NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Star-Spangled Songs and Music

The Vietnam War Continues to Haunt and Inspires a Music Book

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Songs about patriotism are in reality mostly songs occasioned or inspired by war. When pressed one day to name some important patriotic songs that didn’t come out of wartime, I could think of only three: Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” Johnny Cash’s “Ragged Old Flag” and Waylon Jennings’ “America.” There are more, obviously, but not all that many, not when compared to the songs of war. Songs that exhort calls to war, songs that lament the terrible human price of war, songs that bring the war home, songs that ridicule the sheer folly of war, songs that celebrate the fallen heroes of war. Given the fact that Vietnam was the first rock and roll war and the first television war, it’s not surprising that the Vietnam War generated an astonishingly large and diverse body of songs. One of the most popular books with Vietnam veterans has been college teacher Lee Andresen’s Battle Notes … Music of the Vietnam War (Savage Press). As the first war with a rock and roll soundtrack, Vietnam inspired a huge body of music.

Battle Notes is very much a populist book, full of quotes from veterans and from Andresen’s own students and as such represents a selected collection of voices. It also includes a wide presentation of the songs that appealed to soldiers that would not seem obvious. These were country or rock or pop songs that had such war links to soldiers as to be symbolically important. The sheer quantity of different songs that appealed to young soldiers and even tangentially had links to war, separation, home and homesickness is astonishing in its scope. There some 750 songs in the book’s discography, and Andresen told me there are many more he didn’t have room to include in his text. When soldiers go into war carrying their own personal soundtrack with them on a tape player, it becomes an entirely different experience. Songs ranged from Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” to Ray Wiley Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother” to Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” to Don Williams’ “Good Old Boys Like Me” to Charlie Daniels’ “Still in Saigon” to the Ray Charles and Clint Eastwood duet of “Beers to You.”

I didn’t make it to Vietnam, but I spent four years in the Navy during that ill-fated war. The country music of that era did not resound with me or my circle of Navy buddies, who pretty quickly got the message from the ground up that the Vietnam War was an un-winnable quagmire and nightmare. Our day-to-day soundtrack was music that ridiculed military reality: songs such as Country Joe and the Fish’s “Fixin’ to Die Rag” or almost any nihilistic songs from Jimi Hendrix or the Rolling Stones or the Doors — violent, dark music that echoed but also worked to cancel out war, rather than celebrate it.

And the relationship of the Vietnam War with music continues to fascinate. Andresen told me he continues to receive stories about that war from veterans he meets in his classes and in his travels and lectures around the country. One of the most remarkable experiences came fairly recently. “I was at the Vietnam Memorial for a Memorial Day ceremony with Nancy Sinatra,” Andresen said, “who had also performed many times in Vietnam. And I had the chance to be able to hear Jimmy Fortune [former Statler Brother, now a solo artist] sing his song ’More Than a Name on a Wall.’ That was so emotional. He told me about how long he had been wanting to come to the Wall and sing that song.”

Andresen’s book is now being used in some college classes. As a teacher, he sees enormous value in teaching about the war-music relationship. “What you’ve got with music,” he said, “is that it’s almost infectious. You’ve got a message with the music wrapped around it and it penetrates, it penetrates a person’s mind. What I’ve discovered with these kids I teach is that songs that they had heard just as oldies, they realize that the songs actually have a message. I really think that music being music inherently is an excellent prism to use to look back.”

Andresen’s current project is a similar book about the music about and from the Iraq conflict. “It seems like it’s lasted forever, but Iraq hasn’t really lasted long enough to create a lot of songs about the war,” he said. “It seems to be similar to Vietnam, you know. You’ve got the real hawkish stuff going on, like with [Toby] Keith, which is almost beyond the pale, and then you’ve got some really tasteless stuff. Phoebe Snow has recorded a song about Bush, and someone asked her about the song because it’s a diatribe. And she said something to the effect, well, I wouldn’t have the nerve to kill him myself, but if someone else did, I would applaud.”