Anti-War Songs--Vietnam Era

What this is (as of right now, but who knows?)

This is an outline for a 9-week interdisciplinary class. I'm aiming it at the late high school level. It will live here until I have a reason to put it up in Google Classroom for actual students to use. No idea when that might be

Oppose the War? Not even on the Radar

American "folk singers" already had a long tradition of kicking against the "establishment" One of the most familiar anthems was Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" 
Seeger's protest of young men going to graveyards because of war largely fell on deaf ears. In an optimistic era of prosperity, a thriving Middle Class valued conformity. Further, support of military action was a point of patriotic pride since the majority of adult men had already served in either WWII or the Korean War.
NOTE: Read the description that goes with this video on YouTube. It gives more background on Seeger's activism.

Possible discussion points: Can you think of any groups of people who you might consider "weird"--people whose opinions you automatically brush off? What is it about them that leads you to that opinion? What might that say about you? How open are you to new and/or different information? 



Sneaking it In


1963 was only 9 years after the end of the Korean War. President JFK escalated the crisis in Vietnam between 61-63, a move that was popular among "patriotic" Americans. The song, Blowin' in the Wind was written by Bob Dylan, but Dylan himself (like Pete Seeger, above) was too far from "mainstream" to get much mileage out of the protest. Folkies Peter Paul and Mary, however, were popular with a wide range of audiences. Their rebuke of the war through Dylan's song "pussyfooted it" into the consciousness of the American public. It was subtle. It had to be.

Possible discussion points: It has been said that society embraces conformity under two conditions. First, prosperity. When things are going well, people don't want to do anything that might threaten that. The other is the exact opposite--when things are miserable, people can be reluctant to do anything that might make things even worse. In the prosperity of post-war America, the pressure to conform was enormous. Under what circumstances have you felt pressure to go along with the mainstream?



Changing Times


By the next year (1964) however, Dylan was in the popular spotlight. "The Times They Are A-Changin'" is often viewed as a reflection of the generation gap and of the political divide marking American culture in the 1960s. Dylan said, "I can't really say that adults don't understand young people any more than you can say big fishes don't understand little fishes. I didn't mean "The Times They Are a-Changin'" as a statement … It's a feeling." The feeling was evidently accurate. The times were about to change drastically--in both the musical and political spheres. By the next year, Dylan, the darling of the folk music crowd, would be booed at the Newport Folk Festival for using electric guitars. The political winds took longer to shift, but shift they would--driven in part by musicians wielding electric instruments.

Possible discussion points: How does change happen in society? Does it happen all at once or is it a gradual process? What effect does even a small change have on seemingly unrelated matters? Is it possible for one thing to change while everything else stays the same?




That Girl Doesn't Look Like Lesley Gore

and Yes, you need to look that one up. And remember it for the "Women's Liberation" class.

1964 also saw the release of Buffy St. Marie's "Universal Soldier." In 1963, St. Marie witnessed wounded soldiers returning from the Vietnam War at a time when the U.S. government was denying involvement– which inspired her protest song, "Universal Soldier," released on her debut album in 1964. The song later became a hit for Britain's Donovan. She was subsequently named Billboard Magazine's Best New Artist--quite a visible honor for a counterculture newcomer. That award usually went to more commercially viable (and "prettier") artists from big-label record companies.

Possible discussion points: St. Marie's song point the finger at the individual soldier. At the time, most of the US military was made up of draftees, not volunteers. Each had to make their own choice that there was either no choice or the choice to flee the country or go to prison. There were massive protests against the Draft that paralleled protests against the War. Even today, when the US Military is entirely volunteer, a percentage of those volunteers may feel that they have no choice but to join due to economic or educational realities. In the meantime, politicians still make decisions on military action. Can you be pro-soldier and anti-war? 



Eve of Destruction / Dawn of Protests


The best-known recording of "Eve of Destruction" was by Barry McGuire, another folk singer (The New Christy Minstrels). This recording was made between July 12 and July 15, 1965. The vocal track was thrown on as a rough mix and was not intended to be the final version, but a copy of the recording "leaked" out to a radio DJ who began playing it.  Public opinion was beginning to turn against the war and it was a good financial move. Read that last sentence again. It turned out to be a very good financial move. The song was an instant hit and as a result, the more polished vocal track that was at first envisioned was never recorded. McGuire was a folkie, rock bands still not getting involved with political statements. "Eve of Destruction" knocked the Beatles' "Help" from the number one spot on the charts. Rock and Roll musicians and promoters definitely noticed.

Possible discussion points:



Sarcasm and Satire Enter the Fray

John Lennon of the Beatles was quoted, “When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you – pull your beard, flick your face – to make you fight. Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor.” While non-violence had been widely used in Civil Rights protests, the use of humor was new to the activism arena. Country Joe and the Fish used sarcastic lyrics with an "upbeat" tune to point out the ridiculousness of war. (1967) Yes, I picked a clip without the famous "Fish Cheer." I'm saving that for a "Free Speech" unit. If you look it up for yourself, please note that it was completely and utterly shocking at the time. Also a LOT of fun.
Possible discussion points:


Labels Get Fuzzy / Lines Start to Blur


Though not a musician, Abbie Hoffman was the first (and maybe the finest) showman-activist. One of his "stunts" involved calling a press conference before a planned protest to tell reporters that the gathering was going to involve meditation to levitate the Pentagon. His tactics illustrated the growing overlap between entertainers and activists—something previously unheard of. 

Possible discussion points:



Musical Superstars Playing it Safe Politically 


Also in 1967, the Beatles released “All You Need is Love.” It echoed the hippie philosophy of make-love-not-war without directly confronting the War. The Beatles were the most successful musical entity in the world. Their manager, Brian Epstein, was a very savvy businessman. Although the individual Beatles had their own opinions of the Vietnam War, Epstein surely saw the downside of alienating Americans. He was probably remembering the fallout from John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” statement from the previous year. Love was fine, and it wasn’t nearly as controversial as the War.

More about the Jesus controversy from Rolling Stone Magazine

Possible discussion points:



Control Issues

Following Epstein’s death in August of 1967, the Beatles got more public with their politics—especially John Lennon. “Revolution” was released in 1968. Although the song couldn’t be described as particularly radical, it was nonetheless a departure from the “safe” position that the Beatles previously held. It was also around this time that musicians began demanding creative control from recording companies and managers no longer micromanaged every aspect of a performer's public and personal life.

Possible discussion points:



Those Other Brits, Though

Other British artists weren't as subtle. In 1968 Keith Emerson of Nice burned an American flag in protest during a performance of their rocked-out interpretation of Leonard Bernstein’s "America." International protests were not well received by some Americans, to say the least. Some felt that “foreigners” should keep their noses out of American business. Others welcomed the additional pressure on stateside leaders. The word that the media used to describe the division in public opinion was “polarization.”


Class: War Within a War

The 1969 song, “Fortunate Son” references rich people who orchestrate wars and then draft the poor to fight in them. The song’s lyrics remained controversial as late as November of 2014.
Read about the controversy from Rolling Stone Magazine 

Possible discussion points:



“War” Edwin Starr (1969) was another illustration of the hesitancy of music business interests being unwilling to take on the establishment. the song was originally recorded by The Temptations, a popular R&B group. It was a popular album cut, with fans begging for it to be released as a single. But the Temptations hesitated, fearing possible backlash from conservatives. Ultimately, the song was given to Starr, a lesser known singer in the Motown stable. The irony is that this is arguably the most well-known anti-war song of all time, featured in at least 20 movies, television shows, and other popular culture platforms.

bonus article: from U Discover Music



Even 49 years later (writing this August 2019), I can’t process the emotions I felt after the shooting deaths of four Kent State University students on May 4, 1970. I was 17 years old and a Senior in high school. Horror, betrayal, fear, mistrust.
 For background on the event, please go to this article.

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young released “Ohio” backed with “Find the Cost of Freedom” that June. Read about the making of the songs here and pay special attention to Neil Young’s musing on the irony of capitalizing on the deaths of the four students.






“Lucky Man,” by Emerson, Lake and Palmer charted in both 1970 and 1973 in the United States. At first, it might seem odd that the same song would chart three years apart, but the events surrounding those years make it more likely. The “story” of the song concerns a man who dies in the “service of his country and king.”  As previously mentioned, 1970 was the year that opponents of the War in Vietnam began to outnumber those who supported it. It was also the first year of the Nixon administration’s policy of Vietnamization—gradually turning the war operations over to the Vietnamese while withdrawing increasing numbers of American troops—but in 1973, Americans were still dying there.  The US did not completely withdraw from Vietnam until 1975.

The first version of Lucky Man was originally written by Greg Lake as a 12 year old child with his first guitar. Oddly enough, Lake described it as a type of medieval folk ballad, bringing the antiwar song full circle back to its folk roots.  As an interesting side note, ELP also used this “folk” song to introduce an instrument even more advanced than the electric guitar that earned Bob Dylan boos at Newport—the Moog Synthesizer. The times, evidently, were always meant to be a-changin’ 






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