For some veterans of the Vietnam War, their memories aren’t exclusively of guns, powder and violence, but rather about songs and lyrics. The bloody conflict was notoriously divisive, but in turn sparked a new form of resistance: music.
Pro-war hawks and pro-peace doves aside, there were songs that gave voice to an era that changed the face of music and politics, and ultimately, a taste of peace to those in the battlefield. So, if these songs could help those at war, they could help you through the dark times this generation is now facing.
“Music was more than just a background for us. It was our lifeline, a link to our existence ‘back in the world’, connecting us with the things that enabled us, as the Impressions urged us, to keep on pushing.” Vietnam vet Douglas Bradley reminisced.
As casualties mounted and the war grew increasingly hellish, music was a small beacon of hope for troops struggling to make sense of their world. There was barely room to understand the emotions, and politics, of it all. Songs would be heard played from those with radios glued to soldiers, and disc jockeys who had players shipped from Japan. Sometimes the music was live, too. On safer grounds, be it the confines of a camp or a Saigon bar, the strumming of guitars replaced roaring weapons and joy momentarily prevailed over terror.
Across the Atlantic, the war influenced a generation of musicians bringing attention to cultural fissures that were pivotal to more than just the musical sphere. The frustrations that followed the American war in Southeast Asia birthed songs that expressed anger and their trouble to understand what they were fighting for; unlike anthems during the World Wars that were justified by a patriotic agenda, hence chronicled a unified sound.
Young folks in the ‘60s weren’t dissimilar, in a way that it made many march and stand their grounds to the nation’s own democratic values, stressing the hypocrisy of the conflict. Some would still associate the Vietnam-era music with ‘protest music’, but in a military base camp somewhere in Long Binh, soldiers turned to these songs for solace.
So, as we are all soldiers in this war on COVID-19, perhaps these songs can help you through these troubling times. (A link to a Spotify Playlist is available for listening enjoyment too).
We Gotta Get Out of This Place – The Animals
“If it’s the last thing we ever do.”
Regarded by more than one veteran as their ‘national anthem’, this bluesy number by the British rock band struck a chord and resonated most with the US forces stationed in Vietnam — keeping the light at the end of the tunnel hopeful and bright.
Purple Haze – Jimi Hendrix
“Excuse me while I kiss the sky.”
What meant one thing in a dorm room and another amidst aircrafts and machine guns, there was no doubt this Hendrix tune appealed to everyone during those troubled times. Troops associated Purple Haze with the colour of smoke grenades used to guide helicopters into landing zones; whilst the rock riffs and soul spoke louder than the uncertainties that came with the war.
Fortunate Son – Creedence Clearwater Revival
“Some folks are born made to wave the flag.”
Before it became the soundtrack to Forrest and Bubba gung-ho getting deployed to a combat zone in South Vietnam, CCR’s Fortunate Son is a widely known anti-war anthem that helped soldiers stay connected and hold on to humanity.
Gimme Shelter – The Rolling Stones
“It’s just a kiss away.”
With violence on and off screen, Jagger and crew called out the horrors of the war in Southeast Asia before others followed. It became a massive hit in the ‘60s — iconic both at home and away.
The Letter – The Box Tops
“Can’t you see I got to get back to my baby again.”
Love letters from home kept the fire ignited for soldiers who fought in the war. This song captured it musically and lyrically, keeping the dream of coming home to their beloved alive and real.
(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay – Otis Redding
“Watchin’ the tide roll away.”
Though Otis Redding’s greatest hit made it to top of the charts posthumously and its direct meaning to the war was unclear, it was popular among the troops. Perhaps the soulful sound set a nostalgic mood, taking them to better days by simply closing their eyes and tuning in to the peaceful rhythm.
These Boots Are Made For Walking – Nancy Sinatra
“And that’s just what they’ll do.”
Adding a layer of substance to the story about infidelity, this timeless Nancy Sinatra number became an ode to the endless miles in the jungles the soldiers endured on patrol.
Ring of Fire – Johnny Cash
Riders on The Storm – The Doors
Nowhere to Run – Martha Reeves & The Vandellas
What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
Relive the music that helped through the hard times of the ‘60s and ‘70s: