Lesson plan contributed by Paul Brown, Cleveland School of the Arts, Cleveland, OH


A unit of study on the Vietnam era that relies solely on the textbook presentation of “one more chronological event” fails to adequately illustrate the controversy that surrounded the war. Further, it neglects the larger social issues that consumed the nation at that point in history. Popular music produced during the Vietnam War period, however, was both representative of the social conflict that engulfed the United States and reflective of the mood of the country. By incorporating popular music into the study of American history, students will learn first-hand of the political, social, and emotional climate of the period.


The student will be able to:

  1. Develop an understanding of the controversial nature of the Vietnam War
  2. Identify various points of view about the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War
  3. Discover several social themes present in much of the popular music of the period
  4. Recognize propaganda devices at work in specific song lyrics of the period


CDs, tapes, records of selected songs; lyrics to selected songs (students can also copy out lyrics); primary source material about the war (i.e. newspaper/magazine articles, photographs, etc.).

Time Frame

7-10 class periods incorporating the material into existing curricula. The lesson may be taught as a complete unit in 2-3 class periods.


Suggested for high school social studies classes. Appropriate for middle school students with some modifications in time frame and materials.


Actual classroom procedures will vary from teacher to teacher. What follows are a few core elements.

  1. The students first listen to Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” They are then asked to write answers to two questions:
    1. How did this version of the national anthem make you feel?
    2. What feelings do you think the musician was trying to express?

  2. Brainstorm to develop a list of words to describe students reactions to the music (pain, pride, etc.)
  3. Songs related to discussion topics should be woven into class sessions and serve as examples of the topic or to stimulate the discussions. Disparate points of view should be presented in the musical selections used.
  4. Lyrics to specific songs should be analyzed by students working in small groups. Answers to these questions should be found:  Date of selection; author/group performing; intended audience; topics(s); purpose(s);’ facts(s)/conjecture(s); conclusions; relevance to topic of discussion/to American society today.
  5. Finally, the student groups should develop a series of questions concerning the war and then interview adults to receive new and varying points-of-view.


At the end of the unit of study, the student should be able to respond to a piece of popular music of the period, orally or in writing, giving significant information about its purpose/content. Teachers are encouraged to use alternate evaluation techniques. For example, oral reports of the results of the students interviews could serve as part of the final evaluation.

Selected Bibliography

Each of the following references contains an excellent discography:

Chilcoat, George W., “Popular Music Goes to War: Songs About Vietnam,” International Journal of Instructional Media 19 (2): pp 171-181.

Cooper, B. Lee, “Social Concerns, Political Protest, and Popular Music,” Social Studies March/April, 1988: pp 53-63.

Cooper, B. Lee, “Popular Songs, Military Conflicts, and Public Perceptions of the United States at War,” Social Education 56 (3): pp 160-168.

Selected Recordings

“The Star-Spangled Banner (Atlantic 82618-2) Jimi Hendrix (1970)
“War” (Gordy 7101) Edwin Starr (1970)
“Ballad of the Green Berets” (RCA 61028-4) S/Sgt. Barry Sandler (1966)
“Fortunate Son” (Fantasy 634) Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)
“The Unknown Soldier” (Elektra 45628) The Doors (1968)
“I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin-to-Die-Rag” (Atlantic 82618-2) Country Joe McDonald and The Fish (1970)
“Ohio” (Atlantic 2740) Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (1970)
“Give Peace a Chance” (Apple 1809) John Lennon (1969)
“Born in the USA” (Columbia 38653) Bruce Springsteen (1984)