Analyzing Protest Songs of the 1960s
by Amanda Tredinnick
In January 1969, America’s recently elected conservative president Richard Nixon took office, young Americans were engaged in a radical and vivacious counterculture, and a devastating war in Vietnam continued amidst a diminishing degree of popular support. While President Lyndon Johnson had largely inherited the Vietnam crisis, his Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 allowed for his complete control as the commander in chief over Congress. While Johnson relied on his advisors for support and success in Vietnam, his original hopes for a brief conflict ending in 1966 with a divided and contained Vietnam ended in his further escalation of troops between 1965 and 1969.
Upon Nixon’s arrival in office, the new president announced his formerly “secret plan” of Vietnamization, which promised that American troops would be withdrawn to be replaced by South Vietnamese troops and an increase in American funds. Moreover, Nixon’s paranoia prevented him from fully accepting a major military loss on his watch, and he therefore ordered the bombing of supply routes in Cambodia in March 1969.
One year earlier, in 1968, Nixon’s younger daughter, Julie, had married David, the grandson of former president Dwight D. Eisenhower. This union inspired John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival to write the song “Fortunate Son,” for release in 1969 as a commentary on the increasing dichotomy between the “haves and have-nots” in American society, particularly in reference to the Vietnam conflict. At the time, approximately 500,000 American troops fought the war in an extremely foreign land. The average age of troops overseas was 19. Most came from working class families, those who could not find amnesty in a college education or medical condition. This growing divide between the classes, with politicians enforcing strategies largely executed by working-class young men, makes the song “Fortunate Son” an important commentary to be viewed in historical perspective
To understand and analyze the context and meaning of a popular 1960s protest song.
- Audio of the song “Fortunate Son,” Creedence Clearwater Revival, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40JmEj0_aVM
- Lyrics for “Fortunate Son,” Creedence-Online.net
After playing “Fortunate Son” for the class, lead students in a discussion addressing the following questions:
- Throughout the song, what type of person, or American, is Fogerty referring to?
- What is meant by the phrase, “some folks are born silver spoon in hand”?
- What group of people would have most closely identified with this song in 1969? Why?
- “Fortunate Son” was originally written about David Eisenhower, the grandson of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Regardless of party affiliation, do you find it right for the children of politicians to receive exemption in a military draft? Why or why not?
Display the lyrics of “Fortunate Son,” and after allowing time for them to read, ask the following questions:
- When reading these lyrics, do you see parallels between the socioeconomic divisions of the 1960s and socioeconomic divisions of today? In what ways?
- Who would be a “fortunate son” today? Who do you imagine might write a song like this today?
- Why is music such a powerful form of propaganda or protest?
Music as propaganda: Compare this song to current protest or propaganda songs (for example, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” by Toby Keith). What is different about them? What is similar?
Ask students to research a popular protest song of the past fifty years and present it to the class as a historical document with background information and context.
- Isserman, Maurice and Michael Kazin. America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s. Oxford University Press: 2008.
- Gleason, Ralph. “John Fogerty: The Rolling Stone Interview,” Rolling Stone/Rolling Stone Online, February 20, 1970.