Music and Society in Vietnam War Era

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Updated: Apr 25, 2019
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The Vietnam War is arguably the most controversial war in American history. To this day, our role and positioning in the struggle for power remains an enigma. It can be argued that we concerned ourselves in the struggle to deny the spread of communism, but it can be equally contended that we were there to suppress nationalism and independence. The publicized aesthetic showed that the war was between North and South Vietnam, but from ’55 to ’65 the escalation period was more an allegory for the Cold War in that the United States and USSR avoided direct conflict and thereby the possibility of nuclear war by operating through proxy government and forces. Since the mid ’40s, the United States and Soviet Union had been racing to globalize their cultural, political, and socio-economic ideologies. When North Vietnam fell to Communism in ’54, the United States was fervent in impeding its potential spread. While America’s role in the Vietnam War was prominent, their battle was actually back in the states. Public opinion, whether in favor or against, was vehemently vocal. The press played a significant role in regards to public opinion via photographs, videos, and American journalists. As American Society stood on the root of democracy, their voices were perhaps most invigorated by the poetic praise of song during the Vietnam era. Dorian Lynskey describes a protest song as “a song which addresses a political issue in a way which aligns itself with the underdog.”1 During the Vietnam era, artists like Otis Redding, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Jimi Hendrix sought to address the many grievances of american society in regards to their opposition to the War effort.

The beginning of the American public’s War started in ’64 when president Lyndon Johnson, a president who swore to uphold kennedys commitments, formed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in response to supposed reports that the North Vietnamese had attacked U.S Navy ships. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution allowed Johnson to send troops to Vietnam and by ’66, 400,000 sons, fathers, and brothers were fighting another country’s war. The war had amassed significant media coverage in ’68 when the North Vietnamese and Vietcong launched a campaign called the Tet Offensive. The Tet Offensive involved attacking dozens of U.S targets and numerous other cities in South Vietnam simultaneously. While America had won the battle, American media coverage said differently and public support quickly took a turn for the worse. After the Tet Offensive was widely considered a loss on Americas part, the Antiwar movement began to metastasize. Momentum quickly grew as student protests, counterculture hippies, and even the proverbial american condemned the war effort. Protests against the war grew increasingly violent when in ’68 the Democratic National Convention began to establish themselves as a powerful voice in the antiwar effort. To make matters worse, four students died at Kent State University in 1970 when guardsman fired on the crowd. Despite the vile, archaic tragedies happening on American soil, President Nixon, Johnson predecessor, contended that a “Silent Majority” of Americans still supported the war, so the war went on.

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The song Sittin’ On The Dock of The Bay, by Otis Redding, was released in ’68 during the Vietnam War. This song is more an indifferent approach to the War as it is not outwardly pro-war nor is it anti-war like many songs during the time. Sittin’ On The Dock of The Bay was a song that showed sadness and ideness for a changing world. The Vietnam War changed so many aspects of life that is was becoming increasingly difficult to assimilate the change, let alone understand why the war was happening in the first place. Otis sang about many different opinions of the war effort, as he was trying to appeal to a broader audience. But his most prominent line within Sittin On the Dock of The Bay was when he sang, “Looks like nothing’s gonna change. Everything still remains the same. I can’t do what ten people tell me to do. So I guess i’ll remain the same.” This part of the song is important as it relates to someone who was tired of the war effort. Someone who believes that nothing good will come out of the war and that nothing will change for the better. Someone who is exhausted with the war and would prefer to put it behind them. The War was existentially problematic, and Otis Redding made it his responsibility to shed light on the many diversified understandings of the time.

Clocking in at just over two minutes in length, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Doug Clifford, lead guitarist, and John Fogerty, lead vocalist, implore justice and equality in their ’69 hit Fortunate Son. The song was th ideal anthem for the ever-growing share of Americans who were coming to see the War as a terrible mistake. Creedence clearwater revival gave voice to the class-based subjugation the arose after the start of the Vietnam War. Fortunate Son was an anti-Vietnam War protest, yes, but it has been referred to by critics for being every bit as poignant as the works of Bob Dylan. Fortunate Son was released the very same month Nixon delivered his “Silent Majority” speech. Creedence Clearwater Revival, a band with an irrefutable blue-collar background, called into question Nixon’s opinions of the anti-war movement in that it was composed of only naive college students. The song was also critical of selective service, which drafted predominantly minorities and poor young men. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Fortunate became the unofficial anthem of the antiwar movement during the Vietnam era.

Released in the United States as the lead single from The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s debut album, Are You Experienced, in June ’67, Purple Haze instantly grabbed listeners’ attention with its famous dexterous guitar playing. Its lyrics, while simple, inspirited its listeners to take notice to the war and protest the moral ambiguity. A revolutionary line that will transcend musical talent was when Hendrix sang, “Scuse me, while I kiss the sky.” This line has often given reason for the audience to believe the song was about drugs, but it actually calls to promote idealistic utopia. To live in a world where peace and fantasy are one in the same. Courtney Brown said, “The fantasy leaves a residual of experience that adds to the interpretive understanding of the reality” and “Reality does not banish the fantasy; rather, the fantasy colors the reality, instilling it with beauty in the process.”

Artists like Otis Redding, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Jimi Hendrix were apostles in the Anti-war movement. They were zealous in delegitimizing Americas equivocal presence in the Vietnam War effort. They challenged the status quo, risked losing their notoriety, and spoke with a provocative tone in the hope of altering public opinion. It is unclear whether or not their music changed the minds and hearts of that had opinions of the War, but the antiwar movement was unquestionably perpetuated by the artistry each of them offered. Their rising melodies, rebellious lyrics, abrupt changes, and unifying call and response methods allow them to fight the battle that America had indirectly engaged in America v. The People.

The most remarkable thing about protest music is that it helps people realize they’re not alone in feeling a spirit of dissent against certain injustices, whether on a personal or more overarching governmental level. Great protest songs are so infectious, you can’t help but sing along. This is effective in creating a sense of community and helping groups organize to affect change. Protest music has a very deeply rooted history in the United States and reaches back as far as American history reaches. Every major movement in American history has been accompanied by its own collection of protest songs, from slave emancipation to women’s suffrage, from labor movement to civil rights, from Antiwar protest to Black Lives Matter. Dorian Lynskey said the intent of a protest song was “not to shift the world on its axis, but to change opinions and perspectives, to say something about the times in which you live, and, sometimes, to find that what you said speaks to another moment in history.”

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Music and Society in Vietnam War Era. (2019, Apr 25). Retrieved from