Vietnam War Protest Songs: Relevant Then, Relevant Today

kent state

“What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground …”

b. traven, Greg Laxer, and Mike Murry

Editor’s note: We wanted to share with our readers an off-line conversation some of our regulars had regarding protest songs and the Vietnam War.  Back then, songs really meant something.  We encourage you to write about your own favorite protest songs in the “comments” section below.  Thanks.

b. traven:  I was opposed to the Vietnam war and was attracted to the new lifestyle arising among our county’s youth. So I went to rock concerts with my kids, worked with BEM (Business Executives for Vietnam Peace), and loved the music of that time.

One particular piece of music combined all of these things. I recorded it on my tape player for which I had built a slot on the cabin hatchway on my racing yacht. When we were on a long night race I would play this piece over and over because its drive, melody, and words kept me ginned up when I was alone at the helm at midnight.

I’m talking about Les McCann’s anti-Vietnam war song, “Compared to What.”  It had the passion that was needed back then to deal with that catastrophic war. Five decades later its words and passion still resonate.

Les McCann, Compared to What

“The President has got his war…”  The song was bitter, sardonic, and as true then as it is today.

Greg Laxer: “The President, he’s got his war; Folks don’t know just what it’s for; They never give us rhyme or reason; Havin’ one doubt, they call it treason!”  I pretty well know that one by heart, traven, and quote it in my memoir! Actually, it was written by Gene McDaniels–had pop music hits with “A Hundred Pounds of Clay” and “Tower of Strength.” The song came to the jazz world’s attention from the live rendition at Montreux Festival, 1969, Les McCann with saxophonist Eddie Harris. The album was called Swiss Movement (Atlantic Jazz) and is still available on CD.

There have been fairly recent recordings of the song, since it doesn’t lose its relevance (sad to say). I once found the record (as a “single”) on a California jukebox, but since Ronald Reagan was governor at the time, the word “Goddammit” was bleeped out every time! Ain’t that a hoot? True story, my friend.

Mike Murry: Thanks for the link to the song, Compared to What. It has a real jazzy feel to it, which I enjoy but do not especially relate to satirical or polemical songs, generally. Regarding the period in question — and afterwards — I have some favorites that now have YouTube videos to accompany the music and lyrics.

First off: after the National Guard shooting of protesting students at Kent State, we got “Ohio,” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. My favorite lyric from that song:

“What if you knew her and/Found her dead on the ground? How can you run when you know?”

I think of those lines whenever I see again in my mind that picture of the little Syrian boy washed up dead on the beach after trying to escape with his family from the American-produced and -conducted carnage and chaos in his country.


A migrant child’s dead body lies off the shores in Bodrum, southern Turkey, on September 2, 2015 after a boat carrying refugees sank while reaching the Greek island of Kos.  AFP PHOTO / DOGAN NEWS AGENCY

I feel like I knew and loved him. I know, and I’ve nowhere to run from the awful image.

Ohio – Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

As I may have related to you previously, I used to serve on a submarine tender, the U.S.S. Sperry, moored at Ballast Point, San Diego back in 1968. A friend of mine had rented a little houseboat at a local marina and some evenings after knocking off ship’s work we would go over there to relax and have a beer while watching TV or listening to music on the stereo. Whenever President Lyndon Johnson would come on the television, though, my friend would turn down the volume to zero and put a record on the turntable, a song called “Nothing,” by The Fugs. Then we would sit back and watch that motherless  Johnson moaning his inane lies with that hound dog face and southern-drawl shit in his mouth while the stereo screamed out: “NOTHING! NOTHING! NOTHING! NOTHING!”

Nothing – the Fugs

Also from the late nineteen-sixties, a real, rousing anthem called “Fortunate Son,” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. That one still plays well today.

“Some folks inherit star-spangled eyes/Then they send you down to war.

And when you ask them ‘How much should we give?’ All they ever answer is MORE! MORE! MORE! MORE! MORE!”

Precisely my summation of the U.S. military in a single word: “MORE!”

Fortunate Son – Creedence Clearwater Revival

Finally, something from later on towards the end of the 1980s, something of a great trash job on those evangelical Christian preachers exhorting war. You know, like the ones who pretty much form the heart (if not the spleen) of the Republican Party:

Defenders of the Flag – Bruce Hornsby and the Range

This year’s U.S. election cycle will do little but determine which war-slut or warlock to keep funneling “MORE!” to our inept, blundering military.

b. traven: Thanks for the song links, Mike. My favorite of CSN&Y was “Wooden Ships.” I turn that song on now and it transports me to those days. The melody is haunting and the words mysterious. The times were tense but there was hope in the air. I was in my forties and feeling that anything was possible.

I started “Communication workers for peace,” which involved young people from all the big advertising and PR firms. I was very active in BEM (Business Execs for Vietnam Peace) writing our ads and lobbying in Washington. Things were changing for the better. There was a lot of hope in the air in spite of the catastrophe of the war.

Today, young people aren’t organized sufficiently to meet the oppressive state. As a Jew I can’t help noticing that Jews, who were a big part of the backbone of the anti-Vietnam war effort and many other social justice issues, are largely absent from the trenches of opposition. All I see around me are greed, fear, and ignorance of history.

I do not have a very upbeat view of what lies ahead. There will be war, chaos, and violent social unrest. Nothing good can come of that, history has shown. I am glad I have lived this long to see and live in two centuries. But I am very sad to see our country and the world move back to the dangerous world fascism brought in 1939.

Nowadays in America, ignorance is king and knowledge is kaput.

Greg Laxer:  Sad to say I think your vision of what’s coming down the road is pretty firmly baked in the cake, traven. Our fellow citizens would rather embrace any kind of right-wing lunacy–like Obama conspiring to take their guns away, or targeting Muslims (“the new Jews”?) as the cause of all our problems–than suck it up, find some internal backbone, and take on the real enemy, which is the Established Order.

I have one more protest song to add to our list: Country Joe & The Fish’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” which many, many GIs were familiar with and fond of.

“I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die,” Country Joe & The Fish

The next stop is Viet Nam – or is it Afghanistan?  What are we fightin’ for, indeed.

I don’t know how many more years on Earth I’ll be allotted, but I’m very confident I won’t see a utopia erupt before my eyes. Good health to you.

Greg Laxer and Mike Murry are veterans of the Vietnam War era, and b. traven is co-founder of The Contrary Perspective and a World War II veteran.

17 thoughts on “Vietnam War Protest Songs: Relevant Then, Relevant Today

  1. Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” is hard to beat.

    I also like the thematic guitar on this cover, although the sound quality is poor.

  2. Peter, Paul & Mary, Buffy Saint Marie, Creedence, The Stones, Melanie– just off the Top of my Head being a Vietnam Era Vet myself helps. Now I’m seeing My Security Forces Air Force Brothers & Sisters being Killed & Maimed in the latest engagements, but when I was in 73- 77 I saw the Air Police coming back from Nam. were “Untouchables” still wore their Jungle Fatigues, Boots, Blacked -Out Stripes!. I admired their Cool being still a Teenager, and impressionable. Remarkable the perspective of being in my Sixth Decade now has tempered those thoughts. I always was amused at something my Father related back then “If you want to get in a Fight Go to a Peace Rally”, but he was right. Now the General Citizenry has no skin in the game so to speak so who cares!!?? Well we do cause We were there. Plus I have seen Brother Firefighters, who had their lives shortened due to the Agent Orange defoliant, and heard many stories that I could relate in a Book- if i wanted to, but I would never betray their Trust — so many. How the D.I.’s treated the Draftees better than the ones who Enlisted because they never wanted to be there…!

  3. Pingback: Vietnam War Protest Songs: Relevant Then, Relevant Today | philastore

  4. Well, there is always the National Anthem of GIs in Vietnam: Eric Burdon and the Aminals: “We Gotta Get Out of This Place! (if it’s the last thing we ever do!”, which every bar band in Southest Asia knew by heart.

    And of course there is my old friend, the late great Phil Ochs.

    “I Ain’t A Marchnin’ Anymore!” –

    “The Draft Dodger Rag” –

    “What Are You Fighting For?” –

    And his greatest, “There But For Fortune: –

    Excellent political commentary that is still very relevant:

    “Love Me, I’m A Liberal” –

  5. Reading the article reminded me of an anti-war song from 1971, the year that I turned 18 and had to register for the draft: Freda Payne’s “Bring the Boys Home.” Listening to it now takes me back to the spring of ’71. Another song from that era that also comes to mind is “War (What is it good for)” by Edwin Starr. Other musicians recorded it as well, but, his version was the most compelling.

  6. “I’d Love to Change the World” by Ten Years After.

    just black and white, rich or poor
    them and us, stop the war

  7. we have too many wars today with contractors at stake and limited numbers of those so that the body politic doesn’t get upset.

    so the whole upheaval continues until blowback blows out the fires started

  8. Note: Jaundice: a state of mind or attitude characterized by satiety, distaste, or hostility
    (synonyms: animosity, animus, antagonism, antipathy, bad blood, bitterness, gall, grudge, enmity, rancor)

    “Charles Oman, in his classic study of war, spoke of the veterans of the battles of the Middle Ages as ‘the best of soldiers while the war lasted … [but] a most dangerous and unruly race in times of truce or peace.'” — Robert Jay Lifton, Home from the War: Vietnam Veterans, neither victims nor executioners

    I never wrote a truly anti-war song, but as a returned veteran from another of America’s senseless slaughters, I did try to make one out the popular Civil War song, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” Hence:

    When Jaundice Comes Marching Home

    When Jaundice comes marching home once more,
    Guffaw! Guffaw!
    We’ll know what its masters have in store,
    Guffaw! Guffaw!
    A shiver of terror to run up the spine,
    At the thought of what’s next if we don’t fall in line
    Oh they’d like us scared when
    Jaundice comes marching home

    When Jaundice comes snarling home this time
    Guffaw! Guffaw!
    We’ll spit in its face with a jeering rhyme
    Guffaw! Guffaw!
    Our leaders who screwed up and shot our wad
    Will tell us they did it for country and GAWD
    But we’ll know they lie when
    Jaundice comes snarling home

    When Jaundice comes limping home to hate
    Guffaw! Guffaw!
    The wars that it lost and the shit on its plate
    Guffaw! Guffaw!
    The ones who deployed it to bomb and kill
    Now find that they’ve used up the easy thrill
    So they’ll have to hide when
    Jaundice comes limping home

    When Jaundice comes sneaking home to hide
    Guffaw! Guffaw!
    The failure and waste and our wounded pride
    Guffaw! Guffaw!
    Of no further use is the man in pain
    Who can’t be recruited to do it again
    So avert your eyes when
    Jaundice comes sneaking home

    When Jaundice has marched in its last parade
    Guffaw! Guffaw!
    And laid down to sleep in the endless shade
    Guffaw! Guffaw!
    We’ll have us a wake for the late deceased
    From whose awful clutches we’re now released
    And we won’t breathe free till
    Jaundice has died at home

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2012

  9. Thomas Rapp sreaming Uncle John, Uncle John, Uncle John in:

    Pearls Before Swine: Uncle John (album One Nation Underground, 1967)

  10. Having been away from Internet for a few days, I’ve only just caught up on the Comments. I had originally wanted to add the following (which no one else has raised), which the Editor chose to excise in search of something like brevity, there being so many good candidates. “What About Me?,” from Quicksilver Messenger Service, was a great anthem for my generation, touching on societal ills beyond just war; Eric Burdon & The Animals’ “Sky Pilot” was a stinging putdown of the role of military chaplains in blessing (literally) the carnage in Southeast Asia. NOTE: The same band’s “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” is a commentary on British working class life, had nothing to do with Vietnam whatsoever. Having heard “When I Was Young” on the radio last week nudged me into buying a CD compilation of Animals’ greatest hits, to replace my old LP. And, of course, my man Phil Ochs almost had a monopoly on specific anti-Vietnam War ballads, but couldn’t be heard on commercial radio.

    • You’re indeed right that “We Gotta Get Outta This Place” was not written with Vietnam in mind. It was, however, adopted by the troops who were there as having a sentiment that expressed their sentiments on the subject.

  11. I am a Vietnam veteran and opponent of American militarism. I must encourage readers to check out a recent book, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War” by Doug Reynolds and Craig Hester. I will also suggest your list should include “American Tune” by Simon & Garfunkel.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s