The Songs of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

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Most of these longitudes essays relate to whatever’s on my mind at a given moment (“Thoughts in Woods…”). Right now, I’m into the Vietnam War. I’m reading “Vietnam: A History” by Stanley Karnow, and I just finished watching the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick multi-part documentary “The Vietnam War.”

I’ve seen eight of the ten episodes of the series. After a second run-through, I’ll probably offer my usual two cents. Other people’s critiques on the documentary appear to be as polarized as the actual war, and I’m learning as much about the war (or, at least, how it affects people) by reading their reviews as by the documentary itself. Folks seem to either love “The Vietnam War,” or hate it.

As with so many things these days, there’s no demilitarized zone.

But, although I’m not ready to comment on the merits of the Burns-Novick documentary, I’m always ready to squeeze the trigger on music, and music plays a major role in “The Vietnam War.” So I’ll offer my assessments now. Having been born in 1958, I grew up listening to a lot of the film’s 120 songs, and I still listen to them regularly, so now’s a good opportunity to share my enthusiasm, or lack thereof.

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The Vietnam War was the first (and perhaps only) conflict to have a soundtrack. For maybe the first time, song lyrics were being written directly about a war. Other songs weren’t necessarily about the war, but they elicit such a strong emotional response amongst veterans of both the war and peace movement, they’re forever linked with Vietnam in people’s minds.

I’ve divided the music of “The Vietnam War” into four categories: the original score; songs that directly deal with war (lyrics related to Vietnam, or war in general); songs indirectly about war (songs with universal themes that could be associated with war); and songs of the time period that have little or nothing to do with war.

The original score: Good background music should bolster and reflect the mood of the film. Though I’m not a fan, Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and his collaborator Atticus Ross created a brooding mix of industrial noise, eerie sound effects, and minimalist piano that convey the weirdness and horror of what happened over there. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble borrowed themes inspired by Vietnamese music for the scenes in Asia. I applaud the producers for their good sense in choosing these artists.

Songs about war: We’re talking 1960s and ‘70s, so “songs about war” means protest songs, but I was somewhat disappointed in these choices. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier” was one of the first such written, and it’s perfect. Also great is Country Joe McDonald’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” (“Well it’s one, two, three, what are we fightin’ for?”), and Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” effectively sets the tone for what’s to come, and his “With God on Our Side” is more than appropriate, a savage statement about promoting war through a lens of false piety (sing it, Zimmy).

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Country Joe McDonald, at Woodstock Festival (photographer unknown)

In fact, there are no less than nine Dylan songs here, and “With God on Our Side” is featured twice. Dylan’s a dazzling songwriter, the poet of the counter-culture, and he wrote some searing anti-war songs. But nine songs are overkill. Joan Baez and Phil Ochs, contemporaries of Dylan, only got one song apiece (Baez’s cover of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and Ochs’ classic “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore”). I can think of at least a half-dozen Ochs songs directly about ‘Nam, such as “We Seek No Wider War,” “Cops of the World,” and “White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land.”

Dylan eventually cloaked his songs in obliqueness, whereas Ochs and Baez never wavered from blunt social protest. They deserve more than one song apiece.

Songs indirectly about war: A big thumbs up for the Byrds’ version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which Seeger adapted from a Bible verse. Also, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” which he wrote partially about the Vietnam War, but also about inner-city militancy and police brutality, and a song where Gaye courageously broke from traditional Motown song formulas.

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Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, England, 1965

Songs of the time period: This is, by far, the largest category of songs in the documentary. For a lot of these songs, I was scratching my head. “It’s My Life” by the Animals was blasted on top of an interview with the mother of a fallen soldier, and is jarringly out of place. The Velvet Underground’s “The Gift” is a Lou Reed short story set to music, about a lovesick sap who mails himself to his girlfriend. “The Vietnam War” uses the music only, since the lyrics have nothing to do with war. But even the music is obscure, since it was never played on the radio, and the album from which it was taken (WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT) sold only a few copies when it was released in December, 1967.

Jimi Hendrix, a former army paratrooper, has three songs featured: “Are You Experienced?,” “Voodoo Chile,” and “All Along the Watchtower,” the last-named written by guess who. Hendrix’s muscular, metallic guitar is a good choice for a war documentary, but more pertinent would have been the live version of “Machine Gun,” one of his most intense songs, propelled by combat sound effects, or his searing interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner” from the Woodstock Festival.

And since it’s the Sixties, and drugs were everywhere, including the killing fields of ‘Nam, we have to have a drug song, correct? But “White Rabbit” must be the dumbest song ever written about drugs. Weren’t any of the producers aware of Sainte-Marie’s “Codine,” or Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death,” or the Velvets’ “Heroin,” or Joni Mitchell’s “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire”? I guess not.

(If they’d have contacted me, I’d have gladly advised them about drug songs).

Another blunder: Barry McGuire’s overcooked “Eve of Destruction” (written by P.F. Sloan) is just as embarrassing now as when it was released. Big mistake.

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Jimi Hendrix (photo Rolling Stone magazine)

There are lots of good R&B songs, though. A couple Booker T. and the M.G.’s songs, a couple Otis Redding numbers, including “Respect” (and I’m glad they chose Redding’s version instead of Aretha Franklin’s). The Temptations are represented with “Psychedelic Shack,” although “Ball of Confusion” might have been more appropriate.

My big revelation was the Staple Singers covering Dylan’s “Masters of War” (the arrangement of which Dylan borrowed from the traditional English folk song “Nottamun Town”). Dylan’s version is stark and unmerciful, a knife into the gut of those who play with the lives of young people like “it’s (their) little toy.” The Staples version is as spooky as it is angry. “Pops” Staples sings like Delta bluesman Bukka White, his ghostly guitar notes ringing like tolling bells, and the moaning background voices sound like they’re conjuring the grim reaper. I’d never heard this version before, but for me it’s a highlight of the film score.

Neil Young’s “Ohio,” which he wrote the day after the Kent State murders: he never allows this song to be licensed for use, but he made an exception here. Choosing this song to close Episode 8 was a no-brainer.

(Note: in an interview with Esquire, Burns revealed that one of his editors had no idea that “Ohio” is about the Kent State killings. This is mind-boggling. But it’s proof that popular music has become so cheesy and mass-marketed, people today are numb to even the most overt lyrical statement. Either that, or they’re dumb to American history. Numb or dumb, it’s profoundly disturbing).

Appropriately, there are several Beatles songs. But John Lennon’s “Revolution” is the only one that makes sense. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is excellent for LSD tripping, but not for a Vietnam War discussion. And the producers evidently are patting themselves on the back for choosing “Let it Be” as their closer.

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Musically, yes, this song is grandiose, and a heart-tugger. There were undoubtedly tears shed by some viewers. By choosing “Let it Be,” I think Burns is suggesting it’s time for Americans to heal by making peace with each other.

Maybe this documentary will be a partial healing. But the topic will always be contentious, and relevant to the future, and the various op-eds I’ve read on “The Vietnam War” bear this out. Burns is smart and talented (and sports a nifty Beatle haircut), but reminding the audience of his “whispered words of wisdom,” and hoping his documentary will be a “vaccine” seems a bit arrogant to me, and as pointless as the post-war cacklings of Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford. He shouldn’t be allowed the last word.

Here’s my suggestion for a musical closeout: the acoustic demo of Phil Ochs’ “Cross My Heart.” Ochs was an American street soldier for peace who – until his suicide in 1976 – never gave up the fight:

I don’t know

But I see that everything is free

When you’re young the treasures you can take

But the bridge is bound to break

And you reach the end

Screaming it’s all been a mistake

 

But I’m gonna give all that I’ve got to give

Cross my heart

And I hope to live.

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The State of Donald Trump

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The other night a voice came to me, and it turned out it was the late, great, ‘60s protest singer, Phil Ochs. He said “Pete, wake up, this is Ochs here. Over.”

I said “You’re putting me on, of course, God.”

He then sang a few verses about the Vietnam War, and I realized it actually was Phil Ochs.

“I need you to do me a big favor,” he said.

I told him I was a huge admirer, have heard all his music, and that I’d do anything he asked. He told me he was concerned about the upcoming presidential election, and he wanted me to update his 1965 anthem “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” (which he himself later revised during the Nixon years).

Of course, I was flattered. But I explained that I was a terrible singer, and not much better as a guitarist.

“I know, I know. But you’re a boy in Ohio who likes old movies, like me, and you have a blog. I want you to use the framework of my song, but instead of Mississippi or Nixon, I want you to substitute Donald Trump. I’m really worried he might get elected.”

I told him it was impossible someone like Trump could be elected in America. I told him that, ever since I was a kid, the news media and politicians had assured me “The American people are smarter than that.” (Whatever “that” might be).

He laughed. “You don’t believe that line, do you? Ha ha, Pete, you’re so funny. Listen, Americans may know the maximum characters in a Tweet. But do they know the number of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court?”

“Uh, nine, right?” I asked.

“Well, normally. Only eight right now,” he said with a tone of disgust. “Which proves my point. Where’s the outrage??”

I remembered that, despite a treasure chest of brilliant songs, Ochs was denied even one hit.

“Yeah, I think you’re right, Phil.”

“I want you to do this thing for me, Pete. And after this new lyric has been seen by your readers – all six of them – I’m hoping one of them will sing it, put it on YouTube, and it will then go viral and prevent a national catastrophe.”

I told him I’d do my best, then asked him if he thought my puny efforts would make a difference. But he said he had to go, and muttered something about “Bobby Dylan” and “squandering his talent.”

So here it is. Please, if anyone can sing, and can put this thing on YouTube so it will go viral and prevent a national catastrophe, Phil and I will be very grateful.

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Here’s to the State of Mr. Trump (sung to the tune of “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” by Phil Ochs)

Here’s to the state of Mr. Trump
For behind the flashy suit there’s a tyrant with no heart
An egotist, a con man bent on tearing us apart
A bully spreading poison in a country that he’s bought
And the GOP supports him ‘cause he’s really all they’ve got
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the party of Mr. Trump
Republican officials have discovered it’s too late
So now he’s not that bad, and he’ll be their party’s face
Though he’s a sexist and a bigot, he’ll make their country great
The party of wealth and power has endorsed a man of hate
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
GOP, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the rallies of Mr. Trump
If you dare to criticize him you’ll be shown the door real fast
And everything is “beautiful,” at least as long as winning lasts
And he’s fawned on by reporters ‘cause he brings them lots of cash
His supporters stretch their arms like the Germans from our past
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the foes of Mr. Trump
The ones who disagree will get labeled with a name
And anyone unlike him is where he’ll lay the blame
The politics of slander are used for his own gain
Derogatory insults are how he plays his game
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the victims of Mr. Trump
It’s the many he’s offended, it could be you or me
Immigrants and disabled who are seeking dignity
P.O.W.s and women, our purple mountains majesty
Forget about our green fields, he’ll strip and drill us clean
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the money of Mr. Trump
His tax return’s a mystery, it’s locked behind closed doors
His accountants smile and plot on how to move his cash offshore
Four billion that he’s bankrolled and you’re a “moron” if you’re poor
Now he’s bought the next election and the voters must endure
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the priorities of Mr. Trump
Corporations with his name are weighted down with lies
He claims he’s for the people but he’s wearing a disguise
Instead of tackling issues he talks about hand size
When he starts discussing women you’d better shield your ears and eyes
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the legacy of Mr. Trump
A country now a punch line, an embarrassment to the globe
Hypocrisy and ugliness, each day a newer low
He’s used our flag to wipe his rear, the Constitution to blow his nose
If Pete and Woody and Phil were here they’d tell Trump where to go
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

***

A free society without a free press is like a table with no legs. Yet Mr. Trump has already banned, from his events, a number of major media outlets that he perceives as being critical of him. This is unprecedented for a presidential candidate, and it’s not a good sign.

He may never visit this humble corner of the blogosphere. But I’d like Mr. Trump to know one thing:

“When I’ve got something to say, sir, I’m gonna say it now.”

(Many thanks to Sonny Ochs).

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