The songs that define our memories of the Vietnam war

Nancy Sinatra performing 'These Boots Were Made For Walking" for the troops. Image: YouTube/LemonJello17


A powerful documentary on SBS TV prompted me to write this article, of how the attitudes changed in the ten years of the war in Vietnam. At the start, the USA fear of communism stirred up the feeling of national pride and patriotism and in 1966 Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler had a number one in the USA with ‘The Ballad Of The Green Beret’, but the song was only a minor hit in Australia and the UK. The song was used as propaganda and recruitment but even then there was a sense of, “Why are we fighting in a country when we don’t even where it is?” The new recruits were actually shown films about the Nazis! The soldiers in Vietnam related to Nancy Sinatra’s ‘These Boots Were Made For Walking’ because they were seldom out of their boots, and Nancy actually went over and entertained the troops, but when she had seen the carnage there she returned to the USA and became one of the first protestors, which did not fare too well with old Frank, her father.      

When Muhammed Ali stated those famous words “No VietCong ever called me nigger” and refused to be drafted, the protest movement was now in full swing. When Joan Baez told the American youth to tear up their draft cards she was jailed, which only strengthened the movement. The Animals hit ‘We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’ was taken as an anthem of the Vietnam Veterans wanting home changing the lyrics of the chorus to “There’s a better life in the USA”. Barry McGuire had a worldwide number one in 1965 with ‘The Eve Of Destruction’ and the powerful lyrics “The eastern world it is exploding, violence flaring, bullets loading, you’re old enough to kill but not for voting”. Buffalo Springfield never intended ‘For What It’s Worth’ to be an anti-war song but it became a definitive standard. Edwin Starr hit the nail on the head with ‘War’ with the outstanding in your face words “War, what is it good for, absolutely nothing”. Nina Simone transformed an old civil rights poem into a Vietnam protest song with ‘Blacklash Blues’ and the words “Raise my taxes, freeze my wages, send my son to Vietnam”.

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In Australia, Ronnie Burns had a national number two with ‘Smiley’, a song written by Johnny Young. Some say it was about Normie Rowe being conscripted, some say it was propaganda, with the words “You’re off to the Asian war and we won’t see you smile no more, no more laughter in the air ”. John Lennon’s first hit after the demise of ‘The Beatles was Give Peace A Chance’ which became an anthem for all anti-war protestors around the world. Lennon then gave us probably the most poignant song ever written ‘Imagine’ with the immortal lyrics “Imagine all the people living life in peace”. 

Bruce Springfield’s ‘Born In The USA’ is often used as a patriotic political warmongering song, but if you listen to the words, it’s about a veteran returning home from Vietnam and not getting up off the ground and having to deal with what he witnessed over there. A very important song from a very important artist that doesn’t wave the flag but waves the ideals. In Australia, Cold Chisel’s ‘Khe Sanh’ hit on the same theme “There were no V-Day heroes in 1973”. Although this song is one of the best to come out of Australia, APRA voted number eight as the all-time greatest, it only reached the lower end of the Australian National Top Forty because the authorities in their ridiculous wisdom classified it unsuitable for airplay.

Only the ABC’s Double J had the balls to play it, but the song will forever epitomise this period in Australian music. Perhaps the best Australian anti Viet Nam war song was Redgum’s ‘I Was Only 19’ written by John Schumann and reaching number one in 1983. When the USA National Guard turned their guns on unarmed college student protestors at Kent State University, Ohio, on the 4th of  May 1970, killing four students, Neil Young watched in horror on TV and promptly sat down to write the classic ‘Ohio’ which was recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in 1970. The words in the chorus “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, we’re finally on our own, this summer I hear the drumming, four dead in Ohio”, became the vocal point of a nation deeply divided by the war in Vietnam.    

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There was lots of songs written about the futility of the Vietnam war, some others were, ‘Sky Pilot’ by Eric Burden & the Animals. A song that was considered to be one of the most iconic antiwar songs was Country Joe & The Fish ‘Feel Like I’m Fixing To Die Rag’ but I honestly don’t remember it; ‘Paint It Black’ by The Rolling Stones and ‘Universal Soldier’ by Donovan.    

Can you think of any other songs that stick in your mind from this period in history?