NPR

'Next Stop Is Vietnam': A War In Song

The history of the Vietnam War has been told many times in hundreds of books, movies and plays. But Next Stop Is Vietnam explores the impact of that conflict through the popular music it inspired.

In 1969, Gary Hall was an orthopedic technician at the 17th Field Hospital in An Khe, in Vietnam's Central Highlands. He saw what seemed to be an endless stream of wounded and dead, and Hall says music took him away, at least temporarily.

"In An Khe, the popular song was 'Love One Another' [by] The Youngbloods," Hall says. " 'Come on people now, smile on each other, everybody get together, gonna love one another right now.' That's the one I remember really strongly."

But if you ask a lot of veterans, the song that captures their feelings about Vietnam is "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," a 1960s pop hit by The Animals, which was really about young people trapped in a British urban slum.

There are more than 300 songs on a new 13-CD box set titled Next Stop Is Vietnam. They range from a folk ballad released just before U.S. troops landed to a 2008 song about the aftereffects that veterans still suffer. Hugo Keesing put the collection together. It's a project he's worked on since the early 1970s, when he taught psychology courses to U.S. troops a few hundred miles up the coast from Saigon.

"By the mid-1980s, I had collected about 500 45s that dealt with the Vietnam War," Keesing says.

The first Vietnam War protest song to become a commercial hit was a three-and-a half-minute rant by Barry McGuire. "Eve of Destruction" was banned by many radio stations and the entire Armed Forces Network.

"The perceived impact was such that, within several weeks, there was already the first 'answer record' -- 'Dawn of Correction' -- where a very clean-cut group of young men, who included members of Danny and the Juniors, decided that it was important to refute, point-by-point, some of the claims made in 'Eve of Destruction,' " Keesing says.

Perhaps the first song to explicitly support the growing military effort in Vietnam was "Ballad of the Green Berets," co-written by an Army soldier who recorded the demo version in a Saigon safe house in the mid-1960s. Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler was a member of the U.S. Army's elite Special Forces unit, identified by their green berets, when his commercial recording of the song went to the top of the charts.

Art McKoy says the members of his platoon were impressed when they first heard the song.

"We always admired those guys, because they went way up in the hills and the valleys and did a hell of some stuff," McKoy says. "And, in our hearts, even though we weren't that courageous to be Green Berets, when we heard that song, we all wanted to be like Green Berets."

But when McKoy got back home to Cleveland, another Vietnam song caught his ear: "War." It was by a local singer named Charles Hatcher, better known as Edwin Starr.

"The fact of the matter is we went with nothing, we lost our lives, and we came back, we really had nothing," McKoy says. "If you ask me, that was one of the great battle cries. I think it's relevant right today."

A number of soldiers recorded their own songs while serving in-country, and an entire disc on the new set is devoted to them. One is "Battle Hymn of the Republic of Vietnam," a take on the daily news briefings conducted by the U.S. government press office in Saigon, recorded by -- perhaps with good reason -- an unidentified military staffer.

Mine eyes have seen the story of the winning of the war

It is published every afternoon a little after four

They put it in the briefing sheets and then they tell us more

And the truth goes sliding by

One of the best known songs of the era is another darkly humorous ditty by Country Joe and the Fish about soldiers marching off to war, titled "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag."

"By the early '70s, as troops were arriving in Vietnam, they were singing 'I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag,' " Keesing says. "It was an indication, not only of how divided the nation was, but there was almost a gallows humor in singing, 'Whoopee, I'm going to die,' as American troops are coming to Vietnam for the first time."

Country Joe McDonald's performance at the 1969 Woodstock festival (audio NSFW) made him famous, but in a 1996 talk at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Navy veteran expressed conflicted feelings about the legacy of his signature song.

"When I sing 'Fixin'-to-Die Rag' for Vietnam veterans, I know what they're feeling and they're thinking," McDonald says. "But when I sing it for a regular audience, I don't know what the hell they're thinking. I don't know if they're draft resistors. I don't know if they paid a price."

Former Ohio legislator John Begala was a sophomore at Kent State University in 1970, when four students were killed by National Guard troops called in to quell an anti-war protest. One week later, a new song by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, "Ohio," came on the radio.

"To this day, I listen to that song and I get pissed off," Begala says. "It tugs on your emotions and your anger -- tugs on your disappointment, and the rage. My god, it takes you right back."

But "Ohio" won't be taking listeners of the new box set back. Keesing couldn't get the rights.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

On this Veteran's Day, we're going to look back, listen back, really, to the war in Vietnam. Its history has been told countless times in books, movies and plays. Now a new CD collection explores the conflict and its impact through the music it inspired.

From member station WCPN, David C. Barnett reports.

DAVID C. BARNETT: In 1969, Gary Hall was an orthopedic technician in the 17th Field Hospital in An Khe, in Vietnam's Central Highlands.�He saw what seemed to be an endless stream of wounded and dead, and Hall says music took him away, at least temporarily.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GARY HALL (Former Orthopedic Technician): In An Khe, I think the popular song was "Love One Another," The Youngbloods.

(Soundbite of song, "Love One Another")

THE YOUNGBLOODS (Band): (Singing) Love is but a song we sing. And fear's the way we die.

Mr. HALL: Come on people now, smile on each other, everybody get together, gonna love one another right now.

(Soundbite of song, "Love One Another")

THE YOUNGBLOODS: (Singing) Come on people now, smile on each other, everybody get together, try love one another right now.

Mr. HALL: That's the one I remember really strongly.

BARNETT: But if you ask a lot of veterans, the song that captures their feelings about Vietnam is a 1960s pop hit by The Animals, which was really about young people trapped in a British urban slum.

(Soundbite of song, "We Gotta Get Out of This Place")

THE ANIMALS (BAND): (Singing) We gotta get out of this place, if it's the last thing we ever do. We got to get out of this place. Girl, there's a better life for me and you.

BARNETT: There are over 300 songs on the new 13 CD box set titled "Next Stop is Vietnam." They range from a folk ballad released just before U.S. troops landed, to a 2008 song about the aftereffects that veterans still suffer. Hugo Keesing put the collection together.�It's a project he's worked on since the early 1970s, when he taught psychology courses to U.S. troops a few hundred miles up the coast from Saigon.

Mr. HUGO KEESING (Curator, "Next Stop is Vietnam") By, I want to say, about the mid-1980s, I had collected about 500 45s that dealt with the Vietnam War.

BARNETT: The first Vietnam War protest song to become a commercial hit was a three-and-a half-minute rant.

(Soundbite of song, "Eve of Destruction")

Mr. BARRY MCGUIRE (Musician): (Singing) The eastern world, it is explodin', violence flarin', bullets loadin'. You're old enough to kill, but not for votin'. You don't believe in war, but what's the gun you're totin'?

BARNETT: Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction" was banned by many radio stations and the entire Armed Forces Network.

Mr. KEESING: The perceived or assumed impact was such that within several weeks, there was already the first answer record, the "Dawn of Correction," where a very clean-cut group of young men, who included members of Danny and the Juniors, decided that it was important to refute, point-by-point, some of the concerns and claims made in "Eve of Destruction."

(Soundbite of song, "Dawn of Correction")

THE SPOKESMEN (Band): (Singing) The Western world has a common dedication to keep free people from Red domination. Maybe you can't vote, boy, but man your battle stations or there'll be no need for votin' in future generations.

BARNETT: Perhaps the first song to explicitly�support the growing military effort in Vietnam was co-written by an Army soldier who recorded this demo version in a Saigon safe house in the mid-1960s.

(Soundbite of song, "Ballad of the Green Berets")

Staff Sergeant BARRY SADLER (U.S. Army, Special Forces Unit): (Singing) Silver wings upon their chest. These are men, America's best.

BARNETT: Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler was a member of the Army's elite Special Forces unit, identified by their green berets, when his commercial recording of the song went to the top of the charts.

(Soundbite of song, "Ballad of the Green Berets")

Staff Sgt. SADLER: (Singing) Trained to live off nature's land. Trained in combat, hand to hand.

Mr. ART MCKOY: We always admired those guys, because they went way up in the hills and in the valleys and did some hell of stuff. And, in our hearts, even though we weren't that courageous to be Green Berets, when we hear that song, we all want to be like Green Berets, you know.

BARNETT: Art McKoy says the members of his platoon were impressed when they first heard the song. But when McKoy got back home to Cleveland, another Vietnam song caught his ear. It was by a local singer named Charles Hatcher, better known as Edwin Starr.

(Soundbite of song, "War")

Mr. EDWIN STARR (Musician): (Singing) War, huh, yeah, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Uh-huh. War, huh, yeah, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Say it again, y'all.

Mr. MCKOY: The fact of the matter is that we went with nothing, we lost our lives, and we came back, we really had nothing. If you ask me, that was one of the great battle cries. I think it's relevant right today.

BARNETT: A number of soldiers recorded their own songs while serving in-country, and an entire disc on the new set is devoted to them, including this take on the daily news briefings conducted by the U.S. government press office in Saigon, recorded by - perhaps for good reason - an unidentified military staffer.

(Soundbite of song, "Battle Hymn of the Republic of Vietnam")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Mine eyes have seen the story of the winning of the war. It is published every afternoon a little after 4. They put it in the briefing sheets and then they tell us more and the truth goes sliding by.

BARNETT: One of the best known songs of the era is another darkly humorous ditty by Country Joe and the Fish about soldiers marching off to war.

(Soundbite of song, "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag")

COUNTRY JOE AND THE FISH (Band): (Singing) And it's one, two, three, what are we fighting for? Don't ask me, I don't give a damn. Next stop is Vietnam.

Mr. KEESING: By the early '70s, as troops were arriving in Vietnam,�they�were singing the "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag."

BARNETT: Hugo Keesing.

Mr. KEESING: It was an indication of how divided not only the nation was, but there was almost a gallows humor in singing, whoopee, I'm going to die, as American troops are coming to Vietnam for the first time.

(Soundbite of song, "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag")

COUNTRY JOE AND THE FISH: (Singing) Well, there ain't no time to wonder why, whoopee, we're all gonna die. All right.

BARNETT: Country Joe McDonald's performance at the�1969 Woodstock festival�made him famous, but in a 1996 talk at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Navy veteran expressed conflicted feelings about the legacy of his signature song.

Mr. COUNTRY JOE MCDONALD (Musician): When I sing�"Fixin'-to-Die Rag" for Vietnam veterans, I know what they're feeling and they're thinking. But when I sing it to a regular audience, I don't know what the hell they're thinking.

Mr. JOHN BEGALA (Former Ohio Legislator): Don't ask me, I don't give a damn, the next stop is Vietnam.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEGALA: Great song.

BARNETT: Former Ohio legislator John Begala was a sophomore at Kent State University in 1970, when four students were killed by National Guard troops called in to quell an anti-war protest.�One week later, a new song by�Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, came on the radio.

(Soundbite of song, "Ohio")

CROSBY, STILLS, NASH AND YOUNG (Band): (Singing) Tin soldiers and Nixon comin'. We're finally on our own. This summer I hear the drummin'. Four dead in Ohio.

Mr. BEGALA: To this day, I listen to that song and I get pissed off. It tugs on your emotions and it tugs on your anger, tugs on your disappointment, and the rage.�My god, it takes you right back.

BARNETT: For NPR News, I'm David C. Barnett in Cleveland.

(Soundbite of song, "Ohio")

CROSBY, STILLS, NASH AND YOUNG: (Singing) Gotta get down to it. Soldiers are gunning us down. Should have been done long ago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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