Various Artists

Vietnam: Songs from the Divided House

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This two-CD set is a real puzzler. Issued in conjunction with the A&E cable channel offshoot The History Channel, this is a sort of short course in the cultural history of the Vietnam War, set to music -- no one is likely to mind any of the latter, which is a nice, broad selection of material and accounts for the high rating it gets, but the set is also a lesson in missed opportunities. As to the content, the booklet, written by Barry Alfonso, has most of the history, while the two compact discs contain a good, occasionally insightful array of music, some of it referring to the war (or to war) not at all, but representative of the historical era, and also of the mentality at home at various levels, others steeped in the politics on one side or the other. The makers drew from the libraries of Capitol-EMI Records, Atlantic Records, Elektra Records, Columbia Records, RCA Records, Pye Records, and MCA Records, which has given them a wide body of music to choose from -- though no Beatles, Rolling Stones, Peter, Paul & Mary, or Bob Dylan (they all only get compiled with their own direct approval, and tend to reserve that approval for serious, totally scholarly compilations by the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress et al.). Curiously, not included among the songs that are supposed to have meaning to participants are such obvious selections as "Let's Live for Today" by the Grass Roots and "Last Train to Clarksville," perhaps because they're too ubiquitous in other contexts, but also missing among the obvious, on either side of the political spectrum, are numbers such as the Byrds' "Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man" and "Draft Morning" and Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee" and "The Fightin' Side of Me." A few of the numbers, such as "Wooly Bully" by Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, may evoke a period very nicely, but others, like "A Whiter Shade of Pale," seem to be here because they were available and are well-known, more than -- regardless of the claim in the notes for the latter song -- any special resonance that they had for soldiers serving in the field. Still, despite these shortcomings and flaccid moments, there's nothing not to like about disc one, which is a great '60s party record in any context. Disc two is more politically focused, and intersperses mostly highly topical songs, pro- or antiwar, by Country Joe & the Fish, Donovan, Tom Paxton, the Kingston Trio, Phil Ochs, and Sgt. Barry Sadler, with excerpts of speeches by presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon -- one does sort of wish that the producers could have found an excerpt of any earlier speech where Johnson vowed not to escalate the war, in order to frame the level of betrayal that many of his supporters felt in the context of the speech excerpt that is here. This is the more conceptual disc, where the history lesson melds with the music, and it's not the light listening of the earlier CD, though it's difficult to complain of the content on any serious level, except that Phil Ochs did more direct songs about the war, and one of the Merle Haggard numbers did belong here ("Okie From Muskogee," in particular, was a pop hit as well as a country hit). Additionally, as "Eve of Destruction," authored by P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri, is present on disc two, it would seem to have been even more sensible to put their production of "Let's Live for Today" on disc one. It's astonishing in a way, given what is here -- Eric Burdon & the Animals' "Sky Pilot," one of the most confrontational, in-your-face songs about the war -- that some of these other choices were not made. In their defense, the producers did extend their reach to such tracks as "Vietnam" by Jimmy Cliff and generally have availed themselves of what seem like the most up-to-date remasterings of each track here, so there are no audio complaints about this release. The booklet has 16 pages of historical text, good for anyone under 40 buying this -- the rest of us who were here lived it, one way or another, on one side or the other, and sometimes on both.

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