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Thoughts on a B-Side of the 'Vietnam' Soundtrack
September 15, 2017  | By David Hinckley  | 2 comments

Whenever Ken Burns talks about The Vietnam War, his epic 10-part documentary that premieres Sunday on PBS (8 p.m. ET), he repeatedly stresses that this war doesn’t have one single truth.

Nor does it have any one single soundtrack.

While music is part of the bone and muscle of the Vietnam story, just as it was with the Civil War and World War II, a collection that focused purely on music tied to the Vietnam War would sound markedly different from the official soundtrack that accompanies the Burns/Lynn Novick series.

For starters, a soundtrack just about the war would be more raw. While there would be a couple more songs from top-40 radio, like “Distant Drums” and “Galveston,” there would also be more music from the edges, where the discussion was less polite.

You’d hear Stonewall Jackson singing, “The Minutemen are turning in their graves” over war protesters. On the other side, you’d hear Country Joe MacDonald (top) singing, “Be the first one on your block / To have your boy come home in a box.”  (“I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag”, 1965.)

You’d hear Phil Ochs calling the war a blind, immoral exercise in American arrogance and Ernest Tubb calling it a litmus test for America’s commitment to freedom.

What the rest of us talked about, someone sang about.

This alternative soundtrack does not, it should be stressed, mean The Vietnam War soundtrack gets it wrong or misses the mark. Burns and Novick picked the music that tells their story, as Alex Strachan recounts very nicely in another tvworthwatching piece.

It’s just that, as Burns says, Vietnam is a hydra.

The official Vietnam War soundtrack actually comes in two packages, which will be released Friday. One is the original music created by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor. The other is 38 songs from the era:


Disc 1

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall – Bob Dylan
Hello Vietnam – Johnnie Wright
It’s My Life – Animals
Eve of Destruction – Barry McGuire
Turn Turn Turn – Byrds
Masters of War – Staple Singers
Mustang Sally – Wilson Pickett
Smokestack Lightning – Howlin’ Wolf
Backlash Blues – Nina Simone
The Sounds of Silence – Simon & Garfunkel
One Too Many Mornings – Bob Dylan
Ain’t Too Proud to Beg – Temptations
Are You Experienced? – Jimi Hendrix Experience
I’m a Man – Spencer Davis Group
Green Onions – Booker T and the MG’s
Strange Brew – Cream
Waist Deep in the Big Muddy – Pete Seeger
A Whiter Shade of Pale – Procol Harum
The Lord Is In This Place – Fairport Convention
For What It’s Worth – Buffalo Springfield

Disc 2

Don’t Think Twice – Bob Dylan
Piece of My Heart – Big Brother
Magic Carpet Ride – Steppenwolf
The Letter – Box Tops
Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Soul Sacrifice – Santana
Tell the Truth – Otis Redding
Okie From Muskogee – Merle Haggard
The Thrill Is Gone – B.B. King
Psychedelic Shack – Temptations
Ohio – Crosby Stills Nash & Young
Get Together – Youngbloods
Gimme Shelter – Rolling Stones
Tail Dragger – Link Wray
America the Beautiful – Ray Charles
What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
Bridge Over Troubled Water – Simon & Garfunkel
Let It Be – Beatles

There’s first-rate stuff here and opening the series with “Hard Rain” is perfect: “Oh where have you been, my blue-eyed son . . . .”

“Soul Sacrifice,” “Mustang Sally, “Whiter Shade of Pale,” “What’s Going On,” “The Lord Is In This Place,” “America the Beautiful,” inspired choices.

The absence of Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets” will puzzle some listeners, and it would have been good to find a place for Junior Walker’s “Shotgun.” You could argue that “Who’ll Stop the Rain” or “Fortunate Son” would have a good CCR choice and “Purple Haze” a good Hendrix pick. Great as “It’s My Life” is, it’s hard not to want “We Gotta Get Outta This Place.”

But those are late-night discussions, judgment calls. They’re dealer’s choice. Burns and Novick are telling a chronological story. They picked the music that would best drive that story.

An alternative Vietnam war soundtrack, not interwoven with a film, could simply expand the perimeter.

In early 1962, the apolitical pop/folk group the Four Preps wrote “The Big Draft,” a satiric mashup whose joke was that if every other singing group were drafted, the Preps would have radio airplay to themselves.

The first verse suggests sending the Platters to South Vietnam. Since there was no visible American hot war there at the time, the line was innocuous, meaning just get the Platters out of America.

A few verses later, the Preps get to the Highwaymen, whose big hit was “Michael (Row the Boat Ashore).” The last stanza of the Preps’s reworking goes like this:

Michael row the boat ashore
Gotta stay outta this mixed-up war

In the early spring of 1962, it was a laugh line. To other Michaels four or five years later, it was a prayer.

By the mid-60s, the war had reached top-40, with “Ballad of the Green Berets” playing yin to the yang of Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction.” While listeners joked about how over the top they both were, they became major hits and helped start to shape the Vietnam soundtrack.

A handful of traditional wistful wartime hits popped up, like Jim Reeves’s “Distant Drums.” The Monkees always said “Last Train to Clarksville” was about a soldier saying goodbye, and the narrator in Kenny Rogers’s clunky but disturbing “Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love To Town)” was a soldier who’d been paralyzed in Vietnam and now was fantasizing about shooting his unfaithful girl. Good morning, PTSD.

The radio hit that best crossed the ideological spectrum was Glen Campbell’s recording of Jimmy Webb’s “Galveston” in 1969. But unlike in World War II, the pop radio hits didn’t keep coming. With a few exceptions like Edwin Starr’s brutal “War,” relatively few Vietnam songs made it to top-40 radio in the last years of the war.

Country radio, whose audience supported the war for a lot longer, loved both Haggard’s relatively good-natured “Okie From Muskogee” and his darker, angrier “Fighting Side of Me.” (“If you don’t love it, leave it / Let this song that I’m singing be a warning. . . .”)

That tone permeated hundreds of country songs in the 1960s. Some of them told the un-American hippie protestors to get out. Others hailed the bravery, sacrifice and patriotism of American soldiers, like Ernest Tubb’s “It’s For God, Country and You, Mom (That I’m Fighting In Vietnam).”

A handful became radio hits, including Stonewall Jackson’s “The Minuteman Are Turning In Their Graves”: “Get out of here, get out of there / Let’s have an end to war / I’m glad they weren’t around to say / Get out of Valley Forge.”

Dave Dudley had a hit with “Vietnam Blues,” about running into an anti-war protestor collecting signatures on a sympathy card for Ho Chi Minh. Rather than get into a fight, Dave’s narrator heads for the nearest bar.

On the other side, you can always use more Bob Dylan. “All Along the Watchtower,” perhaps?

But you also can’t tell the Vietnam War song story without Phil Ochs.

In 1965 Ochs was singing “I Ain’t Marchin’ Any More.” He moved on to the sardonic “We Seek No Wider War” and the didactic “White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land” before writing “The War Is Over,” an exasperated assertion that we should just declare it’s finished and cut everyone’s losses.

Full disclosure: Ochs could also wrote “Draft Dodger Rag,” about how American kids scramble to get out of serving. (“I got a dislocated disc and a wracked-up back / I’m allergic to flowers and bugs / When the bombshell hits I get epileptic fits / And I’m addicted to a thousand drugs . . . .”). That rates a place in the soundtrack, too.

Tom Paxton wrote, “Lyndon Told the Nation,” Joan Baez (right) sang the bitter “Saigon Bride,” Jimmy Cliff wrote the tragic “Vietnam” and the Flying Burrito Brothers sang “My Uncle,” about catching a bus to Vancouver.  

They had the common thread of weary and deep frustration, a tone Arlo Guthrie countered with the humorous and droll “Alice’s Restaurant.”

Country Joe and Fish also went for humor with “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die,” except they worked the dark side: “And you know that peace will only be won / When we’ve blown ‘em all to kingdom come.”

And then maybe we get to the most troubling anti-war song of all, Buffy St. Marie’s “Universal Soldier.”

Where The Vietnam War and most songwriters on all sides express respect and sympathy for individual soldiers sent into battle, St. Marie does not.

“He’s the one who gives his body / As a weapon of the war,” she sings. “He’s the universal soldier / And he really is to blame.”

That’s a third-rail discussion, one that tends to make people angry or uncomfortable. For that reason alone, it belongs on a Vietnam war soundtrack.

You just wish we didn’t need one.

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David's piece is magnificent and both fills AND addresses an important soft-spot in the documentary-it's soundtrack-and he is 100% right-the absent music from both sides strongly, and clearly elucidated that artists position and POV on what was going on while Burns and Novick's choices WERE exclusively (maybe primarily) 'background,' something the music of the period cettainlwas not-it was powerfully fore-frontal.

I think the documentary would have SAID more had the chosen music been of the kind David cited AND if it has been played louder (less AS background) so we could have heard what an artist was saying about what we were seeing at that moment.

As an example, when we were told in Episode 3 that Denton Crocker ran away from home at 17 so he COULD enlist-over the objection of his parents BECAUSE he was just 17-Buffy St Marie's "Universal Soldier's" lyrics said, that all the world's soldiers, for all time, were 'all of 35 or only 17," would have really shown the family's dilemma.
Oct 11, 2017   |  Reply
Alex S.
Yes! Who'll Stop the Rain — Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1970. While, like David here, I'm mightily impressed with what Burns and Novick put together for the official song score, I really like this idea of a B-side to the official soundtrack. Creedence Clearwater is an apt pick — they were big in the '60s and early '70s, after all, plugged directly into the Vietnam era. And Buffy St. Marie, The Doors, The Band, and so on. I was struck, watching long stretches of The Vietnam War, that there could be a whole new Ken Burns film on protest music. A companion piece perhaps for Jazz? Who knows.
Sep 17, 2017   |  Reply
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