Songs against war
The soundtrack of protests in the Vietnam era
Many were gentle calls for peace. Others addressed specific events. Some were diatribes against those with opposing political views. Here are 10 of the greatest.
“Blowin’ in the Wind,” Bob Dylan (1963)
Recorded a couple years before the first U.S. combat troops arrived in Vietnam, “Blowin’ in the Wind” became the most influential protest song of the 1960s. The young folk singer with the ancient voice asks a series of rhetorical questions, none more prescient than: “How many times must the cannonballs fly before they’re forever banned?” “Blowin’ in the Wind” first appeared in May 1963 on Dylan’s breakthrough “Freewheelin’” album. Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of the song reached No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart that summer, with Stevie Wonder’s Motown makeover becoming a Top 10 hit in ’66.
“Universal Soldier,” Buffy Sainte-Marie (1964)
Native Canadian singer-songwriter Sainte-Marie also penned her anti-war anthem in the early 1960s, for her masterful debut album “It’s My Way!” The sentiment of the “universal soldier” who “really is to blame” didn’t go unnoticed, and a few months after American combat troops arrived in Vietnam Donovan released a version that went Top 5 in the U.K. Glen Campbell also had a minor U.S. hit with the song in 1965.
“I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” Phil Ochs (1966)
Featuring the unforgettable line “It’s always the old who lead us to the war, it’s always the young to fall,” the rollicking tune manages in just over two and a half minutes to condemn virtually every war America had fought since 1812. When Ochs performed his song during the protests outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention it reportedly prompted hundreds of young men to destroy their draft cards.
“Backlash Blues,” Nina Simone (1967)
A gifted singer, songwriter and pianist, Simone became a civil rights hero with her self-penned anthem “Mississippi Goddam” a few years before composing “Backlash Blues,” based on a poem by her friend Langston Hughes. “You raise my taxes, freeze my wages, and send my son to Vietnam,” Simone intones, her contralto a nuanced mix of disgust and determination, delivered over a gritty shuffle marked by slashing electric guitar and striking harmonica. The song appears on her excellent album “Nina Simone Sings the Blues.”
“Draft Morning,” The Byrds (1968)
The Byrds took a psychedelic approach to David Crosby’s “Draft Morning,” which features the sweet harmonized vocals of Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn on devastating lines such as: “Today was the day for action, leave my bed to kill instead, why should it happen?” The song follows a recruited soldier from “draft morning” to the horrors of combat, which are conveyed with the sounds of gunfire, explosions and muffled shouts.
“Fortunate Son,” Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)
Chief songwriter, singer and lead guitarist of CCR, John Fogerty wrote many inspired rockers during the height of the Vietnam War. None, though, strike a chord like “Fortunate Son.” Fogerty penned it in anger while thinking about all the working-class boys sent to fight while the scions of powerful businessmen and politicians enjoyed exemptions and deferments. In 2015, Fogerty recalled: “So this was all boiling inside of me and I sat down on the edge of my bed and out came ‘It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son!’”
“Okie from Muskogee,” Merle Haggard (1969)
Haggard’s self-penned country mega-hit depicts the perspective of Nixon’s silent majority, protesting the actions of the anti-war counterculture with lines such as the opener, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee.” It’s difficult to determine, though, just how serious Hag was about the antihippie message. The song “is so tongue-in-cheek and so absolute at the same time, people didn’t know how to take it, and they still don’t and I’m still wondering myself,” Haggard told me in 2002. “It was really just more about my father’s point of view. He was really the ‘Okie from Muskogee.’”
“War,” Edwin Starr (1970)
Hard-hitting funk at its finest, this song offers a direct response to the lives being lost in Vietnam: “War, huh! Yeah! What is it good for? Absolutely, nothing!” Originally recorded in a tamer manner by The Temptations, Starr gave the song the James Brown-style grunt and shout treatment the lyrics warranted. Fifteen years later, Bruce Springsteen started performing the song in concert and made it the first single off his multi-million selling box set “Live/1975–85.”
“Ohio,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (1970)
The terrors of the Vietnam War hit home like never before on May 4, 1970, when unarmed Kent State students were shot — four fatally — by members of the Ohio National Guard during a protest against the U.S. bombing of Cambodia. Neil Young responded with a grunge-y guitar riff leading into the chilling: “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, we’re finally on our own / This summer I hear the drumming, four dead in Ohio.” Young’s song, released as a single mere weeks after the tragedy, remains as indelible as John Filo’s Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph of the girl kneeling over the young man fatally shot by the guardsmen.
“What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye (1971)
Inspired by police brutality witnessed by his co-songwriters and conversations with his own brother who served in the Vietnam War, Gaye broke with Motown tradition and self-produced the most gorgeous protest song ever recorded. We hear lighthearted party chatter followed by a short, sweet sax solo and then comes that famously sexy tenor of so many hit love songs singing something completely different: “Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying / Brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying.” The single became an instant hit, paving the way for Gaye’s masterpiece album of the same name about a Vietnam veteran returning home to find his country mired in racism, poverty, drug abuse and pollution.
Wade Tatangelo is entertainment editor for the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune.