Music is central to Ken Burns’s new Vietnam War documentary, with an original score accompanied by samples of the era’s most popular musicians, from the Rolling Stones to Bob Dylan. According to USA Today, the people interviewed for the film were even asked to provide their 10 favorite songs from the war years.
While it’s natural that a historical film would include period-specific songs, music played an outsized role in the Vietnam War era. Whereas during past wars, musicians wrote songs to unite Americans, Vietnam-era music spoke to the growing numbers of disillusioned citizens, and brought attention to the cultural fissures that were beginning to emerge.
A unified sound
World War II influenced an entire generation — many say the “greatest” — but few of those who came of age in the 1940s would probably call music a core component of their collective identity.
Music did play an important role in the war, but only as a way to unite Americans; like the films, radio reports and newspapers accounts of the era, World War II music resounded with patriotism.
Glenn Miller and his lively swing orchestra played hits such as “Tuxedo Junction” for U.S. troops, while bandleaders such as Benny Goodman and U.S.O. entertainers such as Bob Hope reinforced the government’s promotion of unwavering patriotism to willing and eager listeners.
Young people embraced swing music for what historians David Stowe and Lewis Erenberg describe as the genre’s democratic ethos — the way Americans of different races and ethnicities enjoyed a new kind of sound with an upbeat tempo and new dance moves such as the Lindy Hop.
As I argue in my book “Black Culture and the New Deal,” the government also employed African-American musicians such as Duke Ellington and Lena Horne to boost the morale of black citizens and project democratic values on the home front and for troops. Many African-Americans hoped a battle against fascism could lead to the end of discrimination in the U.S.
Songs of resistance
But Vietnam was different. Unlike the 1940s — when Americans thought the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and Nazi aggression in Europe justified the sacrifices of war — young people in the 1960s were deeply suspicious of the government’s decision to go into Southeast Asia. As the military’s commitment grew and the body counts piled up, many couldn’t understand what they were fighting for.
Songs were able to express these feelings of anger and confusion with lyrics that could be abstract – like Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” — or explicit, such as Phil Ochs’s “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.”
Music also filled a void in the country’s media landscape. Hollywood didn’t release films that probed the complex nature of the Vietnam War until years after the fall of Saigon. While television news broadcasting became more critical after the Tet Offensive, the big networks were hesitant to promote entertainers who were vocally opposed to the war. Popular programs would censor artists who planned to perform protest music; for example, in 1967, folk singer Pete Seeger appeared on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” only to discover that his song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” would be later be cut due to its anti-war message.
Because Vietnam-era musicians seemed to be the only people talking about America’s failure to live up to its democratic principles, many young people viewed them as “their own.”
Protest music took several forms. There was The Beatles’ more tepid “Revolution” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s everyman anthem “Fortunate Son.” Groups like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane excoriated the hypocrisy of American values, shunned commercialism and supported anti-imperial movements across the globe. People chanted lyrics while marching, listened during gatherings like the “Be-In” in San Fransisco’s Golden Gate Park or simply absorbed the meaning and messages of these songs on their own.
Much of the power of Vietnam War-era music came from its connection to the civil rights movement. Young men and women in the black freedom struggle had, since the 1950s, broadened their call for freedom to encompass oppressed people around the world. Artists like Nina Simone, Dylan and Seeger had been chronicling the tragedies of southern violence in their music, so pointing out the wrongs of Vietnam came naturally.
But interestingly, Google searches for “Vietnam Era Music” yield only protest music. This disregards the many who found the protesters abhorrent, who undoubtedly listened to apolitical songs or songs that backed the military.
The Americans that President Richard Nixon dubbed “the silent majority” — those angered by protesters — constituted a huge swath of the country. They had catapulted Nixon to the presidency and fueled a resurgent conservative political movement. The deep-seated resentment felt by so many Americans — against those on college campuses, those who defied military orders, those who questioned American patriotism — cannot be ignored, and they, too, turned to music that provided solace. Merle Haggard said he wrote his 1969 hit song “Okie From Muskogee” to support U.S. soldiers who “were giving up their freedom and lives to make sure others could stay free.”
“What the hell did these kids have to complain about?” he wondered.
To many, students on college campuses knew nothing about the true meaning of sacrifice. The Spokesmen’s pro-Vietnam ballad “Dawn of Correction” insisted on the “need to keep free people from red domination,” while “The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley,” performed by C Company and Terry Nelson, topped Billboard charts. (The song defended Lt. William Calley who, in 1971, was convicted of slaughtering civilians in the Vietnamese village of Mai Lai.)
The popularity of these songs paints another portrait of the war; politically, the music was much more multifaceted than is often remembered.
Hopes for the era weren’t as simple as the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” which promised “there’s a better life for me and you.” Instead, understanding the music of the Vietnam War era requires indulging a variety of perspectives. The overseas conflict cannot be divorced from the culture war back home — a battle over who gets to define the nation’s identity.