Music and the Vietnam War
Some of the 20th Century’s most defining pop music emerged from the period in which the Vietnam war was fought. Music helped raise awareness for the atrocities that were occurring across the country, but also to inform soldiers in Vietnam of their wrongdoings. For warriors across time, there have always been tunes to march to, and tunes to defuse tension, however, Vietnam was so, so different.
In December 1961, under President John F. Kennedy, the US had 3,205 military personnel stationed in Vietnam. By the end of the 1960s, America had over two million soldiers stationed in Vietnam. The result of America’s involvement left the country completely divided, with demonstrations taking place for and against on the streets, whilst many documented their opinions through the medium of music. Billboard magazine reported on the 4th June 1966 that no war in history had ever evoked such a diverse range of music. Moreover, 50 years later, over 5,000 songs have been recorded about the war, forming an international conversation regarding a horrific conflict that tore apart any sense of morality, with a total disregard for politics, society, and culture.
The war’s early stages saw protest songs voicing the concerns of minorities, with the majority of the songs articulating the reluctance to even be drafted into combat. However, it soon became apparent that they would have no choice but to fight. Fewer than 80 American deaths were recorded between 1956 and 1962, compared to over 16,000 in 1968 alone. With the increased inclusion of American citizens being drafted in, the government decided that a brilliant way to improve morale on the battlefield would be to assign radios, portable record players, and early cassette players to the soldiers. This idea would heavily backfire. Doug Bradley, who was drafted into the American army in 1970 explains: “There was silence in the field, but in the rear, there was music everywhere. It was the same music that your non-soldier peers were listening to in America, so it was a shared soundtrack.”
However, rather than being a shared soundtrack that would promote inclusivity and togetherness, it proved to work in the polar opposite direction, songs were able to express the feelings of anger and confusion. Much of popular music in the 1960s acted as another means of protest for an audience that was against the Vietnam War. Several now influential music artists used their talents to appeal to a wide audience that was anti-war. Protest music is evident through Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance,” and Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” to name but a few.
Many took to live performances and speeches to voice their concerns over America’s unhealthy involvement in Vietnam. On 30th April 1967, a certain Martin Luther King Jr delivered a speech titled ‘Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam’ at the Riverside Church in New York, later released by a subsidiary of Motown Records. King pressed upon the relationship between Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement, firmly expressing the ‘cruel irony of watching black and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same school room.’ King was not the first person to express this view. Nina Simone released ‘Backlash Blues in March 1967:
“You send my son to Vietnam
You give me second-class houses and second-class schools
Do you think that all the coloured folks are just second-class fools?”
In addition to this, the August 1969 Woodstock Music festival is quoted as the most influential musical event that promoted the message of peace towards the end of the decade. The festival attracted over 400,000 people, and an eclectic variety of rockstars. Perhaps the most notable performance came from Hall of Fame legend, Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix was a veteran of the Vietnam war, so knew first hand the damages that America was causing to the Vietnamese society and landscapes. Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of America’s national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner” lives long in the memory of many.
The August 17th performance lasted just under five minutes, with the end result being a remarkably realistic imitation of several war sounds, including machine gunfire and explosions. By getting his anti-war message out through the magical and unique manipulation of his guitar, Hendrix appealed to the thousands of concert-goers who came together for peace.
1973 saw the emergence of the peace agreement and the fall of Saigon, but the music concerning the Vietnam War was persistent. For many soldiers returning to America, the nightmare was only just beginning. Many American songs of this period focused on returning prisoners of War. Funkadelic, an American Psychedelic Rock band spoke about this issue in their song “March to the Witch’s Castle”:
“February 12th, 1973
The Prayers of thousands were answered
The war was over, and the first of the prisoners returned
Needless to say, it was the happiest day in up to thirteen years for most
For others, the real nightmare had just begun”
The Vietnam War was truly unique, the atrocities that were committed by America to both the landscape and the Vietnamese society were devastating. However, it is fascinating how musicians combined, and people came together to voice their frustrations and condemn the American government for their wrongdoings through the power of music.