How Music of the '60s Reflected the Mood of the Vietnam Era

Sep 14, 2017

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's new PBS documentary series The Vietnam War premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 17 on WOSU-TV.

I got to thinking about some of the music from that era relating to the conflict. I didn't find as much classical music as I had hoped, but I was immediately struck by how much popular music was related to the Vietnam War.

In the explosion of creativity after the British Invasion, started by the Beatles in 1964, a veritable Renaissance began in popular music.

Although their music was not political at this point in their careers, the Beatles' rise to prominence coincided with changes in our culture that were clearly political and even revolutionary. Civil rights, women's rights, the beginnings of what would become the environmental movement—and the anti-Vietnam War movement, all gained prominence during this time.

In folk music, there certainly was a long tradition of songs challenging the powers that be. But in the 20th century, artists and groups like Woody Guthrie and The Weavers inspired the folk boom of the '50s and '60s that resulted in the commercial success of Peter, Paul and Mary, The Kingston Trio and others, especially Bob Dylan.

Dylan was the most prominent example of a folk artist who successfully transitioned into pop and rock in the mid-1960s, encouraging others to follow. He was also the best songwriter.

During his earlier folk period, Dylan was writing anti-war songs, just as America's involvement in Vietnam was beginning to escalate but was not yet much in the public consciousness. "Masters of War" from 1963 is a chilling indictment of the mentality of those who promote war.

Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," also released in 1963, became a big hit for Peter, Paul and Mary. The song expressed the message of peace, equality and freedom in simple yet beautifully eloquent language, and it became an anthem of the civil rights movement. The currents of change that were about to sweep over this country never had such a rising tide of musical talent expressing the fears, hopes and dreams of so many.

 

The civil rights movement was already well underway by 1966, but organized opposition to America's involvement in Vietnam hadn't really gotten going on a large scale yet.

In fact, Billboard's biggest hit single of 1966 was, surprisingly, the pro-military song "The Ballad of the Green Berets" by Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler. It was not specifically pro-war, but this patriotic song expressed support for and was a tribute to the United States Army Special Services Forces, known as the Green Berets.

"The Ballad of the Green Berets" was, in part, a response to an apocalyptic-sounding protest song released a few months earlier in 1965—"Eve of Destruction," written by P.F. Sloan but made popular by the recording released by Barry McGuire.

But by the late '60s, things were really changing fast. There was, of course, always a rebellious streak in rock music. Groups such as The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Jimi Hendrix Experience frequently expressed the unsettled and turbulent mood of the time, but their music was not always overtly political.  

In 1967, the most direct expression of the anti-war sentiment affecting more and more young people in America probably reached its zenith with the psychedelic rock band Country Joe and the Fish and their anti-war anthem "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die." The song reached a wider audience and became better-known a couple of years later, after the band performed at Woodstock.

And in 1968, the Beatles finally wrote a song that directly addressed the growing tension of the time: "Revolution."