June 16, 2021

A View from My Porch: Epic Poems of Folk and Rock Part 3 — The Rock and Roll War

Editor’s Note: This is the third column by Tom Gotowka under the heading, ‘Epic Poems of Folk and Rock.’ Find Part I  at this link and Part II at this one.

I continue the “epic poems” theme in this essay, but shift to the epic works of conflict; focusing on the rock and roll genre, as influenced by the Vietnam War.

In review, Part 1 presented several works of folk music that, I felt, were the natural successors of the epic poems of antiquity. In Part 2, I considered how America became entangled in the Vietnam War, as a prerequisite for this review of the music of that war.

Epics of the Vietnam War Era:

As noted last time, Stars and Stripes” called Vietnam “the first rock and roll war”. I present, in the following, some of the music that supports that contention. I provide some context for each song, and include a sample of the lyrics, trying to ensure that the sample still conveys the original message.

Some of the lyrics are a little gritty, and the context may be troubling, but they’re included to fully illustrate the era, not to offend the reader. So, here’s the war in six songs.

“Fortunate Son”: Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)

Photograph of Creedence Clearwater Revival (1968). L-R: Tom Fogerty, Doug Clifford, Stu Cook, and John Fogerty.

When John Fogerty wrote the song, draft deferments were undoubtedly on every teenaged American boy’s mind. His lyrics support the men who served in Vietnam, but condemn the “children of privilege” (i.e., “millionaire’s son”), who used that privilege to “dodge” the draft.

Pulitzer Prize winning Vietnam War correspondent, David Halberstam, reported that the ways in which draft-age men received deferments favored those who were wealthier and more educated. For example, able both to remain in college full-time, and then pursue advanced degrees after graduation; and thus, qualifying for student deferments. 

In addition, those same young men could obtain deferments for physical problems, even untreated bone spurs, more easily than could poor or working-class men; and, “rather than trying to convince a draft board that they were physically unable to serve in the military, they could just get a note from their family doctors”. 

“Some folks are born, made to wave the flag;
they’re red, white and blue.
And when the band plays “Hail to the Chief”,
they point the cannon at you, Lord!
Some folks are born, silver spoon in hand;
Lord, don’t they help themselves?
But when the taxman comes to the door,
the house looks like a rummage sale.
It ain’t me, it ain’t me;
I ain’t no millionaire’s son.
I ain’t no fortunate one”.

“Feel Like I’m Fixing’ To Die Rag”: Country Joe McDonald ​(1965)

In this dark parody of the war, Country Joe (and the Fish) demonstrate the hopelessness that many Americans felt toward the War. The artist touches on, albeit, sarcastically, several important war themes in the full seven verses: the government notion that going to war was in the country’s best economic interest; and, consequently, the support from Wall Street, weapons manufacturers, and an “overly aggressive” Pentagon. 

The song also has the distinction of having been performed twice at Woodstock, and I have corroboration from a very reliable eye witness, my wife, Christina, who was present at those “3 Days of Peace & Music” in the Catskills, in 1969.

“Well, come on all of you big strong men,
Uncle Sam needs your help again.
He’s got himself in a terrible jam, way down yonder in Vietnam.
So put down your books, and pick up a gun,
we’re going to have a whole lot of fun.
And come on mothers throughout this land, pack your boys off to Vietnam.
Come on pops, don’t hesitate, send them off before it’s too late.
And then, it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn.
Next stop is Vietnam!
And it’s five, six, seven,
open up the pearly gates.
Well, there ain’t no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! we’re all going to die.”

“Revolution”: The Beatles (1968)

Trade ad for Beatles’ 1964 Grammys. Public Domain.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote the song to demonstrate their strong objection to the increasingly violent protests that had occurred in response to the war.

To illustrate, in April, 1965, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), held its first national protest march in Washington, DC. Co-sponsored by Women’s Strike for Peace, 25,000 attended.  After this peaceful protest march, SDS grew increasingly militant, and their tactics then included the occupation of college administration buildings on campuses across the country. The 1968 violence at Columbia University is covered in “The Strawberry Statement”, by James Kunen (both book and movie).

On Oct. 21, 1967, over 100,000 protesters gathered at the Lincoln Memorial; and later that same night, over 35,000 of the group marched on to the Pentagon for a second rally, where they sparked a violent confrontation with the soldiers and U.S. Marshals protecting the Pentagon complex. Nearly 700 demonstrators were arrested. 

Notably, the demonstrations produced the famous “flower power” photograph of a protester placing a flower in a paratrooper’s M14 rifle barrel. 

On March 17, 1968, 10,000 protesters demonstrated in Trafalgar Square against American action and British support in Vietnam. This was followed by 8,000 protesters marching to the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square; where a fierce battle with riot police and mounted officers ensued.

In August 1968, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, bore witness to a series of riots, involving tens of thousands of Vietnam War protesters, both during and before the convention. Eight protest leaders were tried on charges of criminal conspiracy and incitement to riot. 

The eight eventually became the “Chicago Seven”, after convictions were overturned because of procedural errors and Judge Hoffman’s “overt hostility to the defendants”.

Tragically, on May 4, 1970, just four days after President Nixon announced the escalation of the war into Cambodia, four students at Kent State were shot by National Guardsmen during a protest.

“You say you want a revolution.
Well, we all want to change the world.

You say you got a real solution.
Well, we’d all love to see the plan
You ask me for a contribution.
Well, we’re all doing what we can; but, 

if you want money for people with minds that hate;
all I can tell you is, brother, you have to wait.
When you talk about destruction,
don’t you know that you can count me out?
But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao;
you aren’t going to make it with anyone, anyhow.”

“Ballad of the Green Berets”: Barry Sadler (1965)

The United States Army Special Forces, the “Green Berets”, are the Army’s special operations group, whose mission extends well beyond conventional warfare. 

In May 2004, a plaque was dedicated at Fort Campbell, honoring the 695 Green Berets killed in action, and the 79 missing in action during Vietnam.  Of the MIA, only three soldiers have been recovered. 

“Ballad” is a patriotic tribute to our soldiers in Special Forces, and one of the few popular songs of the Vietnam War era that portrays the military in a positive manner. 

Sadler served as a medic with the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), and his song, written to boost morale among our troops in Vietnam, also served as the inspiration for the John Wayne movie, “The Green Berets”.

“Fighting soldiers from the sky, fearless men who jump and die.
Men who mean just what they say; the brave men of the Green Beret.
Silver wings upon their chest; these are men, America’s best.
One hundred men we’ll test today, but only three win the Green Beret.
Trained to live off nature’s land; trained in combat, hand-to-hand.
Men who fight by night and day, courage peak from the Green Beret.”

“I Ain’t Marching Anymore”: Phil Ochs (1965)

Ochs was the “iron man” of “protest” singers; and, in his career, performed, as a “regular” at anti-war, civil rights, organized labor, and women’s rights events. 

I believe that this is his best; or at least his best- known anti-Vietnam War song; and it became an “anthem” at rallies and protests. 

The song is really a treatise on the entirety of American conflict, and he casts himself as a tired soldier, who has fought in each American war, beginning with the battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. And on through both world wars.

He performed the song in August 1968, during the violent protests outside the Chicago Democratic National Convention, and, it is claimed, inspired hundreds of young men to burn their draft cards (really). He later described it as the highlight of his career.

“Oh, I marched to the battle of New Orleans,
at the end of the early British wars;
the young land started growing, and
the young blood started flowing,
but, I ain’t marching anymore.

I’ve killed my share of Indians, in a thousand different fights.
I was there at the Little Big Horn;
I heard many men lying, I saw many more dying;
but, I ain’t marching anymore.

Chorus: It’s always the old who lead us to war;
it’s always the young to fall.
Now look at all we’ve won with the saber and the gun.
Tell me, is it worth it all?

I stole California from the Mexican land,
and fought in the bloody Civil War.
I even killed my brothers, and so many others;
but, I ain’t marching anymore.

I marched to the battles of the German trench,
in a war that was bound to end all wars. 

I must have killed a million men, and now they want me back again;
but, I ain’t marching anymore.

I flew the final mission in the Japanese skies, and
set off the mighty mushroom roar.
I saw the cities burning, and 

I knew that I was learning;
that I ain’t marching anymore

Call it peace or call it treason,
call it love or call it reason;
but I ain’t marching anymore.”

“Born in the USA”: Bruce Springsteen (1984)

Bruce Springsteen performing at Roskilde Festival 2012. Photo credit: Bill Ebbesen. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

I present “Born” as the anchor of the song list because Springsteen’s focus is on America’s poor treatment of returning Vietnam War veterans. The lyrics are an account of the disrespect those veterans faced on their return home to a society that was largely opposed to the war. 

This song may be one of the most misinterpreted songs in rock and roll history. Since its release, the song’s chorus has been omnipresent at political rallies; and heard as a celebration of American life. The anti–war message is rooted in the verses, and may have been lost early on, because the song was released about a decade after the war ended.

The song is consistent with what I noted last time in “Working-Class War”, by Christian Appy; who observed that the typical U.S. soldier in Vietnam was from a poor or working-class family; a large portion were from the inner cities and factory towns. 

In the first verse, Springsteen introduced the story of a young man, born into a failing American town, who was apparently abused by his family. In some trouble, he is ordered by the courts to enlist rather than serve time. His brother, or close friend, is killed in action. 

He returns home after the war, can’t find a job, and is treated with indifference by the V.A. The final verse describes his progression into despair.

“Born down in a dead man’s town; the first kick I took was when I hit the ground.
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much,
until you spend half your life just covering up.
Got in a little hometown jam; so, they put a rifle in my hand.
Sent me off to a foreign land; to go and kill the yellow man.
I had a brother at Khe Sanh, fighting off the Viet Cong.
They’re still there, he’s all gone.
I came back home to the refinery; hiring man says “Son if it was up to me”.
I went down to see my V.A. man; he said “Son, what don’t you understand”?
In the shadow of the penitentiary; out by the gas fires of the refinery.
Nowhere to run, and nowhere to go.”

Author’s Notes:

Unlike Bruce Springsteen, I am not certain whether the courts can, or ever did, require enlistment in lieu of serving time for a criminal infraction.  If so, I can’t imagine that these individuals would be considered high value recruits. A large portion of the opposition to the war was the onus of the draft. I was not able to find reliable data on the portion of draftees, versus voluntary enlistees, in Vietnam, as opposed to prior, or subsequent (e.g., Afghanistan) wars.

I only included works that I could directly attribute to the writer’s reaction to the war. Clearly, there was a wealth of additional music that was popular at the time and was probably listened to regularly by soldiers in Vietnam.   For example, I included nothing by the Rolling Stones; and did not consider “We Gotta Get out of this Place”, by the British group, The Animals, although the song has been part of the sound tracks of many productions about the war. 

If you want to explore a very realistic production, I recommend “Hamburger Hill”, which is a highly accurate 1987 movie about the 1969 assault by the Army’s “Screaming Eagles” Battalion on a well-fortified enemy mountain position. The editors dramatically incorporated the music of the day into their soundtrack.

I was a “fortunate one” — the United States Navy and the military provided financial support and enabled deferments for over 10 years of advanced education. I had agreed, up front, to repay that support in service, which I’ve previously said was at a Naval Hospital.

My next “View” will be of the remarkable changes that have occurred in CT’s hospital and healthcare landscape I think that hospital advertisements on local newscasts now exceed those for replacement windows. 

Editor’s Note: This is the opinion of Thomas D. Gotowka.

Tom Gotowka

About the author: Tom Gotowka’s entire adult career has been in healthcare. He’ will sit on the Navy side at the Army/Navy football game. He always sit on the crimson side at any Harvard/Yale contest. He enjoys reading historic speeches and considers himself a scholar of the period from FDR through JFK.

A child of AM Radio, he probably knows the lyrics of every rock and roll or folk song published since 1960. He hopes these experiences give readers a sense of what he believes “qualify” him to write this column.

Comments

  1. Paula Sadlon says

    I would have included the massive “New Mobe” protest in November 1969 in Washington DC, in which I participated. Also, in April 1968, there were major riots after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. As as college student in Washington, DC, I witnessed the riots, the tanks, the smoke and the terror.

    In your next view, could you include the incessant pharma ads?

  2. Mary Jo Nosal says

    I do not have a favorite view, but this one comes close! Also, I have misinterpreted “Revolution” for many years.

    Thank you Tom for the continued views!

    • We agree totally about ‘Revolution” — can’t count how many times we’ve listened to that and never understood its true meaning before. Thank you, Tom, for educating us … again!

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