A sense of rebellion is woven deeply into the American identity. While the last 250 years have proven that the people of the United States and their government have become experts at maintaining the status quo, there is still a part of our national identity that celebrates the notion that to be “American” is to react against something, sometimes against the institution of America itself. This was especially prevalent during the 20 years of the Vietnam War, a period during which political turmoil directly danced with massive cultural upheaval and rebirth. The center of this change rested squarely in the hands of varied social and political movements of the time, which leaned heavily on artistic expression and colored the Vietnam era with poignant commentary on its realities. In the face of death, confusion and the stagnant trudge of war, American counterculture paved a path through the muck by creating music that would last the test of time.
The political background of the Vietnam War was complicated and messy, the combination of a society entrenched in anti-Communist rhetoric and the need to display American strength on an international scale. Lasting from 1955 to 1975, the period during which Vietnam affected U.S. society spanned two decades and resulted in tens of thousands of American and Vietnamese casualties, leaving the nation at a loss for what the war truly meant in a historical context. To some, it was to establish stable democracy and eliminate Chinese influence in a new and warring nation. To others, the reason for conflict in Vietnam was obscure, a long-lasting fight that had no clear goal or end in sight. Though the older and more conservative generations maintained their belief in the war’s necessity, their voices were largely unrepresented in the artistic movements of the time. Country music artists like Merle Haggard remained supportive of the government throughout much of the war, but in comparison to the popularity of countercultural anthems, its pro-America messages were overshadowed.
Initially, the war gained support from a majority of Americans, but as time went on and deaths mounted, the national perspective began to shift toward ambivalence, while the massive population of nearly 80 million young Baby Boomers kicked an anti-war effort into gear. The impetus of anguish for this youth movement was only exacerbated by the military draft, sending college campuses and urban centers across the country into action. With this action, the American tradition of rebellion was represented in their music, a medium by which communication was possible through the visceral power of song. These tunes would become the face of a generation and a period of time alike, framing the unrest of an era with songs heavy with soul and a timeless message of change against all odds. The spirit of freedom to fight for one’s beliefs continued in the hearts of musicians and fans alike during the Vietnam era, a protest for peace that continues to affect the country’s music today.
Before the Vietnam War’s influence truly reached American society, protest music was already in full force in response to the Civil Rights movement of the late ’50s and early ’60s. Artists like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel stood at the forefront of the early folk music revival scene, which grew out of New York City’s Greenwich Village and into the ears of listeners across the country. Baez’s song “Birmingham Sunday,” among others, displayed the struggles of the battle for civil rights in America, while outstretching a hand for others to join the cause through the simplicity and bare-bones style of folk music itself. The genre at its root was forged in the working man’s toils, so it was only natural for its sound to carry a message of empowerment and social awareness in a time of political uneasiness. When the war’s effects became more and more apparent in folk’s strongholds, the music began to reflect anti-war sentiment and a painfully true commentary on the war’s effects on both soldiers and those still at home. From this, music like Dylan’s iconic song “Blowin’ in the Wind” was born, stamping a permanent mark in U.S. music history while fueling the debate around the war’s obtuse purpose and seemingly senseless violence. The message of folk music from that time was a clear analysis of what the international destruction of Vietnam meant in the context of already existing domestic turmoil, calling the listener to look deeper into the superficial peace of daily life to see a system in need of change.
While folk music colored much of the early ’60s protest songs, the anti-war message began to shift into rock and psychedelia as counterculture merged with many of the time’s youth movements. Protests erupted across the country in areas with high youth populations, only heightened by the massive scale of the Baby Boomer generation. Buffalo Springfield, then Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Creedence Clearwater Revival merged rock with the organic sound of folk, creating music with a direct and piercingly honest core. They highlighted the realities of government oppression in songs like “Ohio,” which commented on the Kent State Massacre of four student protesters in 1970, and “Fortunate Son,” a meditation on the inherent inequalities of the war’s draft lottery system that became the unofficial anthem of the anti-war effort. The pop rock ‘n’ roll of the ’60s shifted into a darker, grittier version of itself in response to the political and social conflict of popular culture, with bands like The Beatles and the Rolling Stones moving into more experimental territory with albums such as Revolver and Let it Bleed. This edgier side to rock has stayed put since, becoming the standard for the genre as time has gone on.
But the image most have of the Vietnam era is of the hippie counterculture, of Woodstock ’69 and Jimi Hendrix smashing guitars. This too was a response to the period’s social discord, as thousands of young, largely white and middle-class Americans joined the movement to embrace free love. They gathered at festivals like Monterey Pop to communally celebrate their music while joining hands against the negativity and confusion of wartime. The hippies were the face of that counterculture, especially in light of the drug culture that wove its way into their art and practices. They were not protesters, but rather purveyors of a peaceful mentality supported by pacifism and a kernel of ignorance. Psychedelic drugs like LSD influenced both the spiritual aspects and creative approach of the hippie movement, producing bands like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead’s whimsical sound. As the war reached its peak in the early ’70s and devolved, so did the hippie counterculture and its popularity, leaving its style and music behind as many devotees descended into drug abuse or left the movement altogether. The “Summer of Love” in 1967 was arguably the climax of “free love” culture, a community assemblage that celebrated their customs and ideology. From there, hippie neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district lost their glory quickly, leaving their music and aesthetic appeal as a lasting token of the movement’s ideals and highest achievements.
While folk, rock and psychedelia created the sound of an era for white America, black soul and blues artists also continued their own path against the social tumult of the ’60s and ’70s. Artists such as Marvin Gaye brought Motown and other R&B labels into the political sphere with records like 1971 release What’s Going On, the title track of which became a timeless representation of that era and others like it. “Father, father,” Gaye sings, “We don't need to escalate / You see, war is not the answer / For only love can conquer hate.” These lyrics, among others from the period across every genre, show the universal application of protest and politically conscious art throughout time. “What’s Going On” could easily have been written today, or post-9/11, or during the HIV / AIDS epidemic in the ’90s. The political tenor of the Vietnam War’s music remains a large part of American pop music today, specifically in the darker, more direct themes seen in rock and folk music of the modern age. The generation that popularized this time’s most lasting music was huge, millions and millions of people born after WWII that brought the spirit of protest from their youth into the future and passed it along to their children. Overall, the themes of Vietnam era music are relevant in any time period, and a combination of poignant messages, truly great arrangement and the commitment of those who loved it to keep the melody in the public eye for decades.
It could be argued that the political turmoil of today’s Trump administration could offer the same fodder for musical and artistic development that the Vietnam War did, but the issue is slightly more complex. In the Vietnam era, the anti-war effort was easy to understand even if the purpose of the war wasn’t, and it gave the counterculture the opportunity to unite against a clear force. The Civil Rights Movement and Second-Wave Feminism intermingled with this counterculture, but the goal of counterculture’s music was more crystalline than it is today. In 2018’s political climate, the issues with American government and society are increasingly complex and abstract. Activism has burst into the mainstream in response to this, and with it the message of “sticking it to the man” that much of Vietnam-age music carried is almost not enough. The messages of that time have become commonplace in rock and folk, an expected edge to each genre that originated in the protests and festivals of the ’60s and ’70s. In its place, the protest music of today looks different, and elicits a different feeling than those songs: artists like Beyoncé, Childish Gambino and Kendrick Lamar have taken political action into rap and pop music, creating a new generation of activists that will hopefully continue the message just as those in the Vietnam era did. But the real question lies in whether the widespread political agendas of today’s musicians will become diluted in their commonality, or present a real chance to make change in America. If the effect of Vietnam’s music is any indication, connecting via art may hold the key to forming a community to flip the script of modern politics. But it is up to the listeners to take it into their own hands: Vietnam changed American music forever. Could the modern struggles of today’s political landscape change it for the better again?