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.
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.
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.
Songs Vietnam Veterans Remember Most
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.
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.”
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 War receives 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.