthand the experience sung about. Released in mid-1965, it soon became one of the most requested records by US troops. With a fiery and brilliant vocal performance from Eric Burdon, the song written by Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann is one of solemn and desperation. It was originally made for The Righteous Brothers, but The Animals got to it first, putting their own unique spin on the track.
It opens with the line: “In this dirty old part of the city/Where the sun refused to shine”. It then describes the narrator’s father on his death bed in the line “Watch my daddy in bed a-dyin’”, before stating they had to leave as: “girl, there’s a better life for me and you”. The verse is then repeated again, albeit shortened. This was similar to the plight of many soldiers stuck for mindless hours in Vietnam, seeing catastrophic violence and potentially wanting to escape to keep their lives.
Rolling Stone described the track as “harsh white-blues treatment from The Animals. As [Burdon] put it, “Whatever suited our attitude, we just bent to our own shape””. This song is made even more hectic by the call and response and many vocals on the track. The Newcastle band’s hit was a UK number 2 single (behind The Beatles’ ‘Help!’) and has been covered from Bruce Springsteen to Blue Oyster Cult to The Partridge Family.
As far as Vietnam War songs go, this early example proves to be one of the most influential towards the musical movement.
All Along The Watchtower (Bob Dylan/Jimi Hendrix)
Originally a Bob Dylan folk song, this was soon altered by Jimi Hendrix in one of the greatest cover iterations of all time.
This song’s link to war is much more subtle, as you would expect from such an accomplished songwriter such as Dylan. This is more rock-like than Bob’s earlier work, having drums and a bass guitar but still has a predominant acoustic guitar, nasal vocals and harmonica instrumental.
The symbolic use of the term “watchtower” has connotations of wartime, with this being a military structure from which soldiers would have a good viewpoint, for the best chance of successful gunfire. Dylan uses the characters of “the joker” and “the thief” to give his story a consistent through-line. It continues: “Businessmen, they drink my wine/Plowmen dig my earth”, implying he does all the work for others personal gain as if not fighting for himself but for others. The line, “…this is not our fate” also shows the determination and grit of the war on those fighting. He also perhaps describes war as “a wildcat” who “growls” before using pathetic fallacy in stating “the wind began to howl”.
Of course, this was made with a much heavier sound by Jimi Hendrix. This became a popular hit for soldiers at the time as well as likely being the greatest cover of all time and Hendrix’s signature song. Jimi revolutionized the track, with Dylan’s live performances more closely resembling Hendrix’s over his own. It was the contribution of both men that has made this tune such a historically important work, equally significant in the song’s success.
Where Have All The Flowers Gone? (Various)
Not exclusive to any particular artists, ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone?’ was a popular anti-war hit for many protestors, with its symbolic depiction of war having killed off innocent and youth through the imagery of flowers.
Whilst inspired by many other works, Pete Seeger is cited as the writer of the chorus and verses of this song. He took the melody from an Irish lumberjack song and lyrics from traditional song ‘Koloda-Duda’, a tune referenced in the Mikhail Sholokohv 1934 novel ‘And Quiet Flows The Don’. With songs such as this, ‘Study War No More (Down By The Riverside)’ and ‘If I Had A Hammer’ – many folk acts since have noted Seeger as a true inspiration and voice of the younger generation during this time of uncertainty. A young Dylan even met Seeger on a protest march, with Pete’s backing being even more legitimized by the fact he was in his 40s at the time. Thus, showing the older generations could too get on board with the younger movement.
The verses follow the same pattern of slow, repetitive rhetorical questions to empathize the sadness and time-altering effects of war. Each stanza ends with the line “Oh, when will they ever learn?” repeated twice.
In the 60s, practically everyone used the song in marches to show solidarity with soldiers on top of defiance against the violence. The Kingston Trio, Vera Lynn and Peter, Paul and Mary are just some of the names in the genre who covered the song in that decade. It has since proved it has longevity even when the Vietnam conflict was over, being performed by Green Day, Dolly Parton, Bernie Sanders, Joan Baez and Earth, Wind and Fire in the years since. In addition, the song has been translated into a plethora of different languages so is a known hit across the world.
(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay (Otis Redding)
This smooth, soul number has no relation to the war but became a huge track for militants who had been stationed in Vietnam.
This song is a simple mellow, calm theme about doing nothing. Redding is “Sittin’ on the dock of the bay/watching the time roll away”. This theme of peace is furthered by the use of wave and seagull sound effects in the song as well as a whistling fade-out section. Although this latter section was improvised, the whistling section has since become iconic, perhaps the most noteworthy part of the tune.
The anthem grew so massive due to it being listened to by soldiers in Vietnam who had to spend hours of monotonous time doing little – just waiting until they would get back into the horrific warzone. Its message clearly resonated with soldiers, who related it to their lives even if the song is not so directly linked to the event.
It was also a commercial hit, charting at number 3 in the UK and topping the US Billboard chart – with Redding becoming the first posthumous artist to hit number 1. Rolling Stone ranked it as the 26th greatest song of all time on their list – proving just how it has endured over time.
Gimme Shelter (The Rolling Stones)
By 1969, The Rolling Stones had taken over the world with their hard rock sound, undeniable charisma and English charm – so much so that they managed to rival The Beatles. Even some of the world’s most popular acts got entrenched in the movement as The Stones proved with hit single “Gimme Shelter”.
Another song not specifically for or detailing war, its techniques and sound have made it synonymous with the Vietnam War. It opens with an extended section featuring sorrowful guitar, a prominent guiro and prolonged, dreamy and almost subconscious “ooh” vocals. This is interrupted by violent drums and heavier instrumentation before the first verse.
Jagger’s illusions to war are clear even in the first verse with lyrics “If I don’t get some shelter/Ooh yeah, I’m gonna fade away”. In the next verse, he similarly states “see the fire is sweepin’/Our very street today”. Of course, we then have to speak about the chorus, as co-sung by Merry Clayton in one of the greatest vocal performances ever. With her fiery, impassionate vocals atop Mick’s, she sings: “War, children/It’s just a shot away/It’s just a shot away”, lyrics changed in a different part to “Rape, murder/It’s just a shot away/It’s just a shot away”. The astoundingly good vocals of Clayton add a new layer to the song, although her overzealousness allegedly caused her to miscarry.
Commonly regarded as the group’s greatest track, it is a zeitgeist – more than defining an era of music within. Everything from the lyrics to the sound almost perfectly matches the modern-day perception of the Vietnam generation.
For What It’s Worth (Buffalo Springfield)
Although you may not initially recognize the song by name, you will more than likely know the song, with the famous line “It’s time we stop/Hey, what’s that sound?/Everybody look what’s going down”.
Prior to Stephen Stills and Neil Young’s respective fame, they were both members of the Los Angeles band Buffalo Springfield. Although short, they were memorable with this hit living on.
Written by Stephen Stills, this song is about the 1966 Sunset Strip riot curfews in which police clashed with protestors. In this, future celebrities such as Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson as well as many other youths rebelled in peaceful defiance that soon turned violent. This tune is characterized by Neil Young’s use of guitar harmonics, a unique technique at the time. Lyrics portray the era in lines such as: “Paranoia strikes deep/Into your heart it will creep” and “Young people speaking their minds/Getting so much resistance from behind”.
It has become a symbol of American counterculture in the years since, often used in period pieces that detail the late 60s Vietnam situation. Ultimately, besides ‘Fortunate Son’, this may be the song most associated with the Vietnam War. It has been used as a protest anthem ever since.