The ability to create music both entertaining and politically insightful lingers in the minds of informed musicians. From the Vietnam War to the loss of American lives on the Iraqi front lines, musicians have voiced their opinions to millions willing to listen. Culturally relevant songs often become anthems of the times.
A wave of anti-war music rose in the early ’60s at a time when America experienced shaky relations with Vietnam.
Peter, Paul and Mary first performed “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” in 1962. The song, originally written by front man Pete Seeger in 1955, raised questions about what was happening to the U.S. soldiers sent overseas.
The following year, groundbreaking folk singer Bob Dylan used his musical talent to express his feelings about the situation in Vietnam. “Masters of War” was a harsh criticism on the military practices of political leaders.
Dylan became a political icon for anti-war activists. On Oct. 31, 1964, less than three months after the Gulf of Tonkin incident (which was the final push toward U.S. involvement) changed America’s opinions of the situation in Vietnam, he performed a live concert at Philharmonic Hall in New York City. This legendary concert brought fans closer to Dylan’s political agenda. His anti-war ambition waned in the years following the concert, but Dylan’s music remained inspirational to those protesting U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
As the reality of war in the small communist country sunk in with the American public, open forums on college campuses encouraged students and young musicians to actively speak out.
In 1965 Country Joe & The Fish released “I-Feel-Like-I’m-a-Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” an intelligent criticism of young men who elected to serve in the war. The song became an anthem for the anti-war movement and remained on the Billboard Top 100 Charts for two years after its initial debut.
Musical greats such as Phil Ochs, Simon and Garfunkel and Creedence Clearwater Revival voiced their opposition to the war throughout the late ’60s. In early 1968, The Doors released “The Unknown Soldier,” which was banned from the airwaves. A year after, hippies cheered as John Lennon and Yoko Ono urged scores of Americans to “Give Peace a Chance.”
People of the Vietnam War era can testify to the substantial impact that protest songs had on America, especially its youth. Experts often argue that politically fueled music swayed U.S. opinion and was an important factor in America’s pulling out of Southeast Asia.
Anti-war songs were popular, flooding the airwaves throughout the duration of the war in Vietnam. Now, as U.S. soldiers brave the frontline in Iraq, a resurgence of politically motivated tunes include Willie Nelson, Lenny Kravitz and Green Day.
Today’s pro-peace anthems, however, have essentially escaped the mainstream. The producers of major award shows, including the Grammys, have discouraged participants from making any political statements during performances or acceptance speeches.
Because of the lack of interest by major media outlets, many people are unaware anti-war music is alive as much today as it was in the ’60s.
Zack de la Rocha (Rage Against the Machine) and DJ Shadow produced “March of Death” last year as an opposition to the Bush administration’s involvement in Iraq. In it, de la Rocha raps “Here it comes the sound of terror from above/ He flex his Texas twisted tongue/ The poor lined up to kill in desert slums/ For oil that burn beneath the desert sun.”
Also in 2003, the Beastie Boys released “In a World Gone Mad,” the group’s first recorded song since 1999. The song takes several stabs at Bush and condemns fighting in Iraq.
Even musicians who haven’t recorded songs implicating an anti-war stance have formed an alliance to stop the fighting overseas. Musicians United to Win Without War was founded by Def Jam founder Russell Simmons. The array of pro-peace activists involved in the project includes Outkast, Fugazi, Nas, Dave Matthews, Lou Reed and Jay-Z.
Americans treasure their right to free speech. Unfortunately, today’s entertainment industry uses popular music to deepen its pockets rather than to shed light on situations that affect the nation’s people.
Perhaps the industry fears the backlash that might ensure should a record company be outrageous enough to make a dramatic statement about the situation in Iraq.
It would be refreshing to see more musicians to come forth from the shadows and share an opinion through their music, whether it is pro-peace or pro-war.
More of today’s entertainers should look to the influential performers of the past to help find a voice in the mainstream music market.
Media images serve as painful reminders of the bloodshed overseas and inspire song lyrics intended for a generation of informed citizens. Musicians realize the influence they have and continue to use their voices, just as Vietnam protesters did forty years ago.