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Black music was America’s soundtrack to the Vietnam War

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Tony Rounce has put together an album that charts the Vietnam War through black American music. He spoke to Yuri Prasad about the project
Issue 1958
Black Americans went from patriotic support to outright oppositon to the war
Black Americans went from patriotic support to outright oppositon to the war

From the early to the mid-1960s, black music took a very patriotic attitude towards the war in Vietnam. A lot of that had to with the feeling that conditions for black people in the US were improving.

There was a process of desegregation that seemed to be making progress. And for many black Americans, going to war was part of having a stake in society, and about being recognised as a citizen. You can really hear that on a record like Marvin Gaye’s “Soldier Plea”.

Of course, that wasn’t what motivated the US government to call up not just black Americans, but Americans of every colour and creed.

In 1966 they expanded the perimeters of the draft by reducing the education level required to serve in the armed forces. That change immediately drew thousands of less qualified, lower income blacks and whites into the war.

Those people took their music with them. It’s no accident that, besides soul, the only other musical genre that expressed the same initial level of patriotism about the war was country music—the music of poor whites.

Many families who had thought that their children were fighting to keep their country free began to have doubts after three or four years of their sons and daughters coming home terribly injured—or not coming home at all. As they changed their minds about the war’s validity, so their music began to change too.

The sea change in the attitudes to both the war and conditions at home happened around 1968. Richard Nixon was elected on the promise that he would put a swift end to the war—which of course he didn’t.

In the same year Martin Luther King was assassinated, which really changed the way black people felt about their struggle for equality.

From that point on you start to hear soul singers first questioning the war, and then coming straight out against it. In The Dells’ “Does Anybody Know I’m Here?”, you hear a soldier talking about risking his life on a daily basis, but feeling that those who sent him are taking advantage of him. The point is made even more strongly by Curtis Mayfield, singing with The Impressions on a track called “Don’t Cry My Love”:

“I can see no reason for us fighting this time. So many have gone, and it’s a shame and a crime. So much wrong doing here, that I pretend not to see. But it makes me sometimes wonder, that everybody’s free here but me.”

When Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted, saying “No Vietnamese ever called me nigger”, he spoke for millions of black Americans. Black music labels began to release anti-war records in the knowledge that that they were going to reach a massive audience.

By the 1970s, the anti-war feeling was spreading through all music forms, and particularly found expression in rock. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” is about as anti-war as a record can be, and yet it was a top ten hit.

The same is true of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s cry of rage in “Ohio”. Of course it’s also there with much of the later work of Jimi Hendrix — himself a former air force paratrooper — who at that time had an almost exclusively white fan base.

The fact that mainstream artists were coming out against the war emboldened the soul artists to go even further. Bill Withers was a soul singer, signed to a major label, and he was recording anti-war statements like “I Can’t Write Left Handed”.

Rock influences

The same is true for the Isley Brothers and Funkadelic, who went on to make vitriolic records that attacked the US for much more than the war and that drew increasingly on rock influences.

One consequence of the war was that those artists who were speaking out made a degree of common cause. This blurred the lines between different styles and helped to overcome some of the generic boundaries. That is one of the lasting legacies of the period.

That anti-war records became so popular meant that people across the world could see a very different America to the one we were presented with on TV in Britain.

As a working class teenager growing up in London, this music was part of my life soundtrack — it was like getting an education. You understood something about what it was like to be part of an oppressed group in the US.

Many people of my generation gravitated towards soul music in general, not just because we liked the beat or the tunes, but because we felt that the guys who put it over really meant it — they were singing from the heart and soul.

They sang not just about personal loss and pain, but about the horror of the world they inhabited.

Tony Rounce’s compilation album, Does Anybody Know I’m Here? Vietnam Through the Eyes of Black America 1962-72, is available from Kent Soul.


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