Ken Burns Classroom

The Vietnam Experience in Music

Ken Burns Film: The Vietnam War

Collections: Postwar United States (1945-1970s)

Subject: US History

Grade Level: 9-12

Run Time: 1 class period


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.

Lesson Objectives

Students will:

  • 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.

Lesson Procedure

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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?

Extension Activities

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.

National Standards for Civics and Government

I.C.2.5 ( Grades: 9-12 ): explain how constitutions can be vehicles for change and for resolving social issues, e.g., use of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s; establishment of the Japanese Constitution after World War II, which provided women the right to vote

III.E.3.5.a ( Grades: 9-12 ): evaluate historical and contemporary political communication using such criteria as logical validity, factual accuracy, emotional appeal, distorted evidence, appeals to bias or prejudice, e.g., speeches such as Lincoln’s “House Divided,” Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?”, Chief Joseph’s “I Shall Fight No More Forever,” Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms,” Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream”

V.B.2.2 ( Grades: 9-12 ): identify the major documentary statements of political rights–the Declaration of Independence, the Northwest Ordinance, the United States Constitution including the Bill of Rights, state constitutions and bills of rights, civil rights legislation, court decisions

About The Authors

Michael Hutchison

Michael Hutchison is the social studies department chair at Lincoln High School. Vincennes, Indiana. He has more than 35 years of classroom teaching experience, and has written lessons for several Ken Burns films, including The Civil War, Empire of the Air, Horatio’s Drive, Unforgivable Blackness, The War, Baseball, The Tenth Inning, Prohibition, The Dust Bowl, and The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. He is past president of the Indiana Computer Educators. In 2014, he was named winner of the Caleb Mills Indiana History Teacher of the Year Award by the Indiana Historical Society.

Handout: The Vietnam Experience in Music

Directions: Many songs have been written about the Vietnam War. In this activity, you’ll be analyzing several of these songs. Some of the songs are anti-war and some are pro-war. Some of the songs are period songs, while others were written after the war ended in 1973.

Watch the related video and read the lyrics before you start answering the questions. You can find the song recording online, if needed.”font-weight: Be ready to share your answers in class discussion.

Song: “Galveston” (Glen Campbell) 1969



  • Is this a pro-war or anti-war song? Give evidence from the song lyrics that backs your view.





  • What memories of Galveston does Campbell mention in the song?





  • How does the singer describe his fear of death?





Song: “Last Train to Clarksville” (The Monkees) 1966


  • Do you think this is a pro-war or anti-war song? Why or why not?





  • The songwriters for “Last Train” never mention the word “war” or “Vietnam.” What words or messages in this song qualify it as a song about war, then?





  • Compare the tempo of this song with “Galveston.” Is the tempo of this song more upbeat? How does the tempo help convey the song’s message?





Song: “The Ballad of the Green Beret” (Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler) 1966


  • Is this a pro-war or anti-war song? What elements or phrases in the song prove your viewpoint?





  • A US serviceman who served as a medic in Vietnam performed and helped write this song. How might the performer’s frame of reference affect the message of the song? Does this frame of reference make the song’s message more or less believable? Explain your answer.





Song: “The Dawn of Correction” (The Spokesmen) 1965


  • Is this a pro-war or anti-war song? What elements or phrases in the song prove your point?





  • This song is a reply to another famous Vietnam-era song, “Eve of Destruction.” (Check the lyrics of “Eve of Destruction.”) How do the lyrics of “The Dawn of Correction” argue against the theme of “Eve of Destruction”?





Song: “The Wall” (Bruce Springsteen) 2014


  • Is this a pro-war or anti-war song? What elements or phrases in the song prove your point?





  • Springsteen wrote “The Wall” in 2003. The song wasn’t actually released until 2014. Does this fact make Springsteen’s song more accurate in its view than the other songs you have heard to this point? How?





  • According to the “SpringsteenLyrics” website, “The Wall” was written in honor of Walter Cichon and Bart Haynes, who were both killed in Vietnam. Cichon was a member of Springsteen’s first band and Haynes was Springsteen’s friend. How do you think this information influences how Springsteen wrote this song? Is there specific evidence of this personal connection in the song?





Song: “Goodnight Saigon” (Billy Joel) 1983


  • The first verse of the song notes that “we met as soul mates on Parris Island; we left as inmates from an asylum.” What do you think Joel means by this statement?





  • Part of the chorus of the song repeats, “we would all go down together.” How do you think this line explains the soldier’s experience in Vietnam?





  • Songwriter/singer Billy Joel did not serve in Vietnam. Based on what you know about the Vietnam War as well as the other songs you’ve analyzed, do you think he depicts what the soldier’s experience in Vietnam was like? Explain your answer.




Song: “Prisoners” (John Denver) 1972


  • Look at the lyrics for “Prisoners.” What clues does Denver give the listener to describe what the prisoner of war (POW) experience would be like?





  • How does Denver describe how the POW experience affected others in the prisoner’s family?