Vietnam War music book strikes a chord

The 'Best Music Book of 2015' reveals the powerful role music plays among veterans.

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We’ve all seen the movie scenes — soldiers running through the jungle or helicopters descending while a blasting rock song defines the time and place distinctly as the Vietnam War.

And while Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jimi Hendrix and other icons of the 1960s certainly were significant, their songs aren’t the only ones that have left deep impressions on the men and women who fought in the war.

Craig Werner and Doug Bradley, authors of We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War, maintain that the songs that most evoke the war are less political and more personal, such as “My Girl, or “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” “Anything about going home,” Werner says.

Werner, a professor and chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies, and Bradley, a Vietnam veteran and communications professional, have co-taught a course at UW-Madison called The Vietnam Era: Music, Media and Mayhem for several years.

The two joined forces for the book, interviewing roughly 300 veterans about their experiences in Vietnam, specifically the music that accompanied them. They quickly dismissed the idea of compiling a “top 20” list of songs, and instead created a multifaceted exploration of how soldiers used music during the war, with about 30 veterans also contributing first-person reflections.

“Our goal was to get ourselves out of the way and let the vets carry it,” says Werner.

Rolling Stone called We Gotta Get Out of This Place the best music book of 2015, but what’s even more meaningful to the authors is the impact the topic has had with veterans. In presentations at UW-Madison, colleges around the country and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, among other venues, they’ve played music, shared thoughts and started conversations.

“Music unlocked memories for a lot of vets who hadn’t talked about it,” Werner says.

It helps, of course, that the music of the Vietnam era is just so good. “I think that was the best music that ever existed,” Werner says. “The lines between music forms were much more permeable.” Rock, soul, country — the genres influenced one another.

And audiences listened collectively. “Music was a bigger deal back then,” Werner says. “Music was public then.” Today, soldiers often wear headphones and listen to songs they’ve chosen for their iTunes account. “In Vietnam, it was a much more shared experience,” he says.

What hasn’t changed, Werner says, is the power music holds to evoke memories, and also to heal. “Music isn’t entertainment,” he says. “It’s a way of tapping into the deepest parts of our humanity.” 

An Excerpt from We Gotta Get Out of This Place

For the marines at Khe Sanh and the more than three million other men and women who served in Vietnam, music provided release from the uncertainty, isolation, and sometimes stark terror that reached from the front lines to the relatively secure rear areas known as the air-conditioned jungle. But the sounds offered more than simple escape. Music was a lifeline connecting soldiers to their homes, families, and parts of themselves they felt slipping away. It was the glue that bound the communities they formed in their hooches, base camps, and lonely outposts from the Mekong Delta to the ravines of the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Both in-country and “back in the world,” as the troops called the United States, music helped them make sense of situations in which, as Bob Dylan put in a song that meant something far more poignant and haunting in Vietnam than it did back in the world, they felt like they were on their own with no direction home. For the fortunate ones who did get back home, music echoed through the secret places where they stored memories and stories they didn’t share with their wives, husbands, or children for decades. Music was the key to survival and a path to healing, the center of a human story that’s too often been lost in the haze of politics and myth that surrounds Vietnam.

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