Protest music artists
Music has always kept company with American wars. During the Revolutionary War, “Yankee Doodle” and many other songs set to reels and dances were sung to keep spirits alive during dark hours. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic, ” Lincoln’s favorite song during the Civil War, was countered by “Dixie” in the Confederate States. In 1918, in the middle of World War I, Irving Berlin gave us “God Bless America, ” considered by many to be the unofficial anthem of the United States. Composers such as Marc Blitzstein and Samuel Barber were enlisted to write upbeat songs for the Office of War Information during World War II.
But wars also create their unique antagonists who transform their empathy, concern, anger, and other emotions into poetry, prose, or in our time, popular music. This was particularly true of the war in Vietnam. Given this era’s unique historical circumstances, the musical soundscape to the Vietnam War was strikingly different from the music that accompanied World War II. While there were patriotic songs that did very well, most notably Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler’s million-selling number-one hit “Ballad of the Green Berets” in 1966 and Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” in 1969, the vast majority of Vietnam War songs fell into the category of anti- rather than pro-war songs.
American involvement in Vietnam had evolved through the United States’ support of French colonial rule after World War II. The United States saw the anti-communist Viet Diem and his regime as a “proving ground for Democracy, ” in the words of then US senator from Massachusetts John F. Kennedy. After being elected president in 1960, Kennedy increased military aid. By the time of his assassination in November 1963, there were 16, 000 American military personnel stationed in Vietnam.
Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s vice president and successor, escalated American involvement in Vietnam throughout 1964 and 1965. By early 1968 there were 550, 000 combat troops in Vietnam and rising casualties with no end in sight. The anti-war movement, and the anti-war music, that ran parallel to the increasingly large numbers of young men drafted into the Army was also rooted in broader changes that were taking place in America.
The soldiers drafted to fight in Vietnam were born during the massive baby boom that began in 1946, following the victory of World War II. By 1960 the number of undergraduates in colleges and universities had doubled in twenty years to 3.6 million young men and women. And by 1964, seventeen-year-olds were the largest age cohort in the United States.
Rock and roll, fully born in the 1950s, and called “noise” by parents, turned millions of these young people toward this exotic and transformative new art. Along with sexual experimentation and the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement in the South, it created a youth culture that shared the black writer James Baldwin’s insight: “The American equation of success with the big times reveals an awful disrespect for human life and human achievement.” Youth “counterculture” carved out new spaces for experimentation and alternative views about what constituted a good society, while a New Left made up of civil rights and anti-war activists developed as the war in Vietnam dragged out and became increasingly bloody, confounding, and ultimately unpopular.
This was the context in which popular music in general, and certainly anti-war music specifically, became a space for cultural and political conflict and dialog, and at times a product and resource for broad movement against the war. The Vietnam War was accompanied every step of the way by an anti-war soundtrack that touched on every tone—melancholy and touching, enraged and sarcastic, fearful and resigned—and that captured the long demoralizing impact of this war. And like the anti-war movement itself, it began without a significant audience in the early sixties, but grew to a critical mass by the war’s termination.
Bob Dylan opened up that cultural space for an oppositional voice to the Vietnam War during the first half of the 1960s. Initially connected to a folk music revival that was simultaneously a political and cultural phenomena—an attempt at a kind of singing mass movement as the scholar Richard Flacks described it—Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War” in 1962, the latter as venomous, and self-righteous an indictment of militarism as popular music had seen.
You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
You put a gun in my hand