Antiwar protest songs of the '60s and '70s

Popular songs about an unpopular war

The Vietnam war was a dominant musical theme in the '60s and '70s. Antiwar songs were much in evidence at the Woodstock festival in 1969 and were an integral part of virtually every antiwar protest march and rally.

Many of these songs were banned from mainstream radio stations but found the perfect audience on the ​so-called "underground" or "alternative" FM stations that played the albums that became what we know today as classic rock. Here are some of the best examples of the many antiwar protest songs of the era.

'2 + 2 = ?': The Bob Seger System

Bob Seger
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

All I know is that I'm young and your rules they are old
If I've got to kill to live
Then there's something left untold
I'm no statesman I'm no general
I'm no kid I'll never be
It's the rules ​not the soldier
That I find the real enemy

Allmusic calls Bob Seger's "2+2=?" "a ferocious antiwar song." Released as a single in 1968, then included on The Bob Seger System's "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" in 1969, "2+2=?" speaks unflinchingly from the perspective of someone whose high school buddy went to Vietnam and is now "buried in the mud" in "foreign jungle land."

'21st Century Schizoid Man': King Crimson

King Crimson 21st Century Schizoid Man
Courtesy Island Records

Blood rack barbed wire
Politicians' funeral pyre
Innocents raped with napalm fire
Twenty first century schizoid man

The lead track on King Crimson's 1969 debut album, "In the Court of the Crimson King" made a powerful antiwar statement using a series of disconnected phrases which, taken together, formed an image of the Vietnam war: a conflict started and perpetuated by politicians, in which many innocent civilians died.

'Bring 'Em Home': Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

If you love your Uncle Sam
Bring 'em home, bring 'em home
Support our boys in Vietnam
Bring 'em home, bring 'em home
It'll make our generals sad, I know
Bring 'em home, bring 'em home
They want to tangle with the foe
Bring 'em home, bring 'em home

Pete Seeger is one of those artists who crossed genre lines with his strong antiwar sentiments and was welcomed with open arms on the "alternative" stations that would play songs mainstream radio wouldn't touch. "Bring 'Em Home" is just one example of many antiwar protest songs written and/or recorded by Seeger.

'Draft Resister'/'Monster': Steppenwolf

Steppenwolf "Monster"
Courtesy MCA

Don't forget the draft resisters and their silent, lonely plea
When they march them off to prison, they will go for you and me

Shame, disgrace and all dishonor, wrongly placed upon their heads
Will not rob them of the courage which betrays the innocent

Steppenwolf didn't shy away from tough subjects like drugs ("The Pusher") or street violence ("Gang War Blues") and they took on two of the most controversial antiwar sentiments.  "Draft Resister" was on their 1969 "Monster" album, whose title song took a few more swings at those they blamed for the war:

We don't know how to mind our own business
'cause the whole world's got to be just like us
Now we are fighting a war over there
No matter who's the winner, we can't pay the cost
'Cause there's a monster on the loose
it's got our heads into the noose
And it just sits there, watching

'Eve of Destruction': Barry McGuire

Barry McGuire

You're old enough to kill but not for votin'
You don't believe in war, but what's that gun you're totin'
And even the Jordan river has bodies floatin'
But you tell me over and over and over again my friend
Ah, you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction

Had it not been for the hastily written (by P.F. Sloan) and hastily recorded (in one take) "Eve of Destruction," Barry McGuire's musical legacy may well have consisted solely of having once been one of the anonymous voices in the ensemble folk group The New Christy Minstrels. It turned out that the time (late 1965) was right for the lyrically and vocally powerful warning about war's destructive results.

'Find the Cost of Freedom'/'Ohio': Crosby Stills Nash & Young

Crosby Stills Nash Young
Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Find the cost of freedom
Buried in the ground
Mother Earth will swallow you
Lay your body down

"Ohio" was the A-side, "Find the Cost of Freedom" the B-side of a Crosby Stills Nash & Young single in 1970. Stephen Stills originally wrote the haunting "Find the Cost of Freedom" for the movie "Easy Rider," but it didn't make it onto the soundtrack. Neil Young wrote "Ohio" after student protesters were shot and killed by National Guard troops at an antiwar rally at Kent State University.​

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming
We're finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio

'Fortunate Son': Creedence Clearwater Revival

Creedence Clearwater Revival Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Some folks are born made to wave the flag
They're red, white and blue
And when the band plays "Hail To The Chief"
They point the cannon at you

CCR's 1969 recording of John Fogerty's "Fortunate Son" was released as the war in Vietnam was dominating every TV and radio newscast and the thoughts of virtually every draft-eligible American male. The title refers to those few young men whose families were sufficiently politically connected so as to avoid either combat duty or the draft altogether. The lyric is delivered from the perspective of the large majority: those who were not "fortunate sons" and who had gone (or would be going soon) to war.

'Give Peace a Chance'/'Imagine': John Lennon

John Lennon
Cummings Archives/Redferns

Everybody's talkin' 'bout
Bagism, shagism, dragism, madism, ragism, tagism
This-ism, that-ism, ism ism ism
All we are saying is give peace a chance
All we are saying is give peace a chance

John Lennon took a "soft sell" approach, avoiding the graphic images of war or scathing attacks on politicians that were common in Vietnam-era protest songs. "Give Peace a Chance" was Lennon's first solo single, released in 1969. Two years later, "Imagine" was the title song on his second solo album. From then until now, both songs have endured as widely recognized antiwar anthems.​

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
No religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

'Handsome Johnny': Richie Havens

Richie Havens
Don Paulsen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Hey, look yonder, tell me what you see
Marching to the fields of Vietnam
It looks like Handsome Johnny with an M15
Marching to the Vietnam war, hey marching to the Vietnam war

Richie Havens electrified the crowd at Woodstock in 1969 with his soulful rendition of "Handsome Johnny" after it first appeared on his third album, "Mixed Bag," in 1967. The song was the brainchild of Louis Gossett Jr. (before he became an Oscar-winning actor), who co-wrote it with Havens.

'I Ain't Marching Anymore': Phil Ochs

Phil Ochs I Ain't Marching Anymore
Courtesy Elektra

It's always the old to lead us to the war
It's always the young to fall
Now look at all we've won with the saber and the gun
Tell me is it worth it all

Phil Ochs literally made a career out of writing and singing protest songs. "I Ain't Marching Anymore" is one of his best known (along with "Draft Dodger Rag," "War Is Over," and "There But for Fortune" to name just a few.) In all, Ochs recorded eight albums of what he called "topical" songs between 1964 and 1975, before committing suicide at age 35 in 1976.

"I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag": Country Joe and the Fish

Country Joe McDonald
Harvey L. Silver/Corbis via Getty Images

Come on mothers throughout the land
Pack your boys off to Vietnam
Come on fathers, and don't hesitate
To send your sons off before it's too late
And you can be the first ones on your block
To have your boy come home in a box

Joe McDonald's solo performance of his biting satire at Woodstock wasn't planned. He was on stage filling time while acts who were scheduled to perform tried to make it through the massive traffic jams to get there. When "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag" (written in 1965 and released in 1967) was featured in the "Woodstock" film and its soundtrack in 1970, it became a fixture in the antiwar protest songbook and one of the songs for which Country Joe and the Fish were best known.

'Masters of War': Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

You that never done nothin'
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it's your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly

Bob Dylan took dead aim at what President Dwight Eisenhower had dubbed the "military-industrial complex" consisting of the military, Congress, and weapons manufacturers. "Masters of War" appeared on the "Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" album in 1963, and as America's involvement in Vietnam over the next few years grew, so did the popularity of the song with antiwar protesters.

'Universal Soldier': Donovan


He's the universal soldier
And he really is to blame
His orders come from far away no more
They come from here and there and you and me
And brothers can't you see
This is not the way we put the end to war

Written and recorded by Buffy Sainte-Marie for her 1964 debut album, "Universal Soldier" became a hit after Donovan's version was released as a single the following year. It became one of the best-known entries in his catalog of what he called (in a 2006 interview) "the songs of social change, civil rights, peace, brotherhood, and a great nuclear cloud hanging over the late '50s and the early '60s."

'War': Edwin Starr

Edwin Starr
Waring Abbott/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Life is much to short and precious
To spend fighting wars these days
War can't give life
It can only take it away

War, what is it good for?
Absolutely nothing!

Already a successful R&B artist with songs such as "Agent Double-O-Soul" and "Oh How Happy," Edwin Starr crossed genres in a big way with "War." The song, an instant hit when it was released in 1970, is still one of the best-known war protest songs of the era. Bruce Springsteen's 1986 cover had nearly as much chart success as the original.