The sixties: the war in Vietnam and its music

It goes without saying that the Vietnam War was both a decisive and divisive event for the ‘60s, particularly the latter part. And the music around the war, both for and against it, was loud and impassioned.

Two anthems of the antiwar movement were both released in 1967. “ I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” by Country Joe and The Fish contained the memorable lyrics “And it’s 1-2-3, what are we fightin’ for….don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn…next stop is Vietnam. .. And it’s 5-6-7 open up the pearly gates…Well there ain’t no time to wonder why….whoopee we’re all gonna die.” Arlo Guthrie’s iconic eighteen minute-long “Alice’s Restaurant” details his experiences on the “Group W bench” at the Selective Service’s processing center on Whitehall Street in lower Manhattan.

Other important antiwar songs include “Fortunate Son” (1969) by Creedence Clearwater Revival and “Ohio” (1970) by Crosby Stills Nash & Young about the shootings by National Guard troops at Kent State with its haunting refrain “four dead in Ohio.” Also
“War” (1970) by Edwin Starr, a Motown tune co-written by Barrett Strong (who in 1960 sang the hit song “Money (That’s What I Want)” which included the famous line “War…what is it good for?….absolutely nothin’!”

On the side favoring the war, the most famous is “Ballad of the Green Berets” (1966) sung by [Staff Sergeant] Barry Sadler. Focusing on the unit’s elite status (“one hundred men they’ll test today, but only three will win the Green Beret”), the song also plays up the patriotism of U.S. soldiers fighting overseas to protect freedom at home. Not surprisingly, many of the pro-government songs came from country music, including Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” (1969) decrying the behavior of the antiwar crowd: “we don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street…. and the kids here still respect the college dean”, and Loretta Lynn’s “Dear Uncle Sam” (1966) which ends with a wife receiving a telegram informing her of the combat death of her husband. But there was also “Only A Boy” released in 1967 by Jan Berry (of Jan & Dean fame), which supported the war effort. One of the more offbeat offerings is a short musical promo for Army nurses by Connie Francis entitled “A Nurse in the U.S. Army Corps” (1966).

Lastly, in the sub-genre of Vietnam Christmas songs, we have Simon & Garfunkel’s “7 O’Clock News / Silent Night” (1965) which layers news broadcasts over the carol and ends with then-former VP Nixon commenting that antiwar demonstrations will prolong the war by 5 years. A counterpoint is Loretta Lynn’s “Christmas Without Daddy” (1966) bemoaning the absence of their soldier father over the Holidays.

Howard Steinberg

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