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The Top 10 Songs Of The Vietnam War: The Veterans’ Picks

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Think of all the hate there is in Red China
Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama
You may leave here for four days in space
But when you return it’s the same old place
The pounding of the drums, the pride and disgrace
You can bury your dead but don’t leave a trace
Hate your next door neighbor but don’t forget to say grace – 

Barry McGuire – “Eve of Destruction” (1965)


A human skull keeps watch over US soldiers encamped in the Vietnamese jungle during the Vietnam War. (Photo by Terry Fincher/Getty Images)

A human skull keeps watch over US soldiers encamped in the Vietnamese jungle during the Vietnam War – October 25, 1968 (Photo by Terry Fincher/Getty Images)


In We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War, Doug Bradley and Craig Werner, professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, narrate the story of the music that whirled in the minds of American fighters.

Bradley, a veteran of the war he was called up to in 1970, harks back to his transportation 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.”


circa 1968: A US GI looks at a dead peasant by a ditch in southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

1968: A US GI looks at a dead peasant by a ditch in southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


What with this being about pop music, Bradley’s compiled a Top 10 Songs of Vietnam.

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.

The masses of great music from this era make any list far from definite. But as any Top 10 goes this is the most complete one chosen by Vets. No space for Buffalo Springfield’s For What it’s Worth (1967); Grand Funk Railroad’s I Can Feel Him in the Morning (1971); Richie Havens’ Handsome Johnny (1969); and the awesome Edwin Starr’s War (1969). We know.

These are the Top 10 songs that have endured and mean something to the men who did the actual fighting. Comments below the videos are from Bradley:


10. Green Green Grass of Home by Porter Wagoner



9. Chain of Fools by Aretha Franklin


8. The Letter by The Box Tops


7.  (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding


6. Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR)


5. Purple Haze by Jim Hendrix

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

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

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


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


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!

The books looks great.

But to scratch that itch, here’s Edwin Starr singing and inviting us to join in with his unforgettable refrain:



Via: Next Avenue

  • rediffusion

    Surely Marmalade – Reflections of My Life should be included

  • Fred Johansen

    Top 10 to SOME, not all.

    • Stannous Flouride

      No snark intended but what are your favorites that you’d add or which would you subtract?