Music and War


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  Thank you to the following reviewers of the curriculum:  Andrew Demko, Rainier Junior/Senior High School;          George Herring, University of Kentucky; Mark Lawrence, University of Texas at Austin; Susan Tomlinson, Franklin Central High School.




What songs can you think of that deal with the subject matter of war and peace? Are there other songs that are more broadly either highly patriotic, or highly critical of problems in the nation? Which are your favorites, and why?

In the early days of the war, songs like Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets” received extensive radio play—“Ballad of the Green Berets” reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1966. Listen to the song as it plays through slides 1-3. Sgt. Barry Sadler served in Vietnam and wrote the song to celebrate the Green Beret Special Forces. This song has a clear perspective that celebrates the contributions of soldiers, yet it does not explicitly discuss political concerns or more broadly interpret the war.

Three years before the Ballad of the Green Berets topped the charts in 1966, Peter, Paul and Mary’s cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind” topped the Billboard charts, reaching #2 in 1963. The song, originally written by Bob Dylan in 1962, has come to be identified as perhaps the quintessential anthem for peace because of its widespread adaptation by the public to express disapproval of the Vietnam War.  Listen to the song as it plays in slides 4-5, answering the song analysis questions. This song was not explicitly written to voice a perspective on the Vietnam War. How does it compare with “Ballad of the Green Berets?” 

A few years later, as the war progressed, the public grew increasingly disillusioned with the war, with disapproval ratings reaching 64% in 1970. That same year, Edwin Starr’s performance of the Temptations’ song “War (What Is It Good For)” topped the Billboard charts at #1.  Listen to the song as it plays in slides 6-7. How does a song like “War” compare with a song like “Arms for the Love of America” (from the pre-visit activity)? 

In the years following the Vietnam War, there were also songs that interpreted the post-war experience—specifically the negative aspects of the post-war experience—that became popular. In 1982, the same year that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated, The Charlie Daniels Band released a song titled “Still in Saigon,” written from the perspective of a Vietnam veteran unsure of his place in the world after his return from war. Listen closely to the lyrics as the song plays in slides 8-9. What issues are mentioned that returning veterans may have to face? 

The Vietnam era set a precedent for music as a public space to reflect perspectives on war, with critical perspectives being acceptable and potentially even popular. With the outbreak of war in the Persian Gulf in 1990, Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” though originally released in 1984, gained prominence as a patriotic song of support for troops serving in the Gulf War. Though the song was not written in the context of war, it was readapted by the public in order to voice support in a time of war. Listen to the song as it plays in slides 10-11. Do you think it is possible to identify an overall expression of approval or disapproval for war in this song? 

Even more popular than “God Bless the USA” was Bette Midler’s “From a Distance,” reaching #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1991. Listen to the song as it plays in slides 12-13. The song, originally written by Julie Gold in 1985, is again not explicitly centering on war as a subject, though it was adopted by the public as both an expression for peace and longing for the return of troops. 

On September 11, 2001, a global terrorist group known as Al-Qaida coordinated a series of attacks on the US which left over 3000 civilians dead at the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in the Washington, DC area, and at a plane crash site in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Play a small portion of the live video coverage from 9/11 included on slide 14. Following the attacks, “Only Time,” a song by Irish singer Enya that had been released the previous year in 2000, quickly rose to #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts as Americans adopted the song’s mournful tone and message for the current tragedy. Listen to the song as it plays in slides 15-16.

Two years later in March 2003, the US invaded Iraq in search of nuclear weapons, in what marked the beginning of the eight year war in Iraq. Listen closely to Toby Keith’s 2003 song “American Soldier” as it plays through slides 17-18. How does this song compare with Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA?” Do you think it is possible to identify an overall expression of approval or disapproval for war in this song? 

As the war in Iraq progressed, Americans’ approval for the war steadily decreased, with CNN polls showing over 60% public disapproval of the war by 2006. That same year, Pearl Jam released “World Wide Suicide,” a song written by the group’s lead singer Eddie Vedder about Pat Tillman, a professional football player who turned down a contract with the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the US Army. Tillman served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his story became popular with the public after his death in 2004. The song, which reached #41 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in 2006 and #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock charts, is critical of the war, while recognizing the service of soldiers like Tillman. Listen to the song as it plays in slides 19-20. How does this song’s perspective on war differ (or not differ) from a song like Edwin Starr’s “War?” Why do you think there is a more explicit separation of war and warrior in the songs of more recent times? 

Since the Vietnam era, music has been used to reflect a range of perspectives on war, a tradition which continues into the 21st century. That civic dialogue that can be traced through popular music has included reflections on the post-war experience of remembering the fallen at The Wall. In 2014, Bruce Springsteen released a song titled “The Wall” which tells the story of visiting the Vietnam Memorial to reconnect with a friend. The song was written after Springsteen visited the Vietnam Memorial and decided to write a song in honor of his friends and fellow musicians Walter Cichon and Bart Haynes who died in the war.