EntertainmentMusicThe Cold War through rock

The Cold War through rock


The story can be told, but many times it is better to sing it. Through the songs of the moment, it is easy to understand the society and politics of different times. If grunge tells us about the youth of the nineties, blues helps us understand the life of the black population in the first half of the 20th century, and rap transfers the social problems of contemporary society, to understand the Cold War we have a whole music festival: from folk to psychedelic rock, going through protest songs, popular hymns and singer-songwriters with guitar and harmonica.

Since the early years of the Cold War we find examples of songs that included social and political concerns in their lyrics, but it was especially from the sixties when there was more musical production. They began to compose groups and authors such as Creedence Clearwater Revival (1967), Jefferson Airplane (1965), The Byrds (1964), Bob Dylan (1959), Crosby, Stills & Nash (1968), The Doors (1965), Buffalo Springfield ( 1966), The Animals (1963)… and many others, who filled their songs with concerns corresponding to the times they lived in: fear of the nuclear bomb, support for pacifist protests, space exploration, experimentation with drugs, the growing consumer society, the hippie movement… etc.


‘Fortunate Son’ (1969) – ‘We Will All Go Together When We Go’ (1959) – ‘Ohio’ (1970) – ‘We Shall Overcome’ (1947) – ‘White Rabbit’ (1967) – ‘Unknown Soldier’ (1968) – ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ (1963) – ‘Space Oddity’ (1969) – ‘Little Boxes’ (1963) – ‘Born In The USA’ (1984) – ‘For What It’s Worth’ (1966) – ‘Sky Pilot’ (1968) – ‘Bring them Home’ (1971) – ‘Turn, turn, turn’ (1965) – ‘Wooden Ships’ (1969) – ‘What’s Goin’ On?’ (1971)

The following presentation is an excerpt from P2042017. There are fifteen slides that review some songs of the time that serve to understand society and the world during those years. Led by singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger or Janis Joplin and groups like The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield or The Beatles, we can get closer to the reality of the fifties, sixties and seventies.

Below we delve into some of these and other songs that can help us better understand the world during the Cold War, in relation to issues such as nuclear weapons, the space race, the Vietnam War, the hippie movement or the student movement. and for civil rights.

Nuclear weapons

One of the most important issues during the Cold War (especially in the early, more tense years) was the existence of nuclear weapons in the world. The two superpowers had enough bombs to destroy each other, which aroused fear and a sense of constant danger among the population.

Many singer-songwriters wrote about this concern, such as the brilliant and ironic Tom Lehrer in his not very optimistic We Will All Go Together When We Go:

This simple song was trying to tell people not to worry, that when they disappeared everyone else would disappear too. They would die together, fried by the heat of the bomb. Discouraging!

For their part, Stephen Stills and David Crosby envisioned that post-nuclear world in Wooden Ships . This is one of the most quoted songs when talking about nuclear related music. Stills also wrote other topics that help to understand the world during the Cold War, such as the famous For What It’s Worth that we will talk about later.

Wooden Ships , literally “wooden boats”, places us in a world of the future, in which the population survives eating forest fruits and where transport is carried out in boats made of logs. People ask “who won?” And if there is a place where they can “laugh again”. It is a sad and dark environment, in the world that is left after a nuclear war.

Other songs that talk about this theme are  A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall , where Bob Dylan tells us that it’s going to rain hard (subtle),  Two Minutes to Midnight  (Iron Maiden, 1984), We Don’t Want No Nuclear War  (Peter Tosh , 1987) or the explicit  Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop that Atomic Bomb on Me (Charles Mingus, 1962).

The Vietnam War

An event as drastic as a war in which hundreds of thousands of people die significantly affects society. Not only to the population of the country that suffers from the bombs, but also to those who from their sofa watch on television how their children die in the remote jungles of Southeast Asia. The Vietnam War was the first televised war, and that was decisive in the emergence of protest movements against the conflict. “Out of sight…”

Many authors were sensitive to what was happening in Vietnam. Songs were written about the horror of war, questioning the role of Americans in that foreign country, reflecting on society and peace, demanding that the soldiers return home… We review some examples:

Unknown Soldier (The Doors, 1968), which with phrases like “Wait until the war is over” (“Wait until the war ends”), “Bullet strikes the helmet’s head” (“The bullets hit the head of the helmet”) or “Make a grave for the unknown soldier” (“Dig a grave for the anonymous soldier”), this song by Jim Morrison conveys the horror of war.

In the Army Now (Status Quo, 1986), one of the most famous anti-military songs, which criticizes the madness and nonsense of war. “Smiling faces on the way to ‘Nam / But once you get there no one gives a damn”. Soldiers smile at you on the way to Vietnam, but once there nobody gives a damn about you. You have the order to shoot as soon as you have a Vietnamese in your crosshairs, but you don’t think that’s right. The letter deserves to be read.

…You’ve got your orders to shoot on sight your finger’s on the trigger but it don’t seem right You’re in the army now Oh, oh you’re in the army, now…

Lucky Man  (Emerson, Lake & Palmer, 1970), which tells us about a lucky man who has everything: money, women, the love of his people, a great sense of honor… but who ends up dying when a bullet goes through him in war. Money could not save him.

…He went to fight wars For his country and his king Of his honor and his glory The people would sing to him…

Bring Them Home (Pete Seeger, 1971), which as its name suggests is a song to all those young people who left for the Asian jungle to fight in a foreign war. “If you love your Uncle Sam, bring them back home. Support our boys in Vietnam.” The message was very clear, and the song became an anthem. Four years after it was written, American soldiers returned home. The US left Vietnam.

…If you love your Uncle Sam, Bring them home, bring them home. Support our boys in Vietnam, Bring them home, bring them home…

Born in the USA (Bruce Springsteen, 1984), Springsteen’s most famous hit and about which there is much debate. It became famous as if it were a patriotic ode, but really it is a harsh criticism of the United States and its society. He also dedicates a paragraph to Vietnam:

…I had a brother at Khe Sahn Fighting off the Viet Cong They’re still there, he’s all gone He had a woman he loved in Saigon I got a picture of him in her arms now…

Sky Pilot (The Animals, 1968) tells the story of a man (he can be a military general or a religious priest) who sees off the young soldiers who are preparing to go to war. He blesses them, gives them words of encouragement, gives them advice and orders, and finally sends them off. The battalion goes to war. The next morning they come back crying. Many have died, but the man who rules sleeps peacefully in his bed.

He smiles at the young soldiers Tells them it’s all right He knows of their fear in the forthcoming fight Soon there’ll be blood and many will die Mothers and fathers back home they will cry

The lyrics of Sky Pilot  must be read carefully, it is a perfect representative song of anti-war protest hymns, and it also approaches the horror of war from an interesting perspective: the immunity of those in charge, of those masters of war whom I hated Bob Dylan so much.

But without a doubt the Vietnamese song par excellence is Fortunate Son , by Creedence. CCR was the group most listened to by the soldiers in those years. John Fogerty’s voice rang out loud in the Asian jungle, accompanying young men to war. None of these young soldiers was the son of a great businessman or important politician. This is what the lyrics of Fortunate Son say :

Some folks are born, made to wave the flag Ooo, they’re red, white and blue And when the band plays «Hail to the Chief» Ooo, they point the cannon at you, Lord

It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son, son It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one, no

Some folks are born, silver spoon in hand Lord, don’t they help themselves, y’all But when the taxman comes to the door Lord, the house looks like a rummage sale, yeah

It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no millionaire’s son, no, no It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one, no

Some folks inherit star spangled eyes Ooh, they send you down to war, Lord And when you ask ‘em, «How much should we give?» Ooh, they only answer «More! More! More!», y’all

It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no military son, son It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one, one

The lyrics of this anti-Vietnam song approach the criticism from a social class point of view. The sons of high military officers, the sons of senators or the sons of millionaires will not have to go into the jungle or get covered in mud to die fighting the Viet Cong. Those lucky sons will limit themselves to raising flags at the military base. The poor wretches who were not born “with a silver spoon in their hand” have to leave everything in the war. They are cannon fodder.

Hippie movement

While napalm burned the Asian jungles and bullets pierced the Vietnamese and Americans, in the West young people showed their rejection of war and their disenchantment with society around a series of ideas: free love, pacifism and non-violent anarchism. . They were the hippies, a countercultural movement that also rejected the consumer society, advocated communal life and experimented with drugs. A way of life that had its own soundtrack.

Between the genres of rebellious folk and psychedelic rock we find an almost endless list of songs that can help us enter the hippie world of the late sixties.

Space race

Space exploration was an exciting process for earthlings, who looked up imagining other worlds and interstellar adventures. Eyes shone when thinking about the mysteries hidden in the Universe, and the pen flew quickly over the paper to compose great space songs like Space Oddity , Rocket Man , Across the Universe , Life on Mars

Student and civil rights movement

Undoubtedly, a very interesting and entertaining resource to include in any analysis of the Cold War, the Vietnam War and social movements is the movie Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994), which also has a soundtrack full of songs that They help to understand the social reality of the moment.

It is also interesting to know the song ‘Ohio’, written by Neil Young and considered one of the best protest songs. His story has to do with the demonstrations against the Vietnam War, and we tell it in this article.

What’s Going On: the song that sums it up

When on May 15, 1969, the police violently charged some pacifist protesters in Berkeley, California, the authorities did not know that with this brutal action they had contributed to writing one of the best songs in history. After what is known as “Bloody Thursday”, three young black men got together and composed What’s Going On , in which they wondered what was happening. Marvin Gaye was in charge of making it famous and singing it, but it had the pen of Renaldo Benson and Al Cleveland. The single was published in January 1971 and did not stop playing, giving voice to the problems of the world.

Throughout his extensive lyrics, What’s Going On talks about war, protest movements, youth, peace… and love. Because when the authors were asked if What’s Going On was a protest song, they answered: “It’s a love song.”

Mother, mother There’s too many of you crying Brother, brother, brother There’s far too many of you dying You know we’ve got to find a way To bring some lovin’ here today, eheh

Father, father We don’t need to escalate You see, war is not the answer For only love can conquer hate You know we’ve got to find a way To bring some lovin’ here today, oh oh oh

Picket lines and picket signs Don’t punish me with brutality Talk to me, so you can see Oh, what’s going on What’s going on Yeah, what’s going on Ah, what’s going on

In the mean time Right on, baby Right on brother Right on babe

Mother, mother, everybody thinks we’re wrong Oh, but who are they to judge us Simply ‘cause our hair is long Oh, you know we’ve got to find a way To bring some understanding here today Oh oh oh

Picket lines and picket signs Don’t punish me with brutality C’mon talk to me So you can see What’s going on Yeah, what’s going on Tell me what’s going on I’ll tell you what’s going on

In the List of the 500 best songs in history, What’s Going On ranks fourth, behind only Imagine (John Lennon, 1971), Satisfaction (The Rolling Stones, 1965) and Like a Rolling Stone (Bob Dylan, 1965).

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