The Songs of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”


Most of these longitudes essays relate to whatever’s on my mind at a given moment (“Thoughts in Woods…”). Right now, I’m into the Vietnam War. I’m reading “Vietnam: A History” by Stanley Karnow, and I just finished watching the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick multi-part documentary “The Vietnam War.”

I’ve seen eight of the ten episodes of the series. After a second run-through, I’ll probably offer my usual two cents. Other people’s critiques on the documentary appear to be as polarized as the actual war, and I’m learning as much about the war (or, at least, how it affects people) by reading their reviews as by the documentary itself. Folks seem to either love “The Vietnam War,” or hate it.

As with so many things these days, there’s no demilitarized zone.

But, although I’m not ready to comment on the merits of the Burns-Novick documentary, I’m always ready to squeeze the trigger on music, and music plays a major role in “The Vietnam War.” So I’ll offer my assessments now. Having been born in 1958, I grew up listening to a lot of the film’s 120 songs, and I still listen to them regularly, so now’s a good opportunity to share my enthusiasm, or lack thereof.


The Vietnam War was the first (and perhaps only) conflict to have a soundtrack. For maybe the first time, song lyrics were being written directly about a war. Other songs weren’t necessarily about the war, but they elicit such a strong emotional response amongst veterans of both the war and peace movement, they’re forever linked with Vietnam in people’s minds.

I’ve divided the music of “The Vietnam War” into four categories: the original score; songs that directly deal with war (lyrics related to Vietnam, or war in general); songs indirectly about war (songs with universal themes that could be associated with war); and songs of the time period that have little or nothing to do with war.

The original score: Good background music should bolster and reflect the mood of the film. Though I’m not a fan, Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and his collaborator Atticus Ross created a brooding mix of industrial noise, eerie sound effects, and minimalist piano that convey the weirdness and horror of what happened over there. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble borrowed themes inspired by Vietnamese music for the scenes in Asia. I applaud the producers for their good sense in choosing these artists.

Songs about war: We’re talking 1960s and ‘70s, so “songs about war” means protest songs, but I was somewhat disappointed in these choices. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier” was one of the first such written, and it’s perfect. Also great is Country Joe McDonald’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” (“Well it’s one, two, three, what are we fightin’ for?”), and Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” effectively sets the tone for what’s to come, and his “With God on Our Side” is more than appropriate, a savage statement about promoting war through a lens of false piety (sing it, Zimmy).

joe mcdonald

Country Joe McDonald, at Woodstock Festival (photographer unknown)

In fact, there are no less than nine Dylan songs here, and “With God on Our Side” is featured twice. Dylan’s a dazzling songwriter, the poet of the counter-culture, and he wrote some searing anti-war songs. But nine songs are overkill. Joan Baez and Phil Ochs, contemporaries of Dylan, only got one song apiece (Baez’s cover of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and Ochs’ classic “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore”). I can think of at least a half-dozen Ochs songs directly about ‘Nam, such as “We Seek No Wider War,” “Cops of the World,” and “White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land.”

Dylan eventually cloaked his songs in obliqueness, whereas Ochs and Baez never wavered from blunt social protest. They deserve more than one song apiece.

Songs indirectly about war: A big thumbs up for the Byrds’ version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which Seeger adapted from a Bible verse. Also, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” which he wrote partially about the Vietnam War, but also about inner-city militancy and police brutality, and a song where Gaye courageously broke from traditional Motown song formulas.


Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, England, 1965

Songs of the time period: This is, by far, the largest category of songs in the documentary. For a lot of these songs, I was scratching my head. “It’s My Life” by the Animals was blasted on top of an interview with the mother of a fallen soldier, and is jarringly out of place. The Velvet Underground’s “The Gift” is a Lou Reed short story set to music, about a lovesick sap who mails himself to his girlfriend. “The Vietnam War” uses the music only, since the lyrics have nothing to do with war. But even the music is obscure, since it was never played on the radio, and the album from which it was taken (WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT) sold only a few copies when it was released in December, 1967.

Jimi Hendrix, a former army paratrooper, has three songs featured: “Are You Experienced?,” “Voodoo Chile,” and “All Along the Watchtower,” the last-named written by guess who. Hendrix’s muscular, metallic guitar is a good choice for a war documentary, but more pertinent would have been the live version of “Machine Gun,” one of his most intense songs, propelled by combat sound effects, or his searing interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner” from the Woodstock Festival.

And since it’s the Sixties, and drugs were everywhere, including the killing fields of ‘Nam, we have to have a drug song, correct? But “White Rabbit” must be the dumbest song ever written about drugs. Weren’t any of the producers aware of Sainte-Marie’s “Codine,” or Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death,” or the Velvets’ “Heroin,” or Joni Mitchell’s “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire”? I guess not.

(If they’d have contacted me, I’d have gladly advised them about drug songs).

Another blunder: Barry McGuire’s overcooked “Eve of Destruction” (written by P.F. Sloan) is just as embarrassing now as when it was released. Big mistake.


Jimi Hendrix (photo Rolling Stone magazine)

There are lots of good R&B songs, though. A couple Booker T. and the M.G.’s songs, a couple Otis Redding numbers, including “Respect” (and I’m glad they chose Redding’s version instead of Aretha Franklin’s). The Temptations are represented with “Psychedelic Shack,” although “Ball of Confusion” might have been more appropriate.

My big revelation was the Staple Singers covering Dylan’s “Masters of War” (the arrangement of which Dylan borrowed from the traditional English folk song “Nottamun Town”). Dylan’s version is stark and unmerciful, a knife into the gut of those who play with the lives of young people like “it’s (their) little toy.” The Staples version is as spooky as it is angry. “Pops” Staples sings like Delta bluesman Bukka White, his ghostly guitar notes ringing like tolling bells, and the moaning background voices sound like they’re conjuring the grim reaper. I’d never heard this version before, but for me it’s a highlight of the film score.

Neil Young’s “Ohio,” which he wrote the day after the Kent State murders: he never allows this song to be licensed for use, but he made an exception here. Choosing this song to close Episode 8 was a no-brainer.

(Note: in an interview with Esquire, Burns revealed that one of his editors had no idea that “Ohio” is about the Kent State killings. This is mind-boggling. But it’s proof that popular music has become so cheesy and mass-marketed, people today are numb to even the most overt lyrical statement. Either that, or they’re dumb to American history. Numb or dumb, it’s profoundly disturbing).

Appropriately, there are several Beatles songs. But John Lennon’s “Revolution” is the only one that makes sense. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is excellent for LSD tripping, but not for a Vietnam War discussion. And the producers evidently are patting themselves on the back for choosing “Let it Be” as their closer.


Musically, yes, this song is grandiose, and a heart-tugger. There were undoubtedly tears shed by some viewers. By choosing “Let it Be,” I think Burns is suggesting it’s time for Americans to heal by making peace with each other.

Maybe this documentary will be a partial healing. But the topic will always be contentious, and relevant to the future, and the various op-eds I’ve read on “The Vietnam War” bear this out. Burns is smart and talented (and sports a nifty Beatle haircut), but reminding the audience of his “whispered words of wisdom,” and hoping his documentary will be a “vaccine” seems a bit arrogant to me, and as pointless as the post-war cacklings of Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford. He shouldn’t be allowed the last word.

Here’s my suggestion for a musical closeout: the acoustic demo of Phil Ochs’ “Cross My Heart.” Ochs was an American street soldier for peace who – until his suicide in 1976 – never gave up the fight:

I don’t know

But I see that everything is free

When you’re young the treasures you can take

But the bridge is bound to break

And you reach the end

Screaming it’s all been a mistake


But I’m gonna give all that I’ve got to give

Cross my heart

And I hope to live.





25 thoughts on “The Songs of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

  1. Bravo my old friend. Agree 100% and am humbled by your deep and eloquent assessment of the soundtrack. I caught about 1/2 of the series and was surprised how much I learned about Vietnam, particularly the perspective and determination of the North Vietnamese. We really never had a chance despite our technical superiority.

    • Thanks for commenting, Tad (I was hoping you’d notice the poster). Yes, this documentary was a mouthful, and my emotions ran the gamut. The music angle is easy for me, but not sure I’m equipped to critique the docu. There are still a lot of open wounds from that war, unfortunately. Peace.

  2. I’m with you on a lot of your observations. I probably feel even stronger on some of the tunes. Not on CB’s spin cycle. But as far as setting the time and the place, Burns and Novick made choices that they felt fit. I watched with my Gal and when they played ‘Troubled Waters’ she was like an open faucet. Like you, I would have went for some more obscure choices. Making that film would have presented many challenges and I think the music would have been a big one. Probably some interesting choices ended up not making the cut. Great thoughts Pete. I like the way you broke it down.

    • Thanks, CB. In an interview, they said some of the songs were determined by the people they profiled. I’m not sure this was a good idea. One person’s sentimental favorite won’t necessarily be another’s, so if the song isn’t relevant to the topic, you get a meaningless hodgepodge. But at least they didn’t play “McArthur Park,” or “The Ballad of the Green Berets.”

      • I’ve been in some of those creative sessions over the years and they can get pretty heated. All about serving the story in my opinion. Yeah I was just riffing on ‘McArthur Park’ to my gal the other day. What the hell was that all about and what was Richard Harris doing baking an effing cake? Your reference to that sizzler put a smile on my face.

  3. Pete,
    regarding the Vietnam series and music musings –
    I was born in ’51 and grew up in New Haven, Ct. In the shadow of Yale University.
    In 1969 the lottery hung over my head much like the cloud of doom over Joe Btfspik.
    New Haven shut down with the trials of the Black Panthers, Bobby Seale.
    The town green was the home of the yippies, zippys, weathermen, sds.

    FM radio provided a soundtrack for the Vietnam era.
    Worrying about the draft, the war, in the hard light of day we listened to –
    Steppenwolf – Monster, Guess Who – American Women, Eric Burden – Sky Pilot, Graham Nash-Military Madness,The Doors – Unknown Soldier, Arlo – Alice Massacree, The Who – Won’t Get Fooled Again. Dylan – Highway 61.
    In the quiet waning light of the day though – Jon Mitchell, Tom Rush, Rod Stewart, Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles, James Taylor, Spirit,

    Sometime in the late 70’s I became friends with an ex soldier who was a Painter.
    We would sit in his studio killing bottles of Scotch and he recounted the horrors of two tours of duty. Recovering from being machine gunned they suited him up, strapped on a parachute and dumped him into an enemy surrounded compound.
    Yeah they did that – I heard a soldier in the documentary tell that same story.
    I shook my head.

    Sorry, I’ve rambled on too long.

  4. Pedro – How is it that you’re not writing for Rolling Stone? Honestly, your insight into this essential element of the documentary (which I watched stem to stern – much of the time in complete shock) is complete and sad and funny. Thanks for reminding us that music is about more than “can you dance to it?”. KB really needed to check with you first.

    • I keep waiting for KB to knock on my door, Rock. I think we’d really hit it off. I don’t know, though, I’m a beer guzzler and he looks more like a wine sipper. But at least he’s a Beatles fan. Thanks!

  5. Yes, the Burns’ series is great. Like most events in history, you had to live through it to truly understand it. People tend to reflect on history using contemporary thought to pass some measure of judgement (all the Confederate monument nonsense as an example). When younger folks express to me their concern about how world politics seems to be pointing to some war with nukes I have to remind them that the Cold War and the social upheaval of the 60’s was far more chaotic and filled with far more complete apprehension.. that not even Trump’s current chaos can top that.
    We have far more to worry about with the next world war being the result of the proliferation of artificial intelligence.

    Good blog. I am following. 🙂

  6. Now if you were a little older back then Pete I could see you being a participant at Woodstock! My hometown/county got hit hard during the Vietnam War -Nelson County where the Reservist Unit was basically wiped out and many others. I am grateful for the men who came back alive and the men and women who served in this war are truly American Hero’s.

    • Yep, I would’ve loved to have been at the Woodstock Festival, Mary Kaye! Although the rain, mud, and unsanitary conditions made things difficult, it was a pivotal moment in modern history, the pinnacle of the hippie counterculture where things went right, and it’ll never happen again. Oh yeah, some great music, too! Also, I did read about Bardstown and how it was devastated by the Vietnam War. I guess lots of rural and semi-urban areas, with many working class, draft-age men, suffered pretty badly. I agree, many who served in Vietnam could be called “heroes.” But I’m (usually) hesitant about blanket judgments of groups of people. There were many John McCains and Ron Kovics, but there were also the William Calleys. Warfare sees all types, good and bad, and that’s one thing that the Burns-Novick documentary makes quite clear.

      Stay tuned for my follow-up post, which I’m sure will raise an eyebrow or two. 🙂

  7. Pete
    I have finally heard back from Burns. He is sorry about you not being part of the music chosen for the documentary.The same editor that didn’t have a clue what “Ohio” was about was in charge of the nation wide search for a music director. That same editor thought that they were smart enough to do it themselves (never heard “Machine Gun” in his/her life either). He wanted to fire them from his next documentary but I explained that it was to cruel of a punishment so for the future the editor will no longer be allowed to do any thing about music in works by Burns. I have left him your post URL to contact you for future employment possibilities.

    • DCW, that’s really thoughtful of you. I appreciate you speaking with KB (we’re on informal terms by now). Looking forward to working with him in the future, but unfortunately his next project concerns country music (he needs a break after the Vietnam War). Since I don’t like country music, other than Hank Sr., I’ll have to pass. However, let me know when he gets to psychedelic or progressive rock (he may have to drop America and move to England).

  8. Pete,
    I actually traveled to Bethel with my best friend in his ’66 black on black, 3 speed Mustang convertible, tickets in our hands..
    The rest of that outing is for another time.
    The most remarkable part is that our parents let us go…lol


  9. Yep, that was a great documentary Burns put out. Some of the tunes were obscure, but then he had to use what was popular at the time that people would recognize. Sort of ala Forest Gump. He did a great job on Country Music until the ending. Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, as well as Hank, outshined everyone.

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