Edwin Starr’s song “War” from 1970 asked the question, “War. What is it good for?” – and answered emphatically “Absolutely nothing!” One thing war has been good for, though, is as a fertile topic – along with its hoped-for opposite, peace – for music.
To determine the most popular songs about war and peace, 24/7 Tempo reviewed performance data on the Billboard Hot 100 charts for songs protesting or advocating war or recounting a battle or a soldier’s experience in war (some treatments of the subject are more abstract than others). Songs were ranked based on an inverse score where in a week at No. 1 is worth 100 points, a week at No. 2 worth 99 points, and so on, up to a week at No. 100 worth one point. Chart data is current through the week of Dec. 31, 2022.
All of the war and anti-war songs on our list are from the post-World II era, addressing the Cold War, nuclear war, the Vietnam War, racial strife, and the war on terror. With folk and folk-rock performers such as Phil Ochs, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan providing much of the messaging, anti-war music surged in popularity in the 1960s and 1970s with songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Get Together,” and “Peace Train.” (Here are 50 protest songs that made the Billboard Hot 100.)
The Vietnam War was singled out in the tunes “Bring the Boys Home,” “Born in the USA,” “Daniel,” and “Sunshine” – as well as, on the other side of things, “The Ballad of the Green Berets.”
Nuclear war was in the crosshairs of musicians with songs such as “Eve of Destruction,” “It’s a Mistake,” and “1999” – in the last of which, Prince poked fun at Armageddon.
Not all the songs about conflict are protesting it. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir had a hit with the “Battle Hymn Of The Republic” as did Whitney Houston with her rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” (These are the origins of America’s national anthems, songs, and marches.)
After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, country singers weighed in with ballads such as “Have You Forgotten?”, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” and “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).”
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