"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
"WALKING IN CHARLIE'S LAND"
SONGS BY AMERICANS IN THE VIETNAM WAR
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
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
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
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
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.