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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.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

Popular music and war have been together in America since Yankee Doodle came to town in the Revolution. Wars have inspired songs, supporting the boys, hating the enemy, and praising the country. But in the mid-'60s, for the first time, anti-war songs, relating both to the new war in Vietnam and the need for world peace became the norm.

Bear Family has released a mammoth 14-CD set called "Next Stop Is Vietnam: The War on Record, 1961-2008." Rock historian Ed Ward has a review.

(Soundbite of song, "Hello Vietnam")

Mr. JOHNNY WRIGHT (Country singer): (Singing) Kiss me goodbye and write me while I'm gone. Goodbye my sweetheart, hello Vietnam.

ED WARD: Quite frankly, 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 today 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 over 16 hours of sound on CDs devoted to themes like 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 things you'd probably never even have heard at the time, some of which were recorded over there.

(Soundbite of song, "Goodbye Travis Air Force Base")

Mr. HERSHEL GOBER (Singer): (Singing) Goodbye Travis Air Force Base, hello Vietnam. Got a little job to do for my Uncle Sam. Well, it's not the kind of job I like but I do the best I can. Goodbye Travis Air Force Base. Hello Vietnam.

Just a few short months ago I was down on the farm. Lived a good ole country life and doing no harm. Then I got a letter saying, greetings son. Goodbye home sweet home. Hello Vietnam.

WARD: Hershel Gober was an Arkansas boy whose story was pretty much exactly the one told in this song. 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 United States. The antiwar side is also very well-represented, certainly better than it was on AM radio during the war - although by 1971, songs like this one from Freda Payne were scoring in the Top 20.

(Soundbite of song, "Bring the Boys Home")

Ms. FREDA PAYNE (Singer): (Singing) Fathers are pleading, lovers are all alone. Mothers are praying, send our sons back home. Tell them about it. You marched them away. Yes, you did now, on ships and planes. To the senseless war, facing death in vain.

Bring the boys home. Bring 'em back alive. Bring the boys home. Bring 'em back alive. Bring the boys home. Bring 'em back alive. Bring the boys home. Bring 'em back alive. Why don't you, turn the ships around.

WARD: 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 which were never played on the radio, and languished in deserved obscurity until they were included here.

This one kind of sums it up for me.

NANCY (Singer): I'd like to dedicate this song for all the prisoners of war and to their families.

(Soundbite of song, "I Promise I'll Wait")

NANCY: (Singing) I promised we'd meet again but you can't say when and you can't say when. But if we ever meet again I promise I'll wait. Till then we never know.

WARD: "I Promise I'll Wait" is by Nancy on the Mercede label, and the picture sleeve - reprinted in the CD booklet here - 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 REM's "Orange Crush" was about Agent Orange, the noted overall fan consensus notwithstanding.

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 be listening to again.

GROSS: Ed Ward reviewed "Next Stop Is Vietnam: The War on Record 1961-2008."

I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song, "Masters of War")

Mr. BOB DYLAN (Singer/Songwriter): (Singing) Come you masters of war... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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