View From Lodi, CA: Why So Few Iraq War Protest Songs?
October 26, 2007, 05:00 AM
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During a five-hour drive back to Lodi from Cayucos on California's central coast, I happened on to XM Radio's special broadcast, "Protest Songs of the '60s"

Listening again to those powerful songs —Bob Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind, Creedence Clearwater Revival's Fortunate Son, John Lennon's Imagine (YouTube.com video here) and Give Peace A Chance (video here) and The Animals' We Gotta Get Out of This Place, took me back to when I was a young man living in New York.

During those turbulent years from 1963-1975, protest against the Vietnam War built, distrust of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon intensified and flower children gathered across the nation to call for an overhaul to the broken political system.

Today, more than four decades later, many parallels to the '60s exist. Opposition to the Iraq War has steadily increased, President Bush's popularity has sunk to historic lows and Americans are disgusted with the nation's direction.

The biggest difference between then and now is that protest songs about death and dying which played an important role in raising awareness about the Vietnam tragedy and eventually changed public opinion about the war's validity are largely missing.

One exception is Bruce Springsteen's tribute album, The Seeger Sessions: We Shall Overcome.

Another is Pearl Jam's hit, World Wide Suicide, which told of a mother mourning her son killed in an Iraq battle because his was "a life the president took for granted.

But the Vietnam songbook was more extensive than today's handful of Iraq-related singles.

As a testimony to that era, on March 1st 2003, with the Iraq War looming, Joe's Pub at the Public Theater in New York presented the Vietnam Songbook—a collection of over 100 tunes critical of the Vietnam War. (Read the review here.)

Readers who struggled through the Vietnam years would instantly recognize nearly all of those 100. Many are still in rotation on mainstream radio.

Here are three:

  • Ohio, written by Neil Young "immediately" (in his words) after seeing the Life Magazine cover of four dead Kent State University students and originally performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young may be the most important protest song ever written. The song, banned from many stations because it named Nixon in its lyrics, served as an anthem for disaffected students throughout the country.

  • Marvin Gaye's What Goin' On The title song from the 1971 album of the same name was an instant smash and is considered one of pop music's landmarks. The album is told from the perspective of a Vietnam vet veteran coming home to the country he had been fighting for, and seeing injustice, suffering and hatred. Gaye's brother, Frankie, had returned from three years of service in the Army in 1970.

  • Barry McGuire's The Eve of Destruction reached #1 on Billboard in September 1965. With its most famous lyrics "You're old enough to kill, but not for votin'/ You don't believe in war, but what's that gun you're totin?' the song summarized the frustration of young soldiers sent to Southeast Asia to fight in an unpopular war.

Today's protest songs are narrowly focused on President Bush and not specifically on Iraq.

The head music critic for Entertainment Weekly, David Browne said: "For better or worse, Bush has stirred up a lot of vitriol in the music community. There's always been protest songs against presidents, but they have never been near to the level of venom you're seeing now." [Protest Song Is Back—With a Vengeance, By Christopher Blagg, Christian Science Monitor, June 4, 2004]

I'm not clear on why there aren't more angry songs about our soldiers being killed on the Iraq and Afghanistan battlefields. Record company executives, artists and the young demographic that buys music are liberal and opposed to the war.

And from a strictly commercial viewpoint, the anti-Vietnam songs charted and were moneymakers.

The only explanation I can come up with saddens me.

During Vietnam, the draft made every family with a son of age vulnerable. We all knew someone, somewhere who was off to Vietnam.

But today's volunteer army shields most of us from losing a loved one.

Apparently, other people's lives are cheaper than our own.

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.