The death of anti-war activist singer Pete Seeger at age 94 on Monday stirred a lot of memories among people of my generation. We bridged the gap between liking Ike and agonizing over a war in a little Asian country called Vietnam that few could locate on a map but which nonetheless drained this country of its innocence, its financial resources and worst of all, some 58,000 of her young men.
If the loss of 58,000 lives in the jungles of that country was tragic, the damage done to the psyche of the survivors who returned to an ungrateful country was worse by far. Veterans were spat upon, accused of killing babies, and even worse, denied medical and disability benefits by the Veterans Administration, a despicable act of neglect that forced thousands of our veterans into homelessness. Some thanks.
For one of the best histories of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, please read Bob Mann’s superb book A Grand Delusion: America’s Descent into Vietnam. It is without question the most definitive history of our most foolish, wasteful and unjust war ever written, beginning with the Truman administration and bringing us forward through Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford.
One thing that horrible war did give us, though, was some of the finest anti-war songs ever recorded, songs that our political leaders should take the time to listen to again and again whenever they consider sacrificing the lives of our young people by involving us in yet another senseless war for the benefit of the military-industrial complex about which President Eisenhower warned us as he left office more than half-a-century ago.
Seeger’s group, The Weavers, had a monster hit of Goodnight Irene, written by Shreveport’s Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly. Like him or loathe him, Seeger was at the forefront of war protest music with three of his biggest songs that became hits for other artists: Peter, Paul and Mary’s If I had a Hammer (Trini Lopez’s version doesn’t even register), the Byrds’ Turn! Turn! Turn! The third, Where Have All the Flowers Gone? was recorded by many artists, including the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, Johnny Rivers and Joan Baez, among others. His We Shall Overcome was not a song made famous by any one artist or group but instead was the anthem of the civil rights movement.
It was only appropriate that a host of up and coming performers would follow in Seeger’s activist footsteps in waging their campaigns against war and injustice with their music, whether classified as folk, protest or rock. Even blues singer John Lee Hooker got in on the movement with I Don’t Want to Go to Vietnam.
Bob Dylan is probably the elder statesman of the protest movement now that Seeger is gone. His songs Blowin’ in the Wind (also recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary) and The Times, they Are A-Changing define the protest songs of the 60s and 70s.
Arlo Guthrie, son of folk icon Woody Guthrie recorded Alice’s Restaurant in 1967 as an instruction manual on how to avoid the military draft and in the process, an expense paid trip to Vietnam (the secret was to get an arrest record, even for such a trifling offense as littering).
For pure, hard-driving rock ‘n’ roll protest songs, Creedence Clearwater Revival has to be considered the cream of the crop with Fortunate Son, Running through the Jungle and Have You Ever Seen the Rain?
The angriest war protest song of the entire Vietnam era was probably Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction and the most poignant had to be One Tin Soldier by The Original Caste. The lines “Go ahead and hate your neighbor/Go ahead and cheat a friend/Do it in the name of heaven/You can justify it in the end” speak as clearly to the greed and power grab mentality indicative of today’s society as it did in the 1970 movie Billy Jack.
When Bernie Taupin wrote the song Daniel, the song originally included a verse dealing with the Vietnam War but for whatever reason, the verse was removed prior to its being recorded by Elton John.
Not all songs about the Vietnam War were protest songs, of course. We will be forever stuck with super patriotic The Ballad of the Green Berets by Barry Sadler and of course there’s that butt-kicking favorite by Merle Haggard, Fightin’ Side of Me.
Johnny Cash got in on the war protest act, but he went all the way back to World War II with The Ballad of Ira Hayes, a chronicle of the exploitation of Native American Ira Hayes, one of the marines who helped raise the American flag over Iwo Jima.
My personal favorite post-Vietnam song is one called Old Hippie by the Bellamy Brothers which shares the mental anguish and disorientation suffered by Vietnam vets years after returning from the war.
Here are a few other classics and not-so-classics from America’s most unpopular war (so far). See how many you can remember:
War by Edwin Starr;
Universal Soldier by Donovan;
Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen;
For What it’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield;
Guns, Guns, Guns by The Guess Who;
I’m Your Captain by Grand Funk Railroad;
Kent State Massacre by Jack Warshaw;
Lay Down (Candles in the Rain) by Melanie;
Requiem for the Masses by The Association;
Sky Pilot by The Animals;
We Gotta Get Out of this Place by The Animals;
Bungle in the Jungle by Jethro Tull;
Give Peace a Chance by John Lennon;
Imagine by John Lennon;
Revolution by The Beatles;
Saigon by John Prine;
Shape of Things by The Yardbirds;
Paint it Black by The Rolling Stones;
Seasons in the Sun by Terry Jacks;
Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
There are others, of course, many others. The list is much longer and you can probably think of some that are not on this list.
But one thing is certain: Pete Seeger led the way. He was an original. All others only aspired to his ability to communicate and to channel his outrage in a song.