Songs of Americans
in the Vietnam War
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 & roll war . . .
To most of us, the Vietnam War has a rock and roll soundtrack. Almost every novel, memoir or oral history of the war by a veteran mentions the music that the author listened to in country. 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 (Perry 1968). Sony radios, Akai stereos and Teac tape decks were easily available, American music was performed live by the ubiquitous Filipino rock bands, AFVN Radio broadcast round the clock, and new troops arrived weekly with the latest records from the states. GI-operated underground radio stations, playing mostly hard acid rock, were part of the in-country counterculture of the war. Even the enemy contributed to the sound of American music on the airwaves; Radio Hanoi played rock and soul music, while a series of soft-voiced, Oxford-accented women announcers known collectively to the troops as Hanoi Hannah competed with AFVN disk jockey Chris Noel for the hearts and minds of the American soldiers. The troops 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 310 kb .wav — 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. The pilots who flew off the carriers and out of Thailand sang songs that were sung by the men who flew in the two World Wars and the Korean War: “Give Me Operations,” “Save A Fighter Pilot’s Ass,” “There Are No Fighter Pilots Down in Hell.” Captain Kris Kristofferson rewrote one of the most popular of all Korean War songs, “Itazuke Tower” in Germany and his helicopter pilot buddies carried it to Vietnam where it was sung as “Phan Rang Tower” and reworked again by Phantom Jock Dick Jonas as “Ubon Tower.” They learned RAF songs like “Stand to Your Glasses” and British Army songs like “I Don’t Want to Join the Army” from the Australians who served in Vietnam.
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 the spring of 1970 the men of the second battalion of the 502nd brigade of the 101st Airborne Division created one of the most powerful songs of the war, “The Boonie Rat Song”, 303 kb .wav and appointed a keeper of the company song (Del Vecchio 1983: i, 100-101; Rosenberg 1988). 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 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, including “Sitting in the cab of my truck” , 281 kb .wav. Others display a kind of black humor mixed with violence, in which, in the words of Les Cleveland, the thing most abhorred is embraced with a kind of lunatic enthusiasm: “Strafe the Town and Kill the People,” “As We Came Around and Tried To Get Some More,” and “Napalm Sticks to Kids” (1988).
Civilians serving with civilian agencies such as AID (Agency for International Development), CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support), the State Department, and the CIA had their own songs. 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 (Bullington 1985). 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 (Strange 1988). Employees of OCO (Office of Civil Operations) and JUSPAO (Joint United States Public Affairs Office) contributed “Where Have All the Field Reps Gone” and “God Smite Thee, Barry Zorthian.” 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”). The Cosmos Tabernacle Choir was composed of CIA personnel who used to meet in the Cosmos Bar near the American Embassy. Their songs tended to be both cynical and humorous: “Counting Geckos on the Wall,” “Deck the Halls with Victor Charlie” and “I Feel Like a Coup is Coming On.” The group even had a Cosmos Command patch made, showing crossed Bau Muoi Ba bottles over an explosion, which can still be seen on the walls of bars in McLean and Langley (Allen 1988).
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 (Lem Genovese remembers buying a mail-order autoharp from Sears Roebuck) 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 High Priced Help, 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, 303 kb .wav, 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 (1966:104).
Photographs in the National Archives and paintings in the Army and Marine art collections show soldiers playing guitars in bars, in bunkers or while sitting in the sun at base camp. One Navy photograph shows a group called the Westwinds playing for wounded Marines aboard the assault landing ship Iwo Jima. Three members of the Merrymen met and first played together on a troopship bound for Vietnam. Joseph Tuso gives a vivid description of formal parties at an Air Force Officers’ Club in Thailand; solitary singers or groups provided entertainment during the meal and broadsides were sometimes distributed so everyone could join in (1971:1-2). In my own collection I have tapes of performances at farewell parties and concerts, in officers’ clubs and bars, hootches and bunkers.
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 (1989).
Some especially popular groups made tapes for their fans and several singers had records cut. We know that these songs were occasionally played on AFVN Radio and they were probably also played on the “bullshit net” which the troops operated illegally on field radios. The extremely high rate of troop mobility meant that these songs spread rapidly.
Some of this music even had official sponsorship. In the early 1960s the USIS (United States Information Service) sponsored tours of Vietnam by American folk groups, although these mostly played for Vietnamese villagers rather than American troops. 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 by Special Services 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, 299 kb .wav, was taken out of combat and sent around to sing for men on the remote firebases, where USO performers couldn’t go. He also cut a record, a copy of which was given to each member of the division on his return to the United States. A few of these performers were filmed or recorded for radio or television release over the Armed Forces Network or in the United States.
The most important collection of the folksongs of the Vietnam War was made by U.S. Air Force Major General Edward Lansdale. The collection is in two parts, the first made during the period 1965-1967, while Lansdale was serving as head of the Senior Liaison Office of the U.S. Mission in Saigon. The songs were recorded at Lansdale’s house by singer, composer and musician friends, both American and Vietnamese: Saigon government officials, soldiers serving as advisors to the Vietnamese, and civilians employed by USAID, the Foreign Service, CORDS, and the CIA.
In 1976 Lansdale put together a tape of 51 of these songs, with a narration explaining the circumstances of their composition and performance, and sent copies to Lyndon Johnson and members of his cabinet and to several officials in Saigon, including Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and General Westmoreland, in an effort “to impart a greater understanding of the political and psychological nature of the war to those making decisions.” This is perhaps the only example known to military history of folklore being used as a device for the transmission of intelligence. He deposited a copy of this first collection, “In the Midst of War,” in the Music Division of the Library of Congress in 1975.
Lansdale returned to the United States in 1968, but friends and comrades continued to send him recordings from Vietnam and Thailand, and to drop by his house in Virginia to sing new songs they had written or collected. In 1977 he deposited a superb second collection of 160 songs, “Songs by Americans in the Vietnam War,” in the Music Division of the Library of Congress. Both these collections were edited and provided with excellent notes by Lansdale. It is to him, as well as to collectors like Colonel C. W. Getz, Colonel Gene Deatrick, Colonel Martin (Marty) Heuer, Colonel Joseph Tuso, and Colonel James Patterson (Bull) Durham , that we owe most of our knowledge of the folksongs of the Vietnam War.
These songs can give the historian a unique perspective on the war. “The Battle of Long Khanh,” sung by the men of the 6th Royal Australian Regiment, “The Battle for the Ia Drang Valley,” written by James Multon of the First Cavalry, or “The Ballad of Ap Bac,” which was sung in the clubs at Soc Trang and Tan Son Nhut and which Captain Richard Ziegler included in his detailed notes on the battle, contain information which is never found in the official after-action reports. As Neil Sheehan has argued, ballads of battles composed by the men who fight them often suffer from factual inaccuracies because of the confusion of war, but the inaccuracies do not detract from the truth (Sheehan 1988:305-307). 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.
The singers and song writers of the Vietnam War have continued to perform in venues ranging from informal song sessions at reunions to formal concerts and broadcasts. Many, including Toby Hughes, Dick Jonas and Jonathan Myer, have continued to write about their experiences. Some have issued commercial recordings of the songs they wrote and collected in Southeast Asia.
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 an 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.
Allen, George. 1988. Interview by author, 13 July.
Bullington, James. 1985. Interview by Steve Brown and Cynthia Johnston, 17 September.
Les Cleveland. 1988. “Voices From the Frontlines: Soldiers’ Songs As Occupational Folklore.” Lecture at the National Museum of American History, 7 June.
Del Vecchio, John. 1983. The Thirteenth Valley. New York: Bantam Books.
Herr, Michael. 1977. Dispatches. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Hughes, Toby. 1989. “What The Captain Means: A Song of the In-Country Air War.” Manuscript.
Perry, Charles. 1968. “Is This Any Way To Run the Army? Stoned?” Rolling Stone, November 9, 1968:1,6,8,9.
Rosenberg, Chuck. 1988. “Jody’s Got Your Cadillac,” concert of folksongs of the Vietnam War, Albany, NY, 28 May 1988.
Sheehan, Neil. 1988. A Bright Shining Lie. New York: Random House.
Strange, Emily. 1988. Letter to author, 21 August 1988.
Treaster, Joseph B. 1966. “G.I. View of Vietnam.” New York Times Magazine, October 30, 1966:100, 102, 104, 106, 109.
Tuso, Joseph F. 1989. Singing the Vietnam Blues: Folksongs of the American Fighter Pilot in Southeast Asia. College Station: Texas A and M Press, 1990.
The song clips on this page are taken from In Country: Folk Songs of Americans in the Vietnam War, Flying Fish Records Inc. (FF 70552), 1991. The songs mentioned in the text are from my own collection or from the Lansdale tapes in the Library of Congress. The photographs are from the Air Force, Army, Marine and Navy photograph collections in the National Archives and from the archives of the Vietnam Veterans Oral History and Folklore Project.
For information about radio in Vietnam I am indebted to Roger Steffens, Adrian Cronauer, Larry Suid and Alexis Muellner. Dick Jonas, Lem Genovese, Emily Strange, Joseph Tuso, Bull Durham, Marty Heuer, Hershel Gober, Mike Staggs, Saul Broudy, Toby Hughes, Chip Dockery, Bill Ellis and General Tom Bowen told me about making and performing songs in Vietnam. Bill Getz, Les Cleveland, and Frank Smith have been unfailingly helpful, in supplying material from their own Vietnam collections and comparative texts from other wars. John Clark Pratt, Mark Berent, Ray McCleery, Chad Swedberg, Jim Gunter, Al Salzman, Craig Morrison, Dick Koeteeuw, Don Schmenk, Bill Geloneck and Tuck Boys found superb in-country tapes for me. Cynthia Johnston and Steve Brown graciously made copies of their own interview tapes for me and introduced me to singers and to members of Lansdale’s Saigon SLO team. Baird Straughan, of Radio Smithsonian, also gave me copies of his interviews with singers. Chuck Rosenberg tracked down songs and references and patiently translated military terms. Cecil Currey, Lansdale’s biographer, has been extraordinarily generous in giving me access to the material he has amassed. Marylou Gjernes, Army Art Curator of the US Army Center of Military History found three wonderful paintings of soldiers making music in Vietnam and made my visit to the Army Art Collection delightful. Les Waffen and David James have shared their vast knowledge of the popular music of the Vietnam War. Elena Danielson, associate Archivist at the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford University, treated me like visiting royalty and guided me through the intricacies of the Lansdale manuscript and tape collections there. Pat Lansdale gave me the tapes which were still in her husband’s possession at the time of his death and has been a gracious hostess on my trips to Washington. Joseph Baker, George Allen, Bernard Yoh, General Sam Wilson, Lucien Conein, Dolf Droge, James Bullington, and Dr. Joseph Johnston shared their memories of Lansdale in Saigon and Washington, parties at his villa at 194 Cong Ly, and singing at the Cosmos Bar. Joseph Baker also gave me his tapes of Lansdale’s Saigon parties and of the two edited collections, which have been invaluable. The Ravens have welcomed me to their reunions and have let me hear these songs as a living tradition. To all of these people, and to Michael Licht, who first brought the Lansdale tapes to my attention, I am deeply grateful.
The logo of the Vietnam Veterans Oral History and Folklore Project is based on a drawing by Sara Fish Brown and is used by permission of the artist.
The sketch on the home page is from the Marine Art Collection.
The songs on this site are from In Country: Folk Songs of Americans in the Vietnam War and are used by permission of Rounder Records.
© 1993 by Lydia Fish
Page updated 6 June, 2002