In a new book by two UW-Madison instructors, interviews with hundreds of Vietnam veterans challenge the myth propagated by 40 years of movies that the divisive war’s soundtrack was intensely political.
“We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” written by Craig Werner and Doug Bradley, suggests that popular protest songs included in depictions of the war — like Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” — weren’t the only music on the mixtapes service members played to lift their spirits in the face of isolation from loved ones and physical danger.
The book’s official publication date is Veterans Day.
Anti-war songs like “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” by Vietnam-era Navy veteran Country Joe McDonald were played on tape decks and even sung by service members on patrol, but uncounted other tunes that voiced themes of alienation, anger and longing were also rank-and-file hits.
“When we started writing the book we thought we were going to organize it around 20 songs that summarize the experience,” said Craig Werner, who teaches literature, music and culture in the Department of Afro-American Studies.
“Very quickly we figured out it was 200, maybe 2,000 songs.”
Werner and his writing partner, retired academic staff member and distinguished lecturer Doug Bradley, said service members and civilians often understood lyrics differently.
“‘Leaving On A Jet Plane’ and ‘My Girl’ and ‘Sloop John B’ carried very different kinds of powerful messages for Vietnam vets,” Bradley said.
And the book’s authors found many and varied interpretations among veterans based on their politics, rank, race, gender and whether they were stationed on the front lines or at the rear.
“There is also a shared human story of Vietnam that frequently just gets buried,” Werner said.
Divisions about whether the war was a “noble cause” or a “quagmire” — the theme of many films and books about the war — weren’t necessarily paramount to the men and women trying to cope and survive, he said.
“It’s about being lonely, being away from home, missing your sweetheart, your parents, your girlfriend, your wife,” Bradley said. “And I think there are songs that were about healing.”
Whether the listener was at home or in the military, the intentions of songwriters were not always known, and certainly not honored, Bradley and Werner said.
One of the most memorable songs for the veterans the professors interviewed was one recorded by Eric Burdon and the Animals that became the book title. Many civilians heard it as an anti-war song, while service members adopted it to voice their wishes to go home.
But Cynthia Weil told the authors Vietnam wasn’t on her mind at all when she wrote the lyrics for the song, which reached No. 13 on U.S. charts in 1965.
Weil thought of the words as a ghetto anthem that might be recorded by a soul singer. For Burdon, at least initially, it was about escaping from his working class hometown of Newcastle, England.
And there were songs that had roots in the war but haven’t usually been understood that way. One is Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” which Gaye wrote after many hours listening to his brother, Frankie, describe his brutal tour in Vietnam.
In the book, veteran Art Flowers credits the song with putting him on his path to becoming a Syracuse University professor after a year in Vietnam left him angry, insubordinate and threatened with court-martial.
Music was intertwined with rebellious behavior and generational friction that could be found in Vietnam just as it was at home.
Wisconsin veteran and musician Jim Wachtendonk wrote and performed “Claymore Polka,” which the book describes as “a classic of Vietnam veteran music ... with its searingly hilarious desire to rig a bomb in the brass’s latrine.”
One group of soldiers sewed name tags to their uniforms in a light-hearted attempt to pose as the foursome Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
One of the soldiers tells in the book of a superior officer who told them: “All right, your shoes aren’t clean enough, Mr. Stills... Trim that hair, Mr. Young.”
The book also quotes a veteran who didn’t care for Neil Young’s song “Ohio,” which lamented the shooting deaths by National Guardsmen of war protesters on the Kent State University campus.
Bradley is a Vietnam veteran who has published extensively on the war and has organized writing groups for veterans. Werner is a former rock musician who has taught and written about popular music. Together they taught a class called “The Vietnam Era: Music, Media, and Mayhem.”
They said in writing the book over a 10-year span they tried to stay out of the way and allow veterans’ voices to come through strongly.
Many told the authors they had never before spoken about their experiences. Remembering music helped them open up, Werner said.
“If you went up to them and asked ‘Hey what was Vietnam like?’ you would have gotten nothing, nothing at all,” Werner said. “But when we began the conversation with ‘Did you have a song?’ that frequently was like turning on a water tap that the stories started flowing out, the memories came out and it was really, really clear that the music was tapping something that had been for a lot of people impossible to get to.”