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Anti-War Songs Through the Ages: From the Civil War to Vietnam

Harry has been an online writer for many years. His articles examine music, history, culture, and many other topics.

During the Vietnam War, the peace symbol became one of the more important protest images.

During the Vietnam War, the peace symbol became one of the more important protest images.

Opposing War Through Song

As long as there have been wars, it seems plausible that there been those dissenters, who have not always gone along with the military involvement. Sometimes the dissenting group has been very small, while in other situations, the voice of protest is quite loud. Regardless of the size or potency of the protest, many captivating songs, stories, and images have emerged from the aftermath of past wars. Just by taking a look at a few of the more popular songs, we can learn something about the armed conflicts of the past.

Anti-War Songs Through the Ages

  1. "Soldier's Joy," Guy Clark
  2. "Cruel War," Peter, Paul and Mary
  3. "Down by the Riverside," Mahalia Jackson
  4. "Waltzing Matilda," Liam Clancy
  5. "Green Fields of France," John McDermott
  6. "With God on Our Side," Bob Dylan
  7. "Draft Dodger Rag," The Smother's Brothers and George Segal
  8. "Fortunate Son," Creedence Clearwater Revival
  9. "Run Through the Jungle," Creedence Clearwater Revival
  10. "Unknown Soldier," The Doors

1. "Soldier's Joy" (Pre–Civil War)

"Soldier's Joy" is a popular fiddle tune that can be played with or without words. Its roots predate the Civil War. During the 18th century, versions were played on both sides of the Atlantic. One source places the original music in Scotland during the 1700s.

Nonetheless, the song is still widely played today, especially the upbeat, instrumental version. Discovering that the lyrics clearly related to a soldier being wounded during the Civil War, Guy Clark decided to add a new twist to the song. Here he performs this sad tale, then speeds up the tempo at the end as the band breaks into an instrumental version.

The Bloody Civil War

The American Civil War was a particularly deadly conflict. During this war between the North and South, over 500,000 men perished, making it the most deadly of all our wars. Overall, it was an epic struggle that eventually reunited the country, as it expanded its borders from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The following songs describe different stories about love and survival during those tumultuous years.

2. "Cruel War" (Civil War)

Back in the 1960s, Peter, Paul and Mary broke onto the folk scene with their debut album simply titled Peter, Paul and Mary. Hidden behind such timeless classics as "Blowing In the Wind," "If I Had a Hammer," and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," is this lesser known tune from the Civil War called "Cruel War."

Even today, "Cruel War" is an abnormality among this genre. It strongly expresses a woman's view about her lover that is about to enlist.

3. "Down by the Riverside" (Civil War)

The lyrics of this Civil War–era Negro spiritual are straightforward and quite simple. The singer has found a higher caller and is not "going to study war no more." Not surprisingly, there is a little bit more to the message than just that. The river in the song probably refers to the Ohio River, a very important landmark, especially for escaped slaves fleeing to the northern state of Ohio or to Canada.

This 1924 aquatint by German artist Otto Dix portrays the horror associated with WWI trench warfare

This 1924 aquatint by German artist Otto Dix portrays the horror associated with WWI trench warfare

4. "Waltzing Matilda" (WWI)

World War I turned Europe upside down. Not only were the casualties astronomical, but the advances in war technology created gruesome results never seen before. The use of mustard gas was particularly ugly and cruel, as it left its victims with a painful internal disease and a disfigurement that lasted a lifetime.

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Not surprisingly, from the remains of the "war to end all wars" arose a virulent European subculture that expressed itself quite well in art, literature, and song. All of this did not stop another world war, but it did produce some intriguing works of art. The following are two songs that arose from the aftermath of WWI: "Waltzing Matilda" and "Green Fields of France."

5. "Green Fields of France" (WWI)

Back in 1920, Max Ernst made this sobering collage, titled Murdering Airplane. Little did he know that the airplane would play a much larger and more deadly role in WWII.

Back in 1920, Max Ernst made this sobering collage, titled Murdering Airplane. Little did he know that the airplane would play a much larger and more deadly role in WWII.

Vietnam and Protest Music

Like many wars, the war in Vietnam did almost as much to change the nature of American society as it did to Vietnam. It was the first American war to go haywire, in that the conclusion did not turn out very well for the U.S. cause. A large Selective Service conscription only added to the unpopularity of the armed conflict. In many ways, these ingredients created a perfect storm for the wave of dissent, which exploded onto the American cultural scene in the late 1960s.

6. "With God on Our Side" (Cold War Era)

Although Bob Dylan was much celebrated by the anti-Vietnam crowd of the late 1960s, some of his most striking music is a chilling rejection of McCarthyism and the Cold War.

In 1963, British television discovered Bob Dylan busking on the streets of NYC. So impressed were these TV personnel that they brought the 21-year-old singer over to London, where he performed on British TV and also made a short film. The short film has come up missing and has become one of the Holy Grail artifacts of the '60s counter culture.

On the other hand, the 1963 TV clip says a lot about the time period of the Minnesota-born troubadour. His highly articulated "rage-against-the-war-machine" predates the Vietnam War. Instead, this shortened version of Dylan's classic seems directed at the rampant militarism that must have surrounded the young man, as he came of age in northern Minnesota in the '50s.

7. "Draft Dodger Rag" (Vietnam War)

As long as there has been military conscription, there have been draft dodgers. When the Vietnam War was red hot, this Phil Ochs song was performed on TV by Tom Smothers, Dick Smothers, and George Segal. It also underscores how unfair the "draft" became, where sons of the well-connected could easily get a deferment from military service.

8. "Fortunate Son" (Vietnam War)

When it was first released, "Fortunate Son" was a biting critique of the many privileges of the offspring of the rich and wealthy in this country. As the years have rolled by and we now find ourselves well into a new century, the words of this popular 1960s song still ring true just as they did back in 1968.

9. "Run Through the Jungle" (Vietnam War)

During the late 1960s and early '70s, songs about the Vietnam conflict played freely on the airwaves. Sometimes the anti-war sentiments were subtle, or, as in the case of this Credence Clearwater Revival number, they were rather obvious. Although John Fogerty only spent two years in the reserves, he went on to create a handful of tunes that dealt directly with the growing disaster in Southeast Asia.

10. "Unknown Soldier" (Vietnam War)

During the late 1960s, much to the delight of growing audiences, big name R&R acts began experimenting with such visual effects as light shows, projected images, and smoke machines. As the war escalated in Southeast Asia, the live music scene exploded with rage and protest. Here, the Doors add some eye-catching stage theatrics to get their point across.

© 2018 Harry Nielsen

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