War impacts art. We see this in movie adaptations, books, paintings and in this case music. As war currently rages in Europe, I turn my gaze back to a time when conflict left its mark on society and created a time capsule of spirited sounds with a message and hope for it to end. But what happened in the sixties and early seventies has not happened since, which makes what happened in Vietnam a focal point – this is not a celebration of conflict, it is quite the opposite. Today we are looking at the greatest anti-war songs.
The Vietnam War raged from November 1955 to April 1974. Over 58,000 American soldiers died out of the 2.7 million that were sent, with approximately 225,000 Vietnamese soldiers losing their lives – not including civilians. This war ignited a tension within America, alongside the unrest that erupted from the Civil Rights Movement. It is no surprise then, that tragedy formed the basis and inspiration for so many artists.
Then again, the sixties was a time when music shifted. Bands experimented with sound and ideas freely. From Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds to The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper, possibilities were projected and radicalized from recording studios. But, it was not simply pop or rock music that became a vessel for the anti-war movement – it seeped into other genres such as blues, soul, folk and jazz. The following edition of The Playlist highlights those different styles of music and equally how war affects all sides of society.
Here are the greatest anti-war songs in history.
‘War’ – Edwin Starr
This honest and incendiary track by Edwin Starr hit the top of the US charts for 15 weeks in 1970. A Motown classic which perfectly summed up the anger of the anti-war movement.
‘Stoned Love’ – The Supremes
This plea for the people of the world to stop all conflicts, came late in The Supremes’ career. A post-Diana Ross version as a three-piece which lit up the charts one last time.
‘What’s Goin’ On’ – Marvin Gaye
From one of the greatest albums of all time, the title track is a cry for peace and solidarity in a twisted world. This was not only Marvin Gaye’s finest moment but music.
‘Living For The City’ – Stevie Wonder
This double Grammy winning track from Wonder’s 1973 album Innervisions captures the fragility and honesty of the shattered American dream.
‘Ball Of Confusion’ – The Temptations
The Temptations turned a corner in 1970 with this colossal moment. With the added title of ‘That’s What The World Is Today’, it sums up perfectly the frustrations of those witnessing the impact of conflict.
‘Gimme Shelter’ – The Rolling Stones
The Stones finest moment, and perhaps their greatest song. This stands out as an English band influenced in some part by a war involving America alongside the isolation and paranoia of the day.
‘The Unknown Soldier’ – The Doors
The Doors never shied away from expressing themselves through music, and Morrison ruled supreme when this track rang across the airwaves. A song which builds to an end to the war or strangely the victory which is achieved.
‘The “Fish” Cheer / I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die’ – Country Joe & The Fish
A memorable and stand out from the ’69 Woodstock Festival, this song is cited as the greatest moment of the counterculture movement.
Its lyrics still hit home and hit hard:
“And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn
Next stop is Vietnam.”
‘Fortunate Son’ – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Creedence released this at the height of the Vietnam War. A song which showed solidarity with the soldiers fighting and how the rich and powerful were able to protect their children from having to fight.
‘Ohio’ – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
America’s answer to The Beatles were in the stratosphere of success when they released this banger that became an anthemic cry. It tells the story of the four killed on May 4, 1970 in Kent, Ohio, at an anti-Vietnam demonstration.
‘Waist Deep In The Big Muddy’ – Pete Seeger
A song with a title such as this needs little in the way of an explanation. The late Pete Seeger made his intentions clear through other folk classics such as ‘Bring ‘Em Home’, though he was at his most direct and gritty here.
‘Masters Of War’ – Bob Dylan
For an artist who never claimed he set out to become a protest singer, Bob Dylan created some inspiring anti-war moments. This track from his early days is perhaps one of the best.
‘Handsome Johnny’ – Richie Havens
Songwriter Havens, alongside actor and Oscar winner Louis Gossett Jr. penned this track about a protagonist Handsome Johnny marching to war in Vietnam and through civil rights struggles.
‘Saigon Bride’ – Joan Baez
This song, taken from Baez’s ’67 album Joan, remains as haunting as ever. Based on a poem by Nina Duscheck which Baez put to music, it became one of many the great lady performed in protest to a war. But this one just transcends the atypical protest piece.
‘Moratorium’ – Buffy Sainte-Marie
This folk-blues song by Buffy Sainte-Marie, found its way onto her 1971 album She Used To Be A Ballerina is both touching and inspired. A finale that is everything good in music reflecting the horror of war:
“Yes soldier we’re afraid,
We’re not just bein’ fools.
We’re gassed and beaten here at home,
We’ve got to change the rules”.
Listen to the full playlist below.