This article will feature in issue 37: Oppression and Resistance
If modern cinema is to be believed, the official anthem of the Vietnam War is Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Fortunate Son. Seldom is a Vietnam war film produced without the distinctive twang sounding as a helicopter soars over Vietnamese grasslands. Some 50 years after the height of Vietnam music, it is tempting to view such songs as relics representative of a bygone era of CND badges and hippies, forgetting to listen to what the lyrics say to us in perhaps the most enduring form of war protest. Through the evolving popularity of Vietnam music, distinct segments of the war are visible, culminating in Woodstock 1969 when US intervention was at an all time high. It is no coincidence that in the four years that Johnson increased American presence in Vietnam tenfold, songs referring to the Vietnam war began to dominate the charts like never before. Whether intentional or not, Woodstock became an epicentre for anti-war artists and protestors to join together in outrage, revelling in the cathartic words sung on stage.
In the early war years, songs of patriotism or a wilful longing to return home dominated the Vietnam realms of the charts. Johnny Wright’s Goodbye My Sweetheart, Hello Vietnam is the embodiment of this sentiment. However, as the war persisted and more American lives were lost, national perspective changed. The most enduring songs of the Vietnam era are from the late 1960s, when the war was truly out of control and American lives were lost at an exponential rate. The late sixties saw The Gulf Tonkin, Tet Offensive and Mỹ Lai massacre, among other failures and tragedies which turned many Americans against the war, thus encouraging more anti-war songwriters and listeners. The popularity of such music surged in these years, making criticism of the war a mainstream concept.
Many Vietnam war songs of this era shy away from the melancholic tone present in most traditional war music. They opt for a more satirical tone and energizing musical accompaniment to essentially mock the government’s choices to wage such a fruitless and deadly war. Songs such as Country Joe’s I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die-Rag and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Fortunate Son focus on rejecting the idea of patriotism that renders enthusiasm for the anti-communist crusade. The satirical nature of the lyricism and upbeat backing tracks make for comparatively lighthearted songs, that were perhaps more digestible than traditional war songs.
Vietnam war music allows listeners today to hear the words of contemporary protestors and understand the significance of Vietnam for the American people. The visibility of Vietnam in the charts equates to the presence of Vietnam in the American mind, making them a vital tool for understanding the implications of war on US soil.
By Lucy Agate