In this lesson, students will view a segment from The Vietnam War and examine lyrics from selected songs from the Vietnam era. They will share their thoughts and viewpoints on these lyrics in a class discussion.
One 50-minute class period.
- Analyze popular songs dealing with the Vietnam era.
- Analyze song lyrics and the impact of these songs on soldiers and civilians.
- Understand the message the songwriter/artist is trying to convey.
About The Author
Michael Hutchison is social studies department chair at Lincoln High School in Vincennes, Indiana. A teaching veteran with more than 38 years of classroom experience, he has written curriculum for several Ken Burns films, including The Civil War, Prohibition, The Dust Bowl, Baseball, The Tenth Inning, The War, and The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. He is the winner of the 2014 Caleb Mills Indiana History Teacher of the Year Award.
- Have students view the video segment “Anthems of the Counter Culture.” Then discuss the following discussion questions:
- Why do you think Merrill McPeak would have called the rock and roll music of the period “brilliant”?
- Do you think modern-day music would have the same impact that McPeak described in the clip? If no, why not? If yes, give examples of current music that might be considered “brilliant” or would define what the “America of today” might be like.
- Next, explain to students that they will be analyzing songs dealing with the Vietnam War era. Some of the songs were written and recorded during the war era, others were recorded more recently.
- Distribute The Vietnam Experience in Music activity sheet to each student. The list includes URLs for the lyrics to the songs. Encourage students to go online to hear the songs as well as read the lyrics.
Note: The list above is only a small sampling of the hundreds of songs that are representative of the Vietnam era, both pro- and anti-war. A more comprehensive list of Vietnam-themed songs can be found here.
- Allow adequate time for students to listen to the songs, analyze the lyrics, and answer the questions for each song. You may wish to assign all or part of the activity as homework. Once the activity is completed, move on to the post-activity discussion.
Once students have completed the song analysis, bring the class together and answer these questions in class discussion:
- Many of the songs you analyzed are not as well known as others. In your view, do these songs have as much impact and significance as better-known songs, such as “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” by The Animals? Explain your answer.
- Do you think the songs written after the war (Bruce Springsteen’s “The Wall,” or Billy Joel’s “Goodnight Saigon”) capture the feeling of the Vietnam era? Why or why not?
- Neither Springsteen nor Joel served in Vietnam. Do you think those who did not serve could write songs that effectively describe the experience of those who served in the war? Why or why not?
- Of the songs you’ve analyzed, which one do you think is the best? For what reasons?
Have students consider creating a music video (or another type of digital presentation) for any of these extension activities.
- Many critics consider Bruce Springsteen to be a great American singer and songwriter. Compare his Vietnam-related songs, such as “The Wall,” “Born in the USA,” “Brothers under the Bridge,” and “Galveston Bay,” with his work with other conflict-related songs, such as “Devils and Dust” (about Operation Enduring Freedom) and “Nowhere Man” and “Into the Fire” (about 9/11 first responders). Have students write compare/contrast essays in which they compare Springsteen’s Vietnam songs with his songs that deal with other social or military-related themes.
- Students can conduct oral history interviews with Vietnam-era veterans, focusing on questions regarding the impact of the music within the time frame of the Vietnam War, how the music shaped their perception of the war, if the music helped them through their time in Vietnam, and other related questions. Several helpful resources can be found at the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project.
- Have students write their own songs about Vietnam or current military conflicts, or about the concept of war in general and its role in world affairs and politics. Songs can either be pro- or anti-war. Ask students to research current music videos that make political commentary for ideas.