Next Stop is Vietnam, a 13-CD box set on Germany's Bear Family label, offers an overwhelming reminder of a time when war and the fate of our soldiers was at the forefront of national consciousness.
Bear Family Records is perhaps best known for gigantic box sets that chronicle the recording careers of country and rockabilly artists in exhaustive detail but they've recently expanded their creative territory with themed projects like Atomic Platters, a 5-CD box set that explores songs about the nuclear bomb.
Johnny Wright - "Hello, Vietnam"
Next Stop is Vietnam includes a 304-page hardcover book and 334 music and spoken word tracks. The selection includes both songs that support and songs that protest the war in addition to tracks that include contemporary news reports.
SSgt. Barry Sadler - "Ballad of the Green Beret"
The Fugs - "Kill for Peace"
The set does a good job collecting the most famous songs about Vietnam. "Ballad of the Green Beret" and "Kill for Peace" are joined by Bob Dylan's "Masters of War," Peter Paul and Mary's "Leaving on a Jet Plane," Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction," Edwin Starr's "War,"Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War is Over) and Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee."
Stonewall Jackson - "The Minute Men (Are Turning in Their Graves)"
Johnny Cash - "Singin' in Vietnam Talkin' Blues"
But it's the less-famous songs that make Next Stop is Vietnam so compelling. The war in Southeast Asia weighed heavy on American popular culture, dominating the conversation in a way that seems distant and alien when compared to our current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Maybe it was the draft that inspired a lot of the anti-war songs and maybe it was those anti-war songs that inspired a lot of the amazing country songs that tried to defend both the war and attack the changes happening in the culture here at home.
Bob Seger - "Ballad of the Yellow Beret"
Jan Berry - "The Universal Coward"
C Company - "Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley"
There were dozens of answer tracks, records that rewrote the lyrics of other songs to make a different point. If you know Bob Seger's raging anti-draft anthem "2 + 2 = ?" (unfortunately not included on this box), his anti-protester "Ballad of the Yellow Beret" sounds a whole lot more like an anti-college-boy swipe than a song supporting the war.
Taken as a whole, the hundreds of tracks on this box set offer dozens of different perspectives on Vietnam. There was a real conversation going on in the country, one where people's opinions sometimes contradicted something they'd said themselves just moments ago.
Contrast that to the few songs we've heard post-9/11, whether they're limp, by-the-numbers anti-war songs or half-assed country anthems with rote lyrics that sound more like Lee Atwater talking points than actual attempts to speak truth about a soldier's experience.
Freda Payne - "Bring the Boys Home"
It's hard to a contemporary pop or R&B record that speaks so directly about the fate of our troops. Of course, there aren't many singers these days who can sound as desperate and dramatic as Freda Payne, but even taking that into account, you have to wonder why there aren't any modern songs that even try to address the topic.
Huey Lewis and the News - "Walking on a Thin Line"
The set also includes a lot of songs recorded long after the war ended, making a strong case for how much the Vietnam war has continued to inhabit the national consciousness long after the country itself has embraced capitalism and normalized relations with the United States.
Next Stop is Vietnam is sprawling, messy, complicated and often contradictory. No matter what you think about that war, there are songs here that were written in hopes of pissing you off. For that reason, this box set is an invaluable historical document that reminds us just how engaged Americans can be when they feel like everyone has a stake in both the prosecution and the outcome of war.