Above photo credit: Lou Eisenbrandt
On May 26, 1962, the easy-listening instrumental “Stranger on the Shore” by Mr. Acker Bilk ascended to the top of the Billboard singles chart and went on to become the most popular song of the year. Along with other hits like Percy Faith’s “Theme from ‘A Summer Place’” (the top song of 1960), it embodied the spirit of the peaceful and prosperous post-war age. Wistful and well-mannered, these songs were cardigan sweaters for the soul, the tranquil new soundtrack for soldiers who had earned their suburban solitude after saving the world from Axis tyranny.
Soon thereafter, though, tranquility gave way to turmoil when a series of cataclysms cut short America’s reverie. On Oct. 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy announced a naval blockade of Cuba that pushed the nation to the verge of nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union. On Sept. 15, 1963, four young African-American girls were killed when a bomb exploded at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. On Nov. 22, 1963, President Kennedy was slain by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas. And on Aug. 10, 1964, the United States Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which plunged the country headlong into the deepening Vietnam conflict, a war that would ultimately take the lives of more than 58,000 Americans and test the nation’s very conception of itself.
Mr. Acker Bilk would never again have a major American hit.
As America was coming apart, its largest generation was coming of age. By the early 1960s, the teenage children of World War II veterans had coalesced into an economic and cultural leviathan, one that demanded its own music and voices. And when uncertainty, fear and despair began to cast shadows across the world, the second wave of rock and roll artists arrived with music that reflected the new generation’s concerns, including going off to war in a place they did not know and for reasons they might not fathom. In 1956, Elvis sang of a hound dog. In 1963, Dylan warned of a hard rain.
On Thursday, Oct. 19, The Bridge will present Vietnam Reverberations: Stories and Songs, an 11-hour event that will combine the memories of men who were there with the music of the time, plus Jon Hart’s interviews with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, directors of the 18-hour PBS documentary “The Vietnam War.”
As befits a chaotic and confusing war, the music of the Vietnam era presents a complicated and contradictory narrative, one that reflects a schism in Americans’ perception of the conflict and an evolving understanding of its costs. The songs portray the tension of the times, sometimes arguing with each other in fits and starts of righteousness and rage, dissent and denial, and, ultimately, a long, slow reckoning.
Here are just a few of the songs that have helped to define one of the most difficult periods in American history.
Bob Dylan, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (1963)
Written in the summer of 1962, the song that opens the Burns and Novick documentary is a prophecy, not a reaction. Combining dazzling apocalyptic imagery with a decided lack of specificity, “Hard Rain” is ominous and foreboding but also elusive. It announces that something terrible is coming, through lines like “I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’” and “Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world.” But the song never tells you just what that terrible thing is, which allows listeners to project their own fears onto it. In that way, even if the song wasn’t written specifically about the war and the fissures that would grow in the American psyche over the next few years, it came to be about those things in retrospect. Still, the line “I met a young woman whose body was burning” makes it seem that Dylan was an oracle in the way it evokes one of the war’s most iconic and harrowing images — one that wouldn’t happen for another 10 years.
Sgt. Barry Sadler, “The Ballad of the Green Berets” (1966)
Not all songs about the Vietnam War, not even the most popular ones, were protests. In fact, the No. 1 song of 1966 was a salute to members of the Army’s elite Special Forces unit, and an elegy for one killed in combat. Written and sung by active-duty Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler with ramrod-straight reverence, this hymn to the honor of the American soldier spoke for huge swaths of the populace. “Silver wings upon their chest / These are men, America’s best / One hundred men will test today / But only three win the Green Beret.”
Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth” (1967)
Much like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” this is a song that became about Vietnam after the fact. Written by Stephen Stills in response to the Sunset Strip curfew riots of 1966, it was nonspecific enough to apply to the various conflicts of the decade, and its evocation of confusion (“Something’s happening here / What it is ain’t exactly clear”) perfectly reflected the feelings of a great many Americans who couldn’t make sense of the growing war in southeast Asia. Consistent with that sense of confusion, Stills doesn’t explicitly take sides (“Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong”) and he offers no solutions, just a call to awareness: “Everybody look what’s going down.”
Country Joe & The Fish, “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” (1967)
No one failed to understand the stakes of World War II. But for a generation of kids being drafted into service, the reasons to fight in Vietnam proved more elusive. In one sense, “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” comes off like a novelty song. But in another, it stands as the perfect anthem for the soldier who has no idea what he’s gotten himself into. Being plucked out of school and dropped into a far-off land where people are lining up to kill you had to feel both absurd and terrifying. The song’s nervous laughter was a wholly appropriate response.
Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Fortunate Son” (1969)
Vietnam was the last American war that featured soldiers conscripted into service, but unlike World War II — where seemingly an entire generation fought for freedom — there was a widespread feeling that the sons of the privileged class were often able to escape service through deferments and pulled strings. Believing that poor kids were being drafted to fight a rich man’s war, John Fogerty wrote this blistering anthem. “I ain’t no senator’s son,” he sings, “I ain’t no fortunate one.”
Merle Haggard, “The Fightin’ Side of Me” (1970)
Recorded two days before Christmas in 1969, Merle Haggard’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me” contained the same spirit as his “Okie From Muskogee,” which had been put to tape five months earlier. Emblematic of a growing cultural divide in which country music gave voice to small-town values that rejected protests against the war, Haggard lashed out against those “harping on the wars we fight” and advised “if you don’t love it, leave it.” Those values would be put to the test just a few months later.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “Ohio” (1970)
By the dawn of the new decade, the fissures in American society were undeniable. 1968 alone had seen the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, plus the Tet Offensive and the massacre at Mai Lai, events that shook the country. A wave of antiwar activism grew, and further protests were fueled by President Nixon’s announcement on April 30, 1970 that the war effort would expand into Cambodia. At Ohio’s Kent State University, protests to Nixon’s announcement began on May 1 and continued for days. Some violence on the first night gave rise to rumors of more dramatic violence to come, and Governor Jim Rhodes ordered the Ohio National Guard to help contain and quell the dissent. On May 4, members of the National Guard fired on protestors assembled on campus, killing four. The slaughter spawned widespread protests across the country and provoked the rage of Neil Young, who responded with one of his most affecting songs, which Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young recorded just 17 days later. “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming / We’re finally on our own / This summer I hear the drumming / Four dead in Ohio.”
Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On” (1971)
The greatest masterpiece inspired by the war is almost certainly Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album “What’s Going On.” Gaye, whose brother Frankie served a long deployment in Southeast Asia, put himself in the shoes of a soldier returning from Vietnam and trying to make sense of a new version of America. The entire album is streaked with pain and confusion, beginning with the opening suite of “What’s Going On” and “What’s Happening Brother” which grapple with the war, protest, joblessness and feelings of dislocation. From there, Gaye reckons with problems that seemed even more intractable than before the war, from urban poverty (“Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”) to environmental crises (“Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”) to drug abuse (“Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)”). Consistently brilliant from moment to moment, “What’s Going On” is a profoundly great and important work.
John Prine, “Sam Stone” (1971)
After the Second World War, soldiers returned home to the joyful embrace of a grateful nation, but the men who fought in Vietnam experienced a more complicated re-assimilation into civilian life. There is no more harrowing portrait of life after war than this song from John Prine’s debut which details the tragic descent of a soldier living — and dying — with what we now know as PTSD. There is nothing anyone could write that would improve your understanding of Prine’s lyrics, so you’re encouraged to read them for yourself.
Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984)
The scars left by the war were so deep that the nation was still grappling with them a decade after its end. Those who hear only the chorus to “Born in the U.S.A.” have long mistaken it for a song voicing national pride, but the lyrics reflect something much darker, namely a Vietnam veteran in despair at his own joblessness and at the memory of a brother killed in the war. While so many of Springsteen’s songs offer the promise of something better beyond the horizon, this one is nothing but bleak. “I’m 10 years burning down the road,” he sings, “nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go.”
Hear a Spotify playlist of these songs:
—Michael Atchison writes about music for The Bridge. He is the author of three books, including the novel “Mellow Submarine,” which Publishers Weekly calls “a fast-paced delight.” He's on Twitter at @MichaelAtchison.