YOUTH, MASS CULTURE, AND PROTEST: THE RISE AND IMPACT OF 1960S ANTIWAR MUSIC
How did antiwar protest music provide a voice for those opposed to the Vietnam War?
Just as the United States has a long, complicated history of war and international conflict, so too has the nation seen resistance to that activity. During the 1960s, however, protest against war became a particularly visible part of American life. Television, a relatively new phenomenon, showed both graphic, often brutal images of the Vietnam War and footage of social and political unrest at home. In this period, protest music was among the most powerful means of voicing opposition to the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. Although protest music was not new — one finds rich examples of music calling for change in slave spirituals, labor songs, and even the popular songs produced on Tin Pan Alley during the first World War, for instance — it reached new heights in the 1960s, as many young Americans, facing mandatory participation in the war, grew increasingly outspoken in their dissent.
Prior to the antiwar demonstrations on and around college campuses, the Civil Rights movement in particular had increased student activism. As American involvement in Vietnam deepened, many in that age group faced the disconcerting reality of conscription. Even before they shipped out, those who were drafted had begun to see the horrors of the war, most notably on television. The growing presence of television in nearly every American household thus exacerbated divisions over the conflict and helped fuel the antiwar movement. What Americans watched on television each night shaped their perceptions of the Vietnam War, which came to be known as the “living room war.” For some young Americans, called on to fight but unable to vote until the age of 21, the situation was unacceptable.
Social protest provided young people with a voice they didn’t always have at the ballot box. Popular music, already a vital part of youth culture by the mid-1960s, became a vehicle through which they could hear their concerns put to music. The music helped to build the antiwar community. In earlier eras, protest music sometimes had a subtle tone, propelled by acoustic instruments. By the late 1960s, however, it took on the instrumentation of Rock and Roll and made its way to the top of the charts. Not until 1971 did the 26th Amendment grant suffrage to 18-year-olds, empowering those most directly affected by the military draft. With the war increasingly unpopular at home and no American victory in sight, the United States negotiated a peace treaty and withdrew from Vietnam in 1975. The music of 1960s protest, however, remained among the era’s most enduring legacies.
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
1. Show students two magazine covers, one from the Saturday Evening Post and the other from LIFE.
2. Briefly discuss the first image, the cover of the Saturday Evening Post from February 22, 1919:
3. Now ask students to examine the second image, the cover of LIFE from February 11, 1966:
4. Ask students to compare the two images:
1. Show the image of a man and woman watching footage of the Vietnam War in their living room and read aloud the following quote from The “Uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam, by Daniel C. Hallin:
“Television news came of age on the eve of Vietnam. The CBS and NBC evening news broadcasts took their present form in September, 1963, expanding from fifteen minutes to half an hour.… The first exclusive stories the expanded shows were able to broadcast had to do with Vietnam.… Two years later, American troops went to war under the glare of the television spotlight. Vietnam was America’s first true televised war.”
3. Play ABC News raw footage from Vietnam.
4. Explain to students that American men between the ages of 18 and 26 were required by U.S. law to register with the Selective Service System. Every registrant was assigned a selective service number. In December 1969, two lotteries were held. These lotteries determined the order in which men born from 1944 through 1950 were required to report for military service in the year 1970. Students should know that this process is typically referred to as the “draft.”
Until the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted in July of 1971, the voting age was 21. (Ask students if they know the current voting age.) Therefore, many of the young men being drafted into the military could not vote, which meant they could not vote the politicians making decisions about the Vietnam War in or out of office. They did not have a say in the political process.
5. Briefly discuss as a class or in small groups:
6. As a class, listen to and analyze clips of two Vietnam War-era protest songs, “War” by Edwin Starr and “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. Distribute Handout 2, which contains the lyrics heard in the clips.
7. Play the clip of “War” and have students read the lyrics. Discuss:
8. Project the chart showing the top five songs on Billboard’s “Hot 100” popularity chart for September 5, 1970. This chart shows the top five songs in the United States based on sales and radio airplay. Ask:
9. Play the clip of “Ohio” and have students read the lyrics.
10. Explain that the song is about an antiwar protest at Kent State University in Ohio on May 4, 1970. Students were holding rallies to protest a decision made by President Richard Nixon to bomb the country of Cambodia (which is next to Vietnam), thereby expanding the war in Southeast Asia. The Ohio National Guard was called in to control the protests. The Guard fired bullets into a crowd of student protestors, killing four and injuring nine.
11. Play the video of Graham Nash discussing the song and briefly discuss:
Ask students to revisit their answers to the discussion questions in Step 6. Did the songs “War” and “Ohio” sound like the music they thought they would have wanted to hear as teenagers in 1970? Why or why not?
Imagine you are an 18-year-old involved in the antiwar movement, and you are about to be drafted. Write a letter to a friend that addresses the following:
College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text
College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12
Core Music Standard: Responding
Select: Choose music appropriate for a specific purpose or context.
Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators' and/or performers' expressive intent.
Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.
Core Music Standard: Connecting
Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.