The Most Important Rock Songs During The Vietnam War Era
via Mitch Mumby/YouTube
The Vietnam War was a long and costly conflict. It was extremely divisive and resulted in millions of casualties from both sides. Opposition to America’s involvement in the war divided the country even after U.S. forces withdrew in 1973. And so for almost two decades, Americans took to the streets to protest the war and for musicians, they used their platform to voice out their sentiments.
Here are ten of the most important anti-war songs in rock.
10. Simon & Garfunkel – “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” (1966)
Leave it to Simon & Garfunkel to create a sound collage that features the duo singing to “Silent Night” over a piano and a chattering voice in the background. Over time, it gets louder and louder and the listener will eventually figure out that it’s from a newscaster Charlie O’Donnell reporting events of the day – dispute over the “civil rights bill”, Lenny Bruce’s death, Martin Luther King Jr.’s open housing march plans, Richard Speck’s indictment, and anti-Vietnam War protests.
9. The Animals – “We Gotta Get out of This Place” (1965)
With Eric Burdon’s fierce and angry vocals plus the lyrics, it’s no wonder why this became popular with the US Forces stationed in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. According to a 2006 survey of Vietnam veterans, “This was the Vietnam anthem. Every bad band that ever played in an armed forces club had to play this song.”
8. The Byrds – “Draft Morning” (1968)
It’s a song protesting not just the war but also the drafting of men into the military and the problems being faced by young men in the 1960s.
7. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – “Ohio” (1970)
This was written by Neil Young after the controversial Kent State shootings where twenty-eight guardsmen fired on unarmed college students who were protesting against the Vietnam War. The song became a protest anthem.
6. The Rolling Stones – “Gimme Shelter” (1969)
In 1995, Mick Jagger told Rolling Stone magazine: “Well, it’s a very rough, very violent era. The Vietnam War. Violence on the screens, pillage and burning. And Vietnam was not war as we knew it in the conventional sense. The thing about Vietnam was that it wasn’t like World War II, and it wasn’t like Korea, and it wasn’t like the Gulf War. It was a real nasty war, and people didn’t like it. People objected, and people didn’t want to fight it … That’s a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It’s apocalypse; the whole record’s like that.”
5. Cat Stevens – “Peace Train” (1971)
Some critics weren’t too fond of this song but it wasn’t long before it was used by protesters who were opposing the Vietnam War. In 2009, Stevens revealed: “Musically, I was revisiting a very Greek-sounding riff – the kind of thing you’d hear on a Greek island. The words were attached to that time, my peace anthem. It ended every show that I did and was quite a show stopper. It was a very important song for me because it stated one of the big goals of my life which was heading straight for that peace.”
4. The Moody Blues – “Question” (1970)
One of the band’s most popular songs, the lyrics reflect the thoughts of those who questioned the Vietnam War. Justin Hayward shared, “There’s no doubt that it still resonates, the lyrics reflect whichever generation you’re in. Whatever time you’re in, people are experiencing those emotions. And I find that people identify with it at any age.”
3. Creedence Clearwater Revival – “Fortunate Son” (1969)
Although this became an anti-war anthem, the song isn’t exactly about the war itself but rather the privileged few who weren’t drafted in the military or had a choice in position. John Fogerty talked about it in 2015: “The thoughts behind this song – it was a lot of anger. So it was the Vietnam War going on… Now I was drafted and they’re making me fight, and no one has actually defined why. So this was all boiling inside of me and I sat down on the edge of my bed and out came “It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son!” You know, it took about 20 minutes to write the song.”
2. Barry McGuire – “Eve of Destruction” (1965)
This protest song was banned in some radio stations because of the lyrics which were deemed anti-government. More than the war, it also tackled racism and injustice. Due in part to the controversy, it went to the top of the charts. It was placed on restricted list by the BBC but it still became one of the most popular protest songs of the 1960s.
1. Bob Dylan/Jimi Hendrix – “All Along the Watchtower” (1967/1968)
Both Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix never shied away from protesting the war with their songs and performances (like Hendrix’s legendary “Star Spangled Banner” performance in Woodstock.) Hendrix took the song and made it his own. In an interview with Dylan, he said: “I liked Jimi Hendrix’s record of this and ever since he died I’ve been doing it that way… Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way.”