Protest Music of the Vietnam War

Joan Baez in Trafalgar Square, London, May 29, 1965

In the early 1960s, before the antiwar movement gained a measure of popularity, folk singers Peter, Paul, and Mary (Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey, and Mary Travers), Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, and others spread the antiwar message through their music.  “Some of the first organized activities against the Vietnam War centered on the singing of songs at concerts, in clubs, and on campuses,” notes the historian H. Bruce Franklin.[1] 

Phil Ochs, born in 1940, became the most successful male singer-songwriter in the 1964-65 period.  His songs included “Talking Vietnam” (1964), a lampoon of official rationales for the war, “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore” (1965), and “Draft Dodger Rag” (1966), a humorous satire on avoiding the draft.  Pete Seeger toured the country, performing antiwar ballads at myriad concerts and festivals. His songs included “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” (1962), “If You Love Your Uncle Sam, Bring ‘Em Home” (1966), and “Ballad of the Fort Hood Three” (1966), a homage to three war resisters in the military.  Ochs, Seeger, and other folk singers essentially provided teach-ins on the war.

Tom Paxton

At the first major antiwar rally in Washington in April 1965, Judy Collins sang Bob Dylan’s “The Times They are A-Changin,’” and Joan Baez led “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the civil rights movement.  That year, Malvina Reynolds wrote and sang “Napalm” (1965), which contributed to the anti-napalm campaign.  It began, “Lucy Baines [Johnson], did you ever see that napalm?  Did you ever see a baby hit with napalm?” Tom Paxton highlighted President Johnson’s deceptions with his popular, catchy, sing-along, “Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation” (1965):

I got a letter from LBJ. It said, “This is your lucky day.
It’s time to put your khaki trousers on.
Though it may seem very queer, we’ve got no jobs to give you here
So we are sending you to Vietnam.”
Lyndon Johnson told the nation, “Have no fear of escalation,
I am trying everyone to please.”
Though it isn’t really war, we’re sending fifty thousand more
To help save Vietnam from the Vietnamese.
One of the first large antiwar concerts took place at Carnegie Hall, New York City, on September 24, 1965.  Billed as a “Sing-In for-Peace,” sixty performers entertained and led songs for an audience of 4,600.  The performers included folksingers Pete Seeger and Barbara Dane, and an avant garde rock group called The Fugs who played a raunchy satire, “Kill for Peace.” Dane, a coordinator of the event, and Irwin Silber, editor of Sing Out! magazine, later published The Vietnam Songbook (1969), a historic collection of antiwar lyrics.  Dane also toured GI coffee houses near army bases across the U.S., leading to her 1970 album, FTA! [Free the Army] Songs of the GI Resistance Sung by Barbara Dane with Active-Duty GIs, which was recorded with GI choruses at Fort Hood, Fort Benning, and Fort Bragg.[2]
Ochs continued to perform at anti-war rallies and concerts throughout the country, including a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall in 1966. Inspired by the poet Allen Ginsberg’s idea that our way of thinking contributed to the continuation of war, Ochs organized a concert called “War is Over” in Los Angeles on June 23, 1967.
In publicizing the event, Ochs wrote in the Los Angeles Free Press: “Is everybody sick of this stinking war?  In that case, friends, do what I and thousands of other Americans have done – declare the war over.”[3]  His song, “The War Is Over,” was the centerpiece of the rally.  Ochs performed the song again before 150,000 demonstrators at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on October 21, 1967, and at another rally in New York on November 26.  He organized a final “War Is Over” rally in New York’s Central Park on May 11, 1975.
As the hippie counterculture seeped into the mainstream – and military – culture, Tom Paxton imagined a GI company sitting down with an “enemy” company and getting stoned together in “Talking Vietnam Potluck Blues” (1968).  Another sardonic song, “The I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” recorded by Country Joe McDonald in 1966, became an anthem of sorts for the antiwar movement and was sung at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969.

Freda Payne

Some songs expressed grief over the death of soldiers, such as Willie Nelson’s “Jimmy’s Road” (1965); and beyond grief, the futility of war, such as Tom Paxton’s “Jimmy Newman” (1969).  The Animals’ hit song, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (1965), was not intended as an antiwar song but nonetheless became a theme song for U.S. soldiers in Vietnam longing to go home.  Other songs expressed the heartache of those at home, with a subtext of protest, such as Freda Payne’s melodious “Bring the Boys Home” (1971) and Martha and the Vandellas’s “I Should Be Proud” (1970):

And they say that I should be proud; he was keepin’ me free.
They say that I should be proud, those too blind to see.
But he wasn’t fightin’ for me
My Johnny didn’t have to die for me.
He was fightin’ for the evils of society.
Heavy metal protest songs gave vent to emotion, the lyrics barely decipherable amidst the throbbing instrumental beat, but still carried the movement’s antiwar orientation into the mainstream culture.  Jimmy Hendrix’s distorted, screaming guitar rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” (1968) was played, not as a patriotic anthem, but as a reflection of the violence done in the name of the flag.  Commercial radio stations were generally averse to playing music with controversial lyrics, but the popularity of the antiwar movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s allowed for the airing of general antiwar themes.  Among the hit songs were Edwin Starr’s “War!” (1969) and Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Ohio” (1970), which captured the nation’s grief over the killing of students at Kent State, and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” (1971).

Cast of the musical “Hair”

Protests against the war furthermore paved the way for imagining a better world, one in which people cared for each another and lived in peace.  The musical and movie “Hair” contrasted the death culture of the Vietnam War with an idealized hippie culture of peace.  The song “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” peaked at number one on the pop charts for six weeks in the spring of 1969.  In “Woodstock,” (1970), Joni Mitchell celebrated the coming together of young people creating a new order: “And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” John Lennon’s “Imagine” (1971) envisioned a world in which hunger and division have ended.

Imagine there’s no countries.  It isn’t hard to do.  Nothing to kill or die for.  And no religion, too.  Imagine all the people living life in peace.  You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.  I hope someday you’ll join us.  And the world will be as one.  Imagine no possessions.  I wonder if you can. No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man.  Imagine all the people.  Sharing all the world.

Antiwar Songs

(listed alphabetically by performer)

Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth” (1967). “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear. There’s a man with a gun over there, telling me I got to beware.”
The Byrds, “Draft Morning” (1968). “Leave my bed to kill instead. Why should it happen?”
Chad Mitchell Trio, “Business Goes on as Usual” (1965). “Except that my brother is dead.”
Chicago, “It Better End Soon” (1970). “They’re killing everybody…. They’re ruining this world for you and me.”
Jimmy Cliff, “Vietnam” (1969). “Yesterday I got a letter from my friend fighting in Vietnam.”
Country Joe McDonald (Country Joe and the Fish), The I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” (1967). “And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for? Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn. Next stop is Vietnam. And it’s five, six, seven, open up the pearly gates. Well there ain’t no time to wonder why. Whoopee! we’re all gonna die.
________, “Super Bird” (1967). “Said come out, Lyndon, with your hands held high. Drop your guns, baby, and reach for the sky. I’ve got you surrounded and you ain’t got a chance. Gonna send you back to Texas, make you work on your ranch.”

Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young at Woodstock, 1969

Crosby, Stills & Nash, “Wooden Ships” (1969). “I can see by your coat, my friend, you’re from the other side. There’s just one thing I got to know. Can you tell me please, who won?”

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “Ohio” (1970). “Four dead in Ohio.”
Barbara Dane, “Ballad of the Unknown Soldier” (1966). “I wonder if his children understood the reason why, of the way he had to fight, and the way he had to die.”
Bill Danoff, “Readjustment Blues” (1971). “I never thought I’d see so many people saying ‘We don’t want your war.’
Boudewijn de Groot, “Welterusten meneer de president (Sleep Well, Mr. President)” (1966). “Don’t dream too much about all those who have died. Instead, dream of victory and strength! Don’t think about the wishes for peace. Good night, Mr. President.”
Donovan (written by Buffy Sainte Marie), “Universal Soldier” (1966). “This is not the way we put the end to war.”
________, “The War Drags On” (1965).
The Doors, “The Unknown Soldier” (1968). “Bullet strikes the helmet’s head. And it’s all over for the unknown soldier.”
Bob Dylan, “Masters of War” (1963). “Come you masters of war. You that build all the guns. You that build the death planes. You that build all the bombs. You that hide behind walls. You that hide behind desks. I just want you to know. I can see through your masks.”
Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On” (1971). “You see, war is not the answer. For only love can conquer hate. You know we’ve got to find a way to bring some lovin’ here today.”
Steve Goodman, “Ballad of Penny Evans” (1971). “A young widow in the war that was fought in Vietnam.”
Grand Funk Railroad, “People, Let’s Stop the War” (1971).
Hair musical (cast), “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” (1967). “Harmony and understanding. Sympathy and trust abounding. No more falsehoods or derisions, golden living dreams of visions. Mystic crystal revelation and the mind’s true liberation. Aquarius!”

Richie Havens at Woodstock

Richie Havens, “Handsome Johnny” (1967). “Hey, look yonder, tell me what’s that you see, marching to the fields of Concord?”

Jimi Hendrix, “Star Spangled Banner” (1968).
John Lee Hooker, “I Don’t Wanna Go to Vietnam” (1968).
Tommy James and the Shondells, “Sweet Cherry Wine” (1969). “Oh, yeah, yesterday my friends were marching out to war. Oh, yeah, listen, now, we ain’t a-marching anymore. No, we ain’t going to fight, only God has the right. To decide who’s to live and die.”
John Lennon, “Imagine” (1971).
J. B. Lenoir, “Vietnam Blues” (~1965). “Oh God if you can hear my prayer now, please help my brothers over in Vietnam.”
Paul Kaplan, “Vietnam” (1972). “Have you ever seen a ruined land?”
Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, “One Tin Soldier” (1969). General antiwar.
Gordon Lightfoot, “Sit Down Young Stranger” (1970). “That war is not the answer. That young men should not die. Sit down young stranger. I wait for your reply.
Martha and the Vandellas, “I Should Be Proud” (1970).
Barry McGuire and P. F. Sloan, “Eve of Destruction” (1965). General antiwar.
Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “Woodstock” (1970).

Phil Ochs

The Moody Blues, “Question” (1970).

Willie Nelson, “Jimmy’s Road” (1965).

Phil Ochs, “Vietnam” (1962).

________, “What are you fighting for?” (1963). “Oh, I know you’re set for fighting, but what are you fighting for?”
________, “Talkin’ Vietnam” (1964).
________, “One More Parade” (1964). “So willing to go and die upon a foreign shore.”
________, “The Men Behind the Guns” (1965).
________, White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land” (1965). “For the killing of a soldier is the murder of a man.”
________, “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” (1965). “It’s always the old to lead us into war. It’s always the young to fall.”
________, “We Seek No Wider War” (1965). “And the greater the victory the greater the shame of the nation …”
________, “Draft Dodger Rag” (1966). “Oh, I’m just a typical American boy from a typical American town. I believe in God and Senator Dodd and a-keepin’ old Castro down. And when it came my time to serve I knew ‘better dead than red.’ But when I got to my old draft board, buddy, this is what I said . . .”
________, “War is Over” (1968).
Freda Payne, “Bring the Boys Home” (1971).

Peter, Paul and Mary

Tom Paxton, “Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation” (1965). “I got a letter from LBJ.”

________, “My Son John” (1966).
________, “Talking Vietnam Potluck Blues” (1968).
________, “Jimmy Newman” (1969).
Peter, Paul, and Mary, “The Great Mandala” (1967).
The Plastic Ono Band, “Give Peace a Chance” (1969).
________, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” (1971).
Podipto, “Karen’s Song” (1970). “Little boys go off to war and never return again.”
John Prine, “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore” (1971). “But your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore. They’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war.”
Malvina Reynolds, “Napalm” (1965). [Lyrics only.]
Rolling Stones, “Gimme Shelter” (1969). “War, children, it’s just a shot away It’s just a shot away. Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away. It’s just a shot away.”
Buffy Sainte-Marie, “Moratorium” (1971). “Hey, bring our brothers home.”

Pete Seeger in Washington

Pete Seeger, “Bring Them Home” (1966).

________, “Ballad of the Fort Hood Three” (1966).
________, “Last Train to Nuremberg” (1970).
The Bob Seger System, “2 + 2 = ?” (1968).
Ringo Starr, “Silent Homecoming” (1970).
Edwin Starr, “War” (1970). “War, whoa, lord. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Listen to me. It ain’t nothing but a heart-breaker, friend only to the undertaker. Oh, war, it’s an enemy to all mankind. The point of war blows my mind.”
Steppenwolf, “Draft Resister” (1970).
Gene Stridel, “What Do You Win When You Win a War” (1971).
Junior Wells, “Vietcong Blues” (1966). “The mothers, all the wives, all the fathers, that have sons, in Vietnam, you hear me? This is for you.”
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ENDNOTES
[1] H. Bruce Franklin, Vietnam War in American Stories, Songs, and Poems (Boston: Bedford Books, 1996), p. 204.
[2] Ibid., and James E. Perone, Music of the Counterculture Era (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004), pp. 39-41.  See also, Ronald D. Cohen, “Peace Songs of the 1950s,” Smithsonian Folkways Magazine,” Spring/Summer 2013, http://www.folkways.si.edu/magazine-spring-summer-2013-peace-songs-1960s/struggle-and-protest-american-history-folk/music/article/smithsonian.
[3] Phil Ochs, “Have Faith, The War Is Over,” Los Angeles Free Press, June 16–22, 1967.