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Music and the Vietnam Anti-War Movement

Ron Widelec, Upper Division History Teacher

One of the key topics covered in the Vietnam War senior elective history class this year was the anti-war movement that developed during the war. Anti-war movements had sprouted up during other wars in American history, but none were ever as pervasive and effective as the anti-war activism during Vietnam. A primary reason for this success was the use of music to help convey the anti-war messaging of the movement to a far larger audience than activism alone.

During our unit on the anti-war movement, students learned about the activities taking place on college campuses, the links between the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement, the actions of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the widespread movement to stop the war among active-duty GIs. Students were then asked to create a digital anthology of music from the anti-war movement, providing analysis of songs and creating their own videos using images to help convey the songs meaning.

A still from a student-created video for "We Gotta Get Out of This Place"

A still from a student-created video for "We Gotta Get Out of This Place"

After spending some time listening to a variety of songs, the students settled on the following four:

  1. Pete Seeger’s “Bring Them Home”
  2. The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”
  3. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son”
  4. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”

Seeger’s folk classic “Bring Them Home” powerfully addresses the key demand of the anti-war movement—bringing the troops home from Vietnam—and directly seeks to deflect the common criticism that making such a demand was unpatriotic or “against the troops.” As the chorus of the song repeats throughout the song, “If you love your Uncle Sam, bring them home, bring them home, support the boys in Vietnam, bring them home, bring them home.” The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” was not written about the Vietnam War specifically. However, this rock anthem was quickly adopted by anti-war active GIs in Vietnam who connected the lyrics with their desire to go home as soon as possible. “Fortunate Son”, by Creedence Clearwater Revival, was intended to be a direct criticism of the process that was used to draft soldiers during most of the Vietnam War, which was set up in a way to target working class young men while giving wealthy and middle class young men easy ways to avoid the draft. These “fortunate sons” often enrolled in college or received medical waivers from their family doctors to avoid service in Vietnam. Finally, Marvin Gaye’s Motown hit reflected the tumultuous 1960s atmosphere of protest (anti-war and otherwise) and the effort of the government to quell those efforts and demanded to know “What’s Going On?” in a society that seemed on the verge of a revolution.

A still from a student-created video for "What's Going On?"

You can see the students’ work here.

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