‘We Gotta Get Out of this Place:’ Music, memory and the Vietnam War

Feb. 16, 2006

by Brian Mattmiller

Virtually anyone who grew up in the rock music era can point to a time, place or poignant memory that is seamlessly tethered to a song. For Vietnam War veterans, the backdrop of the war made that connection all the more powerful and emotional.

Two UW authors are mining this deep connection in interviews with hundreds of Vietnam veterans around the country. The final product will be a book that weaves together personal stories about how music resonated with veterans, and also explores the unique history of individual songs and the artists and musicians who created them.

But the very act of talking about the subject is proving to be "cathartic" for many.

"What is constantly so astounding is how (discussing music) makes it so much easier for vets to talk about what it was like there, how they felt and how they are feeling now," says Doug Bradley, a Vietnam War veteran and director of communications for the UW System. "Thousands of vets have still locked it down, have never talked about their experience. This has facilitated a discussion with some people who have never opened up before."

Craig Werner, chair of the Afro-American studies department and co-author of the book, says that power of song for veterans can fill the void where words simply fail.

"When we get into spoken language and words to describe an experience, we're stuck - like it or not - using the terms that politicians use," says Werner. "When we pulse vets on this topic, we get a clear sense of how inadequate our public language is top describe the war."

Adds Werner: "I think music is where memory lives."

Werner is a rock music historian who specializes in Motown, rhythm and blues and other musical movements rooted in the sixties. He also grew up in a military town in Colorado and played in a rock band that frequently visited the base - "as close to a front-row seat as someone outside the military could have."

Bradley and Werner got the idea when they met two years ago at a Vet Center gathering in Madison, and it quickly fell into place. They recognized that, unlike the highly diversified genre market that exists today, music back then was a "shared canon," and that certain songs are referenced repeatedly as important. "Back then, we all had the same Top 20," says Bradley.

That being said, they also are finding that the songs that mattered most to veterans diverge a great deal from the cliched artifact of that era, the "protest song." That was kind of a Hollywood illusion, Werner says.

"As compared to kind of the standard-issue, sixties nostalgic movie soundtrack - the demonstrations and all that - I think that on the home front, people tended to be more idealogical and expressly political, in the capital P sense of the word," says Werner. "But most of what we are getting are personal stories. They're political on a certain level, but it's not about politics."

Some of the best anecdotes are about songs rooted to place, Werner says. One veteran talked about how his experience on Vietnam's China Beach is always evoked by Otis Redding's "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay," and its desperate and defiant lyrics.

Another describes his experience as a "tunnel rat," whose job was to crawl through tunnels by first dropping smoke grenades to find the exits. The song? "Purple Haze," by Jimi Hendrix, a song the veteran played that matched the grim task.

One clear theme is that the songs that resonate with vets aren't necessarily songs about the war at all - but about songs that evoke a feeling or paint a picture. If the authors were asked to create a short list of the music that mattered most, here would be some of the essentials:

  • "We've Gotta Get Out of this Place," by the Animals. "We had absolute unanimity is this song being the touchstone," says Bradley. "This was the Vietnam anthem. Every bad band that ever played in an armed forces club had to play this song."
  • "Chain of Fools," by Aretha Franklin. This song derived many layers of meaning for vets and frequently represented the growing disenfranchisement between the "grunts" and the chain of command. The song resonated strongly with African-American vets.
  • "Fortunate Son," by Creedence Clearwater Revival. The piercing lyrics about sacrifice ("And when you ask 'em, 'How much should we give?'/They only answer more more more") made the song all the more powerful. Werner says that a lot of CCR comes up in interviews, with "Who'll Stop the Rain" and "Run Through the Jungle" also high on the list.
  • "Fightin' Side of Me," by Merle Haggard. Werner described this not so much as a pro-war song, but an "anti- anti-war song," and it was one of many popular songs from country music artists.
  • "These Boots are Made for Walkin'," by Nancy Sinatra. "It's amazing how many vets out there are in that Nancy Sinatra army of supporters," Bradley says.
  • "What's Goin' On," by Marvin Gaye. "The whole tapestry it weaves" has a special meaning to vets, says Werner, especially since a good portion of the song is about Gaye's brother's experience in Vietnam.