Music During the Vietnam War: An Intangible Weapon

American Music in the 1960s was often associated with the combat zone and military. Songs were mirroring the current mood of the nation, reflecting common pain and disapproval. Although this music was initially written to simply express emotions, later it became a social tool for applying pressure to the US government to end their involvement in Vietnam.

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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 Vietnam certainly played important role in this phenomenon. Both in the democratic USA and communist Vietnam music became an art form of mass propaganda, a sort of an intangible weapon. However, the difference is that in Vietnam participation in musical activities was encouraged by the government, and it was aimed at fostering comradeship between troops and the population. Meanwhile, in the US the situation was quite the opposite: people expressed their anger and disagreement with politics through folk and country 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.

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. Second, Anderson paid attention to the bipolar nature of all the songs written in that period, though the primary theme of all music was similar – war. It is noteworthy because it was the first time when social protest appeared in such form. 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 eventually, the performance was allowed. Finally, Anderson illustrated the transition from classic folk, which praised traditional topics like justice and brotherly love, to the occurrence of folk-rock (54). Folk-rock singers were uncovering the main illness of America – The Establishment, this music was more aggressive and fully represented the social tense through militant sound.

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. As an 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 becomes obvious – rock as a counterculture. Besides, James made a sort of an overview of the relation between the war and music of those days. The war had different effects on different styles of music, 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 author who looked close to the 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 Vietnam-related protest music, which captured most of the public attention. The more escalated the intervention to Vietnam was, the more popular was protest music. Auslander names Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Arlo Guthrie 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 bit different perspective (5). She studied military folksongs and their impact on American soldiers during the Vietnamese 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 the enhancement of morale” (5). Music was one of not so many sources of entertainment and mean 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 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.

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 prowar songs were popular only in the South in 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 burden had not been revealed much before, so the South is remarkable in this area too.

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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.

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.

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

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

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