vietnam war music

Vietnam’s Playlist: Songs of Survival for the Soldiers

The Continental Army had Yankee Doodle. Johnny Reb had Dixie and the Yankees retaliated with Marching Through Georgia. When the doughboys headed overseas to bail out the beleaguered Allies in World War I, they vowed that they wouldn’t come back “til it’s over Over There.”

World War II had big bands and the Andrews Sisters singing Boogie Boogie Bugle Boy of Company B.

Korea might be the forgotten war, and the soundtrack of Inchon might not immediately come to mind, but God, Please Protect America by Jimmie Osborne made it to number nine on the Billboard charts.

vietnam war music

As he found out when he and co-author Craig Werner interviewed Vietnam veterans for their book, We Gotta Get Out of This Place, the young soldiers fighting in the jungles had one thing in common with the protesters back home: music was the way to cope with life. The book, which was named Rolling Stone magazine’s Best Music Book of 2015, is the product of ten years of interviews with hundreds of vets who might not have been comfortable talking about their military experience, but were willing to open up about the music they listened to. By the time they were finished interviewing the front-line fans who spoke to them about the music they listened to, the authors realized that there were too many songs for the book to cover everything. But some favorites did emerge and that made it possible for the authors to make a list of the top ten songs that the veterans mentioned most often. “Realizing,” Bradley reminds his readers, “that every soldier had their own special song that helped bring them home.”

10. Green, Green Grass of Home

The song that evokes the heartrending pain of being far from loved ones, meant something personal to the soldiers. Interestingly, while the Tom Jones version was popular, so was the version that country singer Porter Wagoner had done before. Many veterans preferred Wagoner’s rendition, which, while sadder, was also more real.

9. Chain of Fools

Aretha Franklin’s song meant different things to different people. To Americans on the home front, she was speaking about the civil divides creating dissension between blacks and white, men and women. But one soldier cynically felt that Queen of Soul’s chain was reminiscent of the military chain of command. For the African-American soldier hearing the news that civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated, Chain of Fools was his story and he knew that the chain, as Aretha promised, was going to break.

8. The Letter

For soldiers awaiting letters from home, the Box Tops’ song was a reminder of just how central mail call was in a soldier’s life. The ties between the soldiers and the girls they left behind were part of the sustaining bonds that reminded the G.I.s that eventually, they too, like the singer in the song, would be getting on an airplane to return home to their baby, who wrote them a letter.

7. (Sittin’) On the Dock of the Bay

Maybe it was the irony of Otis Redding dying in a plane crash before he ever knew that his song made it to number one on the charts. Why the singer left his home in Georgia, and why he had nothing to live for are part of the song’s anthem-like resonance, and the loneliness of the words struck an answering chord in the soldiers. It was another touch of irony that Redding died before he was able to follow through on his plans to go to Vietnam to entertain the troops.

6. Fortunate Son

Creedence Clearwater Revival’s music had the ability to reach soldiers of all races. The driving cynicism of Fortunate Son expresses what many soldiers felt about a war that rich men’s sons, who had inherited spar-spangled eyes, could avoid.

5. Purple Haze

Jimi HendrixJimi Hendrix, before he was a guitar legend, was a guitar-playing soldier in the 101st Airborne Division, but his music got him an early discharge because for Hendrix, his guitar was his weapon. For a lot of soldiers, the song reminded them of the Vietnam War scenes, the purple smoke grenades and the machine guns. Hendrix bridged the gap between white soldier’s rock and roll and black soldier’s soul music, bringing symmetry to the races with his songs.

4. Detroit City

For a soldier, a song about going home was personal. The authors discovered that Bobby Bare’s song remained popular in Vietnam for a long time after it was initially released in 1963. Country music might not always have gotten the airplay that other genres enjoyed, but for the soldiers who agreed when Bare sang “Oh, how I wanna go home,” they couldn’t hear the song often enough.

3. Leavin’ on a Jet Plane

Folk music trio Peter, Paul and Mary were part of the foundation of songs that conjured up loneliness, regret, and pain, and these were emotions just as familiar to the soldiers away from home as they were to the wives and girlfriends who had to say good-bye.

2. I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag

Joe McDonald of Country Joe and the Fish told the authors that he was a veteran first and a hippie second, but the song just popped into his head. He never expected it to come to have the meaning it did for the soldiers in Vietnam. For McDonald, the song is inspired by the tradition of the soldier’s sense of humor that finds a way to bitch in order to keep from going insane. One of the veterans who listed the song among his favorites appreciated its bitter sarcasm against the government whose decisions defied logic. Rag, he said, “became the battle standard for grunts in the bush.”

1. We Gotta Get out of This Place

The authors found that the quote from Armed Forces Radio disc jockey Bobby Keith said it best: “We Gotta Get Out of This Placeis regarded by most Vietnam vets as our We Shall Overcome.” The songwriters didn’t expect it, Eric Burdon and the Animals who recorded it didn’t expect it, but the song achieved anthem status among veterans, which was why, when Bradley and Werner were looking for a title for their book, the decision was an easy one.

The Vietnam War is generally viewed as a divisive one, and it certainly was that. But the list of songs that were most popular with veterans reveals that the soldiers and the protesters and the folks back home were often singing along to the same lyrics.