I Served in Vietnam. Here’s My Soundtrack.
“Vietnam.” The word comes camouflaged in music. Rock ’n’ roll, soul, pop and country. For those who watched the war unfold on the evening news, the music of Vietnam blurred with the sounds rising from the streets of America during a time of momentous challenge and change. For those born after the last helicopters sank beneath the waves of the South China Sea, movies, documentaries and TV shows have repeatedly used music as a sonic background for depicting Vietnam as a tug of war between pro-war hawks and pro-peace doves.
If you weren’t there, it’s possible to imagine this as so much postproduction editing, imposing a relationship between the sounds and the experience of the war. It can all feel a bit trite. Except — it’s true.
More than any other American war, Vietnam had a soundtrack, and you listened to it whether you were marching in the jungle or in the streets. For the men and women like me who served in Southeast Asia, music was what inexorably linked us to “my generation.” We sang along to the Beatles, Nancy Sinatra, Marty Robbins and the Temptations before we went to war, and we listened to them after we came back home.
Music was more than just background for us. It was our lifeline, a link to our existence “back in the world,” connecting us with the things that enabled us, as the Impressions urged us, to “keep on pushing.” From the peaks of the Central Highlands and the rice paddies of the Mekong Delta to the “air-conditioned jungles” of Danang and Long Binh (where I served as an information specialist in 1970-71), soldiers used music to build community, stay connected to the home front and hold on to the humanity the war was trying to take away. The hits were our hits: “I Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” “Fortunate Son” — and the song more than one Vietnam veteran has called “our national anthem,” the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”
And once we returned home, music became essential to our healing.
Historians of the ’60s have recognized the importance of music as a lens for understanding movements, attitudes and opinions. For Vietnam veterans and those who listen to their stories, the iconic music of the 1960s and early ’70s provides access to a truer, deeper story of what Vietnam meant, and continues to mean.
It worked the other way, too — Vietnam and the dizzying changes accompanying it in America altered the music, the musicians and the messages. You could hear it in the difference between “I Get Around” and “Good Vibrations”; between “She Loves You” and “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”; between “Please Please Please” and “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud”; between the Shangri-Las and Grace Slick.
With the crucial exception of combat, music was ubiquitous in Vietnam, reaching soldiers via albums, cassettes and tapes of radio shows sent from home; on the Armed Forces Vietnam Network, featuring songs from stateside Top 40 stations; and on the legendary, if short-lived, underground broadcasts of Radio First Termer, a pirate station operated out of Saigon. Soldiers played it in their hooches on top-of-the-line tape decks they’d purchase cheap at the PX or via mail order from Japan; they listened to it over headphones in helicopters and planes.
Sometimes the music was live: soldiers strumming out Bob Dylan and Curtis Mayfield songs at base camps; Filipino bands pounding out “Proud Mary” and “Soul Man” at enlisted-men’s clubs and Saigon bars; touring acts from Bob Hope and Ann-Margret to Nancy Sinatra and James Brown granting momentary calm. And on many a weary war night, Hanoi Hannah, the North Vietnamese equivalent of World War II’s Tokyo Rose, would play classic tunes by Ray Charles and B. B. King as she encouraged G.I.s to lay down their weapons.
They were the same songs our friends were listening to back home, but the music took on different, and often deeper, meanings in Vietnam. Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” became an anthem to the grunts who humped endless miles on patrol in the jungles, adding layers of meaning to the story of a young woman turning the tables on her cheating boyfriend. Likewise, the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Purple Haze” meant one thing in an LSD-friendly dorm room and another to troops who associated it with the color of the smoke grenades used to guide helicopters into landing zones. “Ring of Fire,” “Nowhere to Run,” “Riders on the Storm” — all of them shifted shape in relation to the war.
The meaning of songs often changed for individual vets whose personal (and in several cases, political) perspectives underwent seismic shifts in the years during and after the war. The dynamic was complicated by music’s peculiar status as both a center of political or cultural resistance and a manifestation of America’s high-tech supremacy. That Barry McGuire’s hit song “Eve of Destruction,” which railed against injustice and nuclear war in 1965, was quickly countered by Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” the No. 1 song of 1966, is as much a reflection of the shifting politics of the country as it is about changes in musical tastes. Likewise, “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield, the song frequently played to accompany film depictions of antiwar protests, had nothing to do with Vietnam per se — Stephen Stills wrote it about a riot on the Sunset Strip — yet it was as treasured by scores of Vietnam soldiers as it was by protesters in America.
Opposition to the draft helped fuel the sounds of protest — “Draft Dodger Rag,” “Universal Soldier,” “It Ain’t Me Babe.” But they were songs we G.I.s knew and often sang in Vietnam. While researching our book, my co-author, Craig Werner, and I heard poignant stories from Vietnam veterans about listening to a fellow soldier play “Masters of War” or “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” in Vietnam. Neil Young’s “Ohio” resonated in ways political and personal, too, since many of us Vietnam-era soldiers were the same age as the students killed at Kent State — and the National Guardsmen who fired at them. Just about all the guys I served with in Vietnam in 1970 and 1971 laughed at Edwin Starr’s “War” because we knew better than he did that it was good for “absolutely nothin’.’”
Many of those tensions and crosscurrents came to a head around Country Joe McDonald, the guiding spirit of Country Joe and the Fish, whose unplanned, slightly reluctant performance of “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” at Woodstock in August 1969 placed a veteran’s perspective on Vietnam at the center of musical protest. When Craig and I met Joe at the North Berkeley BART station in 2008 to interview him for our book, he introduced himself by saying, “I consider myself a veteran first and a hippie second.”
Although the pro-war “hawks” who flooded him with hate mail — he still receives it — were unaware of the crucial fact that Joe McDonald was a Navy veteran, one who’d realized that, as he put it, “all military experience, all combat experience universally is the same — not good/bad, moral/immoral. I believe if we had the music of all these different armies, all the infantries everywhere, you’d have the same attitude expressed within their songs that we expressed in ours.”
Returning to the Bay Area after his discharge from the Navy, Joe threw himself into the growing counterculture. In the summer of 1965 he wrote the song that even today is an anthem of the antiwar movement, yet holds a special resonance for Vietnam veterans, a point we heard again and again from the hundreds of Vietnam veterans we’ve interviewed.
“The song was irreverent but not political,” Joe explained. “It blames leaders and parents, not soldiers. It’s not a pacifist song; it’s a soldier’s song.” The most radical line in the song, he added, “is, ‘Be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box.’ It’s military humor that only a soldier could get away with. It’s a soldier’s song from a soldier’s background and point of view. It comes out of a tradition of G.I. humor in which people can bitch in a way that will not get them in trouble and that also keeps them from insanity that can be experienced during war.”
As the war ground on and the casualties mounted, music became even more essential for troops and veterans struggling to express their feelings and understand the politics of the war, and politics in general. The war was coming to an end, and those of us still there, and the veterans who were already back home, understood that it would be music that helped us reintegrate into civilian life. As Michael Kramer observes in “The Republic of Rock,” the music of the 1960s and early ’70s gave the generation “a sonic framework for thinking, feeling, discussing and dancing out the vexing problems of democratic togetherness and individual liberation.”
If you were fortunate enough to return home from Vietnam, music echoed through those secret places where you stored memories, including some you never shared with your parents, spouse or children for decades. Music was the key to survival and a path to healing, the center of a human story that’s too often lost in the haze of politics and myth that surrounds Vietnam.
The Top 10 Vietnam War Songs: A Playlist for Veterans
This article first appeared on the PBS site Next Avenue. The Vietnam War, a 10-part Emmy-nominated PBS series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, streams again to PBS station members on-demand with the member benefit Passport, beginning August 4, 2020.
This post was originally published on August 29, 2017, and was updated July 31, 2020.
I first became a soldier in a war zone on Veterans Day (Nov. 11) 1970. It’s an irony I’ve wrestled with for 45 years, due in part to the precise timing of U. S. Army tours of duty in Vietnam, which meant that Uncle Sam would send me back home exactly 365 days later — on Nov. 11, 1971.
Needless to say, the date is etched in my mind and will always be. It’s personal, of course, but in a way it’s lyrical, too. I say that because my earliest Vietnam memories aren’t about guns and bullets, but rather about music. As my fellow “newbies” and I were being transported from Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base to the Army’s 90th Replacement Battalion at Long Binh, I vividly recall hearing Smokey Robinson and The Miracles singing “Tears of a Clown”. That pop song was blasting from four or five radios some of the guys had, and with the calliope-like rhythm and lines like “it’s only to camouflage my sadness,” I was having a hard time figuring out just where in the hell I was.
But I knew one thing for sure. Music was going to get me through my year in Vietnam. Did it ever. In fact, it’s sustained me for the past 45 years, as it has countless other Vietnam veterans.
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Craig Werner and I discovered the power of music from a decade of interviews with hundreds of Vietnam vets. Our new book, We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War shows how music helped soldiers/veterans connect to each other and to life back home and to cope with the complexities of the war they had been sent to fight.
From THE VIETNAM WAR Ep. 7 – The Veneer of Civilization (June 1968-May 1969) on PBS. Denton (Mogie) in uniform, with siblings Candy and Randy, 1965.
Many of the men and women we interviewed for We Gotta Get Out of This Place had never talked about their Vietnam war experience, even with their spouses and family members. But we found they could talk about a song — “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’”, “My Girl”, “And When I Die”, “Ring of Fire” and scores of others. And the talking helped heal some of the wounds left from the war.
When we began our interviews, we planned to organize it into a set of essays focusing on the most frequently mentioned songs, a Vietnam Vets Top 20 if you will, harkening back to the radio countdowns that so many of us grew up listening to.
Well, it didn’t take long for us to realize that to do justice to the vets’ diverse, and personal, musical experiences would require something more like a Top 200 — or 2,000! Still, we did find some common ground. These are the 10 most mentioned songs by the Vietnam vets we interviewed. Realizing, of course, that every soldier had their own special song that helped bring them home.
10. Green Green Grass of Home by Porter Wagoner
(1965; No. 4 Country Chart)
Neil Whitehurst, a native of North Carolina who served with the 1st Marine Air Wing at Marble Mountain, states emphatically “the No. 1 song that takes me back to Vietnam is ‘Green, Green, Grass of Home’.” Songs like this, those that tapped into loneliness, heartache and homesickness hold a special place in the hearts of Vietnam vets. While some liked the Tom Jones version better, others we interviewed felt the earlier, Porter Wagoner version was “more real, more sad.”
9. Chain of Fools by Aretha Franklin
(1967; No. 1 R&B; No. 2 Pop Chart)
Usually heard in the States as another of Aretha’s powerful statements on racial and sexual equality, which it certainly was, “Chain of Fools” took on special meaning in Vietnam. Marcus Miller, an infantryman in the Mekong Delta during the war, said the song referred to the military “chain of command.” And David Browne, who’d grown up in Memphis and served with the 101st Airborne, recalls that when he first learned of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., while a soldier in Vietnam, the only thing that stopped him from “killing the first honky I met” was listening to Chain of Fools. “I thought, that’s my story,” and that chain is gonna break …
8. The Letter by The Box Tops
(1967; No. 1 Billboard Hot 100)
Mail call was a sacred ritual in Vietnam and this song captured its importance lyrically and musically. Didn’t hurt that it spoke of “getting a ticket for an airplane” and “going home” because “my baby just wrote me a letter.” Nothing kept guys going more than love letters from home — and the dream of getting back to their beloved.
7. (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding
(1968; No. 1 Billboard Hot 100)
Just before his tragic death in a plane crash in Madison, Wis., in late 1967, Otis Redding had completed recording “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”, perhaps his greatest song and the first record to ever become a posthumous No. 1 hit. Was Otis Redding thinking of Vietnam? We’ll never know for sure, but he’d agreed to travel to Vietnam to entertain the troops shortly before his passing. Frank Free, an information specialist at USARV Headquarters at Long Binh in 1968-69, admits that he gravitated to music that expressed feelings of yearning and loneliness, and that Redding’s portrait of the lonely wanderer resting by the ocean watching the sun go down in “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” perfectly captured that feeling.
MORE HISTORY: See our Summer of ’69 documentaries or a Summer of 1969 timeline.
6. Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR)
(1969; No. 3 Billboard)
When asked to sum up the music of the war, Peter Bukowski, who served with the Americal Division near Chu Lai in 1968-69, responded: “Two words. Creedence Clearwater.” “They were the one thing everybody agreed on,” he told us. “Didn’t matter who you were — black, white, everyone. We’d hear that music and it brought a smile to your face.” ROTC graduate and heavy mortar platoon leader Loren Webster singled out Fortunate Son because it “pretty well summarized my feelings about serving, particularly since I had to serve in the Reserves with a whole lot of rich draft dodgers after I returned.”
Watch American Experience: Woodstock (broadcast premiere August 6, 2019), as part of our Summer of ’69 programs.
5. Purple Haze by Jim Hendrix Experience
(1967; No. 65 Billboard Hot 100)
Maybe it’s because he could have been in Vietnam that Jimi Hendrix holds so much appeal for ‘Nam vets. A member of the prestigious Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., Hendrix preferred guitar playing to soldiering, hence his early discharge in 1962. But even more than that, his guitar sounded like it belonged it Vietnam, reminding GIs of helicopters and machine guns, conjuring visions of hot landing zones and purple smoke grenades. As James “Kimo” Williams, a supply clerk near Lai Khe in 1970-71, attests: “The first time I heard Purple Haze, I said, ‘What is that sound and how do you do that?’ The white guys who were into rock liked him,” Williams continues, “and the black guys who were into soul liked him. He appealed to everyone.”
4. Detroit City by Bobby Bare
(1963; No. 6 Billboard Country and No. 16 on Billboard Hot 100)
No matter whether it’s theme or style, any song with a lyric about going home was sure to find an in-country audience and show up on a list of Vietnam vets’ favorite tunes. Maybe that’s why “Detroit City”, sung by the country and western singer Bobby Bare with its lingering refrain, “I wanna go home/I wanna go home/Oh how I wanna go home” was so popular on jukeboxes in Southeast Asia long after its release in 1963. Big fans included veteran C&W music lovers Jim Bodoh and Jerry Benson, who didn’t think country music ever got enough airplay over Armed Forces Vietnam Radio (AFVN).
3. Leaving on a Jet Plane by Peter, Paul and Mary
(1969; No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100)
When we played this song at LZ Lambeau, a welcome home event for Vietnam vets and their families held at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., in 2010, we were overwhelmed by the response it received, especially by spouses of Vietnam vets. They sang along with tears in their eyes, because they were the ones saying goodbye to the men who were boarding the planes for Vietnam. And it got to soldiers/vets, too. As Jason Sherman, an AFVN DJ during part of his tour in Vietnam, recalled: “Leaving on a Jet Plane brought tears to my eyes.”
2. I Feel Like I’m Fixin to Die Rag by Country Joe & The Fish
(1965, re-released 1967)
Misunderstood and misinterpreted by most Americans, Country Joe’s iconic song became a flashpoint for disagreements about the war and its politics. But Country Joe, himself a Navy veteran — who when we first met him told us “I’m a veteran first and hippie second” — intended this “not as a pacifist song, but as a soldier’s song.” “It’s military humor that only a soldier could get away with,” he added. “It comes out of a tradition of GI humor in which people can bitch in a way that will not get them in trouble but keeps them from insanity.” And the soldiers got it! As Michael Rodriguez, an infantryman with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, affirmed: “Bitter, sarcastic, angry at a government some of us felt we didn’t understand, Rag became the battle standard for grunts in the bush.”
1. We Gotta Get Out of This Place by The Animals
(1965; No. 13 Billboard Hot 100)
No one saw this coming. Not the writers of the song — the dynamic Brill Building duo of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil; not the group who recorded it — The Animals and their iconic lead singer, Eric Burdon; not the 3 million soldiers who fought in Vietnam who placed extra importance on the lyrics. But the fact is that We Gotta Get Out of This Place is regarded by most Vietnam vets as our We Shall Overcome, says Bobbie Keith, an Armed Forces Radio DJ in Vietnam from 1967-69. Or as Leroy Tecube, an Apache infantryman stationed south of Chu Lai in 1968, recalls: “When the chorus began, singing ability didn’t matter; drunk or sober, everyone joined in as loud as he could.” No wonder it became the title of our book!
An immersive 360-degree narrative, The Vietnam War tells the story of the war and its combatants as has never before been told on film. The Vietnam Warreceives an encore marathon broadcast on THIRTEEN, August 29 and 30. See thirteen.org/schedule for tune-in times.
The Vietnam War,an Emmy-nominated, 10-part, 18-hour documentary film series, can again be streamed on demand by members of PBS stations, starting August 4, 2020, in addition to all the films of The Ken Burns Collection.
For more stories about those who fought in Vietnam, stream “Saved in Vietnam” from We’ll Meet Again Season 2, produced and hosted by Ann Curry. In the episode, Curry helps two Vietnam veterans search for the heroes who saved them. An Army officer searches for the helicopter pilot who rescued him, while another soldier wants to reconnect with the surgeon who saved his leg from amputation.
Doug Bradley |
Doug Bradley is a Vietnam veteran from Madison, Wisconsin. Doug was drafted into the U.S. Army in March 1970 and served as an information specialist (journalist) at the Army Hometown News Center in Kansas City, Missouri, and U.S. Army Republic of Vietnam (USARV) headquarters near Saigon. Since his discharge from the military in 1971, Doug has worked and advocated on behalf of veteran issues. He is the author of Vietnam-related short stories, DEROS Vietnam: Dispatches from the Air-Conditioned Jungle (2012) and co-wrote We Gotta Get Out of This Place: Music, Survival, Healing, and the Soundtrack of the Vietnam War with Dr. Craig Werner, Chair of Afro-American Studies at UW-Madison (2015). He and Werner co-teach The Vietnam Era: Music, Media and Mayhem"at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Doug is a regular contributor to NextAvenue.org, the PBS website.
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The Vietnam War happened during the ’50s ’60s and ’70s from 1955 to 1975. During these 20 years the music being released had a big impact on the world. This means that the Vietnam War had a soundtrack unlike any other. It fed into a myriad of social changes and upheavals that motivated artistic expression. Music was integral to the experience of Vietnam for soldiers and citizens, and certain songs had associations with the conflict that endure to this day.
Here are 9 of the most famous songs that were either made or popular during the Vietnam War.
1. House of the Rising Sun – The Animals
Although it’s origin is uncertain, ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ was most memorably performed by the Animals, an English rock group for whom it was a trans-Atlantic smash hit.
They transposed their own narrative onto the lyrics – it became about a man whose father was a drunken gambler. However, the song struck a chord with the troops in Vietnam and formed an indelible association with that conflict.
2. All Along the Watchtower – Bob Dylan / Jimi Hendrix
Originally written, recorded and released by Bob Dylan – to a positive reception – ‘All Along the Watchtower’ is now best identified with Jimi Hendrix. Although it has enjoyed reincarnations under The Dave Mathews Band, The Grateful Dead and U2, Hendrix gave it his stamp with an iconic performance in London on 21 January 1968.
Dylan has described his reaction to hearing Hendrix’s version:
It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there.
3. Gimme Shelter – The Rolling Stones
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards drew their inspiration for ‘Gimme Shelter’ directly from the Vietnam War. In a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Jagger said:
Well, it’s a very rough, very violent era. The Vietnam War. Violence on the screens, pillage and burning. And Vietnam was not war as we knew it in the conventional sense. The thing about Vietnam was that it wasn’t like World War II, and it wasn’t like Korea, and it wasn’t like the Gulf War. It was a real nasty war, and people didn’t like it. People objected, and people didn’t want to fight it…(Gimme Shelter is) a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It’s apocalypse; the whole record’s like that.
The nugget of a point within that statement is that Vietnam was a war that was vigorously opposed, and the opposition to it formed part of a wider counter-culture movement.
Musically, the song was particularly noted for the inclusion of Merry Clayton, who sings the line ‘Rape, murder. It’s just a shot away. It’s just a shot away’ – became the signature line in the song.
4. Fortunate Son – Creedence Clearwater Revival
An anthem of the anti-war, counter-culture movement which skewers elites who support the war but refuse to pay the costs themselves, delivered from the perspective of someone who isn’t a ‘fortunate son’ (read: born of a wealthy family) themselves.
The song was inspired by the wedding of David Eisenhower’s grandson and then-President Richard Nixon’s daughter in 1968. The song’s author and singer, John Fogerty, told Rolling Stone:
Julie Nixon was hanging around with David Eisenhower, and you just had the feeling that none of these people were going to be involved with the war. In 1968, the majority of the country thought morale was great among the troops, and eighty percent of them were in favor of the war. But to some of us who were watching closely, we just knew we were headed for trouble.
The song has retained its counter-culture message, being used in a number of protest movements. But perhaps most iconically, it was the soundtrack to the Vietnam segment from Forrest Gump.
5. For What It’s Worth – Buffalo Springfield
Although its true origins lie in the Sunset Strip Riots of the late 1960s in Hollywood, a series of ‘hippie’ counterculture protests, ‘For What It’s Worth’ from its inception took on an anti-war mantle.
6. Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay – Otis Redding
Another song that was hugely popular with troops in Vietnam, probably because it recalled a nostalgic, peaceful setting entirely at odds with their own.
7. We’ve Gotta Get Out of this Place – The Animals
Another song associated with an iconic film (this time Hamburger Hill), ‘We Gotta Get Out of this Place’ had a simple emotional appeal that resonated with US forces stationed in South Vietnam.
It was frequently played by US Forces Vietnam Network disc jockeys, and in 2006 an in-depth survey of Vietnam veterans found that it was the song they most identified with:
We had absolute unanimity is this song being the touchstone. This was the Vietnam anthem. Every bad band that ever played in an armed forces club had to play this song.
8. What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
Gaye was motivated by the social upheaval that dominated the 60s and 70s to write ‘What’s Going On.’ A key experience behind the song was Gaye’s conversations with his brother Frankie, who served for three years in Vietnam, and his cousin’s death in the war.
9. War – Edwin Starr
Plainly an anti-war, counter-culture song (‘War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing’), ‘War’, released in 1970, struck a chord with a disaffected public. It was originally performed by The Temptations, but they were anxious about putting forward such a controversial song as a single.
Fans across the nation campaigned for its release, and it fell to Edwin Starr to take on the song, giving it a more dramatic, intense tone. It was an immediate hit, starting at #1 in the Billboard Charts for 3 weeks, and defining Starr’s career.
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