Veterans Reflect on Music's Power During Vietnam War

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The history of the Vietnam War has been told many times in hundreds of books, movies, and in a new documentary, currently airing on WVIZ/ PBS.  But, for many Americans, the story of the war is also told through the popular music it inspired.  

When you ask Northeast Ohio veteran Gary Hall about the music that he associates with the Vietnam War he recalls scenes from a field hospital where the wounded came to be patched up and sent back out into battle.  The stricken faces of young men looking for solace so far from home.

"As far as lyrics go, my strongest memory was the Animal's 'We’ve gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing that we ever do." Hall recalls.  

Although that pop hit was really about young people trapped in an English urban slum, "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" became a theme song for many who served in Vietnam.  The first song to explicitly support the growing military effort in Vietnam was co-written by an Army officer.  Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler was a member of the Army’s elite Special Forces unit, identified by their green berets.  He later re-recorded a commercial version of the song, which was an instant hit in 1966.

Vietnam veteran Art McCoy says he was impressed when he first heard the song.

"We always admired those guys, because they went way up in the hills and the valleys and did a hell of some stuff," McCoy said.   

But, when McKoy got back home to Northeast Ohio, another Vietnam song caught his ear.  It was by a Cleveland singer named Charles Hatcher who, under the stage name of Edwin Starr, scored a major Motown hit with an incendiary tune, simply called "War."  McKoy says the song had a special meaning for black vets, like himself.

"The fact of the matter is --- we went with nothing, we lost our lives, and we came back, we really had nothing.  If you ask me, that was one of the great battle cries.  I think it’s relevant right today."

Another signature song of the era is a darkly humorous ditty by Navy veteran County Joe McDonald about soldiers marching off to war --- never to return.  It was called “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die-Rag.”  It’s the song that made the Berkeley, California resident nationally famous, and he has since worked to publicize the plight of soldiers and sailors who are sent to war and left to suffer the consequences of that experience once they return home.  In a 1996 talk at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the singer expressed conflicted feelings about the legacy of his signature song.

"When I sing 'Fixin’ to Die Rag' for Vietnam veterans, I know what they’re feeling and they’re thinking," he said.  "But, when I sing it for a regular audience, I don’t know what the hell they’re thinking."

Gary Hall worked in the 17th Field Hospital in the city of An Khe, in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.  He says the beauty of the country was in stark contrast to the endless stream of the wounded and the dead that he saw every day.  For Hall and many veterans who survived the horror of that conflict 40 years ago, it was music that took them away - at least temporarily - to a slightly more optimistic place.

In An Khe, the popular song was “Love One Another" by the Youngbloods. 

"Come on people now, smile on each other, everybody get together, gonna and love one another, right now.'  That’s the one I remember really strongly," he said.

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