It's hard to imagine that a global catastrophe could be the inspiration for great music, but in the case of the Vietnam conflict, that's just what happened. The soundtrack to the conflict reflected not only what was going on in Vietnam, but also the unrest back home, where anti-war sentiment reached a fever pitch as the 1960s came to a close. The songs capture the spirit of the time; some, released years later, deal with the lingering effects of the conflict. But for those in battle, many of these songs were simply a link to a home they missed and longed for. Some of the songs vigorously skewer patriotism, while others express a wistful yearning for a more peaceful world. Here are the most well-known - and a few that may surprise you.
- Photo: Fantasy Records
In 1969, as the conflict in Vietnam reached its peak, President Nixon's daughter Julie married former President Dwight Eisenhower’s grandson David. CCR frontman John Fogerty raged as he read about the offspring of privilege enjoying their day:
You’d hear about the son of this senator or congressman who was given a deferment from the military. They weren’t being touched by what their parents were doing.
That fury gave way to an instant classic in “Fortunate Son,” which Fogerty says he wrote in about 20 minutes. Propelled by Fogerty's angry vocals, it became an instant classic rock staple and protest anthem, despite being more about class struggle than actual combat. Creedence drummer Doug Clifford, who served in the Coast Guard Reserve from 1966-1968, said of the song, "'Fortunate Son' is really not an anti-war song. It’s about class. Who did the dirty work?"
- Photo: Vanguard Records
"I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag" was a college radio staple upon its release in 1970, but it never got any real airplay, as its bitter gallows humor was considered too controversial. However, it became a classic when Navy vet Country Joe McDonald performed it at Woodstock. McDonald pulled no punches and blamed everyone for the conflict, from the government and the military to arms dealers, Wall Street and even parents who encouraged their children to enlist:
Come on mothers throughout the land
pack your boys off to Vietnam
come on fathers don't hesitate
send your sons off before it's too late
and you can be the first ones on your block
to have your boy come home in a box
And it's one, two, three, what are we fighting for
don't ask me I don't give a damn, next stop is Viet Nam
And it's five, six, seven, open up the pearly gates
ain't no time to wonder why, whoopee we're all gonna die
While a hit with Woodstock audiences and a song permanently ingrained in pop culture, it never gained much traction for McDonald in terms of record sales, and his band called it quits just a year later. He recalled:
It made me infamous and famous at the same time. My most famous song really couldn’t get airplay. It got me banned from municipal auditoriums for a long time after. So I paid a price. But I’m proud to say that I’ve carried with me the reality of the Vietnam War. I’m the elephant in the room.
- Photo: Rhino
"The Unknown Soldier" was influenced by Vietnam, but was written more about armed conflict in general. The Doors wanted the song to stand the test of time and have a universal scope. It did, while nonetheless becoming a protest anthem for the Vietnam conflict. When Jim Morrison wrote the song, he was concerned with the way the media presented the conflict on TV:
Breakfast where the news is read
Television children fed
Unborn living, living dead
Bullets strike the helmet's head
The sounds of armed conflict were reflected in the song's military-style beats and its production, which mixed in commands and the sounds of a firing squad. This undercurrent was pantomimed in live shows, with Robby Krieger pointing his guitar at Morrison, who would fall down as drummer John Densmore delivered the "fatal" blow.
- Photo: Rhino/Elektra
"For What It's Worth" wasn't written with Vietnam in mind - it was written about the 1966 Sunset Strip riots that took place outside of Hollywood's Pandora's Box nightclub. Teens gathered there to protest police abuses, and when they refused to leave by 10 pm, the LAPD cracked down. Buffalo Springfield member Stephen Stills wrote the song soon afterward, and it was recorded the month after the incident.
Despite its intended meaning, the song became an unofficial anthem for the Vietnam conflict, and band manager Richard "Dickie" Davis said it transcended just one event:
The song was about the times. The protests for the Vietnam War were in play right then, and they were on Stephen's mind just as much as anything else. The song was written about the Sunset Strip, but it's bigger than that.