I was 19 the first year of the lottery system. I’m talking about the U.S. Military Draft Lottery. My number was right in the middle, and I was terrified that I would be drafted and sent on a one-way trip to Vietnam. I had no desire to go off to Southeast Asia and fight in a war I didn’t believe in, to kill people I had nothing against, and to witness the pain and suffering that was commonplace for so many U.S. military personnel. The Vietnam War was raging, and if I had actually been called up, I’m sure I would have gone-reluctantly-and not run off to Canada. My fear wasn’t based so much on a deep, philosophical objection to the war. Mostly, I was naive and scared. So I managed to avoid the draft by getting into The National Guard. (I guess I should never run for political office because that would surely be used against me.) I simply wanted to stay alive and that was my #1 priority.
For me, and for everyone who pays attention, there has always been protest music. Not just anti-war songs, but songs against poverty, racism, and social injustices of all kinds. I thought I would take a few moments here to share some of the protest songs that have made a difference in my life, in the hopes that it might bring back some memories for you, too. Some protest in an angry, defiant way, while others take a more laid-back and peaceful approach.
Bob Dylan, one of our greatest songwriters, had a lot of troubling issues on his mind when he wrote, “Blowing In The Wind” The more “mainstream” version was a cover by Peter, Paul & Mary, but here’s the way Dylan did it:
Dylan’s song actually inspired Sam Cooke to write his own socially significant song. He was blown away by the powerful message of “Blowing In The Wind,” and thought to himself, “I can write something like that, too.” That inspiration became a Sam Cooke masterpiece, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” In my opinion, it’s one of the best songs ever written. It was all about prejudice, race relations, and how we desperately needed to change. I’ve got to think this wonderful tune uplifted some and enlightened others. Music has the power to do that, after all. It still delivers a powerful message today, and while we’re made progress, we still have a long way to go. This was Sam Cooke’s reality back in the mid-60’s:
Others have recorded their own versions of this landmark song, most notably, for me, Otis Redding and Al Green. Though they may come close, there’s not another performance that comes close to Cooke’s original.
John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival released a song called “Fortunate Son,” in 1969, a passionate rejection of the Vietnam War, and a lament about how so many who went were poor and/or minorities, while the sons of politicians who kept the war going, were born “with silver spoon in hand.” Rich folks stayed home, and Fogerty’s song was an angry rant against this military conflict that just seemed to go on and on and on.
Of course, I can’t really think about anti-war songs without mentioning “War” by Edwin Starr. This song was actually recorded initially by The Temptations, but the powers-that-be at Motown Records didn’t want it released as a single, for fear of touching off controversy, and maybe losing a few Temptations’ fans along the way. So they decided to let the young Starr record it instead, released it as a single, and it went all the way to #1 in the country, and stayed there for a while. Now, I can’t imagine this powerful, gut-wrenching song being sung by anyone else.
The Beatles had “Revolution,” which presented a powerful message of its own, but the song I want to include here is John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance.” Just check out the lyrics, on display here, and you’ll see that Lennon wasn’t just protesting the war. He managed to get it a dig against everything he objected to during those turbulent times, and it mostly came down to the way people treated one another.
There have been many others, of course, and just to mention a few, there’s “What’s Going On,” by Marvin Gaye…”Ohio,” from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “For What It’s Worth” from Buffalo Springfield, and countless others. And, of course, there’s James Brown’s anthem, “Say It Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud.” That one was a big inspiration for so many!
Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA” is generally thought of as a patriotic song, by uh-uh, it’s just the opposite, if you pay close attention to the words. There are so many other songs I could write about, such as “Living For The City,” from Stevie Wonder. “Fight The Power,” from Public Enemy, and more recent offerings like “American Idiot” by Green Day. Many so-called “protest songs” are really openly angry, while others take a more gentle approach. There’s no question, though, that music can change the way we look at things. And a good song can be a catalyst for good things to happen. I want to end on a peaceful note here with a thought-provoking song that was written and performed to deliver a powerful message for positive change. It’s songs like this that are aiming for a better world, and it’s all about the way we treat one another. If we can just accept each other, and learn to appreciate our differences, maybe we might just discover that we have more similarities than differences. As the bumper sticker says, “Coexist.” To sum up that train of thought, here again is John Lennon, with “Imagine”.
“I’m not the only one.” At least, I hope not. Until next time, think of your favorite rock n’ roll songs that have brought about social change of one kind of another. I would love to hear from you. Thanks for listening to “The Music In My Head.” See you on the radio!