Consider at least four songs associated with the Vietnam War Protest Movement and discuss the qualities and conditions that contribute to its success and effectiveness as a song of social protest.
The 20th Century was a significant era of social Protest in the Western world. In this essay, I will focus on the Vietnam War Protest movement and discuss some of the influential protest songs of this period, the people that wrote them as well as those that delivered their messages. I will explore the qualities and the conditions of the songs that made them effective as songs of resistance and protest.
‘Blowin’ in the wind’, by Bob Dylan was releases in 1963 – long before the onset of the Vietnam War. Obviously this song was not written in protest of the Vietnam War (as it was written years before) but it is a song opposing war and oppression in a general sense. This can be seen in lines such as:
How many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever band?
How many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Thus it became one of the anthems of the Vietnam War Protest Movement (Werner, 2000).
The lyrics of this song are not as clear-cut or obvious in their meaning as some of the other protest songs I will examine. For example the main refrain ‘The Answer is blowing in the wind’ is vague and open to interpretation. I take it to mean that the answer – to all the rhetorical questions Dylan asks, is obvious; right there in front of us. The questions don’t actually require an answer, but rather promote thought and reflection. For instance, ‘how many times does a man turn his head?’ Dylan is not asking for an actual number in response but simply our attention to the question in the first place. The simple repetition of the words ‘how many’, helps to promote thought from the audience as well as provide poetic flow to the lyrics.
As with many folk singers and songwriters, Dylan uses music simply as a backdrop to his lyrics. The words are easy to understand and voiced clearly. This is an important aspect of such protest music. Protest songs are a form of social commentary, if they cannot be understood, what is the point of singing them? Sam Cooke, in Werner (2000) describes folk singers such as Dylan as having ‘a kind of ragged sincerity…. the folk singers may not sound good, but people believe them more.’ This integrity that developed in the folk music scene in the sixties help make the protest songs of the era such as Blowin in the Wind a success.
Peter Paul and Mary made Blowin in the Wind famous in 1963 where it ranked highly on the charts making if more widely recognised in the pop scene. By reaching a wider audience, artists like Dylan, Joan Baez (who performed with Dylan many times) and Peter, Paul and Mary, enabled people to become more aware of the political world. This is an important factor in the songs success as a protest song.
Although Bob Dylan was heavily into what would generally be described as protest music, he tried to rid himself of this label in the later half of the sixties. In Benson
(1998 pp. 131) He is stated to have said:
“I’m not an activist, I am not politically inclined. I am for people who are suffering. I don’t have any pull in the government.”
This being the case, his ‘protest songs’ had been released and whether he liked it or not, Bob Dylan was a folk-protest singer. Blowin in the Wind has been related to events from the civil rights movement, to the Vietnam and recently, the Iraq War. It is a timeless protest anthem with constant political relevance in today’s world.
Give Peace a chance, written by John Lennon, with the help of Yoko Ono (Lennon’s lover at the time), was one of the most significant anti-war anthems of the movement. The main message of the song is simple – Give peace a chance. This line is repeated in a slow, rhythmic, and easy to follow way that contrasts to the rest of the song.
The verses are quick, hard to follow and almost impossible to sing along to. This doesn’t matter however as it the rhythmic beat and the catchy main refrain that does most the work – ‘All we are saying, is give peace a chance’. The constant repetition and catchiness of this line, allows for people to join in easily – a feature of a good protest song. Once the main point of the song is easily established, the verses are there to allow further thought and reflection. Lennon talks about isms, makes up isms and jargonish terms to get his point across – Underneath all the jargon all we are saying is give peace a chance.
Lennon recorded this song during an eight-day bed in for peace from the 26th May to the 2nd June. Recorded in a room of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, with a simple recording set up, the song was released. The year was 1969 (Giuliano & Giuliano, 1998).
The success of this song was partly due to the fact that Lennon had already proven himself as a master of the music industry. He wanted to use his fame and celebrity status to reach an audience that had been previously unmoved by radical politics. He wanted protest pop music be available to the masses in a manner that made critical thinking attractive (Elliott, 1999).
After Lennon’s tragic death in 1980, Give peace a chance, re-entered the charts re-affirming it as a successful song in its own right as well as one of protest.
Feel like I’m fixing to Die Rag by Country Joe and the Fish is a very different protest song once again. It isn’t vague at all. The meaning is as clear as day and there is no question this song is specifically protesting the Vietnam War. Lyrics such as …next stop Viet Nam’ make this obvious. The lyrics are literal, brutal and telling it like it is:
Come on mothers throughout the land
pack your boys off to Viet Nam
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
The music is upbeat and cheery, contrasting with the content of the lyrics, which are horrific and sombre. This sarcastic and almost black comic combination works well in making this song shocking and effective in expressing the stance and position of resistance held by Country Joe and the Fish.
This song was performed at Woodstock in 1969 at the height of the anti Vietnam War movement. The audience were young people – potential soldiers in the war. By pleading with these people, the aim was to get the younger generation completely against the war so that there was no one to go and fight in Vietnam because the draftees would resist and stand up the American Government.
During the Woodstock performance of this song, the lead Singer Joe McDonald appeals to the massive crowed and motivates them all to join in and sing loudly. He says: ‘how do you ever think you’ll stop the war if you can’t even sing.’ This implies that the singing of protest songs in large volumes adds to their success and effectiveness. It certainly makes sense. The more people that hear the songs, learn the songs, and sing the songs, the more obvious the message of anti-war will be.
In complete contrast to The Fixin’ to die rag, What’s going on by Marvin Gaye is a ‘powerful, pure hearted protest (song) with a mournful mellow jazz-inspired groove’ (Creswell, 2995 pp. 611). The song was originally thought up by Renaldo Benson and later Marvin Gaye made it is own adding lyrics and spicing up the melody (Edmunds, 2001) In this song, Gaye (and Benson) simply ask the question – What’s Going on?
This alone is a rather general question, but when one looks deeper into the lyrics, it can be seen that the song is about mothers and fathers losing sons at war. It appeals to the audiences’ sense of family values. Although it does not specifically mention Vietnam, the conditions at the time suggest that Gaye was writing this song in direct protest to the Vietnam War and events surrounding it – for instance the death of Martin Luther King and President John Kennedy in April 1968 (Werner, 2000).
The long Piano solo, allows for thought and reflection. The jazzy groove, gives the song a tone of hopeful longing, pleading with the audience to feel hope rather than guilt and anger. There is an uplifting feel to the song that contrasts dramatically with songs such as The Fixin’ to Die Rag that are more brutal and angry.
Although Gaye uses some similar techniques to Dylan and Lennon, for example rhetorical questioning as in Blowin in the wind and repetition of the main refrain like Give peace a chance, the styles of these songs are completing different. This shows the diversity of the songs that existed in the protest movement and the way in which different songs and genres delivered similar messages.
As with Give peace a chance, the verses are not as easy to understand as they are in Blowin in the wind and the Fixin’ to Die Rag. It takes a bit more effort to establish the meaning behind the song. For instance, I have always known Blowin in the wind was a song protesting war and oppression. I have heard What’s going on? many times without realising it was a song of protest. It sounds to me more like a love song. In fact, as stated by Renaldo Benson in Edmunds (2001 pp. 96):
“My partners told me it was a protest song. I said no, man, it’s a love song, about love and understanding. I’m not protesting. I want to know what’s going on.”
Based on this statement it is fair to say that What’s Going On? wasn’t intended as a protest song but more of a song about humanity and love. For example: ‘For only love can conquer hate’. Having said this, all these factors simply add to its effectiveness as a tool for social protest.
I have looked at four rather different songs from an important era in music history – the anti Vietnam War movement. I have shown how different forms of protest music can have an impact on society in a powerful way. A combination of meaningful lyrics, musicality and artistic integrity and fame, makes these four songs effective and successful in terms of their protest against the Vietnam War.
Benson, C. (1998). The Bob Dylan Companion Four Decades of Commentary,
New York: Schirmer Books.
Creswell, T. (2005). 1001 Song The Great Songs of All Time, Prahan: Hardie Grant Books
Edmunds, B. (2001). What’s Going On? Marvin Gaye and the last days of the Motown Sound, Edinburgh: Canongate Books.
Elliott, A. (1999). The Mourning of John Lennon, Carlton South: Melbourne University Press.
Giuliano, B. & Giuliano, G. (1998). The Lost Lennon Interviews, London:
Werner, C. (2000). A Change is Gonna Come Music, Race and the Soul of America, Edinburgh: Cannongate Books.