FROM THE PUBLISHER
KOREAN WAR MUSIC
BOB DYLAN IN RUSSIA
VIETNAM PROTEST SONGS
Welcome to the Music Issue of Cold War Magazine. This month’s issue covers the popular music of the Cold War, starting with the war in Korea and ending with the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Berlin Wall. There’s lots to listen to, so be sure to carry your earbuds with you.
Cold War Magazine is proud to be all about Cold War history, culture, and politics. Many people think that the Cold War was just a half century confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. But it was really much more than an international conflict. Those of us who lived it know that the Cold War was a “state of mind,” encompassing every aspect of life from fashion and decor to bubblegum cards and comic books.
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Lisa Reynolds Wolfe | Publisher
Songs about the Korean War aren’t among the most memorable tunes of the 20th century. But the music does represent an interesting shift from the overtly patriotic lyrics of World War II to the anti-war protest melodies of the Vietnam War era. Songs linked to the Korean War were dominated by the same themes found in earlier war lyrics: patriotism, the soldier in battle, faith, and emotional pain. These topics were expressed in the populist genres pre-rock times: country, blue grass, and blues.
The Korean War was a long time coming. Negotiations had been ongoing since the Cairo Declaration of 1943 which stated that “Korea shall be free and independent.”
The United States and the Soviet Union had agreed that -- following the Japanese surrender -- Korea would be divided at the 38th parallel into Northern and Southern zones of military occupation. In August 1945 Soviet forces entered Korea from the North, and in September 1945 American troops landed in the South of Korea.
In May 1948 parliamentary elections were held in the Southern zone under the supervision of the United Nations transitional commission. The USSR refused to admit UN representatives in the North.
On August 25, 1948, the Soviets severed diplomatic relations with the United States under the pretext that the Americans were holding two Soviet teachers against their will. The US reported that the teachers had decided to stay in American custody of their own accord.
In December 1948, the UN General Assembly recognized the South Korean government in Seoul as the country’s lawful government and recommended the withdrawal of military occupation.
On Christmas Day 1948, the Soviet Union declared that it had pulled its troops out of North Korea. Still, both superpowers continued building up their presence on the Korean Peninsula. The mutual antagonism of the two Korean regimes was increasingly apparent.
North Korea mounted a military offensive against the South on June 25, 1950. The same day, the United Nations convened to discuss the Korean issue at the request of the Americans. Subsequently, The UN adopted Resolution 83 demanding the immediate cessation of hostilities and the withdrawal of North Korean troops South of the 38th parallel.
On July 7, 1950, the UN Security Council established a unified command over US led troops operating under the UN flag against North Korea. Although 16 countries deployed troops and 5 nations dispatched medical units, US troops made up more than 90% of the UN force.
An early song about the Korean War picked up on the uncertainty and trepidation of the times. “God Please Protect America” by Jimmie Osborne, was an overtly religious song that asked God to protect American soldiers in Korea. It was a pretty standard war song, highlighting the heartache of family back home and the necessity of victory. The song first appeared on the Billboard charts on October 7. It peaked at #9.
At this point, nobody really knew what was ahead or what kind of war the US would be fighting. America’s military was in decline in the aftermath of World War II, and most experienced combat troops had retired. South Korean troops were seriously outclassed by North Korea’s army.
The situation changed, though, after General MacArthur’s victory at Incheon on September 19, 1950. North Korean troops scattered and fell into disarray. Soon Allied forces were on the streets of Pyongyang (North Korea), and the war seemed as good as over. At least that’s what Jimmie Osborne thought when he wrote “Thank God for Victory in Korea,” recorded on October 2, 1950.
Now, you probably know the Korean War didn’t end in 1950, so this song was very premature. In fact, Chinese forces entered the conflict three weeks later, changing the character of the war.
A crack at communist China was exactly what MacArthur had wanted. But with the Chinese intervention in October 1950, the UN and South Korean forces suffered a series of setbacks. On December 15, UN forces recrossed the 38th Parallel back into South Korea. Some Americans began to wonder if President Truman would once again authorize the dropping of the atomic bomb. This is reflected by Jackie Doll and his Pickled Peppers in their song “When They Drop The Atomic Bomb.”
MacArthur supposedly wanted to use 50 atomic bombs to lay down a permanent radioactive belt along the Yalu River, but President Truman was opposed to this course of action. After MacArthur made a series of statements against Truman’s war policy, he was fired for insubordination, an action supported by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
A number of songs were written in tribute to MacArthur, with names like “Old Soldiers Never Die” by Gene Autry. Most of these songs praised the General’s World War II achievements and grieved his retirement without mentioning his performance in Korea.
By the fall of 1951, American and UN forces were locked in a bloody stalemate, epitomized by the battle of Heartbreak Ridge. Casualty figures in that battle were estimated at over 3,700 American and French and an estimated 25,000 North Koreans and Chinese. The battle inspired “A Heartsick Soldier on Heartbreak Ridge,” a popular song performed by a number of musicians, including Ernest Tubb, Wesley Tuttle, and Gene Autry. This is Ernest Tubb’s version.
As we just heard, the narrator misses his girlfriend as well as the love letters that never came. The topic of soldiers leaving loved ones at home was a common theme, and the fear of a “Dear John Letter” was often in the forefront of a soldier’s consciousness. So it’s hardly surprising that the most popular song to come out of the Korean conflict was “A Dear John Letter” by Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky, recorded on May 3, 1953. The song held the #1 spot on the country charts for 6 weeks, and remained on the charts for 23 weeks.
The “Dear John” song tells the tale of a woman leaving her boyfriend for his brother, a cruel end to a relationship -- especially when you’re stranded in a war zone. This song inspired a sequel titled “Dear Joan” by Jack Cardwell in which John writes back that it’s okay because he loves her sister anyway. “Forgive Me John” is by the same original artists (Shepard and Husky), and tells about Joan changing her mind.
On July 27, 1953, the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed. Also, the exact same day, gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe released the uplifting song “There’s Peace in Korea.”
Blues guitarist Lightnin’ Hopkins released his own song “The War is Over” two days later commemorating the end of the war. This tune emphasizes returning to life’s little problems, as well as the anxiety over “that woman,” with some domestic violence added in. The war’s end also brought a number of sad songs as the survivors counted the dead and arranged for POW exchanges, as well as dealing with the challenges of adapting back into civilian life.
One such song is “Searching for You, Buddy” by Red River Dave, a soul-searching song about a fellow soldier who died in war.
More than half a century ago, in the early years of the Cold War, America’s State Department organized tours to counter Soviet propaganda. At first they sent symphony orchestras and ballet companies on international tours. But Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the US representative from Harlem, had a better idea. Send out jazz bands instead!
Powell’s rationale was simple. Competing with the Bolshoi or with Russian musicians would be futile. Better to show off an authentically homegrown art form that the Russians couldn’t match.
The Jazz Ambassadors Program was launched at the bitterest point in the Cold War to bring the best of American culture to the rest of the world. The program focused not only on Iron Curtain nations, but also on the Third World, where many developing countries were exploring Marxism as a possible political identity.
The jazz tours went hand in hand with the Voice of America’s jazz broadcast, introduced 7 nights a week by Willis Conover, a well known jazz producer. His program had millions of listeners beyond the Iron Curtain and “helped to lay the groundwork for the emergence of the Jazz Ambassadors.”
Conover usually avoided overt pro America propaganda, but he described jazz as “structurally parallel to the American political system” and saw its structure as embodying American freedom.
As the New York Times noted in a 1955 headline: Jazz was America’s “Secret Sonic Weapon.”
The novelist Ralph Ellison chimed in, calling jazz an
“artistic counterpart to the American political system. The soloist can play anything he wants,” he said, “as long as he stays within the tempo and the chord changes -- just as, in a democracy, the individual can say or do whatever he wants as long as he obeys the law.”
Dizzy Gillespie made the State Department’s first goodwill jazz tour in March 1956, traveling all over southern Europe, the Middle East, and south Asia with his 18 piece band. Quincy Jones helped organize that first tour and here’s what he has to say about it.
“The entire trip was an adventure. We didn’t know what we were getting into; neither did the State Department. It was new for everyone.
From Pakistan to Iran, Syria, and Yugoslavia we had a great time -- learning about local customs, jamming with each country’s musicians, and letting the music bring us together. We became the kamikaze band representing our country. I say that because there was conflict of some kind going on in every place we visited.
Believe it or not, some of these countries had never seen or heard trumpets, trombones or saxophones play together.”
The video below is a tribute to Dizzy’s visit to Greece on that first tour. It was recorded in New York on May 18-19,1956.
Subsequent Jazz Ambassador tours lasted weeks, sometimes months, featuring greats like Dave Brubeck, Thelonius Monk, Benny Goodman, and Miles Davis.
The tours were well received, reaching audiences in the millions. The artists’ outreach was multifaceted, They performed, met with heads of state, and reached thousands of everyday citizens through their music.
Louis Armstrong served in many ways as America’s premier jazz ambassador. He and his All Stars band made their first unofficial ambassadorial trip to the British Gold Coast in 1956, soon to become the newly independent nation of Ghana. When Armstrong was met by thirteen African bands perched atop trucks and singing All for You, Louis, All for You, he raised his trumpet and joined in. Be sure to watch the wonderful footage from this trip below.
In October 1960, when Louis arrived in the Congo, drummers and dancers paraded him through the streets on a throne.
The 1958 State Department tour of jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck and his integrated classic Quartet marked the first foray of the Jazz Ambassadors across the Iron Curtain. The experience of crossing into East Berlin to acquire the visas needed for Poland inspired Brubeck’s composition Brandenburg Gate. The tune was recorded in Poland on August 23, 1958.
Brubeck often spoke at his performances and drew tremendous applause when he said:
”No dictatorship can tolerate jazz. It is the first sign of a return to freedom.”
Dave and his wife Iola later celebrated the State Department trips in their 1961-1962 musical The Real Ambassadors, a collaboration with Louis Armstrong. Iola said:
. . . the entire [American] jazz community was elated with the official recognition of jazz and its international implications.”
Duke Ellington -- composer, pianist, and band leader -- toured for the State Department more than any other musician. As late as 1971, when Duke Ellington arrived in Moscow, an American diplomat wrote in his official report that crowds greeted the Duke like it was the “Second Coming.” One young Russian yelled, “We’ve been waiting for you for centuries.”
Duke’s encounters with local musicians and unfamiliar musical forms influenced his compositions and can be heard in his album Far East Suite.
Duke’s greatest diplomatic triumph came in 1971 when his orchestra toured the Soviet Union. Jazz critic Leonard Feather called the tour “the greatest coup in the history of musical diplomacy.” The 72 year old jazz great immediately followed the Soviet experience with performances in Eastern Europe and a tour of Latin America in late 1971. He visited Asia in 1972 while the Vietnam War unfolded around him.
Clarinetist Benny Goodman and his orchestra began their first State Department tour in 1956. In 1962, he became the first jazz musician to tour the Soviet Union for the State Department, making 30 appearances in 6 cities. Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev attended the band’s opening night in Moscow and was welcomed with Let’s Dance and Greetings Moscow, a number based on a Russian folk song.
Although Soviet policy had long declared jazz a decadent modern art form, Goodman and his orchestra discovered thousands of underground fans.
Because many jazz musicians were black and their bands were racially mixed, they were a powerful antidote to visions of America’s segregated South. Still, at home, they helped push the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations to expand civil rights.
For example, Armstrong canceled a 1957 trip to Moscow after President Eisenhower refused to send federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce school integration.
“The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” he said. “It’s getting so bad, a colored man hasn’t got any country.”
In response, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told the Attorney General that the situation in Arkansas was “ruining our foreign policy.” Two weeks later, Ike sent in the National Guard.
The idea was to demonstrate the superiority of the United States over the Soviet Union, freedom over Communism. Here was evidence that an American -- even a black man -- could criticize his government and not be punished.
Dave Brubeck argued that jazz was
“the voice of freedom all over the world. Our government’s talking about freedom. Jazz seemed to always work and express freedom. That’s what we’re all about. The way to get to the rest of the world is through cultural exchange.”
Carrying this thought a step further, Brubeck’s wife wrote a song for Louis Armstrong to sing. The lyrics go like this.
The State Department has discovered jazz
It reaches folks like nothing ever has.
When our neighbors called us vermin,
We sent out Woody Herman.
That’s what they call cultural exchange.”
Jazz seemed a natural for the Cold War. But as Penny M. Von Eschen wrote in her book Satchmo Blows Up the World, the audiences abroad
never confused or conflated their love of jazz and American popular culture with the acceptance of American foreign policy.”
From the late 1960s onward, the high cost of touring led the State Department to develop a fruitful relationship with the Newport Jazz Festival. The collaborators were able to take advantage of the presence of famous musicians already performing abroad by sending them to diplomatically sensitive areas at the conclusion of their commercial tours.
The State Department received a great boost as the Newport Jazz Festival brought artists to musical gatherings behind the Iron Curtain while also sending them to developing nations elsewhere. The groups were also able to reach a younger audience drawn to avant garde jazz.
In 2006, the American Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice opened the 50th anniversary commemoration ceremony of Dizzy Gillespie’s 1956 State Department funded world tour. She remembered how, during a crucial phase of the ideological confrontation of the Cold War, the Eisenhower administration turned to jazz music to contain the communists. As the emigre novelist Vasily Aksyonov writes in his book, In Search of Melancholy Baby:
In those days jazz was America’s secret weapon number one:
Every night the Voice of America would beam a two-hour jazz program at the Soviet Union from Tangiers.
How many dreamy Russian boys came to puberty to the strains of Ellington’s “Take the A Train” and the dulcet voice of Willis Conover, the VOA’s Mr. Jazz.”
It’s interesting to note that the State Department has a program in jazz diplomacy even now. It’s called Rhythm Road and is run by Jazz at Lincoln Center. While it’s scaled more modestly than earlier programs, it sends 10 band to 56 countries a year.
Hard to believe, but a January 1975 memo recently published by Wikileaks reveals that the United States government considered sending Bob Dylan to Moscow to undermine communism. Well, not just Dylan, but Joni Mitchell, Don McLean, James Taylor, Neil Young, Carly Simon, and Carole King among others.
The actual text of the document reads in part as follows:
1. Re discussion of possible popular music groups for USSR tour, believe “soul” genre not of top interest here, and suggest priority consideration be given to “soft rock”, “blues/rock”, or “country rock”. While this would be new for Soviet tour, as would most aspects current music, believe time ripe to make attempt. Whatever popular style is represented by group finally selected, we hope top individuals or groups (who are creative and influential forces in contemporary popular music) can be approached first in preference to lesser-known, more derivative artists.
2. These are some examples; List of course not exhaustive:
A. Soft rock -- Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Don McLean, or Joni Mitchell
B. Blues/rock -- The Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Atlanta Rhythm Section”, or Richard Betts
C. Country Rock -- Poco, Cactus, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, or Leon Russell
Crazy idea? Not really when you think of the large crowds the Jazz Ambassadors were drawing in their US State Department sponsored performances. (Be sure to read the article about the Jazz Ambassadors in this issue.)
As it turned out, the Bob Dylan idea was nothing but a pipe dream. We don’t know if any of the artists mentioned in the memo were ever approached about touring, and it’s doubtful that the Soviets would have given permission for the artists and their back-up bands to enter their country. But there is a “blue jeans and Beatles” theory of the defeat of communism that plays up the role of “rock and roll” as a major factor in the downfall of the Soviet Union. And I actually had a friend who was arrested in Russia for having too many pairs of jeans in his suitcase. Black market anyone?
We know that in the 1970s, rock behind the Iron Curtain consisted mainly of original songs written in the musicians’ native tongues. Bands performing these songs -- Illes in Hungary, the Plastic People of the Universe in Czechoslovakia, and Time Machine in the Soviet Union -- managed to enjoy a steady following even though they were mainly underground. You can listen to some of the music on the playlist below.
In opposition, the mainstream was dominated by officially sanctioned rock groups whose lyrics were vetted and whose music was considerably tamer than the underground bands. The East German government even established a “bureau” for rock, indicating their desire to take control of the movement. Still, the underground continued to flourish, creating a “second culture” which would be of future importance.
In 1979, the Soviets allowed British pop singer Elton John and his percussionist Ray Cooper to perform in the totalitarian state, the first major western artists to do so. Even so, this wasn’t necessarily a breakthrough for all rock groups on the western side of the Iron Curtain. When John Lennon died in December 1980, not too long after Elton’s visit, the KGB interpreted vigils for the artist as protests against the Soviet regime. As such, the gatherings weren’t to be tolerated.
Famed director Milos Forman is convinced that The Beatles are greatly responsible for the fall of communism in The Soviet Union. He said:
It has long been an argument that teenagers’ desire for blue jeans and western music brought down the Iron Curtain. However it was actually the regime’s criticism of The Beatles that punched a hole in their own credibility.
Over the course of the 1980s, more authentic and “street” oriented groups gained popularity. There was a genuine native rock scene with a blossoming homemade album movement. By the mid 80s, though, out of concern for the negative effects of rock, the underground and its rock music were effectively outlawed in the Soviet Union. Clubs were closed, underground bands were criticized in the press, and official bands were forced to play songs written by the government sponsored Composers Union.
As a matter of interest, Bob Dylan’s only public appearance in the USSR was at a poetry event there in 1985. Neither Joni Mitchell or Don McLean ever toured that country.
Glasnost and Perestroika
Did Elton John poison the Soviet system? Six years after his visit, Gorbachev was compelled to introduce glasnost and perestroika. Attitudes toward rock music became much more permissive and foreign bands were allowed to play.
James Taylor, accompanied by Santana, Bonnie Raitt and the Doobie Brothers, headlined a joint Soviet-American “Summit” Concert in Moscow to herald the coming of glasnost. Later that same year, Billy Joel performed 3 sold-out shows in Moscow and 3 more in Leningrad. The performances were hyped as “the first time an American pop music star had brought a fully staged show to the Soviet Union.”
In 1987, David Bowie, Phil Collins, and the Eurythmics played in West Berlin. Radio stations in the American Sector announced the lineup and time well before hand, and the concert planners pointed the speakers over the wall so that East Berliners could enjoy the concert. When East German security forces tried to disband the crowd of fans assembled by the wall, the fans promptly rioted, chanting “tear down the wall!”
Paranoia about pop music remained so heated a year later that young people from East Germany weren’t allowed to congregate near the Berlin Wall when Michael Jackson played a 1988 concert in front of the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin.
In an attempt to improve their image, the East German government invited Bruce Springsteen to play on their side of the wall a month after Jackson’s concert. Springsteen performed in front of 160,000 East Germans -- the biggest concert in the country’s history. East Germany welcomed him as a “hero of the working class,” and no violence erupted even though the crowd enthusiastically sang “Born in the USA”, while clutching small hand-painted American flags. Springsteen said:
“I am not for or against any government. I have come here to play rock and roll for you East Berliners in the hope that one day all barriers can be torn down.”
The Berlin Wall collapsed before the year ended, just 10 years after Elton’s concert tour,
The Beatles and Blue Jeans
In the 2009 documentary “How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin,” British film maker, Leslie Woodhead. argues that rock music, and the Beatles in particular, alienated the youth against the leadership of the Soviet bloc governments. Russian rock commentator Artemy Troistky said:
The Beatles turned tens of millions of Soviet youngsters to another religion. They alienated a whole generation of young, well-educated, urban Soviet kids from their communist motherland. The West spent millions on undermining communism but it had much less impact than The Beatles did.
In his book, Strings for a Beatle Bass, Yury Pelyushonok writes:
The Soviet authorities thought that The Beatles were a secret weapon of the cold war because the kids lost their interest in all Soviet unshakable dogmas and ideals and stopped thinking of English-speaking persons as the enemy. They wouldn’t pay attention to the fact that The Beatles were allowing us a little bit of a way to escape when there was no escape. They were a window to Western culture, whispering a promise that something exciting and worthwhile existed beyond the Iron Curtain. After The Beatles, communism was like a fence with holes. We breathed through those holes.
The Politics of Music
For many years during the Cold War, merely listening to music in the Soviet Union or its client states was an act of disobedience. By extension, active participation in the underground scene made one an active agent against the regime, as far as the leadership was concerned. The inability of the Communist regimes to eradicate, replace, or assimilate the influence of rock music probably did much to ensure that the populace would turn against the totalitarian system.
Would this have happened more quickly if Bob Dylan had gone to Russia in 1979. Maybe not, because he didn’t seem to be a favorite with the Russians. But who knows? After all, the winds of change were blowin’.
VIETNAM WAR SONGS
The Vietnam Protest Movement began slowly, grounded in the Cold War scare itself. The protesters believed the war was wrong and they thought that the United States shouldn’t be involved. They were countered by those who supported the war and saw the protesters as unruly and a disruptive. It’s awfully hard to take sides more than 50 years later. But it is safe to say that to understand the protest movement in the United States, one must understand the events of the war. So here’s a little background.
Background of the Vietnam War
In World War II, Nazi Germany invaded France, leaving that country too preoccupied to pay attention to its colonies. Subsequently, Japan occupied French Indochina, including Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The Viet Minh, a communist led group of Vietnamese, emerged as an expression of Vietnamese nationalism. After Japan’s surrender, the Viet Minh continued as the controlling group in Vietnam.
America intervened in Vietnam after World War II in support of the French and their Colonial Rule. The US saw the anti communist Viet Diem and his regime as a “proving ground for democracy.” Even so, only 5,000 American soldiers were in Vietnam in 1960. By 1963, though, 16,000 American military personnel were stationed there.
The Selective Service or “draft” was implemented by the US government in 1962. As one reporter said:
“When you registered for the selective service system, you were assigned a draft number. And if your number came up, then you were in the Army. . . . “Draft Dodger Rag” was an early, very influential song . . . the lyrics were filled with ways to dodge the draft.”
The number of troops in Vietnam continued to increase and so did opposition to American intervention. In the 1960s, the War spurred a protest movement that spread widely, and songs were an important part of that protest.
In the early 1960s, the folk music trend was already well established with artists like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan reaching a relatively small, but devoted, audience. Other now-influential artists used their talents, also, to appeal to an audience that was against the war.
In addition to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changin’,” John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance,” Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner,” and Edwin Starr’s “War” stand out. Overall, the lyrics of this music spoke to the minds of a disillusioned generation. You can listen to these songs in the playlist below.
By 1965, as the US began to escalate its military presence in Vietnam, folk singers and rock stars began appearing at anti war rallies.
Meanwhile, the war wasn’t going well. The president and the generals in Vietnam told Americans back home that the US was winning the war. But in January 1968, North Vietnamese soldiers attacked positions deep inside South Vietnam, including the US embassy. Though the offensive was soon crushed, it left Americans doubting what they were being told.
The event of the year in 1966 was the Newport Folk Festival, and the protest performances there were a good indication of how much the music scene was changing.
The careers of more mainstream American pop musicians also reflected the changes.
Bobby Darin began his pop trajectory as a teen idol in 1958 with the million seller “Splish Splash.” By 1969, Darrin was writing songs about political activism and denouncing the war. Just listen to his “Simple Song of Freedom.”
Another pop icon, Dion (Di Mucci) had his first hit in 1960 with “Lonely Teenager.” But in 1968, after 18 follow-up hits about the same subject, Dion surveyed domestic and international violence in the poignant “Abraham, Martin, and John.”
Still, the music industry’s fear of upsetting large distributors made radical anti war statements in popular music a relatively rare happening. One exception was Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son.” Written in 1969 by the group’s lead singer, John Fogerty, “Fortunate Son,”was a caustic attack on militarism and the class and race-base unfairness inherent in the draft.
By the time of the Woodstock Music Festival in August, 1969, the nature of protest music was changing again, and ‘rock’ music replaced folk anthems when cultural protest merged with political demonstrations.
Importantly, though, despite changing musical trends, the Vietnam War was accompanied every step of the way by an anti war soundtrack that captured the long demoralizing impact of the conflict.
American flags were destroyed on the platform at Woodstock as Jimi Hendrix played his version of the national anthem. Many said that Hendrix’s guitar mimicked the screams of those dying in Vietnam.
On the same stage at Woodstock, Country Joe and the Fish sang the anti-draft anthem, the “I Feel I’m Fixing to Die Rag.” Country Joe MacDonald was an unlikely spokesman here because he had earned his military stripes in the Navy in Vietnam. His bitter lyrics “you can be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box” were played again and again at rallies and demonstrations.
As the protests began to attract the student population, the level of campus activity rose dramatically. When Nixon decided to send troops into Cambodia in April of 1970, over 700 campuses across the US erupted in protest. The protests got even stronger after four students were shot and killed on May 4 during an anti war demonstration at Kent State, Ohio. The group Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young wrote the a song about the violence. Here are some of OHIO’s lyrics:
Tin Soldiers And Nixon’s Bombing
We’re Finally On Our Own
This Summer I Hear The Drumming
Four Dead in Ohio
With the exception of Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance,” though, anti war songs were not best sellers. Of his song, Lennon said:
Our job is to write for the people now . . . So the songs that they go and sing on their buses are not just love songs.
Lennon’s “Peace” was sung by half a million demonstrators at the Vietnam Moratorium Day protest in Washington DC in October 1969. But as Kerry Candaele argues,
. . . the musicians who wrote the anti-war music that became an organic part of political protest were not themselves riding on those buses with “the people.
Obviously, not everyone was a protester. Some were patriotic, and their songs often did very well. Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler had a million selling number one hit in 1966 -- “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” and Merle Haggard hid the jackpot in 1969 with “Okie From Muskogee.”
As it turns out, music did not make a social revolution or stop the war. What it did, instead, was raise spirits along the way.
For a timeline of the Vietnam War and the protests, be sure to take a look at the post on Cold War Studies. Just click here.
The bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, at the end of World War II, marked the first use of atomic weapons in history. The five-ton uranium bomb “Little Boy” generated a huge fireball and explosion that killed 70,000-80,000 people. Another 70,000 were seriously injured. As Joseph Siracusa says:
In one terrible moment, 60 percent of Hiroshima . . . was destroyed. The Hiroshima bombing was followed three days later by a devastating blast on the Japanese city of Nagasaki.
In case there was remaining doubt, THE ATOMIC AGE had begun.
The Atomic Age
The first signs of atomic anxiety in pop music surfaced in the early 1960s with Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”
Inspired by the Cuban missile crisis, the song reflected his generation’s fear of nuclear annihilation.
The October 1962 crisis began when a US reconnaissance plane spotted Soviet missiles in Cuba. Following that exposure, the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war. As a Soviet general said, “Earth was ‘minutes’ away from ‘catastrophe’.”
According to John Savage in The Nation, a significant proportion of young people thought:
If we’re all going to be blown up tomorrow, then I’m going to do what I want. The only thing that matters is NOW.
Nuclear terror dominated most of the rest of the twentieth century. It was always there, in the back of people’s minds. So, for many young people, it was time to live in the moment.
Spanning the years 1945 to 1969, the CDs focus on “cold war music from the golden age of homeland security.” There are about 100 songs in the collection, ranging from 1957’s Atom Bomb Baby by the Five Stars to the 1960’s Radioactive Mama by Sheldon Allman.
While the Atomic Platters collection concentrates on the 50s and 60s, music from later decades is better known. For example, Dylan’s Hard Rain’ was followed by the Searchers’ What Have They Done to the Rain, and Donovan’s The War Drags On. Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction even made it to #1 in 1965.
By the 1970s, though, the appeal of nuclear music was stagnating, But just when the world seemed to be brightening, Russia invaded Afghanistan (1979) and nuclear paranoia re-emerged. A remake of 1983’s 99 Luftballons -- 99 Red Balloons -- went viral.
In case you don’t know, the story of 99 Red Balloons is a protest story. According to the lyrics, a boy and girl innocently release a batch of balloons into the air. International governments are confused by the flying objects and panic,triggering a nuclear holocaust. “It’s all over and I’m standing pretty/In this dust that was a city,” say the lyrics.
In late 1979, a group of stars -- The Doobie Brothers, James Taylor, Carly Simon, and others -- organized the “No Nukes” benefit concerts in New York.
The years that followed were centered on a US military build-up as well as on Reagan’s talk about “evil empires.” The 1980s emerged as a second golden era for atomic and nuclear inspired pop.
The Cold War ended with the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Berlin Wall. But atomic music continues into the present.
And, of course, there’s always today’s nuclear threat from Kim Jong-un and his famous girl group.
For more traditional nuclear music, here’s a playlist of The Nation’s ten top songs about nuclear war.