The Vietnam Conflict: The Rock ‘n’ Roll War
Moratorium Day, October 15, 1969 – Washington D.C. (AP Photo)
In the immortal words of the German Romantic writer Jean Paul Richter “Music is moonlight in the gloomy night of life”. There could be no truer words for a soldier entwined within the chaos of a violent battle. Music has long been a fundamental element in providing temporary relief during wartime. This is especially true during the United State’s involvement in Vietnam War, also known as “America’s first Rock ‘n’ Roll War” (http://warriors.warren.k12.il.us/dmann/musicandvietnamwar.html).
My hypothesis starts with the suggestion that much of the music written during the 1960s and 70s characterized the discontent of American youth with the escalation of America’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from November 1955, to the fall of Saigon in April 1975). The rhythms, raw energy, and screaming guitars of rock music perfectly reflected the chaos and confusion of the jungle warfare and fire fight battles. Since Rock music was the most popular genre at the time with American youth, it inevitably became popular also in Vietnam among the young American soldiers. In retrospect, Rock ‘n’ Roll music ultimately became an anthem of the American youth demonstrating their anti-establishment anti-war sentiment. It is important to emphasize the youthful age of the Vietnam combat soldiers: ninety percent of them were under 23 years of age and the average was 19 years old. Moreover, we can assume that most of them did not want to be in Vietnam, risking their lives and being alienated from their family, friends and own generation once back home (http://warriors.warren.k12.il.us/dmann/musicandvietnamwar.html).
As history has proven, music helps to define a generation and the U.S. soldiers imported their musical preference into the war zone. It is interesting to note that there was not significant separation in musical tastes between enlisted men and officers. Many songs of the period were inspired by the Vietnam War with even the most popular musical artists being influenced, for better or for worse, by the plight of the soldiers forced into battle. For instance, “Purple Haze”, by Jimi Hendrix, made reference to a slang term for the M-18 violet smoke grenade, used by United States armed forces. In the song “Magical Mystery Tour” by The Beatles, the lyrics “Coming to take you away, dying to take you away”, had special meaning for Marines during the battle of Khe Sanh (when the Marine base was isolated and there were a series of desperate actions that lasted 77 days). Also, some phrases were used in the context of the war. For example “Rock-and-roll” was used for “lock and load”, referring to the procedure for readying the M-16 rifle for firing or for switching the weapon from semiautomatic to automatic fire (http://warriors.warren.k12.il.us/dmann/musicandvietnamwar.html).
The most common medium for the music between soldiers in Vietnam was the Armed Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN) Radio. This 24 hour radio station was created by the U.S. Armed Forces to entertain the American troops. As Michael W. Rodriguez (combat veteran of the Vietnam War and writer of the book “Humidity Moon”) stated: “Rock ‘n’ Roll meant fully automatic fire, get some adrenaline running through the body like a runaway train” (http://faculty.buffalostate.edu/fishlm/folksongs/rockroll.htm). Radio as a means of disclosure, however, did not always reflect the preferences of the soldiers. So tape recorders and cassette tapes, either brought from home or purchased on leave, became the most popular medium for music in Vietnam, a kind of status symbol among GIs. The tape players were battery operated, small, portable and therefore easily carried into the field (http://warriors.warren.k12.il.us/dmann/musicandvietnamwar.html).
The approach of the soldiers to the music mirrored also the differences between Vietnam War and other conflicts, such as the World War II. The latter was seen as a unified mission of fighting Fascism and Nazism. Alternatively, with the Vietnam War, there was no such unity of purpose, especially in the later stages of the 1970s. The Vietnam War was the first in which the combat soldiers listened to antiwar and protest lyrics while fighting in the conflict. In previous wars, the music had always been supportive of the U.S. government’s objective and specifically to mission of the soldiers in combat (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_War).
America during the Vietnam Wars years, like the rest of the world, was awakened from a beautiful dream. Young people, in their simplicity, sensed a future of uncertainty and were seeking a path that lead towards a better world in collective protests. Rock music became the megaphone of an idealistic and confused generation, which ultimately identified itself in the lyrics and music by artists such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Jim Morrison and The Doors, Janis Joplin, and Bob Dylan, just to name a few. These so-called “cursed heroes” became wonderful interpreters and their songs have survived long past the war torn years during which they were created. The music itself has become immortal still listened to today, some 40 years later, by American youth who have little knowledge of the Vietnam War.
The revolutionary fervour of the time was expressed also by the “hippie” movement. In the wave of the Vietnam War, which saw thousands of young people, who were not sent into the “jungle”, far away from home, felt the duty to show solidarity with the soldiers’ plight. The refusal of society, that the hippies called “consumerist” and the withdrawal into a rural and simple life, with primitive socialistic rules, where no private property existed, marked the background to the explosion of Rock music (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippie).
Two bands, in particular, were the protagonists (next to the ever-present Bob Dylan), songwriters of the revolution: The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. The first was a genuine product of the hippie community, and never abandoned the idea of music as a vehicle to dream. The leader of The Grateful Dead was Jerry Garcia and his guitar cords have gone down in history as the best companion to “trip on” after Hendrix. Different was the fate of Jefferson Airplane, which started with a similar “hippie” background as The Grateful Dead, but later transformed into anti-political rock with the album “Volunteers”, which was openly opposed to the Vietnam War which didn’t seem to end (http://cronologia.leonardo.it/storia/a1966z1.htm).
There are two key figures among the music antiwar spectrum: Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. It should be underlined that Hendrix, who was a former soldier himself, was not an official protestor of the war, and he actually sympathized with the anticommunist view. However, with songs like “Machine Gun”, dedicated to those fighting in Vietnam, he did protest the violence that took place during the conflict. While Hendrix’s point of view was probably not similar to the protestors, his songs became anthems to the antiwar movement and a driving force during the war years even after his death (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opposition_to_the_Vietnam_War).
Similarly, Bob Dylan had a similar effect on American youth. “Whether he liked it or not, (he) sang for us. We followed his career as if he were singing our songs”. These were the words of Tor Egil Førland, reflected in his article “Bringing It All Back Home or Another Side of Bob Dylan: Midwestern Isolationist”, quoting Todd Gitlin, a leader of a student movement at the time. However, Dylan’s songs were designed to awaken the public and to cause a reaction. For instance, “Blowing in Wind” perfectly embodies Dylan’s antiwar sentiment. Specifically, the song lyrics “The Times they are A-Changin’”, alluded to a new method of governing necessary and warned the government that the change was imminent. In fact, the song was so close to the antiwar cause, that Joan Baez and Judy Collins recorded the song and performed it at a 1965 march protesting the Vietnam War (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opposition_to_the_Vietnam_War).
There are few songs particularly representative of that period and, all of them, are openly against the war. In chronological order of recording: “Eve of Destruction” (Barry McGuire), “Give Peace a Chance” (John Lennon), “Fortunate Son” (Creedence Clearwater Revival), “Ball of Confusion” (The Temptations), “Ohio” (Crosby Stills Nash & Young), and “War” (Edwin Starr). I chose these specific songs because they are the most meaningful of the period and, at the same time, were influenced by and have influenced the Vietnam War Era. Is interesting to note that these songs were written (except the first one “Eve of Destruction” which was released in the 1965) recorded and released between late 1969 and early 1970. In fact, a few of them were during in the same month: at the height of the American presence in Southeast Asia and at the height of the anti-war movement in the U.S.
Eve of Destruction
This song was written by the American singer and songwriter P. F. Sloan, when he was 19 years old, and became famous when recorded with the voice of Barry McGuire, in 1965. “Eve of Destruction” is a protest song more generally about the American political issues of the 60s, and eventually became a hippie anthem against the Vietnam War. This song is a warning of an imminent apocalypse and moreover talks about racism, hypocrisy and injustice. The assassination of the American president John F. Kennedy was an influence. It also voices the frustrations and fears of young people in the age of the nuclear arms race, and the civil rights movement. “Eve” was banned from many radio stations, in the U.S. and by Radio Scotland, and placed on a restricted list by the BBC. It could not be played on general entertainment programmes, for its antigovernment lyrics. Even though it was restricted and banned because the government said it could help the enemy in Vietnam, it still managed to hit #1 in the US. The American media used the song as an example of everything that was wrong with the youth of that time, but this actually helped to popularize it. One sentence in particular is meaningful if we think about the engagement of youth during the War: “You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’“, and this refers to the fact that men were subject to the U.S. Military Draft at age 18, while the minimum voting age, at that time, was 21 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eve_of_Destruction_%28song%29 – http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=799).
Give Peace a Chance
This song, one of John Lennon’s solo masterpieces, was released on July 1969 and immediately became an anthem of the anti-Vietnam war movement, even though the lyrics don’t explicitly refer to the Vietnam. In classic John Lennon style, as he was always able to do, the song reflected a positive way to think about war and peace. “Immediate peace”, as John Lennon always used to say, for all the people on earth. He also changed the word “masturbation” in “mastication” on the official lyric sheet, to avoid any kind of controversies. On the 15th of October 1969, a multi-city demonstration called “The Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam”, took place in Washington D.C., and “Give peace a chance” was sung by half a million demonstrators. According to Christie’s auction house, which on the 10th of July 2008 in London sold John Lennon’s hand-penned lyrics of the song, when Lennon saw all those people singing his song outside the White House, he considered it to be one of the biggest moments of his life (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Give_Peace_a_Chance#cite_note-5 – http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=1111).
There is another famous song by John Lennon, against the Vietnam War and, more generally, any war. Unfortunately, over the years the song has been relegated to the collection of Christmas classics, probably because of the title and content of the text that, sarcastically, wants to be a provocation: “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”, a hymn to all to realize that the war can end, as the best Christmas present anyone could ask for, but only if people want it.
“Fortunate Son”, by Creedence Clearwater Revival, is a song released by the end of the 1969 and was inspired by the marriage between David Eisenhower, the grandson of President Dwight David Eisenhower, and Julie Nixon, the daughter of President Richard Nixon. As writer and singer John Fogerty said during an interview for the music magazine “Rolling Stone”, he was inspired by Julie Nixon who “was hanging around with David Eisenhower, and you just had the feeling that none of these people were going to be involved with the war. In 1969, the majority of the country thought morale was great among the troops, and like eighty percent of them were in favour of the war. But to some of us who were watching closely, we just knew we were headed for trouble“. Obviously, Fogerty was not a fan of President Nixon and his belief was that people with wealth and influence with close ties to politicians like the President were receiving preferential treatment. Most of the soldiers came from the working class background and, according to Fogerty’s lyrics, were there because they didn’t have connections that could get out of the draft. One of these men is the subject of the song who ended up fighting and, through the words of Fogerty, is singing: “I ain’t no senator’s son. I ain’t no fortunate one, no. I ain’t no military son. I ain’t no millionaire’s son, no”, with a clear reference to the wealthy politically influential ruling class (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fortunate_Son_%28song%29 – http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=1916).
Ball of Confusion
This song was released by The Temptation in the spring of the 1970 and has a strong political message for multiple problems that afflicted the U.S. at that time: segregation, the so-called “white flight”, drug abuse, air pollution, revolutions and, of course, the Vietnam conflict, especially in the verse that refers to the “Eve of destruction” and, at the end “People all over the world, are shoutin’ ‘End the war’. And the band played on”. However, the band didn’t actually take any clear antiwar point of view, for the fear of losing the more conservative listeners. To the question “Where the world’s headed?” the answer is “Nobody knows” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ball_of_Confusion_%28That%27s_What_the_World_Is_Today%29 – http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=14518).
This song is about the events that occurred on the 4th of May 1970 at Kent State University, in Kent, Ohio. Also known as “The Kent State shootings” or “The Kent State Massacre”, that day, while they were protesting, unarmed college students were shot and killed by members of the Ohio National Guard. That was the culmination of 4 days of protests and riots, after the announcement of President Richard Nixon, on April 30, about the “Cambodian Incursion”, that had been launched by United States military. Four students were killed and nine were seriously wounded. The singer-songwriter Neil Young wrote the lyrics of the song after seeing the photos (one of them a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by photojournalism student John Filo) of the incident in “Life” Magazine. The song “Ohio”, by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, was released 10 days after the shootings. As one can easily assume, the song was banned from some AM radio stations, because of the first lyrics referred to Nixon’s administration (“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming“), but received airplay on then-illegal underground FM stations in larger cities and college towns. Inevitably, “Ohio” became a protest anthem as Americans became fed up with the war in Vietnam (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ohio_%28Crosby,_Stills,_Nash_%26_Young_song%29 – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kent_State_shootings – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Filo – http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=1124).
This song was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, for the “Motown” recording label in 1969 and released in the 1970. Eventually, Edwin Starr was chosen as singer, deciding to withhold the Temptations’ version so as not to alienate their fans. Starr didn’t have as big a fan base to offend. The song lyrics are openly against the war (“War, I despise/because it means destruction/of innocent lives”) and “War” became one of the most popular protest songs ever recorded. After the terrorist attacks that occurred on 9/11, 2001 in America, the song was placed on a list of inappropriate titles distributed by Clear Channel Communications, Inc., a media conglomerate company which hold more than 1,200 radio stations. The list is a controversial document called by the media “The 2001 Clear Channel memorandum”, of which Clear Channel always denied the existence (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_%28Edwin_Starr_song%29 – http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=1029 – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_songs_deemed_inappropriate_by_Clear_Channel_following_the_September_11,_2001_attacks).
The conclusion of this research reveals that, even though 40 years have passed since the end of the Vietnam War, many of the themes found in the society of that period are still current in contemporary society, as well as the words of protest, more or less veiled, used in the musical repertory of the period can still be actual if we think about the divisions between social classes, between generations, between cultures and opinions about the utility of armed conflicts. It is hard not to think that every human being, instead of remembering his own history, tends to ignore and forget far too quickly, so that the same problems still plague society. Equally, the battles of youth of that time are quite similar the struggles of young people today and, as in those years, when government opposed protests, even now and also in the future, protests of the youth will continue to be unheeded. It is precisely the case to say, quoting The Temptation’s lyrics, “Where the world’s headed? Nobody Knows“. Or maybe, to conclude with the sentence of one the most celebrated anti-war songs by Bob Dylan, “The answer…is blowing in the wind”.
Cross, Charles R. (2006) Room Full of Mirrors: a Biography of Jimi Hendrix. New York: Hyperion
Førland, T. E. (1992) Bringing It All Back Home or Another Side of Bob Dylan: Midwestern Isolationist. Journal of American Studies.
Arnold, B. (1991) War Music and the American Composer during the Vietnam Era. The Musical Quarterly.
James, D. (1989) The Vietnam War and American Music. Social Text.
Here follows a list of songs of particular interest, referring to the Vietnam War Music Era, based on my own research. They are included in a period of time between 1965 and 1971.
Listen to the playlist “Vietnam: the Rock ‘n’ Roll War” on Deezer: http://www.deezer.com/playlist/852413881
Eve Of Destruction – Barry Mcguire
Hello Vietnam – Johnnie Wright
Nowhere To Run – Martha & Vandellas
We Gotta Get Out Of This Place – The Animals
Wooly Bully – Sam The Sham & Pharaoh
Satisfaction – The Rolling Stones
My Girl – The Temptations
Shotgun – Jr. Walker & All Stars
I Got You Babe – Sonny & Cher
Hang On Sloopy – The Mccoys
Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag – James Brown
The Game Of Love – Wayne Fontana & Mindbenders
The Name Game – Shirley Ellis
Seventh Son – Johnny Rivers
For Your Love – The Yardbirds
California Girls – The Beach Boys
All Day & All Of The Night – The Kinks
Wonderful World – Herman’s Hermits
The Last Time – The Rolling Stones
All I Really Want To Do – Cher
Laugh At Me – Sonny
The Ballad Of The Green Berets – Ssgt. Barry Sadler
Reach Out I’ll Be There – The Four Tops
96 Tears – ? (Question Mark) & Mysterians
California Dreamin’ – The Mamas & Papas
Summer In The City – The Lovin’ Spoonful
These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ – Nancy Sinatra
Good Lovin’ – The Young Rascals
Paint It Black – The Rolling Stones
Wild Thing – The Troggs
Sunny – Bobby Hebb
Devil With A Blue Dress On – Mitch Ryder & Detroit Wheels
Good Vibrations – The Beach Boys
Cool Jerk – The Capitols
Sounds Of Silence – Simon & Garfunkel
Bang Bang – Cher
19th Nervous Breakdown – The Rolling Stones
Wipe Out – The Surfaris
Psychotic Reaction – The Count Five
Gloria – The Shadows Of Knight
Rainy Day Women – Bob Dylan
I Fought The Law – The Bobby Fuller Four
I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die – Country Joe and the Fish
Purple Haze – Jimi Hendrix
All Along the Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix (Bob Dylan)
All You Need Is Love – The Beatles
Magical Mystery Tour – The Beatles
The End – The Doors
The Letter – The Box Tops
Ode To Billie Joe – Bobbie Gentry
Waist Deep in the Big Muddy – Pete Seeger
I’m A Believer – The Monkees
Light My Fire – The Doors
Respect – Aretha Franklin
Soul Man – Sam & Dave
For What It’s Worth – Buffalo Springfield
Somebody To Love – Jefferson Airplane
Jimmy Mack – Martha Reeves & Vandellas
A Whiter Shade Of Pale – Procol Harum
San Francisco – Scott Mckenzie
Friday On My Mind – The Easybeats
Gimme Some Lovin’ – The Spencer Davis Group
Let It Out – The Hombres
Let’s Live For Today – The Grass Roots
Funky Broadway – Wilson Pickett
White Rabbit – Jefferson Airplane
The Beat Goes On – Sonny & Cher
I Can See For Miles – The Who
The Unknown Soldier – The Doors
Happiness Is a Warm Gun – The Beatles
Street Fighting Man – The Rolling Stones
Sunshine Of Your Love – Cream
Mrs. Robinson – Simon & Garfunkel
The War Is Over – Phil Ochs
On the Road Again – Canned Heat
Draft Morning – The Byrds
Tighten Up – Archie Bell & Drells
Dance To The Music – Sly & Family Stone
Born To Be Wild – Steppenwolf
Jumping Jack Flash – The Rolling Stones
Summertime Blues – Blue Cheer
Sky Pilot – Eric Burdon & Animals
Revolution – The Beatles
White Room – Cream
Time Has Come Today – The Chambers Brothers
Say It Loud-I’m Black & I’m Proud – James Brown
Piece Of My Heart – Janis Joplin
Susie Q – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Give Peace a Chance – John Lennon
Fortunate Son – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Ball of Confusion – The Temptation
Gimme Shelter – The Rolling Stone
Sugar Sugar – The Archies
Aquarius/Let The Sunshinshine In – The Fifth Dimension
Reflections of My Life – The Marmalade
Honky Tonk Woman – The Rolling Stones
Crimson & Clover – Tommy James & Shondels
One – Three Dog Night
Hair – The Cowsills
Get Together – The Youngbloods
Suspicious Minds – Elvis Presley
Proud Mary – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Get Back – The Beatles
Do Your Thing – The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band
Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man – The Bob Seger System
Ohio – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
War – Edwin Starr
Machine Gun – Jimi Hendrix
American Woman – The Guess Who
Child in Time – Deep Purple
I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home) – Grand Funk Railroad
I Should Be Proud – Martha & The Vandellas
Get Ready – Rare Earth
Question – The Moody Blues
Thank You – Everybody Is A Star – Sly & Family Stone
Spill The Wine – Eric Burdon & War
Spirit In The Sky – Norman Greenbaum
All Right Now – Free
Venus – The Shocking Blue
Instant Karma (We All Shine On) – John Ono Lennon
Lookin’ Out My Back Door – Creedence Clearwater Revival
House Of The Rising Sun – Frijid Pink
Run Through The Jungle – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Who’ll Stop The Rain – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Mississippi Queen – Mountain
The Letter – Joe Cocker
Woodstock – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Singin’ The Vietnam Talkin’ Blues – Johnny Cash
Cat Stevens – Peace Train
Man in Black – Johnny Cash
Imagine – John Lennon
Riders on the Storm – The Doors
War Pigs – Black Sabbath
Have You Ever Seen the Rain? – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Me & Bobby Mcgee – Janis Joplin
Sam Stone – John Prine
Brown Sugar – The Rolling Stones
Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore – John Prine
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down – Joan Baez
What’s Going On? – Marvin Gaye
Signs – The Five Man Electrical Band
Won’t Get Fooled Again – The Who
Bring The Boys Home – Freda Payne