During the 1960s and early 1970s, there were hundreds of songs written to either convey support for the troops in Vietnam or express disdain for the government that had put them there. Some songs actually had nothing to say about the war at all, but were still embraced by the antiwar movement or the troops themselves because of the message or mood they conveyed. Here, we take a look at 10 of the best Vietnam War songs of all time.
10. Bobby Bare – Detroit City
It might not be the kind of protest song we associate with Vietnam, but few songs resonated with Vietnam vets quite as much as Bobby Bare’s Detroit City. Maybe it was Bare’s comforting delivery. Perhaps it was the poignant refrain “I wanna go home/I wanna go home/Oh how I wanna go home”… whatever it was, this country and western classic stayed hugely popular with troops long after it was released in 1963.
9. Edwin Starr – War
There were many, many songs written about the Vietnam War, some of which were for it and others of which were passionately against it. Of all the anti-war songs, War is perhaps the most vehement. There’s no ambiguity about lines like “War, what is it good for?/ Absolutely nothing,” and “War, it ain’t nothing but a heartbreaker/ War, friend only to the undertaker.” It was first recorded by the Temptations, but Starr’s intense rendition turned it into a major hit. Released in June 1970, it charted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts before going on to sell over 3 million copies.
8. Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
The inspiration for What’s Going On came from Four Tops member Renaldo “Obie” Benson after he witnessed police brutality and violence in People’s Park, Berkeley, during an anti-war protest. After voicing his concerns to his friend and songwriter Al Cleveland, Cleveland put Benson’s thoughts to music. The rest of the Four Tops rejected Benson’s request to record it, but Marvin Gaye, who’d been looking for something more substantial to get his teeth into ever since his brother Frankie had returned from Vietnam and his cousin had died there, jumped at the chance. Gaye tweaked the lyrics, altered the structure, and turned what was a good song into an astonishing story. Released in January 1971, What’s Going On was a smash hit, spending five weeks at the top of the Billboard R&B charts and one week at number one on the Cashbox pop chart.
7. Joan Baez – Saigon Bride
Bob Dylan may have written the protest songs that inspired a generation, but Joan Baez was the one who sang them on the marches. And when she wasn’t singing Dylan, she was singing songs like Saigon Bride, a poem written by Nina Duscheck and set to music by Baez herself. The song, which first appeared on Baez’s 1967 album Joan, wasn’t the first and it certainly wasn’t the last song Baez sang about the Vietnam War – in 1973, she even released an album (Where Are You Now My Son?) on which one side was entirely dedicated to recordings she’d made during a US bombing raid during her visit to Hanoi over Christmas 1972.
6. Country Joe MacDonald – I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag
As vietnamfulldisclosure.org says, one of the most memorable moments of Woodstock was Country Joe MacDonald’s solo performance of I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag, an unapologetically anti-Vietnam War song with one of the most anthemic choruses (“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”) of any protest song, ever. Although it was clearly aimed at the politicians, military officers, and industries that were profiting from the war while others suffered, Country Joe, a Navy veteran himself, always intended it “not as a pacifist song, but as a soldier’s song.” “It’s military humor that only a soldier could get away with,” he’s explained.
5. Gimme Shelter – The Rolling Stones
For all the slogans about peace and love, the sixties were a violent, dark era in many ways- something that may not have been pleasant to live through, but which provided rich fodder for songwriters. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones wrote the apocalyptic masterpiece Gimme Shelter after drawing inspiration from the Vietnam War. “Well, it’s a very rough, very violent era. The Vietnam War, ” he later told Rolling Stone. “Violence on the screens, pillage and burning. And Vietnam was not war as we knew it in the conventional sense. The thing about Vietnam was that it wasn’t like World War II, and it wasn’t like Korea, and it wasn’t like the Gulf War. It was a real nasty war, and people didn’t like it. People objected, and people didn’t want to fight it…(Gimme Shelter is) a kind of end-of-the-world song, really.”
4. Creedence Clearwater Revival – Fortunate Son
Fortunate Son, a counterculture anthem about the ruling elites who supported the war but weren’t willing to pay the same costs as other families, was inspired by the wedding of David Eisenhower’s grandson and then-President Richard Nixon’s daughter in 1968. Speaking about it years later to Rolling Stone, John Fogerty explained “Julie Nixon was hanging around with David Eisenhower, and you just had the feeling that none of these people were going to be involved with the war. In 1968, the majority of the country thought morale was great among the troops, and eighty percent of them were in favor of the war. But to some of us who were watching closely, we just knew we were headed for trouble.”
3. Jimi Hendrix Experience – Purple Haze
As thirteen.org says, maybe it was because he served in Southeast Asia himself that explained why Jimi Hendrix held such appeal with Vietnam vets. Or maybe it was because his guitar sounded like it belonged in Vietnam, conjuring images of purple smoke grenades and sizzling hot landing zones. Either way, songs like Purple Haze kept playing on jukeboxes around Vietnam for years after their release.
2. Buffalo Springfield – For What It’s Worth
For What It’s Worth may have been inspired by the Sunset Strip Riots of the late 1960s in Hollywood, but it became so emphatically embraced by the protest movement, its true origins came to play second fiddle to the anti-war mantle it took on. In the years since its release, it’s been used by so many films about 1960s America, just a few notes are enough to inspire thoughts of the counterculture.
1. The Animals – We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place
When We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place was released in 1965 by the Animals, it became an instant hit with US G.I.’s in Vietnam. It was played constantly by US Forces Vietnam Network disc jockeys, and by every band that turned up to entertain the troops. “We had absolute unanimity is this song being the touchstone. This was the Vietnam anthem. Every bad band that ever played in an armed forces club had to play this song,” one vet told historyhit.com.