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'Next Stop Is Vietnam': The War In Music

I've never seen anything like Next Stop Is Vietnam, as much a very long documentary in sound as it is a comprehensive collection of songs. From the very first arrival of the American "advisers," as they were called, to the veterans still struggling with the psychological and physical effects of the Vietnam War, the course of events — as mirrored in popular culture and the occasional spoken moment — is presented in more than 16 hours of sound on CDs devoted to themes such as prisoners of war and life in Vietnam.

There are obvious things, like Johnny Wright's huge country hit "Hello Vietnam" and Country Joe and the Fish's "Fixin' to Die Rag," from which the collection takes its title, to songs you'd probably never even have heard at the time, some of which were recorded over there.

Hershel Gober was an Arkansas boy whose story was pretty much exactly the one told in "Goodbye Travis Air Force Base." He became part of the "Hearts and Minds" campaign to win the Vietnamese people over to our side, and the songs he wrote in Vietnam were played on Armed Forces Radio.

Country music, in fact, was part of the propaganda effort to win support for the war in the U.S., and the one disc of the collection I couldn't bring myself to listen to was Disc 5, subtitled "America, Love It or Leave It."

From 1965 to 1970, I attended college in the Midwest, and the rock stations played these divisive, angry records all the time. The antiwar side is also well-represented, certainly better than it was on AM radio during the war — although by 1971, songs like "Bring the Boys Home" from Freda Payne were scoring in the Top 20.

Unfortunately, some of the most important songs aren't here. The most grievous omission is the grunts' national anthem, The Animals' "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," represented by a pallid version by Paul Revere and the Raiders, who also contribute versions of two essential Creedence Clearwater Revival songs, "Fortunate Son" and "Run Through the Jungle." For whatever reasons, the copyright holders denied the compilers permission to use the originals.

But there's a deeper problem here. It seems that, in an effort to be thorough, virtually any song meeting the description "about Vietnam" was included. This means that there are hours and hours of material released on tiny labels by long-vanished artists; these songs were never played on the radio, and languished in deserved obscurity until they were included here.

The track "I Promise I'll Wait" kind of sums it up for me. "I Promise I'll Wait" is by Nancy on the Mercede label, and the picture sleeve — reprinted in the CD booklet — shows the singer sitting on the hood of a Mercedes. Past the mumbled intro, the song is pretty generic, and what's with the car?

And there are songs included for reasons that defy logic: It never occurred to me that R.E.M.'s "Orange Crush" was about Agent Orange, the noted "overall fan consensus" notwithstanding.

In a note tucked away at the back of the collection's richly illustrated book, Bear Family's Richard Weize notes that it will probably be used in libraries and classrooms. But there's too much here for general consumption.

Fortunately, around the same time as this behemoth arrived, the tiny Tompkins Square label in New York sent me a 15-track, 45-minute CD called Bloody War, a collection of songs recorded between 1924 and 1939 that sums up many of the themes, both pro and con, of the Vietnam collection — and helps benefit the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. That one, I'll listen to again.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Ed Ward is the rock-and-roll historian on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

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