The Gold-Plated Soundtrack of a War and an Era…

…Next Stop Is Vietnam: The War on Record, 1961-2008, 14 CD anthology
and 304-page companion book, by Hugo Keesing, with forward by Country Joe
McDonald, Bear Family Records, 2010.

THE LONGEST AMERICAN war of the 20th century inflamed the most divisive period in the nation’s entire history outside the Civil War. It is sometimes hard to recall the true depths of the chasm caused by the Vietnam War and how the nation was transformed under its influence. However, a new and unparalleled collection of the music of that era will clear out the cobwebs of those who lived through it, and for those who didn’t it will be a real eye opener. The epic anthology, …Next Stop Is Vietnam, through its 300-plus tracks of some of the most popular and most obscure music directly related to Vietnam, along with key news reports and speeches, takes listeners on the long journey of the war, from its flag-waving beginnings through its flag-burning opposition and on to its harsh aftermath and into sober reflections, regrets and healing.

The heavily illustrated accompanying book—sort of liner notes on steroids—adds context and depth to the individual tracks, artists and to the era itself. In his forward, Country Joe McDonald concludes: “You will laugh. You will cry. But you will never quite be the same after you experience this box set of collective work.” That is true.

Hugo Keesing’s love for collecting music began long before he spent some time teaching GIs in Vietnam and writing his doctoral dissertation on the impact of rock ’n’ roll on youth and then teaching a course called Popular Music in American Society at the University of Maryland. Years in the making, Next Stop Is Vietnam is no simple compilation of Keesing’s favorites from the era, but rather a careful distillation of a refined “Vietnam Discography” of some 4,000 Vietnam War–related songs.

“The challenge,” Keesing writes, “was to decide what to include and what would have to be left out,” all the while keeping a balance of pro-war, antiwar and neutral songs. The CDs are organized both chronologically and thematically, starting with “Mister, Where Is Vietnam?” (Disc 1), to “Hell No, We Won’t Go” and “Love It or Leave It” (Discs 4 and 5).

Music by artists who composed and performed their songs while serving in-country, and post-war veteran and commercial music, is also included. Discs 12 and 13 are veteran-only, offering perspectives on the war and its aftereffects, including PTSD and Agent Orange, culled from the collection of Country Joe McDonald (yes, he of the “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’-to-Die Rag” and “gimme an F” fame), who has long been a strong supporter of veterans. A 14th disc is a nifty compilation of the lyrics of each track in the anthology.

Among the best-known recording artists on the anthology: Hoyt Axton, Joan Baez, Pat Boone, Ernest Tubb, John Lennon, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Jimmy Cliff,  Connie Francis, Merle Haggard, John Lee Hooker, Chris Noel, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Peter Paul and Mary, John Prine, Steppenwolf, Paul Revere & The Raiders, Barry Sadler, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Pete Seeger, Hank Snow, Hank Williams Jr., Melanie, Dylan, Donovan, Springsteen, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Animals, Doors, Kingston Trio and Statler Brothers.

While the anthology includes most of what would be expected in the popular music vein, licensing or other issues have left some obvious gaps. For example, an extended section of the protest disc revolves around the Kent State shootings with three tunes directly related to the event. Neil Young’s “Ohio,” however, an iconic anti-war anthem, was not among them.

Some things we may have forgotten, or never knew, include the number of tear-jerking songs by children (“Our Daddy’s in Vietnam,” “The Son of a Green Beret,” “Please Mr. Johnson” and “Little Becky’s Christmas Wish,” among others), GI letter home riffs, and the extent of the love-it-or-leave-it, generational conflict messages (“Mister Professor,” “An Open Letter to My Teenage Son,” “Letter From a Teenage Son”). Packed into the set are selections that range from heart-rending to hilarious (“Letter to a Buddie,” “Ballad of the Yellow Beret”). Some are laugh-out-loud ridiculous, others touch something deep inside.

Even for those possessing a keen knowledge of the music of the period, they are guaranteed to find some unknown gems. One of those is Thom Parrott’s haunting homage to WO2 Hugh Thompson and his co-pilot for their courage and humanity at My Lai. His “Pinkville Helicopter,” rendered in a mournful chord that is reminiscent of the Woody Guthrie masterpiece “1913 Massacre,” evokes the best and worst of the war.

Produced by Bear Family Records in Germany, specialists in compilations for international distribution, Next Stop Is Vietnam carries a hefty price tag ($289 on Amazon), but what it delivers is powerful and priceless, a unique set sure to be the gold standard for those seeking to understand the true tenor of the times. The collection’s breadth, masterful production and high-quality sound all make for a stunning impact that will stick with you.

R.V. Lee

  Take a moment to check out NPR’s review of Next Stop Is Vietnam