How the Vietnam War inspired Protest & Hope musically

It is a few decades too late for the current generation to experience the hate that engulfed the world during the Vietnam war; however, anti-war music continues to illustrate a timeless perspective. The Anti-war theme paved the way for current generations to express hope and have a voice politically. Not only did 70s protest music help regroup a divided nation, but these peaceful melodies also gave veterans a way to make sense of experiences that did not make any sense. While both songs demonstrate an earnest yearning for peace in war, they have been composed of different creative processes, political intentions, and expressive nature.

The individual songs ‘For what’s is worth’ by Buffalo Springstein and ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon became commercial successes about similar topics; however, each artist took unique approaches from multiple outlets when it came to composing. For Springstein, the Sunset Strip curfew riots inspired the song, which he attended with Stephen Stills, the official writer of the song, who compared it to the terror he experienced growing up in Latin America. On that November day in 1966, Sunset Boulevard merchants decided that the feature of young people on the street every night was a threat to their financial gain. After the 10 pm curfew for citizens under 18 began, a massive protest formed, which gained the attention of three busloads of the Los Angeles Police. Stills described the police as Latin American storm troopers and famously reacted to the violence that day by saying, “Jesus, America is in great danger.'” The song ‘For What it’s Worth’ spoke out specifically for organization, whereas John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ asks us to question if global harmony is within reach. Upon the song’s release in 1971, some of the song’s lyrics rattled religious groups, most notably the line “Imagine there’s no heaven.” Lennon, having anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, and anti-capitalist views, wanted people to be upset and wonder about his peace perspective. In an open letter written to Paul McCarthy published in Melody Maker, Lennon pointed out that Imagine was similar to a song written right before ‘Imagine,’ Working Class Hero with “sugar on it for conservatives like yourself.” Both artists created pieces to make their audience question the Vietnam war, yet their inspirations derived from entirely different perspectives.

Reflecting on the lyrics each artist wrote, the relevance relayed to today’s cultural and societal views continues to encourage conclusions this generation has yet to see. When ‘For What it’s Worth’ was released, America’s youth gravitated towards the lyrics ‘There’s a man with a gun over there, telling me I have to beware,” convincing listeners that some songs related to the Kent State shooting of 1970. Although these claims were mostly speculation, the Kent State shooting occurred when the national guard got involved at a school protest resulting in four deaths and nine injuries. Abusing power with the national guard is not unheard of; this event recalls a Black Lives Matter protest that got out to hand in Seattle 2020. Under an order by the Trump administration, the national guard deployed, forcing protesters to shield themselves with umbrellas and hoodies, while the national guard tear-gassed the streets of Seattle. Towards the end of John Lennon’s career, he admitted that the song Imagine should have been credited as a Lennon/Ono song, given he had taken several poems from her book and translated them into lyrics. From the book Grapefruit by Yoko Ono, a poem called ‘Cloud Piece’ reads: “Imagine the clouds dripping, dig a hole in your garden to put them in.” In a Playboy interview in December of 1980, when ‘Imagine’ came up, Lennon mentioned that Dick Gregory, a comedian, and civil rights activist, had given Ono and him a Christian prayer book. Between Ono’s poetry and Gregory’s prayer book, the concept behind “Imagine” was remastered. Unlike Springfield’s lyrics in ‘For What it’s Worth,’ conveying change with the solution being protesting, Lennon’s lyrics imply that peace is possible, but only if we reject the mechanisms of social control that restrict peaceful opportunity.  

The aftermath of these songs has created more than change, the individual freedom to express oneself no matter what fears may come. Anyone who heard the song “for what it’s worth” appears nowhere in the lyrics. According to the rolling stones, Stills played it for one of the group’s managers, hesitating with, “Let me play you a song, for what it is worth.” A comparison was not established between the two songs, although I believe that the song’s premise reminds an F.Scott Fitzgerald’s quote. “For what it’s worth: it’s never too late… I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start all over again,” speaks with similar tones to what the song inspects of war. If explored without context, these two quotes spark a fire in anyone who reads them; it is no wonder that 50 years later, the song still speaks testament to its enduring allure. During Lennon’s final hours on earth, the singer attended his last interview, where he discussed the song ‘Imagine’ and what it had meant to him. In a somewhat bizarre and modern fashion, the artist claimed to work on Imagine was like “if you will pardon the expression – ‘diarrhea’ of creativity.” ‘Imagine”s legacy would be somewhat different if released today, possibly more accepted by religious groups. However, it was hailed equally to other national anthems by Jimmy Carter following the Vietnam war. Following Lennon’s murder in 1980, the single re-entered the UK chart, reaching number one, and fans of Lennon mourned and rallied around the world to sing Lennon’s songs such as ‘Imagine’ and ‘Give Peace a Chance.’ Not only did Lennon’s death make the world weep, but in Lennon’s last interview on December 8th, 1980, Lennon says, “We’re either going to live, or we will die. If we’re dead, we’ll have to deal with that. If we’re alive we have to deal with being alive”. It is remarkable how he said that 12 hours before his assassination.

Despite decades of organization and movements, the world constantly struggles to be united, and it is not easy watching history repeat itself. Nevertheless, current generations protest excessive force and inequality, and it is important to stay hopeful. Personally, both songs recall the classic phrase, stop and smell the roses, but this time it is more like ‘Stop and- what is that sound? Smell the roses- imagine their everywhere’. Although both songs show unique perspectives of stability in unprecedented times, John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ explicitly changed how music could desire change. In contrast, Springstein’s ‘For What it’s Worth’ encouraged listeners to challenge injustice carefully.

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