#MusicMonday: The 1992 Los Angeles Riots

On this day in 1992 the Los Angeles riots broke out in response to two specific incidents in the city and general mounting racial tensions. Just over a year prior an African American man, Rodney King, was beaten and tasered by police during a traffic stop/chase resulting in the officers involved being charged with excessive force.

Rodney King

Also around the same time a teenage African American girl, Latasha Harlins, was shot in a convenience store when the Korean-American shopkeeper accused the girl of trying to steal a bottle of orange juice. The shopkeeper grabbed the girl who hit the woman in order to break free. As the girl walked away the shopkeeper shot her in the back of the head. The girl was holding 2 dollars in one hand when her body was found by investigators. The 51-year-old woman who shot her was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and only ordered to pay a $500 fine and served no prison time.

On April 29, 1992 the officers in the Rodney King trial were acquitted of excessive force and assault charges based on blurry footage at the beginning of a tape showing the beating in which King tried to run away toward an officer.

The acquittal of these officers on top of the light sentencing of the shopkeeper in the death of Latasha Harlins caused many in the black community to further increase their distrust of the criminal justice system after years of accusations of excessive force by the LAPD against African Americans.

The racial tension between blacks and Koreans in LA had also long been brewing due to perceived slights on both sides. Many African Americans viewed the migrants as newcomers who were profiting off of the black community while simultaneously mistreating, stereotyping, and disrespecting them. Cultural differences and language barriers exacerbated the problem as well as economic difficulties facing the area.

All of these tensions came to a head when news of the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King reached South Central Los Angeles. Riots and looting broke out that lasted for days and resulted in 55 deaths, over 2,000 injuries, and more than $1 billion of damage. The National Guard was called in and the riots lasted for 6 days. More than 12,000 people were arrested. 65% of looted stores were Korean owned, but black and Latino-owned stores were also looted.

The events leading up to the riots, the riots themselves, and the aftermath all inspired and prompted responses from musicians of many genres, especially hip hop and rap artists. Here are 5 songs that came out of the Los Angeles riots.

  • “Hellrazor” – Tupac, 1997 (posthumous release)tupac

Lyrics that reference Latasha Harlins’ death: “Dear Lord if ya hear me, tell me why
Little girl like LaTasha, had to die
She never got to see the bullet, just heard the shot
Her little body couldn’t take it, it shook and dropped”

Tupac also made mention of Latasha in several of his other songs including “Something 2 Die 4,” “Thugz Mansion,” and “I Wonder if Heaven Got a Ghetto,” in which he raps, “Tell me what’s a black life worth/A bottle of juice is no excuse, the truth hurts.” He also dedicated “Keep Ya Head Up” to Latasha.

  • “Black Korea” – Ice Cube, 1991

Released after Latasha Harlins’ death but before the riots, this song was accused of inciting violence against Asian Americans and encouraging racism against them by African Americans. The song sheds light on the tensions between the two groups in South Central Los Angeles.

“Thinkin’ every brother in the world’s out to take
So they watch every damn move that I make
They hope I don’t pull out a gat and try to rob
They funky little store, but, b****, I got a job.”

  • “Livin’ on the Edge”- Aerosmith, 1993

Aerosmith has said that this song was inspired by the LA riots, but the lyrics do not specifically state anything that directly links back to the riots. Critics of the song argued it was a half-hearted attempt at social commentary.

“There’s somethin’ wrong with the world today
I don’t know what it is
Something’s wrong with our eyes
We’re seein’ things in a different way
And God knows it ain’t his
It sure ain’t no surprise”
  • “Free Your Mind” – En Vogue, 1992freeyourmind
The female group took a more positive approach and encouraged unity and discouraged stereotyping, prejudice, and racism.
“Why oh why must it be this way
Before you can read me you gotta learn how to see me, I said
Free your mind and the rest will follow
Be colour blind, don’t be so shallow.”
  • “Black Tie, White Noise” – David Bowie, 1993
In Los Angeles with his new wife, model Iman, Bowie witnessed the riots firsthand. This experience inspired “Black Tie, White Noise.” Bowie said of the riots: “It was awesome and numbing and it was the most apocalyptic experience I’ve been through in my life. It was a feeling of the irreconcilable differences that seem to have been fabricated in America and how hard it will be to reconcile those differences, to heal the wound, which is quite gaping.”
“Getting my facts from a Benneton ad
I’m lookin’ through African eyes
Lit by the glare of an L.A. fire
I’ve got a face, not just my race.”

#MusicMonday: The Campaign for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday in 3 Songs

Having grown up in an era when Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was already established as a national holiday, it can seem as if the holiday was a no-brainer, a day to celebrate this important man’s contributions to civil rights, equality, and our nation. However, the holiday was, and still is by some, debated and contested by those who didn’t feel Dr. King’s contributions were important enough and by white supremacists.

The campaign to create the federal holiday began in the 1970s, shortly after King’s death (1968). The idea did not come up for a vote though until 1979, when it was introduced by a bipartisan partnership, but the bill fell 5 votes short of passing. Arguments against the holiday included cost (it would cost too much to have an additional paid federal holiday), and tradition (holidays for private citizens as opposed to public officials were not tradition). However, by this time, Columbus Day was already a federal holiday (1934).

The King Center then began campaigning for the national holiday by directly gathering support from the public. Music factored into the campaign to make Dr. King’s birthday a federal holiday, with musicians stepping up to sway public opinion through song. Artists also used song to celebrate Dr. King and the federal recognition of a day to honor him. Later musicians used their platform to push back against states that tried to remove the holiday. Below are three songs that help to tell the story of this campaign, the success of having the day named a federal holiday, and the continued struggle to have all 50 states recognize the holiday.

  1. “Happy Birthday” by Stevie Wonder (1980)
“You know it doesn’t make much sense
There ought to be a law against
Anyone who takes offense
At a day in your celebration cause we all know in our minds
That there ought to be a time
That we can set aside
To show just how much we love you”
“I just never understood
How a man who died for good
Could not have a day that would
Be set aside for his recognition
Because it should never be
Just because some cannot see
The dream as clear as he
That they should make it become an illusion
And we all know everything
That he stood for time will bring
For in peace our hearts will sing
Thanks to Martin Luther King”

To support the campaign for Dr. King’s national holiday, Stevie Wonder released the song “Happy Birthday” in 1980. He also hosted the Rally for Peace Press Conference in 1981. These efforts helped lead to the collecting of 6 million signatures to pass the law. After extensive debates in Congress and an attempted filibuster, the law was finally passed in 1983 with a veto-proof margin and was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on November 2, 1983. The holiday would be observed for the first time on January 20, 1986.

 

2. “King Holiday” by King Dream Chorus and Holiday Crew, which was a Supergroup [King Dream Chorus: El DeBarge, Whitney Houston, Stacy Lattisaw, Lisa Lisa with Full Force, Teena Marie, Menudo: Charlie Masso, Roy Rossello, Robi Rosa, Ray Acevedo, Ricky Martin, Stephanie Mills, New Edition, James “J.T.” Taylor; Holiday Crew: Kurtis Blow, The Fat Boys, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Run–D.M.C., and Whodini

“Once a year we celebrate
Washington and Lincoln on their birth dates
And now a third name is added to the list
A man of peace, (Drum Major for Justice)
Now, now, now every January on the third Monday
We pay homage to the man who paved the way
For freedom, justice and equality
To make the world a better place for you and me
It’s a holiday, it’s a gathering
For the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King
Dr. King tried to love somebody
(Do you wanna love somebody)
For his sake put your hate away, take a day
(Take a day to love somebody)
Don’t play on the Holiday, work to find a better way
(Everybody love somebody now)

He had a dream now it’s up to you
He had a dream now it’s up to you
To see it through, to make it come true
Now do it”

This song was released on January 13, 1986 to commemorate the first Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. All proceeds from the song were donated to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. The project to record the song was led by Dr. King’s son, Dexter Scott King. The original video was low budget, but there is better audio of the song available via Apple Music and probably other streaming services as well. The song defines what the holiday is all about and suggests what you might do on the day- “work to find a better way.”

3. “By The Time I Get to Arizona” by Public Enemy (1991)

“He try to keep it yesteryear
The good ol’ days
The same ol’ ways
That kept us dyin’
Yes, you me myself and Indeed
What he need is a nosebleed
Read between the lines
Then you see the lie
Politically planned
But understand that’s all she wrote
When we see the real side
That hide behind the vote
They can’t understand why he the man
I’m singin’ ’bout a king
They don’t like it
When I decide to mike it
Wait I’m waitin’ for the date
For the man who demands respect
‘Cause he was great c’mon
I’m on the one mission
To get a politician
To honor or he’s a goner
By the time I get to Arizona”

While the federal law went into effect in 1986, many states resisted passing state level laws to make the day a holiday for state employees. Some states combined the holiday with others, named the day something other than Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, or did not make the day a paid state holiday.

Utah became the last state to name a holiday after King when “Human Rights Day” was officially changed to “Martin Luther King Jr. Day” in 2000. South Carolina was the last state to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a paid state holiday, also in 2000. Prior to then, state employees could choose between celebrating MLK day and celebrating one of three Confederate holidays.

Controversy erupted in Arizona when the governor, Evan Mecham, undid his predecessors executive order which had made MLK day a paid state holiday in 1986. Instead, Mecham declared the 3rd Sunday as the state holiday, naming it Martin Luther King, Jr. Day/Civil Rights Day, of course, making it unpaid. In 1990 citizens were asked to vote on giving state employees a paid holiday for the day, but the two options to vote on both included doing away with another paid holiday to make room for MLK day and neither passed. This result caused the National Football League to move the Super Bowl from Arizona to California, which they had threatened to do if the MLK day was not passed. Finally in 1992 a referendum passed making Martin Luther King, Jr Day a paid state holiday in Arizona.

Many saw Mecham’s opposition to making MLK Day a paid state holiday as racist, or disrespectful to Dr. King’s legacy. In response to the controversy in Arizona in 1990, Public Enemy recorded this song in 1991. However, the accompanying music video was criticized as being violent and running counter to Dr. King’s nonviolent message.

The struggle over Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day meant to honor, remember, and uphold the legacy of a man who practiced and preached non violent means in order to bring about racial equality continued well into the 2000s with various states combining MLK Day with days to celebrate Robert E. Lee and renaming the day. This struggle highlights the continued need for education about the history of civil rights, racial (in)equality, and the systems of oppression that have historically undermined people of color in the United States.

#MusicMonday: “Auld Lang Syne” by Robert Burns

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne? For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”

This is the classic song sung on New Year’s Eve after the ball drops in Times Square each year, and all around the world as well, to usher in the new year and mark the ending of the old. Most would recognize it when they hear it, but what does it mean and where did the tradition of singing it at New Year’s celebrations come from?

Let’s start with what the title of the song literally means. “Auld lang syne” is Scots for “old long since” or “long long ago” or “old times.” “For auld lang syne”, as the words appear in the chorus of the song, could be translated as for the sake of old times. The song poses the question of whether old times should be forgotten and then answers that old friendships should be remembered.

The song was written as a poem by Robert Burns in 1788. The words are set to the tune of a traditional folk song. It has been used to mark the end of the year, but also other sorts of endings including funerals, farewells, and the ends of parties. The song also takes words from an earlier song by James Watson (1711). Used commonly in Scotland for Hogmanay (New Year’s) celebrations, the popularity and use of the song has spread far and wide around the world.

Guy Lombardo is credited with popularizing the use of the song at New Year’s Eve celebrations, at least in the United States. He and his band (His Royal Canadians) played the song live every year on his New York City radio (and later TV) New Year’s Eve concert from 1929 to 1977. This concert was the popular precursor to Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin Eve. Originally from a part of Ontario that had a large Scots population, Lombardo and his band were accustomed to bands ending their shows with the Scottish standard. It is Lombardo’s version that is played in Times Square every New Year’s right after the ball drop. But the song has been covered extensively and is considered a musical standard.

Happy New Year everyone! May it bring new adventures, new memories, and joy to you all.

#MusicMonday: Victorian Ghost Story Traditions in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” by Andy Williams

A Christmas classic, this 1963 song by Andy Williams describes Christmas traditions, including some we no longer practice.

Have you ever been singing along and gotten to this line and wondered what it was all about?

“There’ll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and caroling out in the snow (all familiar to us now)
There’ll be scary ghost stories, and tales of the glories of, Christmases long, long ago (not so much).”

What do scary ghost stories have to do with Christmas? Isn’t that more for Halloween? Not so much during the Victorian era–an era that has inspired many of our modern Christmas traditions.

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“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” was written by Edward Pola and George Wyle in 1963 and recorded by Andy Williams that same year for his first Christmas album. It’s an up tempo celebration of all things Christmas, particularly spending time with family and friends and general merriment of the season. But that one line about scary ghost stories has always made me curious. The answer can be found in the Victorian Era.

It was during the Victorian Era (1837-1901; the reign of Queen Victoria) that Christmas became more widespread and popularly celebrated in England and the United States. Queen Victoria’s marriage to German Prince Albert brought many Germanic Christmas traditions to Britain, which also trickled over to the United States. One of the most noteworthy was that of decorating the Christmas tree.

Other modern Christmas traditions with roots in Victorian England include sending Christmas cards, caroling, and Christmas crackers (cookies/sweets). And the telling of ghost stories on Christmas eve, such as A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge is visited by 3 spirits.

It was during the Victorian era that Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, which also helped to popularize Christmas celebrations as well as notions that the holiday should be associated with family, gathering together, goodwill, and charity.

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A Christmas Carol’s continued popularity is actually one of the few ways our modern society continues to include those “scary ghost stories” of the Victorian era. In Victorian England, families and friends would gather around on Christmas eve and tell each other spooky stories of ghosts and the supernatural. The tradition had roots even older stretching back hundreds of years to folk traditions of telling ghost stories in the winter as a way to pass the evenings. It was thought that winter, being dark and cold, was the best season for ghost stories.

It’s not surprising that Victorians would include the practice of ghost stories in their Christmas celebrations given that era’s fascination with and culture surrounding darker topics such as death, including elaborate mourning etiquette, death photography, and more. (A topic for another day, perhaps, but you can read more here.)

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Why the writers of the 1963 song decided to include the then relatively defunct tradition is uncertain. But the song itself has become a traditional part of Christmas and can be heard throughout the season, both the original and its many cover versions. The song’s original version is regularly included in top 10 lists of the most popular Christmas songs.

Read more about Victorian Christmas traditions below:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/victorianchristmas/history.shtml

https://listverse.com/2016/12/23/10-strange-christmas-traditions-from-the-victorian-era/

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/plea-resurrect-christmas-tradition-telling-ghost-stories-180967553/

#MusicMonday: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” by Frank Loesser

By now, you’ve likely heard about the controversy over a radio station’s decision to ban “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” this holiday season. Written in 1944 by Frank Loesser for him and his wife to sing together at parties, the song’s lyrics are a call and response between a man and a woman discussing whether or not a woman should stay or leave the man’s house on a cold winter night. While not necessarily Christmas specific, the song is usually played in rotation with Christmas music over the winter holiday season.

For today’s listeners, in an era of the #MeToo movement, high-profile sexual assault cases, and ongoing dialogue about consent and how often women face sexual harassment, some of the song’s lyrics sound a bit alarming, most notably when the female voice asks “What’s in this drink?” or when her clear “the answer is no” is met with the man’s continued encouragement to stay.

Most women can imagine what that feels like or can remember a time when their “no” was ignored by a man–from requests as simple as a drink at a bar, their phone number, or a dance, to situations much more serious and violent.

In today’s society where dialogue about consent, the #MeToo movement, and other efforts are helping to give women more of a voice, the lyrics to the song can sound a bit coercive at best and like ignoring lack of consent or date rape at worst.

However, there are several other lines in the song that demonstrate the woman’s actual desire to stay at the man’s house, especially when the lyrics are read in the historical context in which they were written.

The female voice expresses her desire to stay several times–first when she says, “Maybe just a half a drink more” and later when she says “maybe just a cigarette more” as well as the ending of the song where the male and female voices sing in unison that it’s cold outside. While none of these lines are a clear yes, they can be interpreted as deciding to use that “excuse” for her staying.

But why did she need an excuse? For the same reason that none of her indications that she wants to stay are terribly clear or explicit–Because of societal expectations in that time period (1940s-1950s). Women faced much more scrutiny about their relationships and sexual behavior than they do now (when they still face more scrutiny than their male counterparts). Women with “good reputations” were expected to turn down a man’s advances even if they actually wanted to stay the night, meaning men did not expect or try to get clear consent.

The woman’s lines in the song also speak much more to her concern about what her family and neighbors would think about her staying than they do to her not wanting to stay. She names a number of family members that would be concerned or suspicious if she didn’t return home including her mother, brother, father, sister, and aunt and also wondered what the neighbors would think.

“At least I’m going to say that I tried.” This line really speaks to the heart of the issue–“good” girls had to at least say they tried to turn a man down. And she could say that given her many “attempts” to leave.

Today’s conversations about consent are important. Historically, men didn’t wait to get consent since they expected a woman to say no. Women in that time period did not have as much of a voice in their personal relationships because of those societal expectations. This song actually shines a light on why consent is so important–clarity is needed rather than trying to read body language and clues while men and women juggle society’s expectations of them versus their own desires.

I can understand why some are uncomfortable hearing this song in today’s society in which the man’s lines sound coercive and pushy but with the historical context in mind I hear the song as the woman wanting to stay and ultimately deciding to do so–society’s opinion on her decision be damned. Though I also see the problematic societal standards that put the woman in a position in which a real no could have easily been ignored or misinterpreted as the “no” that she was supposed to give even when her answer was yes.

In recent years, some artists have attempted to address issues with the song heard with a modern ear.

The song has been recorded by so many artists and there are so many versions. Some reverse the gender roles in the song such as She & Him’s version (the video for which also addresses the “creepy” factor) or a live version performed by Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Do those versions change any of the meaning for you?

Finally, a songwriting duo changed the lyrics to reflect conversations about consent. Take a listen and let me know if you think this song needs such an update.

Do you think the song should be taken out of radio rotation? Does it sound creepy to you? Does knowing the historical context change your take on it?

#MusicMonday: “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono

“So this is Christmas and what have you done? Another year over, a new one just begun… A very merry Christmas and a happy new year, let’s hope it’s a good one without any fear.”

Happy_Xmas_(War_is_Over)“Happy Xmas (War is Over)” (1971) is a Christmas song by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, but it is also a protest song. Lennon and Ono made music and led activism promoting peace and condemning the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s and their Christmas song was no different.

Specifically, “Happy Xmas” promoted personal accountability and empowerment to stop the war in Vietnam with lines like “war is over if you want it” and “so this is Christmas and what have you done?” and “Let’s stop all the fight.”

The song shared the same message as a billboard campaign that Lennon and Ono put together in December of 1969, 2 years before the song’s release. They had billboards put up in major cities all over the world that read, “”WAR IS OVER! If You Want It – Happy Christmas from John & Yoko.”

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In the opening, whispered lines of the song Yoko wishes her daughter (from a previous marriage) Kyoko a happy Christmas followed by John doing the same to his son (from his previous marriage) Julian. The couple’s son Sean had not been born yet.

The song was written and recorded in New York City and the children’s voices featured on the song are from the Harlem Community Choir.

The song has been extensively covered over the years including by Sarah McLachlan, The Fray, Neil Diamond, Celine Dion, and many others.

The song was not an immediate hit, but has come to be a Christmas classic that invokes introspection and a renewed call for peace.

Full lyrics:

(Happy Christmas, Kyoko
Happy Christmas, Julian)

So this is Christmas
And what have you done?
Another year over
And a new one just begun

And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear ones
The old and the young

A very Merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear

And so this is Christmas (War is over!)
For weak and for strong (If you want it)
For rich and the poor ones (War is over!)
The road is so long (Now!)

And so happy Christmas (War is over!)
For black and for white (If you want it)
For yellow and red ones (War is over!)
Let’s stop all the fight (Now!)

A very Merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear

And so this is Christmas (War is over!)
And what have we done? (If you want it)
Another year over (War is over!)
And a new one just begun (Now!)
And so happy Christmas (War is over!)
We hope you have fun (If you want it)
The near and the dear ones (War is over!)
The old and the young (Now!)

A very Merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear

War is over, if you want it
War is over, now!

Happy Christmas
Happy Christmas, Christmas
Happy Christmas, Christmas

#MusicMonday: “Born in the USA” and 4 other songs you didn’t know were about the Vietnam War

Ok, so you may know that a few of these are about the Vietnam War (1955-1975), but some are a bit more obscure or surprising. The Vietnam War is one of the least understood, most contested and divisive wars in American history. The war was so hotly opposed by the American public that returning veterans did not receive the hero’s welcome that previous generations of soldiers had. Within the military itself, morale was low owing to the inconclusive end of the war, the draft, and the length and brutality of the war.

The anti-war movement in the U.S. spawned a number of songs. Here are 5 songs about the Vietnam War era, including the protests against it, the heightened political tension of the time period, and the long-term effects.

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  • “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival – 1969

“Some folk are born made to wave the flag, whoo they’re red, white, and blue and when the band plays hail to the chief, they point the cannon at you. Lord, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son.”

“Fortunate Son” addresses class differences when it comes to war. The songwriter himself, John Fogerty, is a veteran, having served in the Army Reserve during the Vietnam War. He was inspired to write the song by hearing about wealthy, privileged people’s son’s receiving deferments for military service or given choice positions in the military. While the song doesn’t specifically address the Vietnam War it was inspired by that era with the draft going on and the anger that many felt about being drafted to fight in a war whose cause was ill defined. Many did not know what they were fighting for and felt they were fighting for rich leaders’ interests. Fogerty was also inspired to write the song because of the broader idea that wars were instigated by the wealthy leaders but actually fought by the poor soldiers. The song was released at the height of anti-war sentiment as the Vietnam War continued to escalate after promises that the U.S. would soon pull back. It quickly became an anti-war anthem and hit.

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  • “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young- 1970

“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, We’re finally on our own, This summer I hear the drumming, Four dead in Ohio.”

“Ohio” was a direct reaction to the deaths of four students protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio on May 4, 1970. Students had been gathering to protest the recently announced Cambodian campaign which escalated and expanded the Vietnam War. National Guardsman had been called in prior to the incident because of general campus unrest, riots, and destruction of property in the area. The National Guardsman were dispersing a large group of students and had nearly cleared the area when they shot into a crowd, killing 4 and wounding 9 others. The exact reasoning for why the Guardsman decided to open fire is still unknown. Two of the students killed were not even participants in the protest but had simply been walking between classes. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young recorded the song after seeing images of the incident in Life Magazine. The song was banned on some radio stations because of its challenge to the Nixon administration, but it quickly became a popular song with counterculture anti-war protesters.

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  • “War” by Edwin Starr – 1970

“War, huh, good god, What is it good for, Absolutely nothing, listen to me
Oh, war, I despise, ‘Cause it means destruction of innocent lives
War means tears to thousands of mothers’ eyes
When their sons go to fight, And lose their lives.”

Originally recorded by the Temptations, “War” was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for the Motown label. The label ultimately decided to withhold the version recorded by the Temptations because of concerns of upsetting the group’s conservative fans. Instead, it was re-recorded by Edwin Starr. The song became a number one hit and is one of the most popular protest songs ever recorded. It was released in 1970, after the My Lai Massacre had been made public and as the Vietnam War escalated into Cambodia, both events causing anti-war sentiment to grow in the U.S. As such it resonated with the growing negative public opinion of the war. The song has gone on to be featured in a number of movies and television shows. Bruce Springsteen added the song to his live sets in the the 1980s. The lyrics speak a broad anti-war message rather than specifically targeting the Vietnam War, giving the song a long life and making it applicable to all wartime peace efforts.

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  • “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye – 1971

“Father, father, We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer, For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way, To bring some loving here today

Picket lines and picket signs, Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see, Oh, what’s going on.”

The original version of this song was inspired by Renaldo “Obie” Benson, a member of the Motown group the Four Tops. He witnessed police brutality towards anti-war protesters in Berkeley, California and shared the experience with a songwriter friend of his, Al Cleveland. The result was passed over by the Four Tops who felt it was too risky to record a protest song. Thus, Benson gave it to Marvin Gaye. Gaye, who was and remains more well known for love songs such as “Let’s Get it On,” added his own touches, influenced by his brother, a Vietnam War veteran, and his own take on what he saw going on in the U.S. Gaye explained his inspiration by saying, “With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” The song captures the dissatisfaction of many with the Vietnam War and the overall political atmosphere of the country at the time.

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  • “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen – 1984
“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
Born in the U.S.A., I was born in the U.S.A….
Come back home to the refinery, Hiring man said “son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man, He said “son, don’t you understand”
I had a brother at Khe Sahn, Fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone…”

This song, released almost 10 years after the Vietnam War ended, speaks to the aftermath of war and the effects on returning veterans. Commonly used as simply a patriotic song because of its “Born in the U.S.A” refrain, its meaning is a bit more complicated.  Like CCR’s “Fortunate Son” it speaks to the class differences in the experience of war, but more generally it addresses the way Vietnam veterans were treated after the war. The veteran in the song was drafted and sent to war for an unclear cause and then returned and, despite being a veteran, struggles to find work and a place in society, haunted by those he lost in Vietnam. The song uses the chorus to highlight the hypocrisy of the treatment of veterans.

All of the songs on this list, while against the Vietnam War, were not necessarily against the soldiers themselves. They were against the decisions of the government and these songs actually lamented the loss of soldiers’ lives, the unfairness of the draft, and, like Fortunate Son and Born in the USA, lamented the treatment of soldiers, especially poor ones, as pawns and the treatment of veterans after the war. However, the Vietnam War remains an unpopular war and that public opinion has affected veterans, with many returning home to a public that saw them as part of an unsuccessful, unnecessary, and meaningless war. Two of the songs, Ohio and What’s Going On, focus on the treatment of anti-war protesters, arguing against police brutality and defending their right to protest.

The impact the war and the draft had on the military has led the military to be volunteer only since then, owing to large scale disciplinary problems, low morale, and other issues. The impacts of the war also continue to affect Vietnam.

To read more about the Vietnam War, the My Lai Massacre, and protest music, see the links below:

https://ap.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/sixties/essays/vietnam-war-and-my-lai-massacre

https://medium.com/war-is-boring/when-motown-went-to-war-against-war-f8f6471f88e4

https://www.cfr.org/blog/twenty-best-vietnam-protest-songs 

https://www.stripes.com/news/special-reports/vietnam-stories/1966/vietnam-the-first-rock-and-roll-war-1.438304