Music and song have always been an important part of human expression and experience. Song writers and performers use the art form to convey their thoughts and emotions. Listeners listen to the music that resonates with them. We all have personal “soundtracks” in our lives, consisting not only of the music we like to listen to now, but of the different pieces of music we’ve identified with throughout our lives. There is also a musical soundtrack to history itself. Through the music of a period, we can understand more about the important issues and emotions of that period. And by listening to the music, we may even make an emotional connection with some of the views held during that period.
This is particularly the case with Vietnam War Music, which provides superb insight into the US involvement in the Vietnam War in the ’60s and early ’70s.
Soldiers had full access to the abundance of rock and folk music being produced back home. Sophisticated and powerful stereos were affordable and readily available, and became pervasive throughout soldier life. Many songs that were recorded without any reference to the war became soundtracks to their lives. Songs such as The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”, whose main lyric had particular resonance. Or Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound”, which is about a homesick musician, but again, the key emotion was relevant. The list of examples is enormous.
As in all wars, musicians within the soldier population also performed popular songs, and traditional folk and military tunes, as well as composing new songs. One famous example is the “Boonie Rat Song”, a folk song created in the 101st Airborne Division, counting down the days until they go home, describing the first few days, and then the emotions of a few points during the tour of duty. The pervasiveness of tape recording and playback technology meant that soldier musicians’ performances could be easily recorded. Popular recordings quickly found their way throughout the US soldier population in Vietnam, and back home to the States with returning soldiers.
There was a large social movement in the US protesting the war. Many popular songs were composed and released that were either generally anti-war, or specifically anti-Vietnam-War. For example, there was: the quirky “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die-Rag” by Country Joe and the Fish; or the moving “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, about the killing of four students at Kent State University during a protest; or John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance”, or Edwin Starr’s powerful soul performance “War”.
There were also many songs that were patriotic or that supported the troops. The most popular example is Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets”, which topped the charts for 5 weeks in 1966. The after-effects of the war on society can also be seen from the songs released in the decades since that make reference to the War. For example, Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 “Born in the USA”, is about the issues faced by Vietnam War veterans when they returned.