By Anne Meisenzahl and Roger Peace
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.
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.
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 folksinger Pete Seeger and an avant garde rock group called The Fugs who played a raunchy satire, “Kill for Peace.” Barbara Dane coordinated 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. 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.” 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 culture and military units, 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.
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.
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….
(listed alphabetically by performer)
, “Song for David
” (1969). A tribute to her husband, David Harris, later imprisoned for resisting the draft.
, “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.”
, “Draft Morning
” (1968). “Leave my bed to kill instead. Why should it happen?”
, “It Better End Soon
” (1970). “They’re killing everybody…. They’re ruining this world for you and me.”
” (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
” (1970). “Four dead in Ohio.”
” (1970) – adapted from Joni Mitchell’s original.
, “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.”
, “Readjustment Blues
” (1971). “I never thought I’d see so many people saying ‘We don’t want your war.’
, “Simple song of freedom
” (1969, first recorded by Tim Hardin). “We the people here don’t want a war.”
(written by Buffy Sainte Marie), “Universal Soldier
” (1966). “This is not the way we put the end to war.”
, “The Unknown Soldier
” (1968). “Bullet strikes the helmet’s head. And it’s all over for the unknown soldier.”
, “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.”
, “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.”
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.”
(cast), “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In
” (1967) – a tragic 6 1/2 minute video about a young man forced to go to war and an imagined victory for peace in the end. “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?”
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.”
J. B. Lenoir
, “Vietnam Blues
” (~1965). “Oh God if you can hear my prayer now, please help my brothers over in Vietnam.”
” (1972). “Have you ever seen a ruined land?”
Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter
, “One Tin Soldier
” (1969). General antiwar.
, “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.
” (October 9, 1970 concert).
The Moody Blues, “Question” (1970).
________, “One More Parade
” (1964). “So willing to go and die upon a foreign shore.”
________, “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 . . .”
, “Karen’s Song
” (1970). “Little boys go off to war and never return again.”
” (1965). [Lyrics only.]
Cat Stevens (Yusuf)
, “Peace Train
” (1971). See an inspiring 2021 remake with a global cast here
. “Oh I’ve been smiling lately, dreaming about the world as one, and I believe it could be, some day it’s going to come.”
, “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.”
” (1971). “Hey, bring our brothers home.”
The Smothers Brothers & George Segal
, “Draft Dodger Rag
,” Phil Ochs performed this song for millions on national television (1968).
” (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.”
, “Vietcong Blues
” (1966). “The mothers, all the wives, all the fathers, that have sons, in Vietnam, you hear me? This is for you.”
* * * * * * * * *
H. Bruce Franklin, Vietnam War in American Stories, Songs, and Poems
(Boston: Bedford Books, 1996), p. 204.
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.
Phil Ochs, “Have Faith, The War Is Over,” Los Angeles Free Press
, June 16–22, 1967.