I just finished reading Michael Herr’s Dispatches, his book about the year or so he spent in Vietnam during the war as a correspondent for Esquire. I read the book at least once per year, often twice. To me, it’s the best book ever written, about war or anything else (although if you haven’t read Jack Murphy’s Murphy’s Law, I highly encourage you to do so).
I often try to match Herr’s style of writing, and almost always fail. It’s un-copyable, although this book served as an inspiration for filmmakers Francis Ford Coppola and Stanley Kubrick.
Herr discusses several aspects of his time in Vietnam. He describes combat, the weather, the people he met, the food he ate and the drugs he smoked. He also mentions several times the music and songs that served as the soundtrack to different battles. The Animals, The Mothers of Invention, and Jimi Hendrix all played as central of a role in Herr’s experience as the Vietcong did.
I thought it would be interesting to see which songs were the most popular every year the U.S. troops fought in Vietnam. Although our military personnel had a role in the country before 1961, I’m starting the list there for brevity. As for what constitutes “the most popular song,” I decided to use Billboard Magazine’s Year-End Hot 100 singles for each year. There are probably other metrics and lists, and if you don’t agree with my list, please tell me in the comments!
Artist: Bobby Lewis
Song: “Tossin’ and Turnin'”
Artist: Acker Bilk
Song: “Stranger on the Shore”
Artist: The Beach Boys
Song: “Surfin’ U.S.A.”
Artist: The Beatles
Song: “I Want to Hold Your Hand”
Artist: Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs
Song: “Wooly Bully”
Artist: The Mamas & the Papas
Song: “California Dreamin'”
Song: “To Sir With Love”
Artist: The Beatles
Song: “Hey Jude”
Artist: The Archies
Song: “Sugar, Sugar”
Artist: Simon & Garfunkel
Song: “Bridge Over Troubled Water”
Artist: Three Dog Night
Song: “Joy to the World”
Artist: Roberta Flack
Song: “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”
Artist: Tony Orlando and Dawn
Song: “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree”
Artist: Barbra Streisand
Song: “The Way We Were”
Artist: Captain & Tennille
Song: “Love Will Keep Us Together”
This list hit me in the face like a ton of bricks. Almost none of the songs on it are the iconic Vietnam-era anthems I was expecting. Where’s Jimi Hendrix? Where are The Doors? Perhaps the Billboard ranking isn’t the most accurate representation of what’s popular and what’s not.
It proves, without a shadow of a doubt, that troops in Vietnam were as disconnected from their friends and family back “in the world” as the Apollo astronauts were when they landed on the moon. Although the “folks back home” were jamming out to The Beatles during the battle for Hue City in 1968, Herr said in his book the theme song for that battle was “We’ve Got to Get Out of This Place” by The Animals.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund published its own list of the most influential songs during the war, and I encourage you to check it out. Compare the two, and let it serve as a reminder that we who were not there will never know what it was really like.