The Story Behind One Of The Iconic Protest Songs

By Danny Hajek
Morning Edition / NPR (2/20/19)

It was February 1967, and 18-year-old Marine private first class Bill Ehrhart was days away from leaving for Vietnam. He had just enjoyed his last weekend off-base, and his friends had offered to drive him back to Camp Pendleton, Calif., before sunrise.

“It was goodbye civilian world, next stop Vietnam,” says Ehrhart, now a writer and poet.

“These were not friendly neighborhood cops in a blue uniform. These were patrolmen with helmets and great big jackboots and billy clubs. It was kind of a scary scene in the midst of all that peace and love.”

During their nighttime drive down the California coast, his friends turned on the radio — and that’s when Ehrhart first heard it:

The radio was playing “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield, the folk-rock group led by Stephen Stills and Neil Young.

“I vividly remember thinking, ‘Wow, what a cool song,’ ” Ehrhart says. “By the time I left the country, the anti-war movement was still very much a fringe movement, so I literally didn’t understand what those guys were singing about.”

While it’s often recognized as an anti-war protest anthem, “For What It’s Worth” wasn’t actually based on Vietnam. Stephen Stills, who wrote the song, was instead inspired by a confrontation back home that erupted on a few famous blocks in Los Angeles.

L.A.’s Sunset Strip was a world away from Vietnam: a crowded boulevard lined with billboards, dumpy music clubs and a diner packed with teenagers. In the 1960s, the area held the pulse of rock and roll counterculture — and it’s where Buffalo Springfield made its name. …

(This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at

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