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Music During the Vietnam War: An Intangible Weapon

American music during the 1960s decade was often associated with the combat zone and the military. Songs were mirroring the nation’s current mood, reflecting common pain, disapproval, and lack of conformity with the political decisions the leaders of the country were taking. Although this music was initially written to express emotions, it became a social tool for applying pressure to the US government to end their involvement in Vietnam. The following, will through an analysis of previous discourse on the topic, assess how music was used in both explicit and implicit ways as a weapon for applying pressure on the US government during the Vietnam war.

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Barley Norton assesses the influence of war in Vietnam on musical expression and examines the relation between protests in music and politics (97). He takes into account that 1968 was remarkable because of worldwide protesting sentiments and movements, and Vietnam certainly played an important role in this phenomenon. Not just in democratic America but also in communist Vietnam, music became an art form of mass propaganda, or in poetic terms, a sort of ‘intangible weapon’ that the population had at their disposal to protest. However, the difference is that in Vietnam, participation in musical activities was encouraged by the government and was aimed to incentivize comradeship between troops and the population while in the US. The situation was quite the opposite: people expressed their inconformity and disagreement with politics through folk, rock, and country/blues songs. Moreover, Norton admits that Vietnamese songwriters even dared to devote some lyrics to the Americans, encouraging them to fight together for peace (105). This event was possible only because both sides of the conflict wanted to stop the war, especially the Vietnamese population and gradually an almost entire American population.

Anderson stated several points concerning the issue in his article “American Popular Music and the War in Vietnam.” First, he affirmed that war contributed to the significant growth of the record industry and popular music, especially rock ‘n’ roll (51). Record sales tripled, and production and recording developed as new sounds came both in terms of music and social protest. Secondly, Anderson paid attention to the bipolar nature of all the songs written in that period. However, the primary theme of all music was similar – war and the confusion and insecurity it was making people feel. It is noteworthy because it was the first time social protest appeared in this form (music). In 1968 protest music was described as serving as “a source of strength, unification, and expression when the battle is raging,” “social revolution,” and “rock is the poetry of that revolution” (Anderson 51).

Some of these “explosive” songs were even banned from the media, even though not everyone understood the true meaning of the lyrics. For instance, CBS television banned folk singer Pete Seeger for an antiwar song and called it the “big fool,” though the performance was eventually allowed. Finally, Anderson illustrated the transition from classic folk, which praised traditional topics like justice and brotherly love, to the occurrence of folk-rock/blues, which started to have different connotations (54). Folk-rock singers were uncovering the main illness of America – The Establishment. This music was more aggressive and fully represented social inconformity through powerful and intense sounds. It started to become uncommon to have new songs without some protest message, even if this was indirect or implicit.

James Davis also analyzed the link between music, war, and protests. He suggested that rock had a contradictory position in capitalism and paid particular attention to this kind of music. For example, he provided the expression of John Sinclair, who supposed that “rock supplied the form of and the means to social transformation” (123). This is where the revolutionary nature of the music of the 1960s became obvious – rock as a counterculture. Also, James made some overview of the relation between the war and music of those days. The war had different effects on different music styles, and the representation of the war also differed. Besides, the way music was used by both sides of the conflict varied. Further content-analysis of lyrics of those days made by James proved that ideological and general changes in public mood were positively correlated with musical practices.

Another prestigious author who looked close at rock as a mass influencer was H. Ben Auslander. He suggested that it was “shaping political and social attitudes” (108). He also highlighted 1967 as the peak year for the Vietnam-related protest music, which captured most of the public’s attention. The more escalated the intervention in Vietnam was, the more popular protest music became. Auslander names Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and others among the artists who wrote resonant albums, which later increased the crowd of protesting Americans. “Musically the songs ranged from beautifully melodic to jarringly dissonant, lyrically from idealistic to cynical” (111). Besides, Auslander distinguished several categories of protest songs (110). First are those that disapproved of the war in general (“Masters of War,” “One More Parade,” etc.). Then go the songs that referred specifically to the conflict in Vietnam (“The War Drags On,” “White Boots Marchin’ in a Yellow Land,” etc.). The third group included songs that condemned the Selective Service (“I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore,” “The Great Mandala,” etc.).

Lydia Fish examined the issue from a slightly different perspective (5). She studied military folksongs and their impact on American soldiers during the Vietnamese insurgency experience. The motives were usually related to various war scenes. She concluded that they were primarily used to unite and support soldiers morally: “These songs served as strategies for survival, and for the enhancement of morale” (5). Music was one of not so many entertainment sources and meant to express inner fears, pain, and grief. Unlike protest songs, occupational folklore gained official acceptance from the media, and CBS even started broadcasting the “Songs of War” in 1967. She also noted the remarkable words of the member of the New York Times Saigon bureau. He said that almost every club had a resident musician who would sing about living in a strange country and the war; the songs were cynical and echoed the sadness and fear over the “dirty little war” which became a “dirty big one.” These statements illustrate common disillusionment about the US government and its actions. Even patriots were admitting that the war was a pointless demonstration of power, and this feeling was finally reflected in lyrics.

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However, not all Americans were supporting peace. Fry provides a picture of the South, where people expressed more acceptance than resentment of the war (334). They preferred country music, as it was more typical of the South. “The southern audience demonstrated a clear preference for songs that endorsed anticommunism, fighting and sacrificing for freedom, commitment to honor and duty, and attacks on antiwar protestors” (Fry 334). Those ballads praised fearless soldiers, fighting for freedom from communism. Although pro-war songs were popular only in the South during 1967-1968, they became recognized across the country during Nixon’s presidency. Hence, not every kind of American music was devoted to the peace and criticism of the government. Only a few country music artists were questioning the war and defending protestors, and the most famous one was probably Johnny Cash with his song “What Is Truth.” Also, Southern women were the first in the country to start expressing their fear publicly, and these sentiments also found the reflection in southern country music. The aspect of fear and heavy moral resentment had not been revealed much before, and therefore, the South was a key contextual setting in this area.

To apply pressure to the government to end the US involvement in Vietnam, American society used music as its weapon. Various bands and artists acted as advocators for peace and strived to point to the government through art. Moreover, some psychedelic movements, such as hippies, also supported the musicians’ endeavors. However, it was not so at the very beginning of the war. As Bindas and Houston note, rock music and its artists were “noticeably silent” on this issue and revised their attitude only after the American society’s reaction to war had changed (1). As soon as musicians joined the anti-Establishment and antiwar movement, the situation altered rapidly (1-2). Rock music, which has been “rebellious” since its birth and was in a constant state of conflict with societal rules, played an important role in opposing the war actions in Vietnam (1).

Rock became the representative of the political and social counterculture to the Establishment (4). Various rock’n’roll bands made their contribution to advocating for peace and opposing the government policies of the 1960s. The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Who, the Doors, Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendrix, and many other artists and bands criticized different Establishment elements. In their “Satisfaction,” the Rolling Stones laughed at the materialism and compliance of the after-1945 era (4). The Beatles also disapproved of the established rules in such songs as “Fool on the Hill,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Piggies,” and “Taxman” (4). The Who, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, and Steppenwolf criticized the established opinions on drug use (“Magic Carpet Ride,” “Purple Haze,” “Mother’s Little Helper”) and sex (“Light My Fire,” “Hello, I Love You”). The songs like “Manic Depression” and “My Generation” were aimed at drawing attention to society’s failure to perceive the ideas of the young generation of the 1960s (4). Musicians wrote about those themes because they wanted to “capture the consumer” whose opinions they reflected (4).

Many people considered the Vietnam war as the embodiment of everything dishonest and undignified present in the Establishment. Soon, the Establishment movement started to be compared with the war. Rock musicians could not but take advantage of the enormous “antiwar, anti-Establishment market” (Bindas and Houston 4). Bindas and Houston differentiate between two schools of thought about the antiwar implications of rock performers (5). One group of analysts (R. Serge Denisoff, Steve Chapple, Terry Anderson, and Reebee Garofalo) defends an opinion that antiwar rock was not born until the 1970s (5). The other group (Robert Pielke, David Pichaske, and Herbert London) argues that rock “was always in vogue” and always had an impact on society (5). However, as Abbie Hoffman noticed, rock music was revolutionary only because the consumers called it that way (qt. in Bindas and Houston 5).

The antiwar movement was more disruptive than its predecessor – the civil rights movement (Eyerman and Jamison 454). It managed to change the means of communication between culture and politics, which had been very close at the beginning of the 1960s (454). Each of the movements of that period criticized militarism and the place occupied by the military the lives of American people (454). Many campaigns and demonstrations of the 1960s aimed at opposing the military-industrial complex and the preeminent role of the military in the country’s cultural, economic, and political affairs (454). The movements’ activists were convinced that the greater attention was paid to military arrangements and values, the less consideration would be given to other crucial social issues such as insufficient social well-being, poverty, and racial inequality (454). Moreover, a focus on the military gave the impression that aggression and cruelty became the distinguishing features of the US culture (454). The most popular and well-known psychedelic movement of the Vietnam war period was the hippie movement. Those who belonged to it had a slogan “Make Love Not War” (454) and supported the “rebellious” rock musicians as well as other antiwar music trends such as rhythm and blues, urban folk music, and country blues (455).

Not only did hippies support peace, but they also made it possible for the black culture to integrate into the US society (455). Black rhythm and blues was the transformation of white rock’n’roll, and black country blues was the correspondent to white urban folk (455). The hippie movement formed a special environment that impacted the people’s opinions and initiated new social movements (457). As Eyerman and Jamison remark, movements are both “consumers and producers, takers and shapers” of pop culture (457). Therefore, it is no wonder that the hippie activists were able to make a big contribution to the anti-Vietnam war movement. The artists and their songs became an important part of the creation of national identity (458). In the 1960s, the singers viewed their purpose wider than merely commercial ones (458). By means of pop culture, the values and concepts conveyed by the musicians were able to reach a larger audience and have a more profound impact (458). Phil Ochs’ “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore” was one of the most classic antiwar songs of the hippie movement (463). Therefore, we can see that psychedelic movements, in particular, the hippie movement, had a tremendous impact on the formation of people’s attitudes against the Vietnam war.

While many scholars and theorists entitled music with a huge capability to induce the US government to end its involvement in Vietnam, there were also opposite opinions. Some researchers consider rock music not to have obtained its “rebellious power” until the end of the Vietnam war. For instance, Jerome Rodnitzky argues that music of the 1960s did not bear a “rebellious” character (44). The author emphasizes that consideration has to be made as for the music’s purpose and its way of representation. Rodnitzky remarks that since it was no longer commercially successful to send a “blatant message” about one’s dissatisfaction with the government, the musicians’ style of performance was “subtle and symbolic” (44).

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The author is convinced that it was no longer enough merely to sing protest songs. He remarks that the “young ears” were eager to hear the precise ways of “confronting the situation” or “at least” co-existing with it instead of listening to the words of dissatisfaction and contempt (44). Rodnitzky criticizes the 1960s’ songs by calling them “do-it-yourself protest songs” (45). According to the author, the audiences were able to interpret the meaning by themselves, as well as make their own conclusions (45). The musicians of the 1960s did not introduce and explain their lyrics any longer and tended “to talk about everything except the song,” since its meaning was too obvious (Rodnitzky 45). Garofalo shares Rodnitzky’s opinion and says that the significant cultural role of music was undermined in that period and performed a purely entertaining function (77). Therefore, some doubts exist as to the overwhelming rebellious power of antiwar music.

The Vietnam war was one of the most terrible conflicts of the past century. The struggle within the US society and culture over the war’s implications and seriousness continues up to modern days (McMahon 160). Many people consider that the war was “a conflict without purpose” (Wineburg et al. 42). However, what made this conflict different from others was that the people on one side (the US) criticized their government’s position and were opposed to military actions in Vietnam. They tried to express their opinion in various ways, but the most effective method was doing that through the art of music. Many historians and critics consider the music of the 1960s rebellious and antiwar. There are some scholars who ridicule the ability of music to dictate the people’s negative attitude to the government. However, most authors agree that rock’n’roll, country, rock, blues, and some other music styles born at the beginning of the 1960s had a great impact on the citizens’ attitudes towards the military actions. Starting with the critique of the Establishment, these performers moved on to criticize the war and the government’s decisions. Songs of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Steppenwolf, and other musicians remained in the history of world music as examples of revolutionary spirit and the belief in the people’s power to make positive change. Therefore, the music of the 1960s is considered a weapon of pressure applied to the US government with the aim of ending its involvement in Vietnam.

Works Cited

Anderson, Terry. “American Popular Music and the War in Vietnam.” Peace and Change, vol. 11, no. 2, 1986, pp. 51-65.

Auslander, Ben. “If Ya Wanna End War and Stuff – You Gotta Sing Loud – a Survey of Vietnam-Related Protest Music.” The Journal of American Culture, vol. 4, no. 2, 1981, pp. 108-113.

Bindas, Kenneth J., and Kraig Houston. “‘Taking Care of Business’: Rock Music, Vietnam, and the Protest Myth.” The Historian, vol. 52, no. 1, 1989, pp. 1-23.

Eyerman, Ron, and Andrew Jamison. “Social Movements and Cultural Transformation: Popular Music in the 1960s.” Media, Culture, and Society, vol. 17, no. 3, 1995, pp. 449-468.

Fish, Lydia. “Informal Communication Systems in the Vietnam War: A Case Study in Folklore, Technology and Popular Culture.” New Directions in Folklore, no. 7, 2015, pp. 1-13.

Fry, Joseph. The American South and the Vietnam War: Belligerence, Protest, and Agony in Dixie. University Press of Kentucky, 2015.

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Garofalo, Reebee. “How autonomous is relative: popular music, the social formation and cultural struggle.” Popular Music, vol. 6, no. 1, 1987, pp 77-92.

James, David. “The Vietnam War and American Music.” Social Text, no. 23, 1989, pp. 122-143.

McMahon, Robert J. “SHAFR Presidential Address: Contested Memory: The Vietnam War and American Society, 1975-2001.” Diplomatic History, vol. 26, no. 2, 2002, pp. 159-184.

Norton, Barley. Music and Protest in 1968. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Rodnitzky, Jerome L. “The Decline of Contemporary Protest Music.” Popular Music and Society, vol. 1, no. 1, 1971, pp. 44-50.

Wineburg, Sam, et al. “Common Belief and the Cultural Curriculum: An Intergenerational Study of Historical Consciousness.” American Educational Research Journal, vol. 44, no. 1, 2007, pp. 40-76.

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