The songs “Fortunate Son”, “Purple Haze” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane” were all written and released during the Vietnam War.
They’re also all songs that have a much different meaning to veterans of the war compared to those that weren’t.
It’s a topic UW Professor Emeritus Craig Werner became interested in after growing up in a military town during the Vietnam War.
He and his rock band would play for the soldiers around Colorado Spring and Fort Carson.
“The songs a different response from the troops than it did for like if were playing for a fraternity up at Colorado University or something like that,” said Werner.
It wouldn’t be until years later when he was teaching at UW Madison that he would be able to put that response into words.
Werner and Doug Bradley, who would eventually co-author ‘We Gotta Get Out of this Place’ with him, got talking to people about music at a Christmas party at a vet center.
“A whole group of vets who were gathered around us talking about music and Vietnam. It became clear to us that they were willing to talk about Vietnam via the music that they never would have if you would have asked them directly,” Werner said.
Werner and Bradley found songs like “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and “My Girl” evoked an emotional response in veterans that had left behind a wife or girlfriend.
Songs like “Purple Haze” took on a different meaning. Many people associate it with getting high. Soldiers would often associate it with the purple smoke bombs used at landing zones.
“A Line like, ‘Excuse me while I kiss the sky’ From “Purple Haze” meant something very different if you were jumping out of airplanes than if you were lying on a hill on acid,” explained Werner.
Through all the research and interviews with veterans, Werner has found that the Vietnam experience was never one size fits all for people. It’s something he’s emphasized in the courses he taught and at various speaking event.
“We called it the three W’s. You need to know when somebody was there, where they were, and what they did. There’s no such thing as the Vietnam experience,” said Werner.
You can learn more about Vietnam War music and its impact at this week’s Science on Tap Minocqua series held via zoom.
It’s starts at 6:30 p.m. You can find a link to the on the Science on Tap website.