16 Songs About The Vietnam War

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: Warner 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?"

  • 'I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag' By Country Joe and the Fish

    "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.

  • 'The Unknown Soldier' By The Doors
    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. 

  • "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.

  • This 16-minute classic tells the true story of how Guthrie was detained on Thanksgiving Day in 1965 when he tried to throw out trash after dinner and the dump was closed. When he tossed it away at a site that wasn't sanctioned, he was promptly taken into police custody. He was drafted a few years later, and the event came back to haunt him. Guthrie embellishes the story with his usual wit and folksy candor: 

    But that's not what I'm here to tell you about
    I'm here to talk about the draft
    They got a buildin' down in New York City called Whitehall Street, where you
    Walk in, you get injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected and selected!

    I went down and got my physical examination one day, and I walked in, sat
    Down (got good and drunk the night before, so I looked and felt my best when
    I went in that morning, 'cause I wanted to look like the All-American Kid
    From New York City. I wanted to feel like I wanted to be the
    All-American Kid from New York), and I walked in, sat down, I was hung down
    Brung down, hung up and all kinds of mean, nasty, ugly things

    Guthrie said later that "Alice's Restaurant" wasn't so much a protest song as it was a song "celebrating idiocy," but it has indeed become part of the protest canon, as well as a Thanksgiving staple: 

    Thank God, that the people that run this world are not smart enough to keep running it forever. You know, everybody gets a handle on it for a little while. They get their 15 minutes of fame, but then, inevitably, they disappear and we have a few brief years of just hanging out and being ourselves.

  • '7 O'Clock News' By Simon & Garfunkel

    Of its time and also prescient, "7 O’Clock News/Silent Night" juxtaposed the quiet Christmas carol sung by the legendary duo with a newscaster telling woeful tales of the day: 

    Former Vice-President Richard Nixon says that unless there is a substantial increase in the present war effort in Vietnam, the U.S. should look forward to five more years of war.

    The newscaster also announced the demise of Lenny Bruce, along with news on student demonstrations and Martin Luther King. It was covered by Phoebe Bridgers and Fiona Apple with an updated newscast to reflect the events and political upheaval of 2019.