Songs about Vietnam and the Draft

Following the Beatles appearance on Ed Sullivan in February of ’64 there was an explosion of bands across the U.S. The next few years would see thousands of singles released by individual bands, professional and amateur, which we now consider to have the ‘garage’ sound.

These prime years for teen bands closely coincide with the beginning of America’s war in Vietnam. In August of ’64, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave President Johnson authority to use military force in Vietnam. The Resolution responded to attacks on U.S. ships stationed near North Vietnam, but these supposed attacks are now known to be bogus. (Check the Gulf of Tonkin Incident entry in Wikipedia to read how the truth was distorted to justify military action.)

In March of 1965 Operation Rolling Thunder began the bombing campaigns on North Vietnam. Initially only a few thousand troops were stationed in Vietnam to support the bombers, but this number grew to 200,000 by the end of ‘65. Troop levels increased to 500,000 in 1967. The Tet Offensive occurred in January of 1968, marking a turning point in the war and U.S. public opinion.

As teenaged boys started bands in the wake of the Beatles, they were facing the possibility of being drafted within the next few years. Most had more immediate concerns – girls, school, cars, and the number of songs about Vietnam or the draft are a tiny minority of all teen beat songs from the period. It was easier to write lyrics that imitated the relationship-oriented pop songs of the era than to sing about political opinions and personal fears.

For those that did, their lyrics display their ethical dilemmas – feeling a duty to serve but ambivalent about whether the war is right; being afraid of dying; not wanting to be told what to do either by the government, society or the anti-war front. These lyrics range from idealistic to cynical. Early on there were very dogmatic patriot songs, but as the draft widened and sentiment turned against the war the imagery became more violent and the jingoism subsided.

Stylistically they had few models to draw from in 1965, as most major U.S. and British Invasion acts weren’t writing political lyrics yet. Some groups would draw from the folk styles of Bob Dylan and Barry McGuire. Others could look to a long tradition in country and pop of making novelty adaptions of hit songs. An example of this would be the Beach Bums’ “The Ballad of the Yellow Beret”, or the Midnight Sons rewrite of “Summertime Blues” to show chagrin at the draft.

At least as far back as the Civil War there had been an industry of professional songwriting and production teams to craft songs about war for the public. (See the Civil War Preservation Trust’s article Patriotic Songs of the War to read about the professional origins of the most-well known songs of the era.)

The Vietnam War would be a different case, as by 1965 young bands were the lifeblood of the music industry. For the first time in modern history, the generation actually serving in the war became the primary voice of the conflict.

I: Shutup the Folksingers

In 1965 Bob Dylan was just starting to make inroads on pop radio with “Like a Rolling Stone”. Earlier protest songs like “Masters of War” were rarely heard on commercial radio but their influence was an intellectual force behind the anti-war movement: a voice that had to be answered by those in favor of the war.

Teenagers in bands may have been unaware of the anti-war songs of Bob Dylan or Phil Ochs in 1965, but they certainly couldn’t miss Barry McGuire’s #1 single “Eve of Destruction” on the radio during that summer and fall. This anti-war, pro-civil rights, anti-nuclear song provoked answer songs and parodies, most not sympathetic to McGuire’s sentiments.

There was plenty in “Eve of Destruction” to upset the mainstream: comparing America’s failure on civil rights to a communist totalitarian state (“Think of all the hate there is in Red China / Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama”) and equating anti-Christian values to hypocritical religiousness (“Hate your next-door neighbor, but don’t forget to say grace”) are but two examples!

There’s a sting of truth to lines like these which would put people on the defensive. Most grating of all was the singer’s repeated dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in the country. Love it or leave it pal!

An early rebuke to McGuire is “The Prophet” from 1965. One thing that’s striking is the sheer belligerence of the singer as he rants!

There’s a prophet of doom, spreading his gloom
Shouting misery and hate.
Saying this world is a tomb, yeah and there ain’t no room
For dreams ’cause it’s too late.
He calls you his friend, says it’s the end
Destruction is near, but wait …

Hey Prophet, take a look around,
Yeah Prophet, there’s still hope around / … /

Hey Prophet
It’s awful easy for you to talk about it …
Tell me something what are you doin’ about it?
Yeah Prophet, WHAT ARE YOU DOING ABOUT IT?! / … /

There’s guys just like me who like what they see,
And they want to be free because they like it that way
They don’t care what you say
They’ll fight to keep it that way too!

Fight for their right to be free … of conscience!

Sure there’s things to be found in this land that’s free that don’t seem right to me
But there’s hope in the air because there’s people who care,
There not filled with despair like you!

This is the classic turnaround – the one exposing the problems is accused of doing nothing positive to help the situation, of being cynical and emphasizing the negative. The patriotic citizen has ‘hope’ and faith that things are getting better.

A straightfoward inversion of Barry McGuire’s song is the Jayhawkers’ “Dawn of Instruction”. The attitude of the lyrics is similar to The Prophet, with lines like “Step aside, Mister Doom Peddler” and “[we’re] not old enough to vote, but ain’t young enough for runnin'”.

“Eve of Destruction” was an easy target for some of its over-the-top lyrics (“even the Jordan River has bodies floatin’” or “my blood’s so mad feels like coagulatin’”), and the Jayhawkers made the most of these exaggerations.

Billy Carr’s “What’s Come Over This World” saw release on Colpix, and is obviously a professional songwriting and studio effort. Lyrically it is a flag-waving message, with plenty of disdain for the dissenting elements of the younger generation. The production co-opts more than a little of Dylan’s style, and not in parody either, a sure sign that the old guard was desperate to keep relevant. Dylan-esque harmonica shows up on so many of these answer songs, whether mocking him or in sincere imitation, that his influence must have been inescapable.

What’s become of this nation and the songs that they sing?
Everybody’s protesting, what’s it all gonna bring?
We sang the Star Spangled Banner, forever in peace may it wave,
And now some rock ‘n roll singer is knocking the Home of the Brave

What’s come over this world?
I’ve thought it over and I can’t get over
What’s come over this world?

There’s an army of cowards, see them marching in line
While the country’s in danger, they just carry a sign
Look at them burning their draft cards and refusing to fight
While they talk about freedom, they’re dimming liberty’s light

My brother fought in Korea, my daddy in World War II
Now there’s a war in Viet-nam and there’s a job we must do
What can you do for your country, his words were written in blood
Those who forgot what he died for, are dragging the flag through the mud.

More nuanced (and much better music) is “So the Prophets Say”, released in April 1965 by a group in their late teens the Centurys of Lebanon, Pennsylvania. The echo engulfing the tom-tom drums, dense guitars and eerie organ creates a doom-laden atmosphere, but lyrically the song repeats anti-communist propaganda. More than anything, though, it stresses individual choice against conformity. “So the Prophets Say” was written by lead guitarist Billy Beard, who passed away this past July 31, 2008.

They’ll tell you that they’re wise, and that they’ll analyze your situation.
They can tell you what’s gonna come and how certain things will be done,
They’re your salvation.

Will the world end today, like it did yesterday, or will we have to wait till tomorrow?
will tell you when it comes, you’ll hear those rocking drums,
you’ll just repent, you know your sorrow

These men of wealth? and men so poor?
These prophets of peace and prophets of war – are they getting you?

Then they tell you to make a big sound about getting out of Vietnam,
You know you’ve got a right to your convictions!
But will they warn you of a coming day, when your placards might be thrown away, and they’ll say “now you’ve got a few restrictions.”

You may not like it if they hand you a gun, before you turn 21 and say “now you’ve got to be a man!”
But when your freedom’s bells stop ringing, and a Red slave song you’re singing,
You’ll wish you had a gun in your hand!

These men so good and men so bad
These prophets so sane and prophets so mad – they get you!

Why don’t you let it be known, you’ve got a mind of your own,
And you can tell right from wrong from day to day,
And that you l… because they know you care,
And so you’ll beware of what the prophets say!

In early 1966 Sgt. Barry Sadler had a #1 hit with that paen to the american soldier, “Ballad of the Green Beret.” The Beach Bums (actually Bob Seger singing when he was with Doug Brown and the Omens) adapted it for their “protest against protesters”, “The Ballad of the Yellow Beret.” It’s not really a parody of the Sadler song as a straight up mocking of draft-dodgers.

This is a protest against protesters:

Fearless cowards of the U.S.A.
Bravely here at home they stay
They watch their friends get shipped away
The draft dodgers of the Yellow Beret

Yellow streaks up and down their spines
Men who gladly stay behind
They won’t fight for the U.S.A.
They fought hard for the yellow beret

Men who faint at the sight of blood
Their high heeled boots weren’t meant for mud
The draft board will hear their sob stories today
Only the best the yellow beret

Back at home a young wife waits
Her yellow beret has met his fate
He’s been drafted for marching in a protest
Leaving her his last request

Put a yellow streak down my sons back
Make sure that he never ever fights back
At his physical have him say he’s gay
Have him win the yellow beret.

Next installment: Democracy and the Draft

Thank you to Bernard Watts (Scratuglia) and to Pete Sofinski for the label scan. Thanks also to portofranco and Justin for the Billy Carr scan.

10 thoughts on “Songs about Vietnam and the Draft”

  1. There was also Chuck Dockery and His Four Buddies’ “I’d Rather Fight Than Pay”, which allegedly is pretty rare, though I have no idea where my copy is (I do know where my tape of it is, though). Michigan band. No idea if it’s the same guy as the rockabilly singer, but it’s more like a folky version of the familiar “Gloria” riff, with prowar/”patriotic” comments that seem bizarre in historical context today. A well-known MI-garage expert told me that he and his friends had never heard of the single before. I’d guess the song title was inspired by the Tareyton cigarette ad campain (“I’d Rather Fight Than Switch”).

  2. Two real boss Viet Nam tunes are Hey Uncle Sam (The Combenashuns)and Don’t Burn It (The Barons, of Fort Worth, Texas).

    The folks didn’t let me smoke
    Now they send me cigarettes
    (from Don’t Burn It)

    But my favorite war protest song ever is Masters Of War by one Bobby Zimmerman.

  3. I’m a history teacher in Vermont. I just heard the Ballad of the Yellow Beret on Studio 360 and Googled it – link brought me here. Thank you for maintaining this page. I incorporate a lot of music into my history teaching (colonial period through present) and have bookmarked this site – well done!

  4. If I locate the Dockery record (or convert it from the tape, either way) I may send it along. It’s pretty subdued, along the lines of a folk-influenced garage ballad, but worth hearing. May have been on Panik or Palmer? (Light blue label, as I recall). The taped copy is on a cassette I had with Best Of The Hideouts–sure need an improved copy of that fine collection. “I’d Rather…” definitely has some curious lyrics that might rankle some listeners and confuse others, particularly given its weird pro-Vietnam war context (in part, “our freedom is worth dying for, and I’d rather fight than pay”). I find it maybe more surreal than anything, and I’d guess those deluded people who bought this also bought the Barry Sadler record. The unanswered question is, I suppose, pay for what? The US wasn’t being invaded. Thousands upon thousands of America’s young were being sent to war for unclear reasons, thousands never returned. It wasn’t the US’ freedom that was on the line, but the lives of these unfortunate pawns. The title, as noted, referred to the then-familiar Tareyton ads that featured smokers with blackened eyes as a running gag. Don’t really remember the b-side, probably an uneventful recording, maybe an instrumental? Apparently pretty rare 45, even here in MI.

  5. Devoted fan of this blog since early-06.
    This is one of my all-time favorite GH posts.
    & I say this as an enthusiastic supporter of President Barack Obama.

  6. Anybody remember a song with these lyrics in the refrain?
    “I’m going to prison for what I believe.
    I’m going to prison so I can be free.
    It’s something I’d die for,
    I got something to live for,
    What about you?”

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