45 Songs for Your Memorial Day Playlist to Honor U.S. Soldiers

Memorial Day Songs

Memorial Day is largely recognized as the first big barbecue weekend and the unofficial kickoff to summer, but there's much more to the holiday than burgers and pool parties. Memorial Day is a day to honor fallen troops and those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country and is meant to be at least in part a somber, reflective day. While it's a great day to display patriotism and rally behind our troops, it can also be an occasion in which we exercise our freedom to question the validity of our reasons for sending our military into war. Wherever you stand, add these songs to your Memorial Day playlist to pay tribute to the fallen and those who've put their lives at stake for our freedom.

Memorial Day Songs

1. The Animals, "We Gotta Get Out of This Place"

The Animals' 1965 hit "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" wasn't written explicitly about the Vietnam War, but many troops who fought in the stalemate adopted it as a rallying cry for the futility of their efforts and the lack of support veterans received if they were lucky enough to return home after battle. "We had absolute unanimity is this song being the touchstone," Vietnam War veteran and University of Wisconsin Communications Systems Director Doug Bradley said in a 2006 interview. "This was the Vietnam anthem. Every bad band that ever played in an armed forces club had to play this song."

2. The Chicks, "Travelin' Soldier"

The Chicks covered the Bruce Robison classic "Travelin' Soldier" and made it their own courtesy of their signature harmonies. The heartbreaking song tells of a high school girl in love with a soldier with whom she exchanges letters. The soldier tragically doesn't come home, and as is all too common, not many even noticed except the young woman who loved him.

3. The Zombies, "Butcher's Tale (Western Front 1914)"

"Butcher's Tale (Western Front 1914)" is a rare rock song about World War I, featuring experimental instrumentation and production and the only Zombies song with lead vocals from Chris White. Written from the point of view of a soldier in the foxholes in Europe, it also serves as a thinly-veiled commentary on the Vietnam War and the very real horrors that troops in each witnessed.

4. Tim McGraw, "If You're Reading This"

Tim McGraw delivers a heartbreaking ballad with "If You're Reading This," a song written from the perspective of a soldier who didn't make it home from battle. Make sure you have tissues handy for this one!

5. Jimi Hendrix, "Machine Gun"

Regarded as one of Jimi Hendrix's greatest performances ever, the guitar god dedicated "Machine Gun" to "soldiers fighting in Berkeley—you know what soldiers I'm talking about—and oh yeah, the soldiers fighting in Vietnam too... and dedicate [it] to other people that might be fighting wars too, but within themselves, not facing up to the realities." The song is written from the point of view of a soldier who knows his opponents are also just people: "Machine gun, tearin' my body all apart / Evil man make me kill you, evil man make you kill me / Evil man make me kill you, even though we're only families apart / Well, I pick up my axe and fight like a farmer / But your bullets still knock me down to the ground."

6. Toby Keith, "American Soldier"

Toby Keith wrote "American Soldier" for his fans in the service, and the moving music video features soldiers from various wars throughout American history. While Keith himself has never enlisted, the singer said he won't stop singing about and performing for military service members and their families. "Someday the wars will be over, and we'll be in a peacetime, right? We'll be in a downtime," he told The Boot. "We'll be between wars. We're either at war or we're between wars, we're never at peace. The whole existence of mankind, we're never at peace. Next time we're between wars—and that is not an easy topic to bang on—I'll still be doing this for my troops."

7. Angels & Airwaves, "The War"

Tom DeLonge paints a vivid picture of the horrors of war in the aptly titled "The War" from his debut album with Angels & Airwaves. The song is anti-war but pro soldier, featuring explicit references to the Normandy invasion in World War II: "The ocean is on fire, the sky turned dark again as the boats came in / And the beaches, stretched out with soldiers / With their arms and guns, it has just begun."

8. Billy Joel, "Goodnight Saigon"

Billy Joel takes listeners on a journey with Marines in Vietnam with "Goodnight Saigon," beginning with training in Parris Island to the difficulties of returning home following years of guerilla warfare and trauma (and those are just the ones lucky enough to make it out). "Time has a way of healing wounds or making them easier to look at to see if they've scabbed up," Joel said of the song. "The guys came home from Vietnam and that's it? It doesn't end until these guys are absorbed into the mainstream and we deal with our feelings about it."

9. Alkaline Trio, "Over and Out"

Alkaline Trio frontman Matt Skiba explained that "Over and Out" is about four different people that he knew in his life who'd passed away, including his grandfather, who took his own life after serving in World War II, and that it was also inspired by both of his parents, each of whom served in the Vietnam War.

10. Taylor Swift, "epiphany"

Taylor Swift drew on her grandfather Dean Swift's experience in the Battle of Guadalcanal in World War II, as well as how doctors and nurses coped with the COVID-19 pandemic, for her 2020 song "epiphany." Her collaborator on the song, Aaron Dessner, explained to Vulture, "I don’t know if this is how she did it, but to me, it’s like a nurse, doctor, or medical professional, where med school doesn’t fully prepare you for seeing someone pass away or just the difficult emotional things that you’ll encounter in your job. In the past, heroes were just soldiers. Now they’re also medical professionals."

11. Hamilton Original Broadway Cast, "Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)"

The first American veterans were those who fought in the Revolutionary War. Lin Manuel Miranda and the Hamilton cast retell the story of the Battle of Yorktown, which definitively won the war for the 13 colonies and told the British to kick rocks and take their tea with them.

12. David Ball, "Riding With Private Malone"

"Riding With Private Malone" tells the story of a soldier who just completed his service finding a letter in his new Chevy from its first owner, who asked that the vehicle be sold to a new owner if he died at war. The spirit of the fallen soldier saves the driver's life, showing that heroes never really die.

13. The Doors, "The Unknown Soldier"

The Doors wrote "The Unknown Soldier" as a response to media coverage of the Vietnam War, using vivid imagery to paint the war as the devastating experience it was, not the triumphant victory lap that was sometimes portrayed on the news.

14. The Decemberists, "Dear Avery"

The Decemberists' Colin Meloy explained to Time that the heartbreaking "Dear Avery" is about young troops serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. "They're kids," he said. "If you're a parent of one of these people, you just want to grab them by the scruff of their neck and yank them out of it. When they're that far out of arm's reach, that must be devastating."

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15. George Michael, "Mother's Pride"

Every soldier and civilian casualty is someone's child. George Michael penned a moving song about the ravages of war on families, which gained popularity during the Gulf War. Sharon Stone wrote in Vogue Italia of the endurance of Michael's "Mother's Pride," "This piece is a heartbreaking song, telling the story of the relentless unending way which wars eat our children. The way men and then their children, generation after generation after generation leave and die and for what? For the pride of dying. The lament of this song is heartbreaking and real, and as with all of Michaels’ songs very real and raw and important. His voice, his lyrics are and will remain classic as they told a truth that remains in discord with the practice of those who’s wills try to press against that which is in some good hearts; heard here."

16. Carrie Underwood, "Just a Dream"

Carrie Underwood was nominated for the Best Female Vocal Performance Grammy for "Just a Dream," a heartbreaking ballad about a woman who dreams of her wedding but instead finds herself at the funeral of her lover who was killed in battle.

17. Nightmare of You, "Heaven Runs on Oil"

Showing respect for troops means assessing the reasons why we would send them to risk their lives. "Heaven Runs on Oil" is a critical look at the Iraq War and a sympathetic look at the soldiers who sacrificed their lives for it, as well as the innocent children who lost their lives for motives that may be less than pure.

18. Trace Adkins, "Arlington"

Trace Adkins croons heartfully on "Arlington," a song about visiting the cemetery where so many of our fallen soldiers and veterans are laid to rest. It's a fitting song for the somber nature of what Memorial Day really means. Songwriters Dave Turnbull and Jeremy Spillman penned the song after meeting United States Marine Corps Corporal Patrick Nixon's father. Nixon died in battle in 2003. Nixon was the first soldier from Tennessee to die in the Iraq War.

19. The Box Tops, "The Letter"

"The Letter" is a special song for troops deployed or stationed far from home: Mail call is a huge morale booster for them, and as such "The Letter" by The Box Tops resonates particularly strongly with veterans and soldiers.

20. Sammy Hagar, "Remember the Heroes"

Onetime Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar took a break from rock party anthems and got serious with "Remember the Heroes." Featured on his 1982 album Three Lock Box, Hagar's message is clear: Even if you don't like what soldiers are fighting for, you should still salute the men and women who sacrifice to fight at all, and you need to support them when they return home.

21. Aretha Franklin, "Chain of Fools"

Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools" served as an anthem for Vietnam War soldiers, especially soldiers of color, who were frustrated with their chains of command.

22. Merle Haggard, "The Fightin' Side of Me"

"The Fightin' Side of Me" was Merle Haggard's response to anti-war protest songs of the Vietnam era. Haggard, though he leaned conservatively at the time, wasn't explicitly opposed to war protests, but wanted to make it clear that being against the war shouldn't impact the love of America as a whole, nor should troops be disrespected. "Runnin' down the way of life / Our fightin' men have fought and died to keep," he sings. "If you don't love it, leave it / Let this song I'm singin' be a warnin' / If you're runnin' down my country, man / You're walkin' on the fightin' side of me."

23. Toto, "Home of the Brave"

Yes, Toto has more songs besides "Anna" and "Africa." In "Home of the Brave," the band's traditional soaring choruses echo the "Star-Spangled Banner" with an urgency: "Leave the politics behind boys, they're not working anymore / There's so much more at stake here, it's make or break here / Haven't we been here before - tell me what we're waiting for / You gotta remember, you don't have to be afraid / You still have the freedom to learn, and say what you want to say / You gotta remember, don't let 'em take away / The land we call the home of the brave."

24. Marvin Gaye, "What's Going On"

Written largely about his brother's experience and cousin's death in the Vietnam War, Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" resonates 50 years after its release, being adopted by the Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives movements. At the time of its writing, it was inspired not just by the war itself, but also by police brutality at anti-war protests.

25. Kristy Lee Cook, "Airborne Ranger Infantry"

In "Airborne Ranger Infantry," Kristy Lee Cook sings as the daughter of a soldier who admits the war within himself continued long after he retired his fatigues. She sings his harrowing recollection: "I left my best friend lying in a pool of blood / While I crawled away through the brush and mud / If I could choose to go back again / I'd die lying there next to him / I still see his face when I close my eyes / As I won't forget his sacrifice / There's a part of me that will always be/ Just a boy in a hole with an M-16 / Airborne ranger infantry."

Cook's father served in Vietnam and wrote poems about his experience and the struggles thereafter. She told The Boot, "We took lines directly from the poems and put them into the song. I wouldn't have written the song if my dad hadn't written those poems, because he doesn't really talk about much. The cool thing is that it gives perspective to someone who doesn't know what it's like to know how they feel and what they're experiencing. It was really important for us to make sure it was right, and exactly what they would say."

26. John Michael Montgomery, "Letters From Home"

"Letters From Home" details a soldier's reactions to receiving just that: letters from his loving mom, adoring girlfriend and, eventually, his stoic but proud father.

27. Jason Isbell, "Dress Blues"

"Dress Blues" is a heartwrenching story of a Marine whose life was taken too soon. Former Drive-By Truckers frontman Jason Isbell saidthat the song was inspired by the death of a real-life Marine, Cpl. Matthew D. Conley. Conley, an erstwhile high school football star who was due to get home in just weeks to be with his pregnant wife, died in Iraq in February 2006 when his Humvee hit an improvised explosive device. Isbell went to the same high school as Conley.

"I knew Matt Conley not very well, he was a few years younger. I was coming off a tour with the [Drive-By] Truckers, and I called my mom and she told me about his funeral, which she’d attended that day," he recalled. "When I got home I wrote ‘Dress Blues’ in a time it takes to write it down on a piece of paper."

28. Bruce Springsteen, "Born in the U.S.A."

A lot of listeners miss the actual meaning of "Born in the U.S.A." In Bruce Springsteen's soaring anthem, he isn't making patriotic proclamations: He's singing about Vietnam War veterans who came home from battle to find no work, little support and a lack of any American dream left. Springsteen explained at a performance in 1995, "After ['Born in the U.S.A.'] came out, I read all over the place that nobody knew what it was about. I'm sure that everybody here tonight understood it. If not—if there were any misunderstandings out there—my mother thanks you, my father thanks you and my children thank you, because I've learned that that's where the money is."

29. Everlast, "Letters from the Garden of Stone"

Everlast, most famous for "What It's Like" (and for being part of House of Pain), wrote a harrowing song about the reality of being in battle. In "Letters Home From the Garden of Stone," he sings from the point of view of a soldier: "'Cause I won't know the man that kills me / And I don't know these men I kill / I thank God for my salvation / Wash away the blood I spill / I try not to think about my family / Cause it's a little too much to take / Out here I got me and I got my buddy / We can't afford even one mistake."

30. Metallica, "For Whom the Bell Tolls"

"For Whom the Bell Tolls" is inspired by Ernest Hemingway's novel, with specific references to the Spanish Civil War. The Metallica track is a fan favorite and mirrors the particularly bloody 27th chapter of the book.

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31. The Statler Brothers, "More Than a Name on a Wall"

A mother visits the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in this heartbreaking ballad from The Statler Brothers.

32. Alice in Chains, "Rooster"

Alice in Chains guitarist and singer Jerry Cantrell's Vietnam War veteran father inspired "Rooster."

"That experience in Vietnam changed him forever, and it certainly had an effect on our family, so I guess it was a defining moment in my life, too," Cantrell said in a 2007 interview. "He didn't walk out on us. We left him. It was an environment that wasn’t good for anyone, so we took off to live with my grandmother in Washington, and that’s where I went to school. I didn't have a lot of my father around, but I started thinking about him a lot during that period [of writing the album Dirt]."

He added, "I certainly had resentments as any young person does in a situation where a parent isn't around or a family is split. But on 'Rooster,' I was trying to think about his side of it—what he might have gone through. To be honest, I didn't really sit down intending to do any of that; it just kinda came out. But that’s the great thing about music—sometimes it can reach deeper than you ever would in a conversation with anybody. It’s more of a forum to dig deeper."

33. Blink-182, "Stockholm Syndrome (Interlude)"

In one of the most experimental tracks from Blink-182 up to that point, "Stockholm Syndrome (Interlude)" features English actress Joanne Whalley narrating love letters from World War II. The letters were genuine: Frontman Mark Hoppus' grandfather wrote them during his service. His then-bandmate Tom DeLonge described the track as "real, sincere, genuine letters from the worst war in history."

34. Chely Wright, "Bumper of My SUV"

Chely Wright sings of having a Marines sticker on her bumper during a minor road rage incident, hoping that the perpetrator who flipped her the bird from her minivan considers the sacrifices the narrator's family made for freedom.

35. Billy Ray Cyrus, "Some Gave All"

Billy Ray Cyrus' is oft-eclipsed by his biggest hit, "Achy Breaky Heart," but it has significantly more heart and heartbreak conveyed in its lyrics, which honor the military, especially the fallen. Cyrus told Rolling Stone Country of the song, "I think it's the reason I bought a guitar and started a band. If I had only written and recorded that one song, I think that was and is my purpose. 'Some Gave All' has run a very special course through the line of our military."

36. Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Fortunate Son"

Creedence Clearwater Revival slams the Vietnam War, but not its fighters, in "Fortunate Son." John Fogerty, who served in the Army Reserves during the war, said the song was specifically in protest of American policy, but not of his brothers in battle. Feeling like then-President Richard Nixon turned his back on the troops and frustrated with how rich kids and children of politicians seemed to escape military service, Fogerty put pen to paper and wrote the classic tune in minutes.

37. Jo Dee Messina, "Heaven Was Needing a Hero"

Jo Dee Messina sings of a woman who loved her soldier so much, but couldn't possibly prepare for his not returning home safely, and the process of coming to terms with the loss.

38. Keith Urban, "For You"

Keith Urban was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Original Song for "For You," which was featured in the film Act of Valor. "After seeing Act of Valor, my co-writer [Monty Powell] and I wanted to capture the essence of not only what these men and women do so extraordinarily, but how that relates to all of us," Urban, who donated all the song's proceeds to the Navy SEAL Foundation, said. "Valor shows us what they are willing to give their all for, which made me wonder, 'What am I willing to give my life for?' 'For You' is intended to allow the listener to define who that is for them."

39. Green Day, "Wake Me Up When September Ends"

Green Day wrote an entire album and Broadway musical based on the follies of the Iraq War with American Idiot. "Wake Me Up When September Ends" is one of the most somber and enduring tracks from that era, but also one not directly linked to the storyline of the album: It was inspired by frontman Billie Joe Armstrong's father's death when the singer was just 10 years old. The music video, however, depicts a couple torn apart by the war in Iraq, which began in 2003 and continues raging to this day.

40. Tony Orlando & Dawn, "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree"

Though Tony Orlando & Dawn's smash hit "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the 'Ole Oak Tree" was written about a man coming home from prison, the tradition of tying or displaying a yellow ribbon is believed to have originated as early as the Civil War to honor those serving in the military.

41. Rise Against, "Hero of War"

Rise Against's "Hero of War" tells the story of a veteran's journey, from the glittering promises of a recruiter to the bitter realities of war and its aftermath and lasting effects on the psyche and the world: Many regard soldiers as heroes, but many soldiers do not see themselves that way at all.

42. The Shirelles, "Soldier Boy"

The Shirelles sing sweetly from the point of view of a soldier's girlfriend, who misses their beloved while he's serving his country and promises to be true to him while he's away.

43. George Jones, "50,000 Names Carved in the Wall"

George Jones was a Marine before he became a country legend, and he honors the fallen in "50,000 Names Carved on the Wall." The song reflects on those who served in the Vietnam War and whose names are forever etched in stone at the Vietnam War Memorial. As of this writing, the wall currently has 58,000 names and counting.

44. Iron Maiden, "Run to the Hills"

"Run to the Hills" is regarded as one of Iron Maiden's greatest songs ever. The song examines the impacts of European colonialism, a leading cause of wars globally. The second verse is written from the vantage point of an American soldier in the American Indian Wars, battles that often were long forgotten, even by patriots. One of the best ways to honor the fallen is to examine the causes for which they died and make sure not a single other soldier nor civilian dies in vain.

45. The Village People, "In the Navy"

After so many heavy themes, it's time to add a little levity to your Memorial Day playlist. Enter the Village People, which their extremely danceable ode to America's sailors.

Need a place to create and save your Memorial Day playlists? We’ve got you covered: These are the best music streaming services.