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"Walking in Charlie's Land:" Songs by Americans in the Vietnam War

Lydia Fish, Director
Vietnam Veterans Oral History and Folklore Project
Department of Anthropology
Buffalo State College
1300 Elmwood Avenue
Buffalo NY 14222
Office: (716) 878 6110
FAX: (716) 878 4009

18 March, 1991
Fan blades/helicopter blades rotating slowly above a troubled dreamer, Jim Morrison's voice singing "The End"...

Young soldiers, on their way to Vietnam in the summer of Woodstock, marching on board their plane at Ft. Dix singing "Fixing To Die"...

Correspondent Michael Herr catching helicopter rides out to the firebases, "cassette rock and roll in one ear and door- gun fire in the other," or crouched under fire in a rice paddy while Jimi Hendrix' music blares from the recorder held by the soldier next to him...

Grunts linking arms in a beery E.M. club and screaming out the lyrics to the Animals' "We Gotta Get Out of This Place"...

The rock and roll war...

To most of us, the Vietnam War has a rock and roll soundtrack. All the songs of the sixties were part of life in the combat zone; troops listened to music in the bush and in the bunkers. They had their own top forty, of songs about going home, like "Five Hundred Miles," or "Leaving on a Jet Plane," or of darker or more cynical album cuts which reflected their experiences: "Run Through the Jungle," "Bad Moon," "Paint it Black," or "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." References to popular music are an integral part of the language of the war: "Puff the Magic Dragon" or "Spooky" meant a cargo plane outfitted with machine guns, "rock and roll" fire from an M-16 on full automatic. But there were other songs in Vietnam, too--the songs made by the American men and women, civilians and military, who served there, for themselves.
Some of these were part of the traditional occupational folklore of the military. Many of the Vietnam War fighter pilots' songs were sung in the two World Wars and the Korean War; the grunts complained about the brass in the rear in a song made by British troops World War I. Other songs grew directly out of the Vietnam experience: songs about flying at night along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, defoliating triple-canopy jungle, engaging in firefights with an unseen enemy, or counting the days left in a 365-day tour. In some cases both the words and music were original, usually new lyrics were set to folk, country or popular tunes. Barry Sadler's "Ballad of the Green Berets" alone spawned dozens of parodies.
These songs served as a strategy for survival, as a means of unit bonding and definition, as entertainment, and as a way of expressing emotion. All of the traditional themes of military folksong can be found in these songs: praise of the great leader, celebration of heroic deeds, laments for the death of comrades, disparagement of other units, and complaints about incompetent officers and vainglorious rear-echelon personnel. Like soldiers and sailors from time immemorial they sang of epic drinking bouts and encounters with exotic young women. Songs provided a means for the expression of protest, fear and frustration, of grief and of longing for home. Some of the songs show empathy with the enemy; Chip Dockery, who served with the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Udorn, wrote a superb series of songs from the point of the North Vietnamese truck drivers on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Others display a kind of black humor mixed with violence: "Strafe the Town and Kill the People," "As We Came Around and Tried To Get Some More," and "Napalm Sticks to Kids."
Civilians serving with agencies such as AID, CORDS, OCO, JUSPAO, the State Department and the CIA had their own songs. They griped about the unpunctuality of Air America flights ("Damn Air America, You're Always Late") and the futility of pacification efforts ("We Have Pacified This Land One Hundred Times") and made cynical political comments ("I Feel Like a Coup is Coming On"). Jim Bullington, who was working for AID in Quang Tri in 1968, wrote "Yes, We Are Winning" while he was in hiding in Hue during the Tet Offensive of that year. In Dong Tam Emily Strange, (Red Cross), with her friend Barbara Hagar (USO), wrote "Incoming," complaining about having to go the bunkers every night, and sang it for enthusiastic grunts on the firebases.
All the streams of American musical tradition meet in the songs of the Vietnam War. The influence of the folksong revival was strong, especially in the early or advisor period of the war. Many of the soldiers, especially the young officers who had been exposed to the revival in college, were already experienced musicians when they arrived in Vietnam. A few brought instruments with them, others ordered them from the United States or purchased Japanese guitars from the PX or on the local economy. Many of them sang together in Kingston-Trio-style trios or quartets: the Merrymen, the Blue Stars, the Intruders, the Four Blades. Country music groups were also formed in Vietnam and many songs are based on country favorites: "I Fly the Line," "Short Fat Sky," and "Ghost Advisors." One of the great song writers of the war, Dick Jonas, wrote almost entirely in this tradition. Later in the war, many of the young soldiers had played in rock bands before being drafted and this, too, is reflected in the music. Some of the songs of the anti-war movement at home were also sung in Vietnam; one night at Khe Sanh Michael Herr saw a group of grunts sitting in a circle with a guitar singing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" (1977:148).
Joseph Treaster, a member of The New York Times Saigon bureau, wrote in 1966:

Almost every club has a resident musician, usually a guitar player, whom the men crowd around, singing songs about their lives in a strange country and the war they are fighting. The songs are laced with cynicism and political innuendoes and they echo the frustrations of the "dirty little war" which has become a dirty big one. Above all, the songs reflect the wartime Yank's ability to laugh at himself in a difficult situation. The songs grow fast as first one man, then another, throws in a line while the guitar player searches for chords. The tunes are usually old favorites.

They sang in bars, hooches, and officers' clubs, in bunkers and on shipboard, in formal concerts and musical competitions and at impromptu parties. The same technology which made it possible for the troops to listen to rock music "from the Delta to the DMZ" provided ideal conditions for the transmission of folklore. The widespread availability of inexpensive portable tape recorders meant that concerts, music nights at the mess, or informal bar performances could be recorded, copied and passed along to friends. Toby Hughes writes,

Just before leaving Southeast Asia and as a favor to some friends I recorded (three songs) on tape, leaving them with instructions not to let the tape be copied, as I planned to include the songs in a book. One has to understand fighter pilots and their love of fighter pilot songs to know that I was neither surprised nor upset to find that copies of the tape were all over Southeast Asia within thirty days. One copy actually beat me back to the States and I was subjected to the strange sensation of hearing my own voice, recorded half-way around the world, singing the songs over the speakers in the casual bar just after arriving at my stateside assignment. Some of this music even had official sponsorship. Especially talented performers and groups were often picked to represent their units at commanders' conferences or to entertain visiting dignitaries. In 1965 Hershel Gober formed a band called the Black Patches and was sent on tour to sing for the troops, including a "command performance" for General Westmoreland. Later in the war Bill Ellis, who wrote songs about the First Cavalry Division, was taken out of combat and sent around to sing for men on the remote firebases, where USO performers couldn't go.
The songs made by American men and women who served in Vietnam vary as widely in theme as in circumstances of performance, from anti-war to intensely patriotic, from laments for dead friends to ribald descriptions of encounters with pretty girls on Tu Do Street. What they have in common is that they helped those who sang them and those who listened to survive. For this reason they are an integral part of the history of the Vietnam War.
Less than sixteen years after the last helicopter lifted off the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon, American troops were again in combat. Again, they took their music with them--they carried Walkman recorders and radios and asked friends to send tapes. Interestingly enough, it was the recordings of sixties music which they especially prized--somehow Jimi Hendrix "sounded right for a war." And, again, they made their own music. Television news showed us soldiers singing rap songs in praise of their units, humorous songs in Spanish about Saddam Hussein, reggae, gospel songs, and blues. One impromptu desert concert featured a young tenor singing "Danny Boy"--a song that has been sung by soldiers far away from their homes for a hundred years. Greg Wilson, a superb singer who flew as a forward air controller in the secret war in Laos, took his Vietnam War songs to Saudi Arabia where he flew a A-10 in Operation Desert Storm. In the midst of high-tech weapons and satellite communications, an ancient military tradition has been handed on and renewed.


The Vietnam Veterans Oral History and Folklore Project is engaged in an ongoing undertaking to collect, preserve and make more widely known the folksongs of the Vietnam War. We ask veterans to share with the Project songs from their own experience: songs which they sang or collected in the form of manuscript, books, records or tapes. If you do not have facilities for copying open reel tapes and are willing to send us the original tapes, we will have copies made and return your originals safely along with studio-quality cassette copies. Material deposited in the Project's archives is always available for use by scholars and veterans.