I have always had a keen interest in Vietnam. I was born in 1973, so near the end of the war, and don’t have any specific memories about the period myself. I do remember stories that my family would tell about my oldest brother Jim who turned 17 in late 1974 and was worrying about being drafted. It wasn’t that he was afraid but it was more for him a fear of being so far from home.
As you can imagine, when I was a kid World War II was still fresh in everyone’s memory, although it had been over 30 years since it ended. I watched movies with my dad about WWII including Midway, Tora Tora Tora and A Bridge Too Far. These movies were always so upbeat and portrayed America as the heroic victors. There were lots of shows on television about war during the 1980’s and early 1990’s, including many about Vietnam. I can remember watching China Beach as well as my favorite Tour of Duty. The tone of those shows was different. I didn’t necessarily know why but I could feel it. Then along came Platoon in 1986 and I saw how the Vietnam War was very different. More brutal and dark than I had thought. But I never felt that in the great music of the period. It was always so uplifting and hopeful. I know many of the songs were anti-war but I could feel them. I have a point to this, I promise.
We have really grown to enjoy playing wargames covering the Vietnam War era. We have played many titles, not all of them by any means, but we have played a lot. Fire in the Lake and Silver Bayonet from GMT Games are two of my runaway favorites. We have also played Front Toward Enemy from Multi-Man Publishing, Hearts and Minds from Worthington Publishing and a few smaller titles from High Flying Dice Games including Fortunate Son and Long Cruel Woman. During these games, I typically play my Vietnam War Era playlist covering the 1960’s and 1970’s. This playlist contains 60 songs and has 4 hours and 4 minutes worth of good music. When I hear that music, it always makes me think back. To what America was like then and how I saw things as a child and into my teens.
I thought that I would put a list together of my favorite songs from the Vietnam War era for you to possibly use when you play your wargames on the subject. I warn you though that I tend to gravitate more to the folk rock side of the genre, although a good guitar riff is also very appealing to me, so you will see some songs from Dylan and CCR, but also good old fashioned rock and roll from The Stones, Hendrix and others. I will present this list in 2 posts. The first covering songs from 1964-1969 and the second covering 1970-1975. Please let me know what songs you enjoy from the period.
Also, one final caveat. I know that some of the songs that I have included on this list are decidedly anti-war. This post is not a political statement and I am not trying to take a position. I support my country and the men and women who have fought and still fight to keep it free.
The Times They Are a-Changin’ – Bob Dylan (1964)
A classic song from the folksy poet Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a-Changin’ was written as an attempt to create an anthem for the change being asked for during the middle 1960’s. The lyrics are appealing still today and the many causes that are going on at this very time, which is a tribute to the truth in the words.
Come gather ’round, people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
And you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’
I really enjoyed the way the song was used in the movie Watchmen as the opening credits rolled showing the tumult and change going on in the fictitious alternate reality portrayed in this dark superhero story.
The House of the Rising Sun – The Animals (1964)
It was said that this song was written about a brothel in New Orleans but it’s true origin is uncertain. The House of the Rising Sun appealed greatly to the troops in Vietnam and I can definitely see why with its soulful, slow and methodical approach matching the feeling of the time.
I really like the lyric “And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy”. I think that this is the way that many of the 18 and 19 year old GI’s felt about what Vietnam was doing to them.
There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God I know I’m one
Universal Soldier – Donovan (1965)
Universal Soldier is a song written and recorded by Canadian singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie. The song was originally released on Sainte-Marie’s debut album It’s My Way! in 1964. The song was not an immediate popular hit at the time of its release, but it did garner attention within the contemporary folk music community. It became a hit a year later when Donovan covered it.
I like the song because it compares the role of a soldier to war no matter what their political leanings of ideology are. The song’s main focus is that there is a responsibility on soldiers for war and that they shouldn’t be simple pawns but consider what they are doing and how they do it.
He’s five feet two and he’s six feet four
He fights with missiles and with spears
He’s all of 31 and he’s only 17
He’s been a soldier for a thousand years
He’s a Catholic, a Hindu, an athiest, a Jain,
a Buddhist and a Baptist and a Jew
and he knows he shouldn’t kill
and he knows he always will
kill you for me my friend and me for you
And he’s fighting for Canada,
he’s fighting for France,
he’s fighting for the USA,
and he’s fighting for the Russians
and he’s fighting for Japan,
and he thinks we’ll put an end to war this way
This song speaks to me and I get a bit emotional when listening to it. It is not a traditionally good Vietnam War song but it sure is poignant and causes me to think about things in a different way.
We’ve Gotta Get Outta This Place – The Animals (1965)
We’ve Gotta Get Outta This Place has been a great anthem for things ending and people moving on with their lives. Think of this as a mantra of High School and College students graduating, or even with soldiers ending their tour of duty and returning to the world. The song was frequently played by US Forces Vietnam Network disc jockeys, and in 2006 an in-depth survey of Vietnam veterans found that it was the song they most identified with:
We had absolute unanimity is this song being the touchstone. This was the Vietnam anthem. Every bad band that ever played in an armed forces club had to play this song.
I enjoy the song for its musicality as well as its message. There is a better life for us all beyond whatever trials, troubles and difficulties we are experiencing.
We gotta get out of this place
If it’s the last thing we ever do
We gotta get out of this place
’cause girl, there’s a better life for me and you
Ballad of the Green Berets – Barry Sadler (1966)
The Ballad of the Green Berets is a patriotic ballad song about the United States Army Special Forces. It is one of the few popular songs of the Vietnam War years to cast the military in a positive light and in 1966 became a major hit, reaching No. 1 for five weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 and four weeks on Cashbox. Ultimately, the song was named Billboard’s #1 single for the year 1966.
The song was written by then Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler, beginning when he was training to be a Special Forces medic. The author Robin Moore, who wrote the book, The Green Berets, helped Sadler write the lyrics and get a recording contract with RCA Records.
The lyrics were written, in part, in honor of U.S. Army Specialist 5 James Gabriel, Jr., a Special Forces operator and the first native Hawaiian to die in Vietnam, who was killed by Viet Cong gunfire while on a training mission with the South Vietnamese Army on April 8, 1962.
Fighting Soldiers from the sky
Fearless men who jump and die
Men who mean just what they say
The brave men of the Green Beret
Silver Wings upon their chest
These are men America’s best
100 men will test today
But only 3 win the Green Beret
When I hear this song, that stylistically is very different than the other songs on this list and on my playlist, I do feel great pride in our armed forces and think about how honorable their sacrifices are. I love this song and its message.
Paint It, Black – The Rolling Stones (1966)
Used in the opening of my favorite Vietnam War television show Tour of Duty, Paint It, Black is a fantastically depressing song. The lyrics are meant to describe depression through the use of colour-based metaphors. The song describes the extreme grief suffered by one stunned by the sudden and unexpected loss of a wife, lover or partner. It is often claimed that Jagger took inspiration from novelist James Joyce’s 1922 book Ulysses, taking the excerpt “I have to turn my head until my darkness goes”, referring to the novel’s theme of a worldwide view of desperation and desolation. When I hear it, it just screams Vietnam to me.
I see a red door and I want it painted black
No colors anymore, I want them to turn black
I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes
I have to turn my head until my darkness goes
For What It’s Worth – Buffalo Springfield (1967)
Not many more songs that are more iconic than For What It’s Worth. I have seen it used in dozens of films and it always strikes a chord with me. Although it is often considered an anti-war song, Stephen Stills was inspired to write the song because of the Sunset Strip curfew riots in November 1966. The song is synonymous with protest and with the feeling of standing up for something and asking questions.
There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
All Along the Watchtower – The Jimi Hendrix Experience (1968)
All Along the Watchtower is a song written and recorded by American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan and the song initially appeared on his 1967 album John Wesley Harding. The song is an epic ballad with some really keenly written lyrics. When Jimi Hendrix covered the song, with that wicked guitar, it became famous and was immediately connected to the Vietnam War. When I hear the opening of this song, I am always focused on the chords and the skill with which Jimi Hendrix wailed.
Dylan said of the Hendrix version of his song:
Dylan has described his reaction to hearing Hendrix’s version: “It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.” In the booklet accompanying his Biograph album, Dylan said: “I liked Jimi Hendrix’s record of this and ever since he died I’ve been doing it that way… Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way.”
There must be some kind of way outta here
Said the joker to the thief
There’s too much confusion
I can’t get no reliefBusiness men, they drink my wine
Plowmen dig my earth
None will level on the line
Nobody offered his wordHey, heyNo reason to get excited
The thief, he kindly spoke
There are many here among us
Who feel that life is but a joke
But, uh, but you and I, we’ve been through that
And this is not our fate
So let us stop talkin’ falsely now
The hour’s getting late, heyHeyAll along the watchtower
Princes kept the view
While all the women came and went
Barefoot servants, too
Well, uh, outside in the cold distance
A wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching
And the wind began to howl, hey
Born to Be Wild – Steppenwolf (1968)
Born to Be Wild is a song written by Mars Bonfire and first performed by the band Steppenwolf. The song is often invoked in both popular and counter culture to denote a biker appearance or attitude. It is most notably featured in the 1969 film Easy Rider. It is sometimes described as the first heavy metal song, and the second verse lyric “heavy metal thunder” marks the first use of this term in rock music.
Get your motor runnin’
Head out on the highway
Lookin’ for adventure
And whatever comes our way
Yeah Darlin’ go make it happen
Take the world in a love embrace
Fire all of your guns at once
And explode into space
Fortunate Son – Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)
An anthem of the anti-war, counter-culture movement which takes clear shots at social elites who support the war with their mouths but refuse to pay the costs of it themselves. Fortunate Son is sung from the perspective of someone who isn’t a fortunate son.
The opening of the song is very iconic and when I hear it my mind immediately turns to Vietnam. Maybe that is because of all the times it has appeared in movies on the subject but it simply transports me to 1969.
Some folks are born made to wave the flag
Ooh, they’re red, white and blue
And when the band plays “Hail to the chief”
Ooh, they point the cannon at you, Lord
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son, son
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one, noSome folks are born silver spoon in hand
Lord, don’t they help themselves, oh
But when the taxman comes to the door
Lord, the house looks like a rummage sale, yesIt ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no millionaire’s son, no
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one, no
Gimme Shelter – The Rolling Stones (1969)
Gimme Shelter has become one of my favorite songs from The Rolling Stones. And you know they have so many good ones. That opening riff is just otherworldly and gives me a soothing feeling, which is pretty thematic as the song is about shelter. The song was written about the violence of the Vietnam War, with the title referring to everyone wanting shelter from all of the terrible stuff going on in the world at the time.
Oh, a storm is threat’ning my very life today
If I don’t get some shelter oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away
War, children, it’s just a shot away. It’s just a shot away
War, children, it’s just a shot away. It’s just a shot away
I hope that you had a good time walking down memory lane with this post. Music is such a powerful thing and I love the time I get to spend by myself listening and feeling what the song is trying to convey. Remember, if there was a song that you love from the years of 1964-1969 please share with me. It is probably already on my playlist but I want to hear.
Next up in Part 2 of this post, we will cover songs from 1970-1975.