Choosing a musical soundtrack to the Vietnam war would be easy. After rejecting Paul Hardcastle's "Nineteen" (the UK's No 1 in May 1985) as insufficiently authentic, we'd probably begin like Apocalypse Now, with the whirr of helicopter rotor blades fading into "The End" by The Doors. Acid-rock and Hendrix's tortured version of "The Star Spangled Banner" from Woodstock could follow, along with a few counter-cultural protest songs such as Country Joe's "Feel Like I'm Fixing to Die Rag", another Woodstock favourite, and Neil Young's "Ohio". Maybe Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler's gung-ho "Ballad of the Green Berets" (a UK No 24 in March 1966), would be in there, too. Real aficionados might also include "Bad Moon Rising" by Creedence Clearwater Revival.
But popular memory can be misleading. What it almost certainly wouldn't come up with is soul music. This is significant because soul, more than any other genre including country (its white, redneck cousin), had a rich and articulate response to the Vietnam war. As a brilliant new compilation album, A Soldier's Sad Story: Vietnam Through the Eyes of Black America 1966-73, shows, the songs of soul stars such as Joe Tex, Edwin Starr, Freda Payne, Curtis Mayfield, The O'Jays, James Carr and William Bell - as well as many more obscure artists - documented the changing attitudes of black Americans towards the conflict with striking fidelity.
And fidelity is a big issue. In the early years of 1966 and 1967, the faithfulness of wives and sweethearts left at home is a frequent topic, as in "While I'm Away (Baby Keep the Faith)" by Eddy G Giles and The Jive Five. By 1971, however, the personal has long since given way to the political. Edwin Starr records "Stop the War Now", and Freda Payne releases "Bring the Boys Home". Both are terrific songs, but failed to become smash hits like the previous year's "War" and "Band of Gold". By 1973, with the war's end in sight, the focus shifts back to the US. Bill Withers contemplates a veteran's missing limb in the eloquent "I Can't Write Left-Handed", while Swamp Dogg covers folkie John Prine's junkie lament "Sam Stone", with its bitter chorus of "There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes".
This being soul music, there's also an awful lot of starkly beautiful ballads, like James Carr's "Let's Face Facts". Here, the supposed context seems secondary to an underlying structure of almost metaphysical longing, sadness and alienation. When it came to making metaphors for a nation in crisis, soul - always the most humanist of musical forms - excelled itself. And there was quantity as well as quality: the album's compiler, Tony Rounce, estimates that four times as many "black" records were made about the war than "white" records. Why this should be so requires a little history.
When President Johnson instituted "Project 100,000" in 1966, the number of US servicemen in Vietnam increased dramatically, from only 23,000 at the beginning of 1965 to over 465,000 by the end of 1967. As the "Project" involved lowering qualification standards for draft entrance, thousands of black servicemen - like Muhammad Ali - suddenly found themselves eligible for the first time. Although black Americans represented only 11 per cent of the US population, they formed 41 per cent of "Project 100,000" recruits. The other ethnic group to be similarly affected was poor whites from the southern states; in other words, country fans.
As James Maycock's excellent sleeve essay for the album shows, Vietnam may have been the US's first racially integrated war, with black and white soldiers serving in the same units, but equality was hardly a watchword. As tensions rose at home, and the fight for civil rights led into the era of Black Power, Vietnam became a weird, distorted mirror of domestic relations. Black servicemen faced discrimination from racist officers and fellow recruits; they were penalised for letting their hair grow out into Afros, and they had to fight to get black music played on service jukeboxes and the Armed Forces Radio Network. Black servicemen also died in disproportionate numbers. As one black private said at the time: "When it comes to rank, we are left out. When it comes to special privileges, we are left out. When it comes to patrols, operations and so forth, we are first." Eldridge Cleaver wrote that black Americans, "are asked to die for the system in Vietnam, in Watts they are killed by it."
The growth in black consciousness politicised soldiers' attitudes. "They would wear black amulets, black beads, black gloves to show their identity and racial pride", wrote Wallace Terry, a Vietnam correspondent for Time magazine, who collected the testimonies of servicemen for his oral history, Bloods. This change in emphasis is evident in A Soldier's Sad Story, but, being a soul album, it naturally leans toward the gentler side of things; to "letter" songs, and to mournful bugle and martial drum motifs. Equivalent jazz, funk and blues songs not included on the album are much harder, like The Last Poets' "Die Niggaz!!!", Les McCann and Eddie Harris's "Compared to What?", and John Lee Hooker's "I Don't Want to go to Vietnam".
The great soul star William Bell, represented on the album by the comparatively jaunty "Marching Off to War" from 1966, has a unique perspective. "Right after recording it I was drafted into the military, and spent two years there," he told me from his home in Atlanta recently. "I was in the 14th Infantry and although I didn't see front-line fighting, I was in a mortar brigade that stayed just behind the front line, so we were in the thick of it. After three months based in Taiwan they brought us back. I was a short-timer as they called it and my stint was coming to an end. I spent the rest of my service in Hawaii, where they arranged for me to entertain the troops."
As well as interrupting his career at Stax Records - when he returned to Memphis, Otis Redding had become the new star - Bell's time in South East Asia left its mark. "As soldiers, when you came home, some of the attitudes were still the same, segregation and so forth," he says. Friends also died. "Afterwards, I would see guys at concerts and they would tell me. There was a sergeant I had served with who I saw at a concert in New York, and he had lost an arm." Bell agrees that despite all the white protest-singers, not that many protest songs seemed to get written by major artists. "Yeah, most of the rock guys, they kinda left it alone; nobody wrote about it too much, except people like Bruce (Springsteen) later on." That Vietnam became such a specialist subject for soul music does not, however, surprise him. "Soul is about life and it's about human experience, whether that experience is love or war," Bell says. "That's why there's a lot of crossover with country music. I think there's a correlation between the attitudes in country, and in R&B. It's like Albert King said: "Everybody's got the blues."
'A Soldier's Sad Story: Vietnam Through the Eyes of Black America 1966-73' is out now on Kent/Ace RecordsReuse content