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An Ode to the Music of War: Second Movement

By: Geoffrey King
July 10, 2018

n We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War, Bradley and Werner, with help from historian Heather Stur, collectively amassed over two hundred interviews, in person and online, with both veterans and musicians. They also drew extensively from the online archives of the Oral History Project of the Texas Tech University Vietnam Virtual Archive and the University of Buffalo Vietnam Veteran Oral History and Folklore Project. Something like forty percent of the book is in someone’s first person: it is all up close, personal and relatively unmediated―the music was, after all, still the product of the popular music machine. For the soldiers, the music was simply there. Only later would those who survived the ordeal, and those who wanted to understand the thing vicariously and in retrospect, decide to write or read books and watch movies about Vietnam―The Doors and Jimi Hendrix preceded Apocalypse Now. Music seemed to have been on everyone’s agenda. After 1965, as if their lives depended on it.

Spoiler Alert: no Mahler, no late Beethoven quartets, and precious little jazz makes the play list of favorites among the American troops in Vietnam, nor were the grunts bellowing refrains of George Cohan’s “Over There” while gearing up for jungle patrols. The Americans who served in Vietnam― and they were by no means a cross-section―and the music they listened to depended on what Bradley and Werner describe as “the three Ws”: where you were, when you were there, and who you were with. Bradley and Werner concur that the whole thing was, after the 1964-65 escalation, the first rock and roll war: straight from the senior prom, the drive-in, and the neighborhood bar to helicopters and rice paddies in the Mekong Delta.

From the beginning of the American involvement in Vietnam―how many Americans know that date?―there was a musical soundscape, albeit one from a very different time and selected by a very different military personnel. “The soundscape of Vietnam unfolded in distinct movements, musical and military,” and individual understandings of the music changed over the course of time. Bradley and Werner emphasize that “there was no such thing as a typical Vietnam vet.” The individual stories, in the first person and referred to as “Solo” sections, document states of mind at various points in a long process: some of them were recorded or written shortly after the events, some decades later. Technology and the baby boomers conspired, unwittingly but not unwillingly, to exponentially increase the availability and portability of popular music―the advent of the transistor altered lives as much as anything Steve Jobs ever imagined―making it so pervasive in American culture that by 1965 shirt pockets for teenage boys were being designed to accommodate those all-the-rage cheap handheld Japanese transistor radios. With the first official U.S. advisors in Vietnam, it was the individual radio that was the aural dowser rod probing the deep waters of popular music, class, taste, consumerism, and politics in American culture. 

Very few of the first wave of Vietnam military personnel questioned their mission. “Raised by the preceding generation that served in World War II, most of the soldiers who fought in Vietnam prior to the escalation of 1964-65 took John F. Kennedy’s clarion call for self-sacrifice and a renewed dedication to the fight against Communism deeply to heart.” That meant listening to Pat Boone, the ex-GI Elvis Presley, Tony Bennett, the Kingston trio and, the odd man out, Little Richard. The GIs who fought at Ia Drang had grown up with the domino theory, the anticommunist ideology of containment, as it was first promulgated by Eisenhower and then picked up by JFK’s administration. “Fighting the Reds on the streets of San Francisco” was a Cold War mantra during the early 1960s, and JFK convinced himself and much of the nation that the cost of pulling out of Vietnam would be greater than the cost of getting in deeper. Bradley and Werner describe the opening of Oliver Stone’s film (based on Ron Kovic’s memoir), Born on the Fourth of July, as iconic for its time:

A marching band in an Independence Day parade plays “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and is followed by a float blasting out Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”; teens dance to “Moon River,” Frankie Avalon’s “Venus,” and the Shirellees’ “Soldier Boy.” By the end of the film, the music has moved through Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’ to [CCR’s 1969] “Born on the Bayou.”

Music and letters, always, were the key to fighting off loneliness, but the music would increasingly grow, after 1966, into a snarling shout out for some kind of resistance if not outright subversion concerning American policy in Vietnam. After Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968―an event that was as important as the Tet offensive in turning the American public against the war―race, from Watts to Chicago to the DMZ, would play an increasingly curatorial role in the music arriving with the newly deployed GIs and in the cassettes mailed from home.

Much of the cultural memory of Vietnam’s soundscape centers on songs that questioned and protested the war, but during the first phase of escalation that followed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution much of the music heard drove home an unquestioning belief that the whole thing was not only worthwhile but had noble underpinnings. One of the best known of the Vietnam-themed songs that emerged on country radio in 1965 was Johnnie Wright’s number one country hit “Hello Vietnam,” probably best remembered playing over the title sequence of Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket. A sentimental ballad that centered on leaving loved ones stateside, the song never doubts that if the draftee doesn’t do his bit our “freedom will start slipping through our hands.” Country music was a natural fit given that large numbers of the pre-1966 troops were white and from the South and the Midwest, where Ernest Tubb & the Texas Troubadours’ “It’s for God, and Country, and You Mom (That’s Why I’m Fighting In Viet Nam)” and Dave Dudley’s “What We’re Fighting For” were staples of the daily playlist for large swaths of white America.

In 1965 Barry McGuire’s version of “Eve of Destruction” came out of nowhere and was heard everywhere on stateside radio until it was banned in various places for being unpatriotic, while Barry Sadler and Robin Moore, the former a Green Beret Staff Sergeant with The 7th Special Forces Group Airborne―more helicopters―were putting the finishing touches on “The Ballad of the Green Beret” (RCA producers were so enthralled by the demo that they threw in a 15-piece orchestra and a male chorus for the final recording). “Eve of Destruction” hit #1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and #3 on the UK Singles Chart in September 1965; Sadler’s single held No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart stateside for five consecutive weeks from March 5 to April 2, 1966, and positively owned the AFVN playlist for that year.

Some of the military personnel and an increasing number of civilians in 1965 were beginning to sense a cognitive dissonance, suspecting some foreign infection suppurating in the American body politic. The assumed elective affinity of American families on Thanksgiving Day was drifting south into negative dialectics; there were increased bouts of bickering over the turkey and trimmings about “the negro problem” and civil rights marches and this Vietnam thing. After the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, the draft assumed a place in many American dinner conversations. The subsequent U.S. troop ramp-up would initiate the largest escalation of volunteers and draftees since World War II. As of September 1965, there were 1,100 U.S military dead in Vietnam, and that was before the battle of Ia Drang in November where 305 U.S. soldiers were killed. By Thanksgiving the U.S. had lost 545 men, the deadliest month yet for American forces in Vietnam.

Some six months before that Thanksgiving Day―in an event that went unnoticed by U.S. forces in Vietnam―the British group The Animals made their first tour of America in support of their hit single “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”

It was that song heard in Vietnam after 1965 that became a party favorite cum survival anthem cum secular Dies Irae. “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” would be so indelibly printed on the Vietnam experience for many American personnel―grunts, support staff, journalists―that it could provoke unbidden tears when overheard decades later in the bar, the supermarket, at reunions. The song, by all rights, should have been Barry Mann (music) and Cynthia Weil’s (lyrics) hit; written in 1965 it was originally intended for the Righteous Brothers. But the Animals, who thought of it as a song about escaping from industrial Newcastle upon Tyne, recorded it first and the rest is history. Thus was born an anthem for anyone anywhere who needed to get out of any place.

We gotta get out of this place
If it’s the last thing we ever do
We gotta get out of this place
Girl there’s a better place for me and you

Singer Eric Burden, who admits to being slow to understand what the song meant to the troops in Vietnam, said “There have been hundreds of people who have come up to me and said something like, ‘Your song saved my life.’” Lyricist Cynthia Weil receives dozens of letters every year from grateful veterans. If “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” was the undisputed “Vietnam Veterans” National Anthem, several other songs are almost as central to the Vietnam soundtrack, among them Peter Paul & Mary’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City” with its refrain of “I wanna go home,” and Country Joe and the Fish’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag.”

By 1967 popular music from stateside had begun to evince a tectonic cultural shift toward an aesthetic that celebrated covert, then overt, subversion, all inextricably wound up, at least with the white kids, with a range of chemical enhancements indicating a clear preference for those that typically agonized serotonin receptors (psychedelics). Marijuana provided a common denominator between the black and white kids; lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) was still legal on the streets of America, having seeped out of the Harvard Psychology Department and earlier CIA experiments with cryptonyms like Project MKNAOMI, Project MKDELTA, and MKUltra, provoking author, cultural provocateur, and early LSD volunteer Ken Kesey to remark in an interview in 1999 that "of course, the best drugs ever were manufactured by the government.”


To Be Continued.