We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War is a new book by veteran Doug Bradley and Craig Werner, professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, about soldiers' musical memories and the impact of James Brown, Eric Burdon, Country Joe McDonald, and other popular artists on the Vietnam experience and our understanding of it.
At KQED's Next Avenue, Bradley shared the "Top 10 Songs of Vietnam" mentioned by the hundreds soldiers they interviewed for the book. Here are the top three with Bradley's comments on them:
1. We Gotta Get Out of This Place by The Animals
No one saw this coming. Not the writers of the song — the dynamic Brill Building duo of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil; not the group who recorded it — The Animals and their iconic lead singer, Eric Burdon; not the 3 million soldiers who fought in Vietnam who placed extra importance on the lyrics. But the fact is that We Gotta Get Out of This Place is regarded by most Vietnam vets as our We Shall Overcome, says Bobbie Keith, an Armed Forces Radio DJ in Vietnam from 1967-69. Or as Leroy Tecube, an Apache infantryman stationed south of Chu Lai in 1968, recalls: "When the chorus began, singing ability didn't matter; drunk or sober, everyone joined in as loud as he could." No wonder it became the title of our book!
2. I Feel Like I'm Fixin to Die Rag by Country Joe & The Fish
Misunderstood and misinterpreted by most Americans, Country Joe's iconic song became a flashpoint for disagreements about the war and its politics. But Country Joe, himself a Navy veteran — who when we first met him told us "I'm a veteran first and hippie second" — intended this "not as a pacifist song, but as a soldier's song." "It's military humor that only a soldier could get away with," he added. "It comes out of a tradition of GI humor in which people can bitch in a way that will not get them in trouble but keeps them from insanity." And the soldiers got it! As Michael Rodriguez, an infantryman with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, affirmed: "Bitter, sarcastic, angry at a government some of us felt we didn't understand, Rag became the battle standard for grunts in the bush."
3. Leaving on a Jet Plane by Peter, Paul and Mary
When we played this song at LZ Lambeau, a welcome home event for Vietnam vets and their families held at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., in 2010, we were overwhelmed by the response it received, especially by spouses of Vietnam vets. They sang along with tears in their eyes, because they were the ones saying goodbye to the men who were boarding the planes for Vietnam. And it got to soldiers/vets, too. As Jason Sherman, an AFVN DJ during part of his tour in Vietnam, recalled: "Leaving on a Jet Plane brought tears to my eyes."
We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War (Amazon, thanks Bob Pescovitz!)
"Top 10 Songs of Vietnam" (KQED)