Episode #9: Vietnam War Songs of the 1970s
“Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969/1970)
“Fightin’ Side of Me” by Merle Haggard (1970)
“The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley” by C Company (1971)
“I Should be Proud” by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas (1970)
“War” by Edwin Starr (1970)
“Ball of Confusion” by The Temptations (1971)
“What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye (1971)
01:35 As the 1970s began, “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival shared Top 10 space on the Billboard Hot 100 with some very tame music. To prove it, Amy plays a snipped of “La La La (If I Had You)” by Bobby Sherman. While a pleasant song, it does not exactly capture the political mood of the moment, especially regarding the Vietnam War.
03:04 Amy offers a brief history lesson about the happenings in Vietnam as 1969 became 1970. Highlights (or lowlights) are the draft lottery, which is the lottery that nobody wanted to win, and Richard Nixon’s expansion of the war into Cambodia. This leads to demonstrations on college campuses around the country, most notably at Kent State University in Ohio. More on this in Episode 5.
06:00 John Fogerty wrote “Fortunate Son” because he was angry about the draft in 1969.
08:50 There were other songs with the same tone as “Fortunate Son,” but many were not heard because radio stations would not play them.
09:50 A reminder that radio determined your fate as an artist in the 1970s.
10:30 Right wingers loved “Okie from Muskogee” but according to Merle Haggard, they misinterpreted it. It was satire. He wanted to change his image a little after the song was released and wanted to record “Irma Jackson,” a song about an interracial relationship. The head of the country music division of his record label refused because and told Haggard to record “The Fightin’ Side of Me.”
15:00 Another reminder, this time that country radio killed country music, as discussed in detail in Episode 2. The country music establishment has a lot of power and input over what is and is not “country music.” The editor of Music City News said that the peace sign is a symbol of the anti-Christ and challenged djs to play authentic country music, which is bit ironic since country music is as mongrelized as any musical genre in existence. He also supported “The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley,” which is about William Calley, Jr. Read more about Calley and the My Lai Massacre here.
19:41 Country radio definitely was conservative in its political leanings, but Motown did not want to wade into controversy, either. Martha Reeves and the Vandellas recorded “I Should Be Proud,” a clear anti-war song, in 1970. However, she was told that the CIA was following her around and that song was taken off the radio. Amy wonders if Berry Gordy made up the part about the CIA following her around to avoid the controversy. It is notable that Motown changed the lyrics of the songs, too.
24:00 It was strange that Motown approved of the release of“War” in the same year that “I Should Be Proud” was released. The Temptations were not allowed to record it, though. Edwin Starr was not famous so Motown was willing to gamble with him. “War” went on to become a #1 smash hit and one of the most iconic songs of the early 70s.
26:00 Norman Whitfield wanted The Temptations to be more political. “Ball of Confusion” was written as a compromise and The Temptations recorded it in 1971. (Listen to it with headphones or ear buds!)
28:39 Freda Payne, most known for her hit, “Band of Gold,” recorded “Bring the Boys Home” in 1971. The song was banned by Armed Forces Radio. Amy does not approve of censorship but can see how it would be awkward to be playing this song about guys dying in a senseless war in the location where guys are still dying in a senseless war.
31:24 Did anyone have a better singing voice in the 1960s and 1970s than Marvin Gaye? Amy says no. He was depressed in 1971, though. He was depressed about the death of Tammi Terrell, his marriage was not a happy one, he had money problems, and he was upset by what he heard about Vietnam from his brother, Frankie. He was given part of a song by Obie Benson of The Four Tops. It became “What’s Going On” and it was part of the album of the same name, released over the objections of Berry Gordy in 1971. It is now considered one of the greatest singles and albums of all time.
36:14 Marvin Gaye wanted to make more socially conscious music and did so with “What’s Going On,” but veered off into sexual politics with his next albums, such as “Let’s Get It On,” and “Sexual Healing.”
37: 15 Much of the Vietnam War music was made after the war, although the music stopped when the troops came home. In the 1980s, artists such as Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen, and REM made music that encouraged us to remember the war, even if it is difficult to do so.
SOURCES USED TO CREATE THIS PODCAST
Bernstein, Jonathon. “Flashback: Merle Haggard Reluctantly Reveals The Fightin’ Side of Me.” Rolling Stone. December 23, 2014. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-country/flashback-merle-haggard-reluctantly-unveils-the-fightin-side-of-me-187099/
Chilton, Martin. “Sometimes I Wish I Hadn’t Written Okie from Muskogee.” The Telegraph. April 8, 2016. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/music/artists/merle-haggard-sometimes-i-wish-i-hadnt-written-okie-from-muskoge/
Fogerty, John. Fortunate Son: My Life, My Music. New York: Little, Brown, and Co. 2015.
“Making Music in Motor City.” NPR. July 26, 2007. https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=12257724
Meighan, Nicola. “Martha Reeves Set for U.K. Tour.” The List June 30, 2010. https://www.list.co.uk/article/26740-martha-reeves-set-for-uk-tour-interview/
Simpson, Kim. "Historian’s Corner: Country Radio's Growing Pains in the Music Trades, 1967-1977." American Music 27, no. 4 (2009): 500-14. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25652231.