“Music enabled countless soldiers in Vietnam to connect with each other and to ‘the World’ back home while helping them cope with the complexities of the war they had been sent to fight.”
By Doug Bradley and Craig Werner
WHEN co-author Doug Bradley arrived in Vietnam in November 1970 and was being transported from Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base to the U.S. Army’s 90th Replacement Battalion at Long Binh, he vividly recalls 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 on the bus had,” he remembers. “And with the calliope-like rhythm and lines like ‘it’s only to camouflage my sadness,’ I figured Smokey knew just what I was going through.”
We heard this kind of reminiscence during a decade of interviews with hundreds of Vietnam vets for our book We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War — namely that music was going to get them through their time in Vietnam.
Did it ever.
Music enabled countless soldiers in Vietnam to connect with each other and to ‘the World’ back home while helping them cope with the complexities of the war they had been sent to fight. Although many vets never spoke about their experiences, even to their spouses and family, they could talk about songs like Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’”; “My Girl” by the Temptations; Blood Sweat and Tears’ “And When I Die”; “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash and scores of others. And by remembering the music, they could begin to heal from the war’s wounds.
When we began our interviews for We Gotta Get Out of This Place, we were planning to organize it into a set of essays focusing on the most frequently mentioned songs — a sort of Vietnam vets’ top 20 harkening back to the radio countdowns that so many of the soldiers grew up with. We soon discovered that to do justice to soldiers’ diverse (and very personal) musical experiences, it would be more like a top 200 – or a top 2,000!
Still, we found the ‘hit list’ idea helpful as we made presentations in front of numerous groups. So here, as quasi-teaser for our book, are the ten most-mentioned songs by the Vietnam vets we interviewed.
10. Green Green Grass of Home – Porter Wagoner
Neil Whitehurst, a native of North Carolina who served with the 1st Marine Air Wing at Marble Mountain, states emphatically “the number one 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.
9. Chain of Fools – Aretha Franklin
One of Aretha’s more powerful statements on racial and sexual equality, “Chain of Fools” took on special meaning to those in Vietnam. Marcus Miller, an infantryman in the Mekong Delta, imagined the song was about the military chain of command. Another soldier, David Browne from Memphis, was serving with the 101st Airborne in 1968 when he first learned of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. He says the only thing that stopped him from “killing the first honkie [he] met” was listening to “Chain of Fools”. “I thought, that’s my story,” he said.
8. The Letter—the Box Tops
Mail call was a sacred ritual in Vietnam and this song captured its importance both lyrically and musically. It also didn’t hurt that it spoke of “getting a ticket for an airplane” and “going home” because “my baby just wrote me a letter.’
7. (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay – Otis Redding
Just before his tragic death in a place crash in Madison, Wisc. in late 1967, Otis Redding had completed recording “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”. Was Redding thinking of Vietnam when he wrote the classic tune? We’ll never know for sure, but he had agreed travel to Vietnam to entertain the troops just prior to being killed. Frank Free, an information specialist at USARV Headquarters at Long Binh from 1968 to 69, admits that he gravitated to music that expressed feelings of yearning and loneliness. Redding’s musical portrait of the lonely wanderer resting by the ocean watching the sun go down perfectly captured that feeling, he says.
6. Fortunate Son – Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR)
When asked to sum up the music of the war, Peter Bukowski, who served with the 23rd Infantry, known as the “Americal Division”, near Chu Lai in 1968 and 69 responded: “Two words: ‘Creedence Clearwater’,” he told us. “They were the one thing everybody agreed on. Didn’t matter who you were – black, white, everyone. [You’d] hear that music and it brought a smile to your face.”
5. Purple Haze – Jim Hendrix
Maybe it’s because he could’ve been in Vietnam that Jimi Hendrix holds so much appeal for vets. A one-time member of the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Hendrix preferred guitar playing to soldiering, hence his early discharge in 1962. Indeed, his guitar sounded like it belonged it Vietnam, reminding GIs of helicopters and machine guns while conjuring visions for many of hot landing zones and purple smoke grenades. “The first time I heard ‘Purple Haze’ I said ‘what is that sound and how do you do that?’” says James “Kimo” Williams, a supply clerk near Lai Khe from 1970 to 71. “The white guys who were into rock liked him, and the black guys who were into soul liked him. He appealed to everyone.”
4. Detroit City – Bobby Bare
It doesn’t matter if the music came out of Nashville, San Francisco or Motown, any song with lyrics about going home was sure to find an audience in-country. Maybe that’s why “Detroit City” by the country and western crooner 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.
3. Leaving on a Jet Plane – Peter, Paul and Mary
We were surprised by the strong appeal of this song among Vietnam vets, and especially their spouses. As Jason Sherman, an American Forces Vietnam DJ during part of his tour in Vietnam recalled: (playing) “’Leaving on a Jet Plane’ brought tears to my eyes.”
2. I Feel Like I’m Fixin to Die – Country Joe & the Fish
Misunderstood and misinterpreted by most Americans, Country Joe’s iconic Vietnam anthem became a flashpoint for disagreements about the war and its politics. “I’m a veteran first and hippie second,” Country Joe, himself a Navy veteran, told us when we first met him. He describes writing his classic tune for the troops, not the peaceniks. “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 – The Animals
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 three 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’,” observed Bobbie Keith, an Armed Forces Radio DJ in Vietnam from 1967 to 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!
We sincerely hope veterans and their families will read We Gotta Get Out of This Place and take heart from its message of survival and healing… and maybe add their own music memory at our website http://wggootp.com/whats-your-song/
Doug Bradley is a Vietnam veteran who teaches a course on the Vietnam War at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Craig Werner is a UWM professor of Afro-American studies and author of Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul. The two are the authors of We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War. Published by the University of Massachusetts Press it was named the best music book of 2015 by Rolling Stone magazine.