Protest in Song

It seems as though the huge historical events in American history are in some way related to war, the fight against an enemy. Think about it; the Revolutionary War, World War II, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. As Americans, we’ve seen that war waged against other nations isn’t a pretty or glorious affair but instead filled with determination and sorrow and confusion. American wars haven’t just provided people with a host of emotions though; they’ve also played a huge role in the production of moving and meaningful music. The Vietnam War of the 50s, 60s, and 70s was no exception.


The Vietnam War was a central conflict in the Cold War, a struggle between communist nations and those opposed communism. The war was fought between North Vietnam, backed by communist allies, and South Vietnam, backed by countries that valued capitalism and freedom, like the U.S. The United States became involved in the war once communist forces like China and the Soviet Union banded with North Vietnam, fearing that if the entire nation of Vietnam fell to communism, it would communism spread throughout the world. U.S. involvement in Vietnam increased throughout the 1960s, bringing with it cries of anti-war protest from the home-front. Many American soldier were dying and many in the United States opposed further involvement in the conflict. Some of these cries were communicated through music, though in different styles. One of the most famous Vietnam War protest songs is “War” recorded by Edwin Starr in 1970, at the height of the conflict. The message is blatant:

“War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!”

As you can tell by listening, this anti-war song has an edge to it. Starr wanted to depict the general anger felt by the American people towards the Vietnam War, pointing out that “War can’t give life, it can only take it away!”

Another anti-war song, recorded in 1970 as well, is “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye. This tune has distinct differences from Edwin Starr’s “War”. Gaye’s smooth voice asks the question of “what’s going on” in the world today? Why are “far too many of you dying?”

This song obviously isn’t as in-your-face and blunt as the previous one, but still speaks for how many Americans were feeling at the time. People were feeling confused about why America was still involved in the Vietnam War after so many years and why the conflict was even necessary. Gaye saw the world around him and wondered what had happened. When you stop and think about it, maybe Gaye’s tune isn’t as much of a protest song as it is a love song. Take this line for example:

You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate”

Both of these songs are important snapshots of America during the height of the Vietnam War. These Motown artists did a terrific job in capturing the emotions of America at this time; the anger, pain, confusion, and hope for peace. Music is a tool that allows us to uncover history, open our eyes to the scene of a certain time in history. “War” and “What’s Going On” are songs that do exactly that.

3 thoughts on “Protest in Song

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  3. I read “War can’t give life, it can only take it away” right as that line was sung in the song. AWESOME!

    War songs always fill me with strong emotions. Actually to be honest almost all music from the 60s and 70s gives me a desire to change the world. Such a stronger message was told through music than it is now. Anymore I feel like most popular music only whines about boyfriends and girlfriends breaking up (direct hit to Taylor Swift) and shakin’ booties.

    Though I prefer the raw and blunt sound of songs like “War” and also to some degree “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield, Motown definitely has its place among music with poetic lyrics and cries for a change in the world.

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