Sunday marks fifty years since the first U.S. combat troops arrived in South Vietnam. To mark the anniversary of the war that changed America, I am doing a series of posts on the best histories, memoirs, movies, and novels about Vietnam. Today’s topic is protest songs. Much as poetry provides a window into the Allied mood during World War I, anti-war songs provide a window into the mood of the 1960s. It was one of anger, alienation, and defiance. Vietnam has continued to inspire songwriters long after the last U.S. helicopters were pushed into the East Vietnam Sea, but my interest here is in songs recorded during the war. So as much as I love Bruce Springsteen (“Born in the USA”) and Billy Joel (“Goodnight Saigon”), their songs don’t make this list. With that caveat out of the way, here are my twenty picks for best protest songs in order of the year they were released.
Bob Dylan, “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963). Dylan debuted a partially written “Blowin’ in the Wind” in Greenwich Village in 1962 by telling the audience, “This here ain’t no protest song or anything like that, ‘cause I don’t write no protest songs.” “Blowin’ in the Wind” went on to become possibly the most famous protest song ever, an iconic part of the Vietnam era. Rolling Stone magazine ranked “Blowin’ in the Wind” number fourteen on its list of the top 500 songs of all-time.
Phil Ochs, “What Are You Fighting For” (1963). Ochs wrote numerous protest songs during the 1960s and 1970s. In “What Are You Fighting For,” he warns listeners about “the war machine right beside your home.” Ochs, who battled alcoholism and bipolar disorder, committed suicide in 1976.
Barry McGuire, “Eve of Destruction” (1965). McGuire recorded “Eve of Destruction” in one take in spring 1965. By September it was the number one song in the country, even though many radio stations refused to play it. McGuire’s impassioned rendition of the song’s incendiary lyrics—“You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’”—helps explain its popularity. It still feels fresh fifty years later.
Phil Ochs, I Ain’t Marching Anymore (1965). Ochs’s song of a soldier who has grown sick of fighting was one of the first to highlight the generational divide that came to grip the country: “It’s always the old to lead us to the war/It’s always the young to fall.”
Tom Paxton, “Lyndon Told the Nation” (1965). Paxton criticizes President Lyndon Johnson for promising peace on the campaign trail and then sending troops to Vietnam. “Well here I sit in this rice paddy/Wondering about Big Daddy/And I know that Lyndon loves me so./Yet how sadly I remember/Way back yonder in November/When he said I’d never have to go.” In 2007, Paxton rewrote the song as “George W. Told the Nation.”
Pete Seeger, “Bring ‘em Home” (1966). Seeger, who died last year at the age of ninety-four, was one of the all-time greats in folk music. He opposed American involvement in the Vietnam War from the start, making his sentiment abundantly clear: “bring ‘em home, bring ‘em home.”
Arlo Guthrie, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” (1967). Who says that a protest song can’t be funny? Guthrie’s call to resist the draft and end the war in Vietnam is unusual in two respects: it’s great length (18 minutes) and the fact that it is mostly a spoken monologue. For some radio stations it is a Thanksgiving tradition to play "Alice’s Restaurant Massacree."
Joan Baez, “Saigon Bride” (1967). Baez set a poem by Nina Duscheck to music. An unnamed narrator says goodbye to his Saigon bride—which could be meant literally or figuratively—to fight an enemy for reasons that “will not matter when we’re dead.”
Country Joe & the Fish, “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die” (1967). Sometimes called the “Vietnam Song,” Country Joe & the Fish’s rendition of “Feel Like I’m Fixin to Die” was one of the signature moments at Woodstock. The chorus is infectious: “and it’s 1, 2, 3 what are we fighting for?/Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam.”
Pete Seeger, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” (1967). “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” has a nameless narrator recalling an army patrol that almost drowns crossing a river in Louisiana in 1942 because of their reckless commanding officer, who is not so fortunate. Everyone understood the allusion to Vietnam, and CBS cut the song from a September 1967 episode of the Smothers Brother Comedy Show. Public protests eventually forced CBS to reverse course, and Seeger sang “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” in a February 1968 episode of the show.
Richie Havens, “Handsome Johnny” (1967). Oscar-winner Lou Gossett, Jr. co-wrote the song about “Handsome Johnny with an M15 marching to the Vietnam War.” Havens’s rendition of the song at Woodstock is an iconic moment from the 1960s.
The Bob Seger System, “2+2=?” (1968). Still an obscure Detroit rocker at the time, Seger warned of a war that leaves young men “buried in the mud, off in a foreign jungle land.” The song reflected a change of heart on his part. Two years earlier he recorded “The Ballad of the Yellow Beret,” which begins “This is a protest against protesters.”
Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Fortunate Son” (1969). John Fogerty, CCR’s lead singer, says he was prompted to write “Fortunate Son” after seeing news coverage of the wedding of David Eisenhower and Julie Nixon. He wanted to protest the fact that not everyone would bear the burden of the war: “Some folks are born, silver spoon in hand.” In 2014, the Library of Congress added “Fortunate Son” to the National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
John Lennon, “Give Peace a Chance” (1969). Lennon’s first solo single after leaving The Beatles hit number 14 on the Billboard charts despite being recorded in one take in June 1969 while he and wife Yoko Ono were holding a “bed-in” in Montreal. Five months later, half a million people sang “Give Peace a Chance” at a protest rally against President Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War.
Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, “Ohio” (1970). Neil Young wrote “Ohio” in reaction to the Kent State University shootings on May 4, 1970 that left four students dead. The chorus “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming/We’re finally on our own/This summer I hear the drumming/Four dead in Ohio” kept the song off many AM radio station playlists. The song still managed to peak at number 14 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.
Edwin Starr, “War” (1970). “War” got straight to the point: “War, huh yeah/What is it good for?/Absolutely nothing, oh hoh, oh.” The song was originally written for The Temptations to release as a single but that idea got nixed out of fear of alienating the group’s fans. Too bad for The Temptations. “War” reached number one on the Billboard charts and ranked number five overall for 1970.
Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On” (1971). Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records and Gaye’s then brother-in-law, called “What’s Going On” the “worst thing I ever heard in my life.” Fortunately, a Motown sales executive disregarded his judgment and got the song into record stores. It became a hit. Rolling Stone magazine ranked “What’s Going On” number four on its list of the top 500 songs of all-time.
John Lennon, “Imagine” (1971). Lennon’s call to “Imagine all the people/Living life in peace” remains a radio staple more than four decades after it was recorded. Although it peaked at number three on the Billboard top 100 charts, BMI ranked it the 96th most played song on radio in the twentieth century, the only song on this list to make the top one hundred. Rolling Stone magazine ranked “Imagine” number three on its list of the top 500 songs of all-time.
Yes, I know. I left a lot of great songs off this list. So my apologies to fans of George Harrison (“Give Me Love”), Steppenwolf ( “Monster”), The Doors (“The Unknown Soldier), or Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods (“Billy Don’t Be a Hero”), among others. Feel free to list your favorites that I overlooked in the comments below.
For more suggested resources on the Vietnam War, check out the other posts in this series: