These 10 Tunes Offer a Parallel Soundtrack to Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s PBS series The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War—a war that was never actually “declared”—lasted eleven years, from the date a spineless Congress gave LBJ carte blanche to wage it (via the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, passed on August 7, 1964) to the helicopter rescue of staff from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in April 1975. Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s documentary, The Vietnam War, which started airing on Sunday, will last just about as long.

Well, officially, it will be aired in 10 parts that last a total of 18 hours, but the product tie-ins, books, gift DVDs and tote bags for PBS contributors will never stop flowing into and out of the coffers. The most promising part of the project, at least to us at PKM, was the news that Trent “Nine Inch Nails” Reznor and Atticus Ross composed two hours of original music that will run as the soundtrack to the Burns documentary.

However, if you really want to capture the “sounds” of the Vietnam War in true documentary fashion, you’d have to use only the music that defined the era—the tunes that played on the radio, in the streets and parks of America’s cities, at antiwar protests, teach-ins and love-ins (were there really love-ins?) and behind the lines with the soldiers who fought there. Reznor’s and Ross’s music for The Social Network was great (and, for once the “Academy” agreed with us, awarding them an Oscar for Best Soundtrack). But, hey, what’s wrong with just sticking with the music from that era? If there ever was a time in American history when music was an inextricable part of the zeitgeist, it was 1964-1975.

Here, then, are ten songs that would/should be on any soundtrack about the Vietnam War.

“Universal Soldier” – Buffy Sainte-Marie:

Though she wrote and recorded the song in 1964, the Canadian folksinger Buffy Sainte-Marie was prescient enough to anticipate the antiwar deluge that would come as the war in Vietnam escalated over the next ten years. Born on the Piapot Plains Cree First Nation Reserve in Saskatchewan, she was raised by adoptive parents in Massachusetts, earned degrees in Oriental philosophy and education at Amherst (and, later, a Ph.D in fine art) and then returned to Canada, and her Cree roots. “Universal Soldier,” appearing on her first album, It’s My Way, was, she said, “about individual responsibility for war and how the old feudal thinking kills us all.” Donovan’s 1965 version was a hit single for the young Scotsman, but Sainte-Marie’s version has more righteous power.

Here she is singing her signature song live on ABC-TV’s Music Scene, at the peak of the Vietnam War in 1970


“All Along the Watchtower” – The Jimi Hendrix Experience:

“Purple Haze” is often linked to the unfolding events of the late 1960s, but this song IS the late 1960s summed up in four minutes: “There’s too much confusion / I can’t get no relief.” Hendrix worked tirelessly on this version of Bob Dylan’s stark, medieval musing (“Business men, they drink my wine / Plowman dig my earth”), enlisting studio help from Dave Mason and Brian Jones and overdubbing so many guitar parts that he had to move from a four-track taping system to sixteen until he got it just right. The resulting version was perfectly placed on Side Four of the double album Electric Ladyland (1968), right after “House Burning Down” and before “Voodoo Child” and became the highest-charting single Hendrix had. Dylan later said he was “overwhelmed” by Hendrix’s version, adding, “He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there.”

Here is the peerless album version:


“Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag (Fish Cheer)” – Country Joe and the Fish:

McDonald was a military veteran and former folk singer in the Woody Guthrie mode who was radicalized by three years in the Navy (not to mention being raised by avowed Communist parents). After his discharge, he moved to Berkeley and busked in the streets until, in 1965, he decided to “go electric” by forming a band called the Fish. Since McDonald had already served in the military, he could not be easily dismissed as a run of the mill hippie. Thus, when he sang the “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die” on stage, sporting a military jacket and paisley headband, it had resonance with any other veterans in the crowd, particularly those serving in Vietnam or those young people likely to be drafted to do so. “Well, come on all of you, big strong men, / Uncle Sam needs your help again./ He’s got himself in a terrible jam / Way down yonder in Vietnam / So put down your books and pick up a gun, / We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun…”
Here’s Country Joe doing the song solo at Woodstock, plus some extra footage of naked hippies swimming in cow ponds:


“No Man Can Find the War” – Tim Buckley (1967):

If a musician was more poet than protest singer but wanted to comment on the war, he or she had to do so obliquely. Such was the dilemma for Tim Buckley. This song, written with his longtime collaborator Larry Beckett, was included on his masterful Goodbye and Hello album. The sounds of guns and rocket fire can be heard in the distance as Buckley mournfully sings, “Photographs of guns and flame / Scarlet skull and distant game / Bayonet and jungle grin / Nightmares dreamed by bleeding men / Lookouts tremble on the shore / But no man can find the war.”

Here’s the version from Goodbye and Hello.


“Give Peace a Chance” – The Plastic Ono Band

During his and Yoko’s “Bed-In” honeymoon in their Montreal hotel room (Room 1742 of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel), John Lennon wrote this song, which later became an anthem of the antiwar movement. Though technically still a member of the Beatles, he released it as the first single by the Plastic Ono Band. The single version of the song was actually recorded inside the hotel room, packed to the rafters with “special guests” like Timothy Leary, Murray the K, Allen Ginsberg, Dick Gregory, Petula Clark and Tommy Smothers, all of whom can be heard singing and clapping along. And, of course, there is a video that captured the whole thing:


“Five to One” – The Doors:

Buried on the band’s third album, Waiting for the Sun, this anthem-like song became a concert staple, summarizing the mood of the counterculture around the world: “The old get old / And the young get stronger / May take a week / And it may take longer / They got the guns / But we got the numbers /Gonna win, yeah / We’re takin’ over / Come on!”
It was, in fact, Jim Morrison’s performance of this song on March 5, 1969, that led to the singer’s arrest for “attempting to incite a riot” and indecent exposure. Here’s footage from that concert’s performance of “Five to One.” You make the call. Was Morrison inciting a riot, or was the small army of police officers on the stage hoping for a riot? Morrison chants to the crowd: “Maybe you love getting your face pushed in shit…maybe you love letting them push you around…You’re all a bunch of slaves…” It’s a gripping document that shows the level of tension in America during the Vietnam War era.


“Back to the World” – Curtis Mayfield (1973):

Curtis Mayfield’s success with his brilliant soundtrack to the otherwise mediocre film Superfly gave him the latitude to create this underappreciated concept album about black Vietnam soldiers returning from the war, wounded in spirit and body, only to face another type of war in the urban zones where they lived. One black Vietnam veteran summed it up, calling this song “our theme song when our tour of duty ended.”


“The Ballad of the Green Berets” – Sgt. Barry Sadler (1966)

“The Ballad of the Green Berets,” composed and sung by a Vietnam veteran, Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler, was the biggest hit of 1966 (topping Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walking,” which had a certain martial spirit too). Sadler was invited on many shows to perform it, including The Ed Sullivan Show. As Sadler’s official Web site put it, “Released in early 1966, when anti-war sentiment was beginning to swell, ‘The Ballad of the Green Berets’ tapped into an enormous wellspring of patriotic fervor among Americans who were tired of the dissent and ambiguity surrounding Vietnam, and desperately wanted confirmation of America’s heroism and moral virtue; that they were on the right side.” [Translation: The pro-war segment of the American population needed some propaganda and Sadler, perhaps unwittingly, supplied it].

Here he is lip-synching the song on one of those variety shows in 1966:


1966-James-K.-F.-Dung, SFC,-Photographer

“The War is Over” – Phil Ochs:

The obvious pick would be Ochs’ early protest song, the earnest, workmanlike “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore.” However, this song more eloquently expresses the mood of the antiwar movement as, despite massive moratoriums and marches, the war continued to escalate and the killing never seemed to stop. Heartsick over the carnage and at wit’s end, Ochs wrote this song for a “War Is Over” rally in Los Angeles and performed it there for the first time on June 23, 1967. He performed it again, in front of nearly 200,000 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. in October 1967. It would later appear on his 1968 Tape from California album. The song spares no one in his indictment of the Vietnam War, including the protesters. His biographer Michael Schumacher said it was Ochs’ “greatest act of bravery as a topical songwriter.” The hint of melancholy in the song is not affected. Over the next few years, an increasingly bitter and alcoholic Ochs would fall into deep despair over the political realities of America. He died in April 1976, suicide by hanging at his sister’s home on Long Island. It could be argued that he, too, was a casualty of the Vietnam War.

Here he is singing it live in 1967, before the dissipation began.


“Woodstock” – Joni Mitchell:

This astonishing song is made more so by the fact that Mitchell did not attend the pop festival about which she sings, though she captured the essence of the collective consciousness that grew out of it better than anyone. Her version, with its stark, almost haunted piano intro, was far more evocative than the hit single of it recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. She grounds it in near biblical terms, talking about “Yasgur’s farm” as if it were the Garden of Eden. And, of course, she subtly weaves in the Vietnam War raging in the distance of this hippie pipedream: “bombers riding shotgun in the sky…above our nation.” This is the version from Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon album (1970), still never topped.

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