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An Ode to the Music of War: Third Movement

By: Geoffrey King
July 11, 2018

y Spring 1969 fifty-two percent of Americans reported knowing personally someone killed or wounded in Vietnam; at the same time, less than forty percent supported the war. The growing confusion came through clearly in the music. In the Billboard top 100 hits for the year 1969, Creedence Clearwater had no fewer than three―at numbers 19 (“Proud Mary”), 24 (“Bad Moon Rising”), and 31 (“Green River”). According to Peter Bukowski, who served with the Americal Division in the vicinity of Chu Lai from December 1968 to December 1969, “Two words: Creedence Clearwater. They were the one thing everybody agreed on. Walking down the streets, didn’t matter who you were. Black, white, everyone.” Perhaps no one was more surprised with all of the attention than Stu Cook, bass player for Creedence: “We got tons of fan mail from Vietnam. Guys would send us stuff” including a photo from a marine tank crew who had christened their tank “Proud Mary.” “At the same time, we had a presence with the antiwar movement,” Cook notes. In rock and roll terms that would have been a very tough act to follow in 1969: perform at Woodstock and have a tank in Vietnam named after one of your biggest hits.

Only Jimi Hendrix could compete at that iconic level, in part because he had served pre-war in the 101st Airborne and that gave him credentials. And his sound obliterated any known racial boundaries, leaving no doubt that he was experienced. “Purple Haze” was the hands down Hendrix aural totem in Vietnam, while “Machine Gun” was the most literal, almost programmatic, gesture Jimi made to the grunts in the Central Highlands. Hendrix was on the cusp of being musically singled out by 1969―not as a racial aberration but as some kind of accreted and acceded racial breakpoint in American popular music: he didn’t perform the “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock so much as quote it, replete with improvised feedback cadenzas separating each phrase of the anthem with as much content and duration as the anthem itself, and the American pastness it evokes piles more and more weight on the anthem until it nearly, not quite, collapses. Hendricks keeps the source close at hand and in the ear, almost like a cover song without the words, as he soars, strafes and dive bombs his nuanced feedback glissandi, offering up simultaneously an anthem, a lament, and an electric field holler―an American soundtrack that relies not a whit on nostalgia, although it does evoke vague tugs at childhood when everyone, not just those at Woodstock, first heard, then sang it. Perhaps no other piece of music is at once as public and as private for many Americans. “I’m American so I played it. They made me sing it in school, so it was a flashback…I thought it was beautiful,” said Hendrix after the performance.

Then there were those milestones that rocked any sense of reality in the American experience in Vietnam. It began as early as 1963 when American advisers witnessed the crushing defeat of several thousand soldiers of the U.S.-trained South Vietnamese Army’s (ARVN) 7th Division by a small VC force at Ap Boc in the Mekong Delta; then in 1964-65 Vietnam witnessed the largest expansion to date of U.S. troops and equipment; in 1968 the combination of the Tet offensive, the bloody Democratic Convention in Chicago, and the assassination of King in Memphis dramatically increased both racial conflicts in-country and doubts about the American involvement in Vietnam at home. James Brown’s “Say It Loud―I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968) prompted the black soldiers at Nha Trang to test out, at full volume, their brand-new pairs of twelve-inch Sansui speakers, while at least one MP barrack pulled out their Confederate flags and countered with “hillbilly music.” The year 1968 pulled any remaining cover off the American troops’ esprit de corps, and word from on high banned black soldiers from playing the song in the company area. In an amusing and ingenuous aside, a Southern officer suggested black country singer Charlie Pride as an alternative to Black Power funk; gosh, somehow it wasn’t the same for the black soldiers, most of whom had no idea who Charlie Pride was.

The Vietnam era was pre-Walkman and pre-digital, so the listening was all done on radios (sans earphones), LPs, and cassettes mixed down from those new reel-to-reels bought on the cheap in Thailand and Tokyo. When in 1966 MACV authorized a permanent studio in Saigon to provide AM and FM master control for the growing radio network in Vietnam, it only remained to add AFVN-TV in March of that year and then access the underwater cable link between Saigon and the Armed Forces Radio/Television Services-Los Angeles that would provide 24/7 West Coast programming to those 99 percent of U.S. military personnel who owned a radio and had access to a television set in the rear. America’s Vietnam was now thoroughly wired for sound and image. In spite of songwriter Gil Scott Heron’s proclamation that the “revolution will not be televised,” it was: dancing and music was aired every Saturday in Chicago on WCIU-TV as early as 1965 with Kiddie-a-Go-Go and Red Hot and Blues that evolved into Soul Train by 1970; and Dick Clark’s American Bandstand was televised every weekday afternoon from 1956 until 1963, after which it owned the Saturday afternoon slot across America. The baby boomers were hooked on the flat, affectless and context-free television image―whether it was the President assassinated live in his motorcade or barely pubescent Chicago teens shaking their booty after school. One result was that between 1965 and 1970 millions of American families sat down to dinner and the network nightly news to watch always fresh, sometimes live, footage of the Vietnam war.

No one in the American camp knows what the Vet Cong and NRV were listening to at the time, but whatever it was must have been inspirational given the massive losses the North suffered after the suicidal boldness of the Tet offensive and the relentless bombing of Hanoi and especially South Vietnam. The North had very few helicopters, real or imagined, as Lieutenant General John J. Tolson, in Vietnam Studies, reports:

At 2055 hours on 16 June a U.S. radar station reported that ten unidentified helicopters had been located six kilometers north of the Ben Hai River. During the remainder of the night of 16-17 June 1968 numerous reports were received of enemy helicopters operating in the vicinity of the Demilitarized Zone. Another report cited an attack on a U.S. Navy boat by an unidentified aircraft. Finally, it was reported that many of the enemy helicopters were destroyed by U.S. Air Force aircraft and by artillery. As time passed and further investigations were conducted, it developed that no finite (sic) evidence was available to confirm that enemy helicopters had been observed in flight, on the ground, or in a damaged state following claims of destruction by friendly air. The previously accepted positive reports were discredited.

Unlike the American troops in Vietnam, the people in both South and North Vietnam suffered what all but the most oblivious American civilians have come to know as collateral damage―the loss of family members, neighbors, hospitals, schools, homes. That place being bombed was, after all, where they lived. There was no Brooklyn or Cleveland or Alabama to go back to and pick up the pieces.