The Vietnam War–A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: The Soundtrack (2017)

I haven’t seen Ken Burns’ latest on The Vietnam War (which I notice sustains the implicit arrogance of so many of his other titles–The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, etc.–the persistent implication that he has rendered the last word on each subject in turn, and one need look no further).

But the two-disc soundtrack (thirty-seven tracks in all) looked promising, maybe because I didn’t read too carefully past the head-spinning, conceptually heart-stopping triple-header near the top of the first disc: “It’s My Life,” “Eve of Destruction,” “Turn, Turn, Turn.”

Now that I’ve had the soundtrack experience, I can make the following observations.

First: It’s never a good sign when “flimmakers” insist on putting their names in the title of their film. It’s really not a good sign when they insist on putting their names on the title of the soundtrack.

Second: The cover’s as pedestrian, and perversely revealing, as the title. Wonder how the big shots at PBS would have reacted if Burns and company had insisted on an image that reversed the positions of the American fighting man and the Vietnamese peasant above? Wonder how they would have reacted if they had reversed the positions and then replaced the image of the Vietnamese peasant with an image of a North Vietnamese fighting man? Wouldn’t that have been a least a little unsettling?

Third: And shouldn’t we want a thirty-seven track soundtrack of The Vietnam War to be at least a little unsettling?

I’m not saying nothing good happens. That triple-header is all it promised to be, even coming out of a pedestrian country number (Johnny Wright’s Country #1, “Hello, Vietnam,” which, along with Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” is supposed the represent the Pro-War, or at least Pro-American Fighting Man position, which, if you’re gonna go there, why not pick a blood-and-guts number like “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” which is also a better record). Ray Charles’ take on “America the Beautiful” is a great setup for “What’s Going On.” And having Janis Joplin bleed out of Bob Dylan’s folk-phase version of his own “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” provides one of those recontextualizing jolts that make such comps worth our attention in the first place.

But, my God, what a missed opportunity.

Not having seen it, I can’t speak for the way the music is used in the series (the more accurate description for the “film” in question), but there were a few good ways to go with the soundtrack and whoever did the choosing, chose “none of the above.”

One good way, would have been just a straight run of the “iconic music of the Vietnam era” promised by the cover.

That would have meant including “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and both the Dylan and Hendrix versions of “All Along the Watchtower.” That would have meant more than one Creedence number (and if there was only one, it should have been “Fortunate Son” or “Run Through the Jungle” not “Bad Moon Rising,” great and appropo as it is). That would have meant the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” over the Temptations’ relatively pedestrian “Psychedelic Shack,” and their “We Can Be Together” over the Beatles’ “Let It Be” as an album closer, with the Fabs represented instead by “Hey Jude,” or “Revolution” or something from The White Album. That would have meant the Band’s “The Weight.” That would have meant including Edwin Starr’s “War” and the Chambers’ Brothers “Time Has Come Today” and the Supremes’ “Reflections.”  That would have meant a track or two from the Doors and adding the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” to their “Gimme Shelter.” That would have meant the Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.” That would have meant Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “500 Miles” as a side-opener (instead of Dylan’s blustering and not nearly as convincing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”)

Well, none of that happened.

Which would be fine if, instead, those choosing had come up with inspired numbers from the Secret Sixties and used this high-profile opportunity to introduce new audiences to not-so-well-known numbers which caught–and still catch–the tenor of the times as well as anything even if they were never big hits. Think the Mamas and the Papas of “Straight Shooter” (or, as I never fail to mention “Safe in my Garden”). Think the Peter, Paul and Mary of “Too Much of Nothing.” (Dylan, incidentally, is the only artist who gets three cuts here. There should be less of Dylan the singer and more of Dylan the writer. Standing this close to Janis Joplin or Eric Burdon, forget the Howlin’ Wolf or Wilson Pickett or “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” he does not come off well absent his rock and roll voice.)

Anyway back to thinking: Think the Supremes of “Forever Came Today.” Think the Shangri-Las of “Never Again” or “I’ll Never Learn.” Think the Fairport Convention of “Nottamun Town” or “Meet on the Ledge” or even “I’ll Keep it With Mine” instead of “The Lord is in This Place” (fine and haunting, but too much of a mood piece to stand between “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “For What It’s Worth” without being diminished and diminishing them in turn, something a well made comp should never do).

And still thinking: Think the Byrds of “Goin’ Back” or “Draft Morning,” or even “The Ballad of Easy Rider.” Think the Waylon Jennings of “Six White Horses.” Think the Nancy Sinatra of “Home.”

Think all the beach soul numbers that carried a hint of warning behind even the most positive dance-happy messages (Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs on “May I” or the Tams on “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy”–think what that must have felt like if you heard it in Saigon while you were waiting for the next chopper out.

One could go on. One could on so far as to have used these numbers to fill an entire soundtrack by themselves.

Or one could have gone yet another, third, direction and used them as stitching between the more obvious anthems and constructed a soundtrack that wouldn’t quit and wouldn’t die.

Of course, for that, you would have needed less taste and more guts.

Nothing Ken Burns or PBS would ever be accused of, I’m sure.

Absent all that, unless you really need Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” in a context where you don’t have to listen to him sing for a whole album without the Weavers, I say give this one a pass.

Me, I always liked Dave Marsh’s idea that if “Leader of the Pack” had come out a year later, it would have been heard as a much better metaphor for the unfolding quagmire from which we have never emerged.

And, for the record, I wouldn’t really have closed with “We Can Be Together.” I’d of let that be penultimate (replacing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and closed with this, from the truly “closing” year of 1972.

Take it Mavis:



7 thoughts on “NOT HAVING A TV….GOOD THING? BAD THING? (CD Review)

  1. EDN

    Based on things I read on the Internet and heard from friend on the Burns series, I have avoided it so far. But your piece here caused me to place a request for the DVDs at the library, so I should be watching it in a few weeks.

    In 1970-1972, my apartment was known for its “good vibes” and as a place to come for people whose trips had turned into bummers. I had several Vietnam vets—most of them in my age group—who I brought down from bad trips. Eventually they’d get around to the War and talk about what they did there.

    And it was always about what they did to the Vietnamese, not what the Vietnamese did to them.

    It will be interesting to see if Burns goes there …


    PS: Like most of your song selection suggestions. Without really thinking about it, if I were in charge of song selection, “Run Through the Jungle” would open the album and “Gimme Shelter” would close it.

    • That’s an excellent way to go if you choose the “iconography” route. The problem with the soundtrack as it exists is that the compiler(s) had no clear vision of what it should be so it’s just a grab bag. Plenty of fine music (how could there not be?), but the obvious stuff is diminished by th even more obvious stuff that’s NOT there and the obscure or at least less obvious stuff is neither well chosen nor well programmed.

      And I’m sure Burns’ series is well made and will have many fine moments. They all do. But it will probably end up being reassuring.They all are. And I’m not sure that’s a good approach to Vietnam.

      But yes, I’ll definitely try to see it at some point. Gotta stay in touch with all the narratives!

  2. I couldn’t watch the series. My husband did as a penance, I think, for drawing a high number in the lottery. He graduated high school in 1966. For their 50th reunion, last year, I offered to prepare the “memorial” slide show. It was done chronologically and I wept at how many of his classmates died in the first few years after graduating. Nearly all were young men who went to Vietnam.
    As I walked through the living room from time to time I noticed the music was appropriate at times and jarring at others. Those songs are painful, still.
    When will we ever learn?

    • Thanks so much for sharing Peggy. I went to high school in rural North Florida in the 70s. The schools used to keep photos of their grads who had died in Nam in the sports trophy cases of the basketball gyms. Every school you went to, there was always at least one. It seems there are few, if any, happy memories of that war, no matter which position one took. Strange to think that we overcame the divisions of the Civil War itself more easily. I still plan to watch the series at some point….I came along a little alter so I’m always looking for a better understanding. But the soundtrack makes me wonder if the series will offer anyway.

  3. Coincidentally, I watched part five the documentary last night.

    I dvr’d the whole series, but only take in one or two parts a week. There’s a lot to digest and since it’s such a dark part of our history, it’s too depressing to watch it any more frequently than that.

    As far as quality goes, it’s terrific. I’ve liked everything I’ve seen by Ken Burns. He may have an agenda or whatever you want to call it, but every producer does, so I don’t hold it against him as long as the facts are correct.

    As far as the music goes, it’s used fairly well so far. There isn’t much in the way of “deep cuts” but given this is aimed at a wide audience, I can see why they didn’t raid the vaults for much in the way of diversity.

    It’s a tough thing to revisit, but if you have any interest in history from that era, it’s worth the time.

    I gotta add….yeah, his name is on everything, but again, I don’t blame him for that. I’m a fan, so if I see a new documentary with his name on it, I’m gonna sit up and take notice. If it was just “The Vietnam War” with his name nowhere to be seen, I don’t know if I would have noticed it.

    By the way, I believe his next release (coming out in a year or two I think) is the history of Country music. Will it be perfect? Nope, but I’ll enjoy it anyway.

    • Oh I always try to watch and I’ve seen most of his stuff and I’ll certainly see this at some point (I’d of watched it when it ran if I’d had a television). There is an air of finality to what he does (at least so it seems to me). As part of the conversation is work is fine, often moving. But too many people seem to think in terms of-well Ken Burns has done his doc, so we can put that one to bed now! Perhaps inevitable given how ubiquitous his work has been for a quarter of a century now.

      But my main focus is the soundtrack that’s been released, which I see s a real missed opportunity. It’s trying to be all things to all people and therefor missing the very Point of View strength that you mention. There’s nothing to agree or disagree with, just a grab-bag for callers at the next pledge drive. With Burns’ rep so solidly in place, I think it was fair to expect something either a little more challenging or a true document of the periods “iconic” music. On that level it was very disappointing.

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