“Hello, darkness, my old friend.”
“The Vietnam War” – A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick – THE SOUNDTRACK
Anyone who saw the epic TV history series, “The Vietnam War”, on BBC 2 recently will know just how much its visceral power and ultimately elegiac mood was created through the juxtaposition of devastating still images and cine film with the amazing popular music of that desperate, dark time. The loss of a nation’s innocence was never more starkly echoed in the music that its youth created. Although Burns and Novick’s series draws powerfully from testimony from all sides of the conflict, this survey of the period’s music focuses almost solely on the American pop, soul, folk and rock tunes of the era; but this is also the music the youth of the whole western world was listening to at the time, whether as active participants in the conflict or as horrified observers watching the tragedy unfold relentlessly on nightly TV bulletins.
The series itself is one the finest television works of this or any other decade and explores, in forensic detail, the war on so many levels: its heroism, idealism and sacrifice; its tragedy, depravity and futility; its political duplicity and mendacity. This double cd soundtrack reflects all the above and shows how much the Vietnam experience shaped the music of this blighted American generation through the blues, soul, rock, folk and country of its young.
The collection is not curated in strictly chronological order, rather it relies on dramatic shifts, developments and parallels and ironic juxtapositions. In this way it reflects the emotional arc of the series itself.
And so, opening with Dylan’s ominous “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” we move quickly into the the jangly, apple-pie, “we’re all in it together” deterministic patriotism of Johnnie Wright’s “Hello Vietnam”. The optimistic mood then shifts rapidly, though, with the 1965 hit, ” Eve of Destruction” (Barry McGuire)and a more reflective, elegiac tone is never far away with remarkable tunes like The Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”. Hearing these two songs in this context is devastatingly poignant.
The chaotic, messy, helter-skelter energy of the conflict is also evoked in a number of well-known tunes: “Green Onions” by Booker T and the MGs, Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced”, “I’m a Man” by the Spencer Davis Group and Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride”. Of course, the Vietnam war opened up violent conflicts at home, too, and these are dramatically recalled in “For What its Worth” and “Ohio” – (Buffalo Springfield/ Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young respectively) and the counter-revolutionary “Okie from Muskogie” by Merle Haggard.
As the collection draws to its close we are are given the iconic Gaye track “What’s Going On” and finally the mood moves to one of weary, melancholy reconciliation evoked in “Bridge over Troubled Water” and the , The Beatles’ with the celebrated “Let It Be”.
All the core musical genres of the sixties and early seventies are amply represented in this 38 track compilation. Sure, there are some surprising omissions – no Country Joe and the Fish for example – but, on the other hand, some of the unexpected inclusions are strikingly poignant and a real success.
“The Vietnam War: The Soundtrack” is, then, a fantastic reflection of a dramatic time and a revealing secondary source for the history of a particular period and way it is perceived to this day. But, lest we forget, these are all great tunes in their own right and this compilation is also a cracking collection of some of the most powerful and politicised music in the popular culture of any era
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