John Lennon said it best: "All we are saying is give peace a chance." His song sums up the entire mentality of the Anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Other songs by the politically minded musicians of the time convey similar messages. These visionaries spoke out against what they thought was wrong and started an entire movement to change the world. Through their music, they sent out a message of peace and tolerance and taught Americans to be more conscious of the impact of their actions on the world. They helped create awareness of the problems in the Vietnam War by calling out the government, exposing the horrors of war, and demanding a change. Once the movement was underway, their music propelled the movement by defining the anti-war culture, bringing in more protestors, and using music in demonstrations.
Prior to any major involvement from musicians, there were only a few minor demonstrations that occurred in 1963-1964 (Burns 71). After their release, popular protest songs converted more people to the movement. By November 16, 1969, as many as 250,000-300,000 protestors marched down Pennsylvania Avenue while countless others around the country supported the cause (Herbers "250,000"). As artists released more and more protest songs, the movement expanded dramatically. Simply reading and interpreting the lyrics to these protest songs can help to understand the ideas and awareness created by the music, which won over people and made the Anti-Vietnam War movement so powerful.
By definition, protest songs intended to call out the government for its actions. Although these songs did not definitively state their purpose as Anti-Vietnam War, they did set the stage for other protest songs that rallied against the Vietnam War. Bob Dylan released the protest song, "The Times They Are A-Changin’" in 1964 very soon after the United States’ involvement in Vietnam began. His song is one of the first to protest the government’s actions.
Dylan tells the senators and congressmen, who represent government as a whole, not to just stand by and wait for the war to continue, but to take action instead and get U.S. troops out of Vietnam (Dylan). John Fogerty, of Creedence Clearwater Revival, sent a similar message in the song, "Fortunate Son."
Ooh, they're red, white, and blue
And when the band plays "Hail to the Chief"
They point the cannon right at you
It ain't me, it ain't me
I ain't no senator's son
It ain't me, it ain't me
I ain't no fortunate one
Some folks inherit star spangled eyes,
Ooh, they send you down to war
And when you ask them, "How much should we give?"
They only answer "More! More! More!"
In "Fortunate Son," Fogerty challenges the government in a way similar to Bob Dylan in "The Times They Are A-Changin’." Fogerty expresses his rage about America’s mixed up priorities of fighting an unjustified war rather than helping the people who are not "fortunate sons." The instrumentation in the song supports a strong "we’re not going to take it" attitude that makes it even more effective in conveying the song’s message (Fogerty). Other songs of the era, while not explicitly "protest songs," promoted the idea of questioning authority that propelled the protests. The Who’s "My Generation" exemplifies this sort of "subconscious protest song."
Townshend accuses the older generation of being out of touch with his generation and putting his generation down. "I hope I die before I get old," demonstrates Townshend’s contempt for the older generation’s corrupt ways. He also tells the older generation not to try to "dig" what his generation is saying because they’ll never understand. Along with other songs, "My Generation" helped bring in a new era of questioning authority and being innovative instead of doing what the establishment said and being traditional, which was an essential component to the Anti-Vietnam War movements (Townshend).
Other songs released during the "flower power" era painted the picture of war for the American people. They described the effect the war had at home, specific events involving the war, and the violence that occurs in war. Jimmy Cliff recorded the song "Vietnam" to tell the story of a woman, Mrs. Brown, who loses her son in Vietnam; Cliff uses this story to show the people how the war doesn’t just hurt the soldiers but their friends and family back home as well (Cliff).
"Ohio" by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young told the story of the tragedy at Kent State University, Ohio (Young). This incident occurred the weekend after President Richard Nixon made a speech announcing an incursion into Cambodia by U.S. troops on Thursday, April 30, 1970. Students burned the Army ROTC building on their campus when they heard this news. The National Guardsmen that came to the campus claim that students were demonstrating peacefully until they started to throw rocks at the guardsmen. The guardsmen supposedly had to take action for self-defense. The guardsmen killed four students, injured eight others students, and left another student paralyzed. The demonstrations ended on May 4, 1970 (Morrison 329). The song brought this travesty to the attention of the public and secured it as one of the most infamous events related to the Vietnam War.
Many protest songs cried out for change. Artists asked the American people for "peace, love, and understanding." A verse from Edwin Starr’s "War" sums these ideas up very well.
Peace, love and understanding, tell me
Is there no place for them today?
They say we must fight to keep our freedom
But lord knows there’s got to be a better way
Starr’s song is best known for its catchy, obviously anti-war chorus that screams that war is good for nothing. Starr’s fellow Motown artist, Marvin Gaye, wrote "What’s Going On," which was an effective way of telling protesters what to value when they are protesting.
After many protest songs flew to the top of the charts and the movement was underway, the songs themselves and the ideals they taught were applied to the cause itself. Protesters used song lyrics for slogans on banners, picket signs, and chants. The protesters often sang the protest songs as well. At the protests on November 15, 1969, protesters sang John Lennon’s song "Give Peace a Chance," as a way of expressing the need for peace and the end of the Vietnam war (Frankel).
The protest songs defined the culture and mentality of the Anti-Vietnam War movement. It is very evident that songs that called for change and helped to create the "everything is possible" attitude of the era. The musicians that wrote popular protest songs helped in creating a new libertarian, drug experimenting, war protesting counter-culture (Burns 95). This counter-culture became powerful, influential, emerging into what would be the most memorable element of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Some protesters failed to follow the peaceful examples that had been set in the protest songs and caused riots, made mischief, and increased tension between the government and protesters. At President Nixon’s inauguration parade, demonstrators got out of control and threw smoke bombs and stones at Nixon’s car (Franklin "Parade"). The Manson family murders showed us how easily some can manipulate lyrics to justify any behavior and misconstrued the message of the songs. Thousands of other protesters had a peaceful counter-inaugural march during Nixon’s inauguration (Franklin "Counter-Inaugural") but the media’s attention was often diverted to the violent, misbehaving activists.
Music shaped the ideals, magnitude, and direction of the Vietnam War protests of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Artists such as Lennon, Dylan, and Gaye provided a unifying message from a counter-culture intent on urging the U.S. government to pull troops out of Vietnam. Driven by the Anti-War culture, the government ended its involvement in the Vietnam conflict. On January 15, 1973, President Nixon announced progress in peace negotiations and the suspension of offensive action in North Vietnam which was later followed by a unilateral withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. Without the efforts of the musicians and protesters, peace would not have been achieved as rapidly. The legacy of these songs gives Americans a peaceful alternative to hatred and violence.
Burns, Stewart. Social Movements of the 1960’s. New York: Twayne, 1990.
Cliff, Jimmy. "Vietnam." Wonderful World Beautiful People. A&M, 1969.
Dylan, Bob. "The Times They Are A-Changin’" The Times They Are A-Changin’. Sony, 1964.
Fogerty, John. "Fortunate Son." Willy and the Poor Boys. Fantasy, 1969.
Frankel, Max. "Parade Marshals Keep It Cool." New York Times.16 Nov 1969: Frame 11.
Franklin, Ben A. "Thousands of War Foes Stage Counter-Inaugural March Down Pennsylvania Ave." New York Times. 20 Jan 1969: Frame 2.
Franklin, Ben A. "Young Demonstrators at Parade Throw Smoke Bombs and Stones at Nixon’s Car." New York Times. 20 Jan 1969: Frame 3.
Gaye, Marvin. "What’s Going On." What’s Going On. Motown, 1971.
Herbers, John. "250,000 War Protesters Stage Peaceful Rally in Washington; Militants Stir Clashes Later." New York Times. 16 Nov 1969: Frame 13-14.
Lennon, John. "Give Peace A Chance." Boombox, 1969.
Morrison, Joan and Robert K. Morrison. From Camelot to Kent State: The Sixties Experience in the Words of Those Who Lived It. New York: Times Books, 1987.
Starr, Edwin. "War." Motown, 1970.
Townshend, Peter. "My Generation." My Generation. MCA, 1965.
Young, Neil. "Ohio." Four Way Street. Atlantic, 1970.