One of the most controversial events of the war was the My Lai Massacre, which inspired 90+ songs.
The "My Lai Massacre", the mass murder of between 300-500 civilians in the South Vietnamese villages of My Lai and Song My by US forces on 16 March 1968, took place during the Vietnam War.
Billboard magazine reported on 17 April 1971 that a "Calley Disk Stirs Market; Supply Runs Behind Demand". It went on to report that: "Plantation Records' Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley has become the nation's hottest single property, but pressing is running far behind the demand. It takes a stroke of luck for dealers to get copies...Some stores are ordering 2,500 copies a week. ABC here, which supplies both Sears and Woolworth has ordered 30,000 copies".
Most of the songs released from 1969-1971 supported Calley, as reflected in public opinion polls, showing that people were protective of soldiers and veterans during war time. One of the most interesting of these was “Thank God Calley Wasn’t Black” (1973) by R&B artist James Armstrong, which defended the actions of Calley, but pondered what his fate may have been if he was an African-American. The most well-known song, as mentioned above, was “Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley” (1971), by C Company Featuring Terry Nelson, which sold over 1 million singles. Calley and the massacre also became symbols of an unjust war. Calypso singer The Shah, from Trinidad & Tobago, discussed in “The My Lai Incident” (1970) the "atrocity" by the "biggest democracy" and cried "pull your troops out of Vietnam". Meanwhile, Yoko Ono’s “Now or Never” (1972) featured the horrific photograph of bodies in a ditch taken by US army photographer Ronald L. Haeberle, one of the most graphic images to appear on a Vietnam War record.
This forms part of the larger Vietnam War Song Project, an interpretive examination of over 6,000 Vietnam War songs identified, revealing how the war's significance is represented through music. The project also collects spoken-word recordings about the conflict. The goals of the project are: (1) to critically analyse the song lyrics, searching for historical, social, and cultural themes, and collecting data on the genre, location, ethnicity, nationality, language, and time period of the recordings; (2) to learn about the Vietnam War, and the music and artists associated with it; (3) to preserve the physical records for the future, as artifacts of the 20th century. This unique collection of voices advances scholarship by providing insights into people’s views about the war over time as represented in music, looking at diverse communities and vibrant music scenes. It is crucial in developing our knowledge of the war and the humanities, through the use of a digital research platform.
Hugo Keesing, Wouter Keesing, C.L. Yarbrough, Justin Brummer
University of Maryland, Modern Songs of War and Conflict: Keesing Collection on Popular Music and Culture, 2023