The Times They Are A-Changin’ – Protest Music of the ’60s

Come on fathers, and don’t hesitate / To send your sons off before it’s too late / And you can be the first ones in your block / To have your boy come home in a box

(“I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag”, Country Joe and the Fish)

In this current time of political unrest and civil disobedience, we can look to the past to guide us into a better future. Videos being spread of marches and protests have included the banging of drums, chants, and speakers to blast the soundtrack to the revolution (my favorite). This is not so dissimilar to the 1960’s protests against the Vietnam war, where the state responded to these peaceful protests with violence. Also similar to the ’60s is who is leading the front. With locked arms and signs in hands, the younger generations had a playlist that resonated with them and amplified their message. But what did that sound like?

Music during the two world wars favored patriotism, with roars and cheers that echoed down New York City singing songs of liberty and fraternity such as “Over There ” and “Goodbye Broadway, Hello France”. However the anti-war sentiment had bellowed and boomed with many coming back from Europe in the 1940s with PTSD from the horrific trauma and missing body parts. Concurrently, contemporary folk music made its way into household radios with broad-ranging sentiment, singing about the hardships of working class Americans with artists such as Lead Belly and Earl Robinson.

One of the largest shared sentiments was the dust bowl, which displaced thousands out of work, leaving them to roam America searching for a home. One of these badass lost Americans was Woody Guthrie, who, moneyless and hungry, tramped around the country making money any way he could. During his wandering, Guthrie ended up in California and began writing and performing his struggles, which seemed to resonate with many across the country. Guthrie quickly established himself as a controversial artist, singing about the corruption in D.C. and on Wall Street and boosting up unions. Although he did not actually kill any fascists, he paved the way for the folk revival in the ’60s and can be seen as the father of modern protest music, inspiring GOAT artists such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. 

“Yes, 'n' how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, 'n' how many deaths will it take till he knows
that too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind” - ("Blowin' in the wind", Bob Dylan)

Unlike the previous two large scale wars, many Americans simply could not find a justification for the Vietnam War. There was a growing resentment against the government in the fact that Americans had not faced a Pearl Harbor this time, that is, a direct attack on their country. Families had already been ripped apart once or twice before. Not only this, but a new, teenage culture was born out of the war and transformed and molded by the civil rights movement and counterculture of the 50s and 60s. Along with “Blowin’ in the Wind”, Dylan wrote a myriad of anti war songs that help fuel the protests that includes “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and “Masters of War”.

Along with Dylan helping fuel the fire, artists such as Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Tom Paxton were early adopters of protesting. The first anti-war rally is considered to have happened in Washington in April 1965 where all of these artists performed. Rather than “fueling the fire”, they metaphorically burned the whole thing to the ground. After this, artists were unified in their justified hatred for the nonsensical war, and protest music hit airwaves to the dismay of the government and its failed censorship attempts. 

"How many dead men will it take
To build a dike that will not break?
How many children must we kill
Before we make the waves stand still” - ("Saigon Bride", Joan Baez)

Other folk artists such as Phil Ochs and Pete Seeger were making anti-war music before Vietnam even happened and gladly hopped on board to help spread the movement, with a little bit of humor. Ochs was extremely successful during this period with satirical yet blunt takes on the military-industrial complex with songs like “Draft Dodging Rag”, which provides a list of reasons why this young man can not serve (all reasons that Ochs describes are actual escapes that someone could use) and “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”, which dives into the short history of this country focusing on the wars we have waged in the relatively small amount of time humans have been around. The FBI kept tabs on him ever since this song’s release until his death in 1976, which shows the significance he had on the general public and the irony of the government. While Seeger helped pioneer the “reinvented folk” of the ’60s, he joined the party writing facetious lyrics about a group of soldiers pushed forward to their death by an overly enthusiastic officer. “Waist Deep in Muddy Waters” was a smash hit and played at anti-war rallies around the country. 

Authors and Vietnam veterans Craig Warner and Doug Bradley describe in a podcast that the radio was that universal connection to America, providing them solace or release; a certainty in an uncertain place. However, it wasn’t the songs such as “Fortunate Son” or “The End” that were fantasized in movies like Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket, but rather the songs longing for home, like “Leaving on a Jet Plane “or “My Girl”. No one needed to tell them the horrors of war, quite the opposite in reality. They did not want a reminder that they were a pawn in a game with no ending.

Even the songs that did depict war did not elicit a response of trauma, it was about that raw emotion you get from the instruments clashing with one another in songs like “Purple Haze”. One soldier remembers, “…radio made a year in Vietnam less isolating and more manageable.” And it was everywhere. Broadcasts reached from US camps, to helicopters, to Saigon bars. Hoards of people singing “Soul Man” in unison united them. Not united to fight the enemy, but rather a united, fleeting moment of joy. It’s like that scene in Top Gun where they are all at the bar singing together, moments before putting their lives on the line. Music is what made Vietnam a universal experience for the soldiers. What went on inside the individual minds of each one is something that should never be experienced. But the connection to one another came through the tunes of love, home, and happiness. It provided solace in heads that were filled with stories of violence, many of which were never told to their family and friends. In the playlist down below, you can see the expansive variety that was created at the time. Some songs meant the world to some while nothing was gained by others. I think what best exemplifies this is by looking to film. Compare the soulful soundtrack to the recently released Spike Lee joint Da 5 Bloods, to the orchestral Deer Hunter, to the folk and rock played in Apocalypse Now. Each film has a unique story told, and the authenticity of that story, even if it is fiction, is garnered through the music.

“3 days of peace and music.” While Woodstock was advertised as hippied-out festival full of flowers and cannabis, it was an anti-war festival through and through. Richie Haven, the festival’s opening act, finished his set with a 5 minute ad-lib of “Freedom”. “The word freedom came out of my mouth because this was our real particular freedom,” he says in an interview with NPR’s Tony Cox. “We’d finally made it to above ground” he continues, describing the freedom he wanted for the soldiers of the war. Jefferson Airplane while on stage called for volunteers for the revolution in their anti-war anthem “Volunteers”, and Country Joe and the Fish ended the second set on Saturday with their satirical “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag”, an explicitly anti-Vietnam War song that asked, “what are we fighting for”?  What can be seen as the pinnacle of the festival was Jimi Hendrix’s radical, blistering performance of “The Star Spangled Banner”, which eclipsed regular music and became an anthem for the peaceniks and hippies. The screeching high on “land of the free” and dive bombs on “rockets red glare” make this rendition one-of-a-kind and way sicker than slaveowner bum Francis Scott Key could have ever done.

Richard Nixon was elected on the idea that he would pull out of the war, something that put hope in the hearts of those whose family and friends were overseas. So when he announced in 1970 that he would be sending thousands of troops to Cambodia, many were upset. May 4th in Kent was the accumulation of a four-day protest of these events, and it eventually ended with four students being shot dead right on campus. “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young was an immediate reaction to the shooting, and I believe it is the perfect protest song. The lyrics are very poignant and direct, the song was written out of pure frustration and anger by Neil Young with the whole war itself. Marvin Gaye shared the same sentiment. Between this shooting and him reading the horrors overseas by his drafted brother Frankie, Gaye simply could not believe any of it. “Have you read about these kids who were killed at Kent State? I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stop crying,” he tells his producer Anna Gaye in his book. His reaction to the apocalyptic nature of American society? What’s Going On, one of the greatest albums of all time and a perfect encapsulation of life at that time.

Protest music of the Vietnam War had a profound impact not only at the time, but for music as a whole going forward. Coinciding with the psychedelic era and the creation of modern rock, this music helped put into words America’s frustration with its government and the horrors it brought to its millions of volunteers. It shaped the landscape sonically for what was going to come for the next 50 years and paved the way for artists to join the fight politically and socially. The revolution will not be televised, it will be heard.

Mason Zeller is a .WAV staff member, he wrote the article. Renee Kao is .WAV’s Creative Director, she made the cover art.