This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 24 November 2012

The Vietnam Songbook: Review

Author:Barbara Dane and Irwin Silber
About fifteen years ago, while still a student in Lucknow, I was in a second hand bookstall in Hazratganj (“Hobby Corner” in Janpath, for those of you who may know the place). Generally the store provided fairly good material for one of my eclectic tastes, but not on that occasion. Then, as I was about to leave, empty-handed, my eye fell casually on a shelf in the corner, and on a battered-looking cover showing a black and white photo of banner waving demonstrators under an orange and red title: THE VIETNAM SONGBOOK.

Idly, I picked it up, and rifled through the pages. I didn’t rifle long. The book was under my arm as I left, not all that much poorer for the purchase, and infinitely richer for what it gave me.

So what is it? What book can provoke me into giving it five full stars?

Well, on one level it’s not much; a dated (it was published in 1969, back before I was born) collection of Vietnam War protest songs. Songs from not only the USA, but from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Japan, Cuba, Uruguay, and not the least by any means…the songs of the Vietnamese people, with English translations provided.

These songs are of all types; savagely satirical pieces, elegiac laments, quietly angry verses, and some truly hilarious parodies; some are long, some short, and some go off at a tangent. Some perpetuate, if only inadvertently, the myth of Vietnam as an “American Tragedy” (one of the greatest jokes of the latter part of the twentieth century), while others point it out for what it really was, a Vietnamese tragedy, one from which the Vietnamese have to date not fully recovered and perhaps never shall.

And along with the songs are the photos; stark black and white pictures, showing anti-war demonstrators in the US and elsewhere, heroes of the anti-war movement (including boxer Muhammad Ali, who has a couple of songs dedicated to him, incidentally), and the Vietnamese. Oh, yes, the Vietnamese, who have been virtually airbrushed out of contemporary American memories of the war. Vietnamese peasants, grieving their dead; Vietnamese girl soldiers, manning the heavy machine guns which brought down American fighters like clay pigeons; Vietnamese teachers and their open-air classes full of kids; a people with a face.

Oh - let’s not forget those songs.

In recent days, I’ve been rereading those songs…and I’m both saddened and far from surprised that things have so much remained the same. Then, a war against a people halfway around the world, fought by draftees, while the profiteers stayed safely home and preached a crusade against the Evil Red. Now, a war against a multitude of peoples, half way around the world, fought by poverty draftees, while the profiteers stay safely home and preach a crusade against the Evil Islamofascist.

Instead of going on, I’ll just put in a song from the book here:


Words: Aaron Kramer
Music: Waldemar Hille
Copyright 1968 by Aaron Kramer and Waldemar Hille

Hush - a - bye, baby, no sense in weeping
If one more village burns while you are sleeping
Next year will come, or the year after
Lady Bird Johnson with speeches and laughter.

Into the grave that once was a country
Into hushed forests, vultures for sentry
Past orphans' eyes, like an Angel of  Mercy
Lady Bird Johnson will come with a curtsey.

Magic white fingers this lady possesses
Love for all landscape this lady professes
She shall advance, while the cameras follow
Through the black fields, the cities bombed hollow

Lady Bird Johnson, with a wand like a witch's
Soon will make whole the wounds of our hutches
Soon will make green the woods and the meadows
Under which lie the loves of our widows

Hush - a - bye, baby, no sense in weeping
If one more village burns while you are sleeping
Next year will come, or the year after
Lady Bird Johnson with speeches and laughter.


Now, substitute "kasbah" for "village" and "orchard" for "forest", and “Hillary Clinton” for "Lady Bird Johnson.” Has anything changed?

I don’t think so.

N.B. This book was written at a time when nobody could really have imagined the Vietnamese would outlast and beat the Empire. Today, they give us hope that the resistance movements round the world will outlast and beat the Empire. For the blood and iron in people have not changed; and the Empire, the Empire has not changed.

We shall overcome...this day.

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