James P. ‘Bull’ Durham: True Balladeer of the Vietnam War

6/12/2006 • Lyndon B. Johnson, Vietnam

In World War I the American doughboy sang ‘Over There, in World War II the American GI Joe sang The White Cliffs of Dover, in the Korean War the American GI sang Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, and in the Vietnam War American troops sang When the Mortars Come Rolling In.

Every war or armed conflict has been a spawning ground for barracks songs or ballads of the fighting man. In fact, the same can be said even of warfare during Roman times.

But the Vietnam War (an undeclared war, actually) was an experience of a new and unusual kind. There’s no doubt about it. American involvement in the Vietnamese fracas was totally different, so different, in fact, that the whole 10-year affair turned into a bucket of worms before it came to be known as the no-win war.

The music that came out of the long, drawn-out Vietnam conflict was, likewise, totally different, composed by grunts, pilots, sailors, even CIA men. The music was a combination of country, bluegrass, even rock-and-roll.

There was a song about the Saigon Warrior, the rear-echelon trooper who worried more about sharp creases, how bright his brass shone, or what it would take to impress a Saigon bar girl than he did about combat. And there were the moody, reflective, true songs of the combat soldier or pilot who daily looked death in the eye from a thousand angles. One particular song even reflected on the shape of the table at the Paris peace talks. Vietnam was also where a deejay named Adrian Kronhour played music for the troops on Armed Forces Radio–and became a hero.

It has been said that life for the military in wartime is dull routine broken by moments of incredible violence. In Vietnam there were fewer breaks between the violence. That may be the reason that caustic and sometimes downright sarcastic songs, especially songs aimed at pompous authority figures, came out of the Southeast Asian conflict.

There is a hard irony: Those songs, composed and sung 20 years ago and even further back, though often ribald and caustic, have never been heard by rank-and-file civilian America. But they will now, if James P. Bull Durham, who served as a pilot in Vietnam, has his way. Durham, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel living in western Tennessee, considers himself a better than average guitar picker, with a better than average voice. Says Durham, I’m not just another pretty face.

In fact, says the 6-foot-2-inch Durham, a lot of these songs [he’s collected more than 300 of them] are protest songs. But he quickly adds, Most of the songs are about the day-to-day fight to survive in a strange land where all the rules were vastly different. In one of his own compositions, Crack Went the Rifle, he sings: While cultured men in shirts of lace/Debate the shape of the meeting place/The common man plays hide and seek with death. Obviously, this is not a song to play at a party–unless you want to throw a very wet blanket over the merrymaking.

Bull Durham is on two Flying Fish Records albums, Songs of S.E.A. (SEA is the military lingo for Southeast Asia) and In Country. The second album was produced especially for the soldiers and Marines who crawled and walked the jungle trails on Charlie’s (the Viet Cong’s) real estate.

Durham appeared on Austin City Limits, a PBS production, with megastar Kris Kristofferson. His collection of songs has been recorded and placed in the archives of the Library of Congress. But Durham wants to make sure his Vietnam songs have wider distribution than being for sale at flea markets or being buried in attic junk.

He contends that: If Robert Strange McNamara [he emphasizes the middle name] can now publish a book saying how wrong politically and militarily our involvement was in Vietnam, I should be able to emphasize the soldier’s side of the story. If I’m not successful, that Wall [the Vietnam Veterans Memorial] in Washington and all the names on it, are for naught.

Hell, it might have been in an era of bad political decisions, and heavy military decisions were made by unqualified politicians, but the warriors who fought that war were good men! says Durham.

Don’t get me wrong, he adds, I’m just a homegrown, everyday, run-of-the-mill war hero, but I know you writers. You’ll hype it up to look like I won the Vietnam War all by myself. He takes a long pause. I did not. But you know, I’ve noticed the older I get the more daring my war stories get.

Durham, now of Halls, Tenn., was born with a hairlip in a ‘holler’ [hollow] in the hills of Kentucky, the son of a Baptist minister. He still carries himself ramrod straight and looks much younger than his 67 years. He started his singing and guitar-picking career in the U.S. Air Force. During the Korean War he flew psychological warfare missions and played guitar.

In 1962, while Durham was flying Boeing B-52s, General Thomas Powers, commander of Strategic Air Command (SAC), heard a recording of Durham’s songs. Impressed, Powers assigned Durham a North American Rockwell T-39 twin-engine transport and three more musicians. The group flew to SAC air bases all over the United States, performing at formal dining ins and at SAC noncommissioned officers clubs. That’s when Captain Durham, B-52 pilot, wrote music parodying SAC–songs such as The Crew That Never Returned and The Wreck of the Old 97. SAC might have laughed at itself, but his songs did not make the wheels happy. Those songs and others were on his first album, Songs of SAC.

Durham flew a Puff the Magic Dragon (Douglas AC-47) gunship in Vietnam, but spent most of his time flying the Douglas EC-47. Much of the information about the EC-47 in Vietnam is still classified. I was a hired driver, Durham says, for MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] electrical geniuses. Why, that ‘Gooney Bird’ was older than my co-pilot! He flew the EC-47 along the Laotian, Cambodian and North Vietnamese borders, picking up North Vietnamese radio orders to NVA (North Vietnamese Army) units in the field.

In one of his Vietnam war songs, Durham says the C-47 (forever known affectionately as the Gooney Bird) flew in World War I. That’s not quite true, but the twin-engine transport plane did fly as early as 1932. A typical EC-47 mission was seven hours long. After the seven-hour stint flying the Gooney with electronic gear, Durham and a four-piece band–the Starlighters–would load their gear onto an Army helicopter or, if their destination was close enough, an Army truck, and go to firebases in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, hot locations where USO entertainers could not go.

Restrictions were placed on USO performers after all five members of an Australian rock-and-roll band, performing at a forward firebase, were killed by an incoming Viet Cong (VC) mortar round that fell on the makeshift stage.

Durham rounded up the musicians from such diverse places as the base motor pool at his home base of Pleiku. One band member was found working in a base laundry. Once the group was formed, they practiced wherever they could. One time the four men, plus instruments, crowded into Durham’s small living quarters. We got real friendly–real fast, Durham recalls with a smile. The group petitioned the powers that be in Saigon, home of MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) for permission to perform at far forward firebases. They reasoned that if a USO group could not go to the lonely firebases, then certainly men already in the military services should be able to go. The top brass in Saigon, given an endorsement from the home base in Pleiku, took two weeks to make a decision–record-breaking time for a military decision. The hastily formed Starlighters were soon on their way to making entertainment history–a history that is known by very few Americans.

Quite often the firebases where the Starlighters performed would be attacked by the VC; the show would be interrupted, and the Starlighters would then become fighting American servicemen. After the firefight, the band would resume the show. Most of the time the stage was a truck bed. Bull Durham describes one such incident: Incoming artillery shells and mortar rounds started falling on the camp, and all the lights were turned off. The band kept playing, to a now ‘captive’ audience.

Retired from the Air Force at Offut Air Force Base near Omaha as a lieutenant colonel, Durham bought a bar in nearby Iowa. After five years, he got out of the saloon business. Today, looking back on those five years, he says, I just got tired of drunks asking me to play tunes I never heard of, and then getting mad because I didn’t know them.

He tried the country music big time in Nashville but failed. He says now, I’ve never seen so many unemployed guitar pickers in all my born days. While in Nashville, he received accolades aplenty. But accolades don’t put food on the table.

Tom Price of the School for Fretted Instruments says of Durham’s act: The Bull Durham Show [he’s also a better-than-average stand-up comedian] consistently thrills audiences. From the minute he walks on stage, Bull establishes a close relationship with the crowd through his puns, jokes and dynamic presence. Bull Durham’s music is alive, his musicians excellent.

During his Nashville days, Durham met other musicians who had written songs while in Vietnam, including Bill Ellis and Chuck Rosenberg, who wrote: What I’d give for an ice-cold Coke/ Or, just a piece of ice to cool the water/ It’s getting hotter. Pack on your back, rifle in your hand/ Every step you take, death is holding your hand/ Walking in Charlies’ land.

Another song, The Ho Chi Minh Trail, is a trenchant twist on an old cowboy campfire ballad, with words about death and dying. Then there’s Sittin’ in the Cab of My Truck, written by Churck Dockery, which includes the lyrics: Here I sit, havin’ a nicotine fit/ God I’m too scared to get a cigarette lit.

Durham wrote Jolly Green, a paean about the big rescue helicopters used in Vietnam: I sit here alone in this tree/ Scared of ‘Charlie’ as I can be/ Wish to the Lord that I could see Jolly Green.

Saul Brody, a first lieutenant with the 96th Quartermaster Battalion at Phan Rang, wrote most of his songs after talking to U.S. Army helicopter pilots in the 148th Assault Helicopter Company, the Blue Stars. In Green T-shirt Blues he sings, If I ever get out of this place/ I’m going back and join the human race.

Lydia Fish, a folklorist and musicologist from Buffalo State College in New York, is one of the world’s leading specialists on war songs (see Fish’s Perspectives article in the October 1990 Vietnam). She first discovered the works of Bull Durham when she bought one of his albums for 50 cents at an upstate New York flea market. Fish notes that most Americans were unaware of the music that was being made in Vietnam: The guitars were at Woodstock, the guns were in Vietnam–or so civilian America imagined.

Looking back, Durham says, I always knew my records were selling like hot cakes–but at that price, you could buy a whole stack for a buck and a half. It was Fish who convinced all of the soldier-songwriters, including Donut Dolly Emily Strange, a former Red Cross worker, that they should record their songs for the Library of Congress. Hardly anyone outside of the military has heard these songs, says Fish. The problem wasn’t so much access as receptivity. Veterans of the Vietnam War bore the stigma of a war no one wanted to hear about.

Toby Hughes flew an F-4 Phantom fighter out of Cam Rahn Bay Air Base in South Vietnam. In his spare time he wrote down the songs he composed while in the cockpit of the big fighter. Hughes points out: It took us 20 years to get people to start listening. But they’re listening now. Some are having their eyes opened.

Salient facts about the many Vietnam-era war songs have not previously been available to the public. Why? Because the subject matter was classified Secret. A respected American officer in South Vietnam sent to the late President Lyndon B. Johnson a tape-recorded collection of Vietnam war songs, in hopes that the president would be swayed into changing his political and war tactics. The subtle public relations play did not work.

It’s funny, muses Durham, here we are talking about the Vietnam War–a war that wasn’t a war–more than 20 years after the fall of Saigon. The twinkle disappears from his eyes when he recalls the ghosts of a bygone era. Tell me, he continues, if it wasn’t a war, why are so very many names on that Wall?

This article was written by Joe Patrick and originally published in the August 1996 issue of Vietnam Magazine.

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