Vietnam: The Rock and Roll War
Music. “It has
been a feature of every known human society…” and serves many purposes from the
personal level all the way to the social level (Greenberg, 2016, para. 2). Music can be a time capsule that holds
memories, both good and bad, and be a looking glass that allows the listener to
experience a moment in time when the music was composed. The social and political climate during the
Vietnam War era directly influenced rock and roll, shaped the current plus
future artists in the genre, and provides the listener with a method to
understand these issues through the musicians’ interpretations of the conflict. In this essay, I will give a brief overview
of the Vietnam War and illustrate how rock and roll was influenced by the
social climate of the early sixties through the early seventies, how this
influence shaped the genre, and why the music of this era is a great resource
in understanding this moment in time.
The Vietnam War: A Brief Overview
and unpopular, America’s longest war in its history was The Vietnam War
(Digital History, 2016; History Net, 2017).
The United States entered the Vietnam War in the early sixties to
provide aid to the South Vietnamese. In
1964, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution further escalated U.S. involvement in the
conflict under the Johnson administration (Kennedy, Cohen & Bailey, 2002),
which protesters gained momentum from this point forward (Forland, 2015). By 1965, President Lyndon Johnson was sending
regular United States combat troops over to aid the South Vietnamese (Kennedy
et al., 2002). The war peaked in 1968
with events involving the Tet Offensive, leaving the American public disillusioned
and unfavorable to the war (Digital History, 2016; Kennedy et al., 2002). President Nixon made effort to remove our
troops in 1970, what he referred to as Vietnamization
(History Net, 2017), but strategies employed to slow the North Vietnamese
Army by destroying Cambodian supply bases only fueled protests and anti-war
sentiment on the American home front (Digital History, 2016). Efforts to end the war were made through
diplomacy in 1973 (Digital History, 2016), and South Vietnam surrendered and was
evacuated on 29 April 1975 (Kennedy et al., 2002). Casualties proved 58,000 plus American
soldiers dead, with an additional 270,000 wounded at its conclusion (Cooper,
Social and Political Influence
can argue that music of this era served as another entity in the conflict. Social issues, protest, and anti-war lyrics
first appeared with Vietnam and continued throughout the until its resolution
(Anderson, 1986). Similar to the division
of the sides that were fighting on the battlefield, music divided on the home
front (Cooper, 2011). Musicians like Bob
Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez were protesting the war by writing and
singing songs about the destruction that war creates and the need for peace
(Anderson, 1986). In opposition was the pro-Americans; groups and artists such
as The Spokesmen, Barry Sadler, and The Back Porch Majority, firing back with
songs in support of the war, with the majority of the pro-war artists coming
from country western and easy listening genres (Anderson, 1986). Regardless of side, musicians were using
their music as a platform to address sentiments regarding the war in Vietnam. “The music of this time – revealing and
heightening these trends – provided the appropriate soundtrack” for the social
and political climate during the Vietnam War (Covach & Flory, 2015, p.
A Relatable Message
music of the Vietnam era carried a message that was relatable. In other words, the sentiments of war, either
for or against, were weaved in the lyrics of the music. In turn, the people that were listening to
these recordings, either on the home front or the battlefront, could relate to
what these lyrics were saying because they had similar feelings towards the
war. “Rock music was the poetry of
that revolution.” (Anderson, 1986, p. 51).
The music became the foundation and soundtrack on which these events
were understood by the players involved.
Music became the voice of the people and the technique employed to
protest their disapproval (Hopkins, 2012).
Festivals: Promoting Peace through
Music during the Vietnam Era
An outlet for
protestors and method to send a message of peace was the rock festival. During the Vietnam era, there were two
significant festivals held – Monterey Pop (1967) and Woodstock (1969). Mass groups of people gathered to celebrate
the music and would be another lens in which this era could be defined (Sheehy,
Held on June 16-18, 1967, The Monterey Pop Festival
(Adler, Phillips & Pennebaker, 2002) was the first of the rock festivals
during the Vietnam era. Adler and
company (2002) filmed the historic event at Monterey, which allows future
generations to witness the concert and its message. From opening with a performance by The
Association and ending with The Mamas and the Papas featuring Scott McKenzie,
Monterey Pop was chocked full of exceptional artists of the time (Adler et al.,
2002). Big Brother and the Holding
Company (Janis Joplin) and The Jimi Hendrix Experience also performed during
the weekend-long festival (Adler et al., 2002).
Country Joe and the Fish performed their “I-Feel-Like-I’m Fixin’-to-Die Rag”- in which Joe MacDonald painted
the war in Vietnam as a “carnival farce…” (Anderson, 1986, p. 57).
Music and Art Fair (1969)
the most defining cultural event of the Vietnam era and the 1960s was Woodstock
(Sheehy, 2012). Held Friday, August 15
through Monday, August 18, 1969, Woodstock (Bethel, New York) would be dubbed “Three days of love, peace, and music.” (Wadleigh,
1970). However, this would not be the
viewpoint until years after the event.
Sheehy (2012) examined how the media of the day neglected to see the
significance of this now iconic festival.
Crowd size and the issues pertaining to public safety would be how the
events at Woodstock would be reported and not the message of peace or the music
(1970) opens his cinematic footage of the Woodstock festival with Jimi Hendrix
grinding out “The Star Spangled Banner” on
his electric guitar. This interpretation
would become not only the anthem of our country, but would serve as the anthem
for the event. In reality, Woodstock
opened with a forty-five minute performance set by Richie Havens that Friday
afternoon (Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, 2017). The music performed at Woodstock carried
heavier anti-war sentiments than Monterey Pop.
While both festivals were mass in attendance, Woodstock would be the
most grand-scale event between the two.
Influences from the Vietnam Era in
top influential artists in the Vietnam War era impacted the future of the
genre. The sound encompassed folk rock,
unplugged and injected with a country blues flavor, to the electrifying guitar
sounds of artists like Hendrix, to pure Motown rhythm and soul (Covach & Flory,
2015). To highlight some of the
influences, Jimi Hendrix’s style can be heard in the guitar stylings of Jeff
Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Bob Dylan’s
lyrical style influenced The Beatles, The Byrds, and Leonard Cohen (Gilmore,
1990). “The Beatles and Bob Dylan
changed the soundscape and ambition of rock & roll in thorough and
irrevocable ways that, a quarter-century later, still carry tremendous
influence.” (Gilmore, 1990, 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Beatles
section, para. 6).
Lyrics: A Time Capsule for
Lyrics paired with the historical facts give an intimate
account of the mindset regarding the Vietnam conflict. While there were lyrics that were ‘for’ or
‘against’ the conflict, the mass of the songs echoed sentiments that matches
the distaste for the war in Vietnam (Anderson, 1986). One of the most iconic songs that embodies this
sentiment is Edwin Starr’s song “War” asking its listeners to contemplate what point
war serves, which the response is “absolutely nothing.” (Strong & Whitfield,
1970). Originally written by Barrett Strong
and Norman Whitfield of The Temptations, “War” with its strong anti-war message
has been covered by several artists since the Vietnam era.
Conclusion and Final Reflection
The social and political climate during the Vietnam War
era directly influenced rock and roll, which can be heard in the musical stylings
today. The music, which embodied the sentiments
of the people, were powered with anti-war messages that gave voice to a generation
that was “embittered and disillusioned” in the wake of the political climate (Kennedy
et al., 2002). The messages contained within
the lyrics provide the listener with a method to understand and examine these
issues through the musicians’ interpretations of the conflict.
essay briefly provided an overview of the Vietnam War. It briefly illustrated how rock and roll was
influenced by the social climate of the Vietnam era and how these influences
shaped the genre. Overall, the music of
this era is a great resource to further one’s understanding of this moment in our
country’s history. While this essay serves
as a brief overview of this subject, it can be argued that there is much more that
can be said if not limited by space.
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