Civil Rights and Vietnam

Joan Baez & Bob Dylan
Joan Baez and Bob Dylan
at the March on Washington
Photo courtesy National Archives

A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers' blood.
A finger fired the trigger to his name.
A handle hid out in the dark,
A hand set the spark,
Two eyes took the aim,
Behind a man's brain;
But he can't be blamed -
He's only a pawn in their game.

From "A Pawn in Their Game" by Bob Dylan

Civil Rights March
Civil Rights March on
Washington, D.C., 1963
Photo courtesy National Archives

The great era of protest in America saw a collision of music genres ranging from folk revival to gospel to rock 'n roll, as musicians sang for change. While some '60s songwriters drew on protest music's past, others abandoned old tunes and general themes in favor of all-out cultural assaults or specific events. Bob Dylan's "A Pawn in Their Game" was written about the murder of a civil rights worker Medgar Evers; "Ohio" by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young mourned the four students killed by the National Guard during a war protest at Kent State University.

The hundreds of songs about the Vietnam War included Jimi Hendrix's cover of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" and Malvina Reynolds' "What Have They Done to the Rain?" as well as Country Joe MacDonald's "I Feel Like I'm Fixing to Die Rag," Creedence Clearwater Revivals' "Fortunate Son," Edwin Starr's "War," and the work of Joan Baez and Buffy Sainte-Marie.

He's 5 foot 2 and he's 6 feet 4
He fights with missiles and with spears
He's all of 31 and he's only 17.
He's been a soldier for a thousand years
He's a Catholic, a Hindu, an atheist, a Jane
A Buddhist, and a Baptist and Jew.
And he knows he shouldn't kill
And he knows he always will kill
You'll for me my friend and me for you

From "Universal Soldier" by Buffy Sainte-Marie

At the same time, the civil rights movement reached into the past for protest songs from both the slave song tradition (such as "Michael Row the Boat Ashore") and the union song tradition (Florence Reece's 1932 song "Which Side Are You On" was adapted by civil rights leader James Farmer). New songs against racism leapt into being, too, including Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddamn" as well as "If You Miss Me At The Back of the Bus" (Chico Neblett/Traditional).

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"Ohio" sung by Neil Young

(Audio clip from Decade. Originally released 1977, Warner Bros. Records)

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