The Unsung Story: Vietnam Songwriters

APBS special features songs penned by enlisted men, women, Red Cross workers - even CIA personnel - during the war

Come along, boys, and I'll tell you a tale, of the pilots who fly on the Ho Chi Minh Trail... - Toby Hughes

TEN years ago tomorrow, the nation dedicated the Vietnam Memorial, now simply called the Wall. The healing that has occurred since then is opening people's minds to new information about the war from a startling source.

"To most of us, the Vietnam war has a rock-and-roll soundtrack," says Lydia Fish, a folklorist at Buffalo State College in New York. The guitars were at Woodstock, the guns in Vietnam - or so civilian America has imagined.

In fact, a folk-music scene flourished among the Americans stationed "in country," as military jargon put it. Enlisted men and women, career officers, Red Cross workers, and even CIA personnel penned hundreds of songs that they performed in clubs and barracks.

While the music scene in the United States spawned antiwar anthems, the soldier in Vietnam "wasn't singing because it was the wrong war or the right war. His songs were neither disloyal nor particularly patriotic," says Dick Jonas, who made music when he wasn't piloting an F-4 over Laos or North Vietnam during 1967. "He was at war, and war is not the normal human condition. And his songs helped him to survive."

Hardly anyone outside the military has heard these Vietnam-era songs, Dr. Fish says. The problem wasn't so much access as receptivity. Veterans bore the stigma of a war no one wanted to hear about.

"It took us 20 years to get people to start listening," says Toby Hughes, a prolific songwriter who in 1967 flew an F-4C fighter out of Cam Rahn Bay Airbase in South Vietnam. "But they're listening now. Some are having their eyes opened. They're starting to realize that, hey, we still hate the war, but the warriors aren't so bad."

The widest exposure yet for this musical legacy comes tomorrow, when many PBS stations (check local listings) will air "In Country: Songs of the Vietnam War." The program, a special broadcast of Austin City Limits, brings together Mr. Hughes, Mr. Jonas, other soldier-songwriters, and Emily Strange, a former Red Cross "Donut Dolly." Kris Kristofferson, who volunteered for Vietnam but was sent by the military to Europe, hosts the show.

Songs like "Vietnam Blues," "Ho Chi Minh Trail," "Firefight," and "Incoming" chronicle tedium and terror, heroics and hedonism, loneliness and longing. "Saigon Warrior" updates "The Lousy Lance-Corporal," an Australian tune from World War I, to poke fun at rear-echelon military bureaucrats "with their hands in their pockets and nothing to do."

Few songs take a position on war. But the chillingly ironic "Crack Went The Rifle" is as devastating as any song produced by the protest movement: "... beware the man who vows to save the flag. After all is said and done, it's you and me that carry the gun...." If this song can still raise goosebumps today, imagine the impact it had in the US during the war.

The "In Country" musicians might never have come together had it not been for Maj. Gen. Edward Lansdale, a superspy who was fascinated by the possibility of using folk songs and superstitions in psychological warfare. His most famous success came in the Philippines, when he used a vampire rumor to scare away insurgents.

In Vietnam, General Lansdale avidly collected songs by locals and US soldiers. In 1967, he put 51 on tape and sent copies to Lyndon Johnson and key Cabinet members. He thought this "report" would help them make decisions. Evidently, it was ignored. Fortunately, Lansdale also deposited copies of his extensive collection with the Library of Congress.

The next step was taken by Fish, who had heard similar songs when she taught history at Ft. Bragg at the beginning of the war. In 1983, her interest in the music was reawakened when she happened onto the Lansdale collection. She started the Vietnam Veterans Oral History and Folklore Project to assemble even more material.

Fish notes that soldiers could buy excellent recording equipment in Thailand and Hong Kong. Later in the war, the portable cassette recorder came along. An extensive tape-swapping network developed. By plugging into it, Fish has assembled a folklorist's dream - more than 300 hours of original "in country" recordings. Much remains to be discovered, she says.

Fish got to know some of the musicians on her tapes. In 1989, she arranged for them to perform at the Library of Congress. The songs were noted in a National Public Radio report that was heard by executives at Flying Fish Records.

"I was very struck by the fact that they were singing about me," says Michael Fleischer, a vice president at the Chicago label who recalls from his years in the naval reserve how men in uniform were scorned during the war. Last year Flying Fish released 27 songs under the title "In Country: Folk Songs of Americans in the Vietnam War."

While in Chicago for the recording sessions, the musicians performed together at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Chip Dockery, a 400-mission pilot who dragged his Gibson along to the war, recalls that the audience didn't know whether to expect recruiting- poster cutouts or vets against the war or drug-abusers who might dive under the table if they heard a hand clap.

"What they got was a bunch of people that pretty much had their head on straight," Mr. Dockery says. The audience was respectful, moved, and surprised by the songs, he adds.

At another performance, Jonas says, "You know what? They held still. They listened. They laughed in the right places. They clapped when I finished."

Dockery notes that the "In Country" recording has helped some emotionally troubled vets. And thanks to renewed interest in the war by a younger, more-objective generation, an "In Country" tour of college campuses is under consideration.

He says that if the lessons of the Vietnam experience are ignored, then every name carved on the Wall will be a waste, rather than a sacrifice in which something was gained.

"And that's one reason that I get my guitar out and sing some things and try to get people's attention," he says. "I have no intention of letting people forget that war, not as long as there's something we can learn from it and become a stronger and a better nation."

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