Under the Radar

The Weird and Obsessive World of Songs About Vietnam

The Vietnam War Song Project is an epic undertaking, a YouTube channel with over 900 videos featuring songs about the war. The fact that there were so many songs released about the conflict says something about how central music was to the culture back in the days before videos games, Netflix and internet memes, but it also illustrates how central the war was to the national conversation.

A lot of the songs are the kind of artless, low-budget tunes released on tiny labels by artists who just wanted to get something off their chest. There are a surprising number of songs about Lt. William Calley and the Vietnam War Memorial.

The Ken Burns/Lynn Novick PBS documentary The Vietnam War brilliantly illustrates the impact that popular music had during the era. The Vietnam War Song Project digs deeper and compiles the weirder and more personal reactions to the war.

I tracked down Justin Brummer, the one-man operation who put together the project. How did a guy born in 1980 with no family connection to the conflict become the greatest scholar of songs about the Vietnam War?

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Ernest Tubb - "It's America (Love It or Leave It)" 1965The country-and-western icon has no patience for you draft-dodging hippies.

What inspired you to start the Vietnam War Song Project and where did you get the idea?

I started the project in 2007. I was doing research for my PhD in Washington D.C. for three months, looking at the Anglo-American relationship during the Nixon period. After a few weeks of dealing with the Administration's Vietnam papers, I decided to make a list of the Vietnam War songs I own. Over time, having listed all the obvious chart-topping Vietnam songs of the era, I started looking into it more deeply, finding obscure and rare records. It soon became clear that there were thousands of songs covering all aspects of the Vietnam War, barely untouched in scholarly research of the war, humanities, and musicology.

I started collecting the original records as a hobby and to create an archive of Vietnam War songs. I wanted to preserve all these records for future generations, and to start classifying them, looking for themes and identifying how the war was represented in music.

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Johnny Taylor - "Jody Got Your Girl and Gone" (1971)Much like death and taxes, Jody is a plague that's always with us.

To date, I have collected nearly 4,000 songs, including over 1,500 in the original vinyl format, which I have scanned. Of these, over 100 are Vietnamese songs, and over 500 from outside North America. I have also co-written a discography of over 5,000 songs, written annotations and lyric analysis for over 800 songs, and transcribed an additional 200 songs.

Is this part of an academic research project or something you’re doing because you’re interested?

This began as a personal project, but during the time I've been working on it, I've applied my academic research experience to take it forward and develop it into a work of substance and capacity worthy of academic recognition.

I have always been fascinated by this period of history. America's involvement in Vietnam tore political and culture life apart in the 1960s and early 1970s, and had a major impact on international relations, domestic politics, and the lives of ordinary people across the world.

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Johnny Mac - "Letters Have No Arms" (1966). You can't hug the mail.

Do you buy all the records or do people send them to you? Do you have any plans for your vinyl collection?

I've had about 20 records sent to me as gifts for the collection. All the others I have purchased myself. I have been on many roads trips in the U.S. searching for the records. I have traveled through Virginia, North & South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan to date, checking out record shops and antique stores. I also look on Ebay, Discogs, and online record shops. I have built up contacts with record sellers, who often contact me when they come across a rare Vietnam record. Also, followers of the project on Twitter and YouTube sometimes message me with suggestions or sell me records from their personal collections.

What’s the strangest song you’ve come across?

"Let's Send Batman to Viet Nam" by the Sensational Saints comes to mind, it is a novelty garage rock song by the Seeds of Euphoria, released in 1967 on the small Chicago, IL record label TMP-Ting. Definitely check it out on YouTube!

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What’s your favorite?

For me it's about appreciating the overall scope of the project, and observing it from a contemporary perspective.

Are there any records in particular that reveal to you the state of the country during the era?

The aim of the project is to look at all the sides and perspectives to see how the war is represented in music.

The breadth and scope of the songs is extensive, revealing the lives and views of people about the war from all sorts of backgrounds - social-economic, ethnic, age, nationality, gender, and performed in different languages, genres, and locations. There was certainly a battle between the "doves" and "hawks" in the music field, just as it existed in politics.

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The Beach Bums - "The Ballad of the Yellow Beret" (1966). A young Bob Seger calls out the war protesters.

But a closer look at the 5,000+ songs identified, shows many sub-divisions between these camps, such as songs from the perspective of those fighting, and their family and friends back home. Some look at specific issues, like the Kent State shootings, the My Lai Massacre, P.O.W.s, civil rights, napalm, the Vietnam Veteran memorial in D.C, and the impact of the war on veterans (such as PTSD).

Local music scenes developed with more nuanced perspective, such as from Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans. Songs also appeared in international markets, from those involved (eg. Vietnam, Australia, and New Zealand), as well as from observers in Europe, the Caribbean, and South America.

Meanwhile, US soldiers in Vietnam revealed their varied perspectives through hundreds of recorded songs. Many of those were captured on tape by US Major Edward Lansdale, in Vietnam as an adviser from 1954. He wrote in his book that "all along we have been historians without meaning to be...these tapes tell the human side to war". This quote inspires me to continue collecting, and I have found hundreds of songs recorded by U.S. soldiers which are important historical artifacts.

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James Armstrong - "Thank God, Calley Wasn't Black" (1973). One R&B singer voices his support for Lt. Calley but realizes that a black man wouldn't have a prayer in the court system.

Why do you think there are so many Lt. William Calley/My Lai songs?

It was a hugely controversial subject and so drew much attention in music, just like other events and issues did, like the Kent State shootings, and the use of Napalm and Agent Orange. Nixon said in his autobiography that he received more than 5,000 telegrams at the White House, 100 to 1 in favor of Calley, while the Governor of Alabama (George Wallace) and Governor of Georgia (Jimmy Carter) both came out in public in Calley's favor, saying that he was a scapegoat.

But people also influenced the politicians to support Calley. The interesting thing is that many of the songs expressed opposition to the war, but support for Calley. This shows that people were protective of the soldiers and veterans and the duties they performed for the country during a time of war. But looking at it now it is amazing to see the level of support for Calley at the time, because of the strong evidence that the platoon massacred many civilians.

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Reg Lindsay - "Jungles of Vietnam" (1966). Most Americans have no idea that Australia and New Zealand fought alongside the U.S. in Indochina. Even fewer Americans know how popular Jim Reeves-style country music was Down Under.

Most Americans don’t think about Australia’s role in the war but you’ve found a lot of Australian records about Vietnam.

I think people (all over the world) tend to look at their own national history and focus on how it had an impact on their country. This project looks at all sides, from those fighting, including from Australia, North & South Vietnam, and New Zealand, and from those observing around the world. So there are many songs from Australia because they've had there own direct involvement in the war.

More Songs

Here's a small sample of the tunes Justin has collected on his YouTube Channel.

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Jack Cardwell - "Christmas in Vietnam" (1969). A spoken-word bridge is sure to bring the tears.

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Billy Holeman - Prisoner of War (Welcome Back Home)" (1973). Imagine how big a hit this would've been if the songwriters could've gotten past Col. Tom Parker to have Elvis record a version.

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Vettz - "The Wall" (1982). Three years before Bruce recorded "Born in the USA," Vettz deliver some E Street Band-style musings on the Vietnam War Memorial.

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Jimmy Cliff - "Vietnam" (1970). Who expected a reggae song dedicated to a Gold Star mother?

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Steppenwolf - Draft Resister (1969). You'll never hear "Born to Be Wild" the same way again.

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