Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Peace Songs - The Cold War Connection

The Vietnam War soundtrack featured an abundance of anti-war songs, including Edwin Star’s “War” (1970) and Country Joe’s “Fixin’ to Die Rag” (1968).  These songs fit squarely into the box dubbed “Vietnam War Protest Songs.”  But it is not so well-known that many of the peace songs that became popular in the later 1960s were actually written in response to the Cold War and fear of nuclear annihilation rather than as a reaction to America’s involvement in Southeast Asia. For example, Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” (1962), “Masters of War,” (1963), and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (1963) were all written as peace songs well before America entered the hot war in Vietnam and well after America’s exit from Korea.  In fact, Dylan himself stated before playing “Blowin’ in the Wind” at a Greenwich Village nightclub “This here ain’t no protest song or anything like that cause I don’t write no protest songs.”  Of the three, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is the most obvious of the nuclear testing warnings.  Just by the title alone it is easy to see how the song is related to the realization that the nuclear fall-out from testing was being washed out of the sky through the rain and was literally poisoning the environment.  If anything, this song can actually be considered an early pro-environmental song.  The Vietnam War was barely on the horizon and not on the minds of songwriters like Dylan who were considered the writers of “Protest Songs” at this particular time.

 It is true that the Vietnam War hurried along the popularity of such songs, especially as they found a place in anti-war protests.  But the fact that these songs were written as Cold War offerings actually puts many of these songs in a different category than “Anti-War Songs.”  Indiana University Emeritus Professor of History Ronald D. Cohen concedes “potential devastation from atomic weapons, rather than the looming Vietnam War, mostly occupied the minds of songwriters” in the early to mid-1960s. Promoting peace in light of the Cold War and protesting American involvement in a hot war in Southeast Asia are two very different entities with very different undertones.  The “Peace Movement” did shift to an anti-war stance as things heated up in Vietnam. And there were many songs that were written in this light.  Phil Ochs penned “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore,” “The Men Behind the Guns,” and “Draft Dodger Rag,” specifically to protest America’s involvement in Vietnam.  But it was not until “Eve of Destruction” was released by Barry McGuire in late August of 1965 that the union between song and anti-war protest was really cemented, but this was purely an accident, and not the intention of the songwriter.
 The P.F. Sloan-penned “Eve of Destruction” as recorded by Barry McGuire reached Number 1 on the pop charts.  This was the first time that a protest song had reached a wider audience, indicating that the general public was dissatisfied with America’s foreign policies.  However, P.F. Sloan admitted that the song was not an anti-Vietnam War song.  Sloan writes:

The song 'Eve of Destruction' was written in the early morning hours between midnight and dawn in mid-1964. The most outstanding experience I had in writing this song was hearing an inner voice inside of myself for only the second time. It seemed to have information no one else could've had. For example, I was writing down this line in pencil 'think of all the hate there is in Red Russia.' This inner voice said 'No, no it's Red China!' I began to argue and wrestle with that until near exhaustion. I thought Red Russia was the most outstanding enemy to freedom in the world, but this inner voice said the Soviet Union will fall before the end of the century and Red China will endure in crimes against humanity well into the new century! This inner voice that is inside of each and every one of us but is drowned out by the roar of our minds! The song contained a number of issues that were unbearable for me at the time. I wrote it as a prayer to God for an answer.

I have felt it was a love song and written as a prayer because, to cure an ill you need to know what is sick. In my youthful zeal I hadn't realized that this would be taken as an attack on The System! Examples: The media headlined the song as everything that is wrong with the youth culture. First, show the song is just a hack song to make money and therefore no reason to deal with its questions. Prove the 19-year old writer is a communist dupe. Attack the singer as a parrot for the writers word. The media claimed that the song would frighten little children. I had hoped thru this song to open a dialogue with Congress and the people. The media banned me from all national television shows. Oddly enough they didn't ban Barry. The United States felt under threat. So any positive press on me or Barry was considered un-patriotic. A great deal of madness, as I remember it! I told the press it was a love song. A love song to and for humanity, that's all. It ruined Barry's career as an artist and in a year I would be driven out of the music business too.

Sloan even asserted that the song’s intention was not to protest the Vietnam War nor the American government and its foreign policy.  Sloan cites the Cold War as well in his inspirations for the song as the enemies to American freedom are the Communist countries of Russia and China.  Although “Eve of Destruction” became a symbol of protest against the American government and its foreign policies specifically in Southeast Asia, this was not the songwriter’s intention.  Therefore, “Eve of Destruction” was just as much a “peace song” written in response to the Cold War as was “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”  In fact, “Eve of Destruction” addresses the threat to American freedoms, much as the country-western songs of the time reminded their listeners of pride in the American way of life.  In this light, "Eve of Destruction" can actually be compared to the rockabilly Chuck Berry's “Back in the U.S.A” as a patriotic song about America's greatness.

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