Thursday, May 04, 2006
Music and War (via rockrap confidential), or
"War and poetry have long been comrades"

From today's Capital Times:

Exploring music soundtrack of Vietnam

By Bill Dunn
March 28, 2006
The music of the Vietnam War era left deep imprints on the more than 8
million American troops who were actively engaged in the decade-long war.

A book being written by two Madison men examines that impact. Its
working title is "We Gotta Get Outa This Place: Music and the
Experience of the Vietnam War."

Craig Werner is a music historian and teaches Afro-American studies at
UW-Madison. Doug Bradley is university relations director of
communications for the UW System and an Army draftee who served in
Long Binh, Vietnam, in 1970-71 as an information specialist.

They've interviewed dozens of Vietnam vets, mostly male, and some
musicians, with more interviews in the works. The men answered
questions from The Capital Times about their book. (See related link
for more about the book.)

Why this book at this particular time?

CRAIG: Because America still hasn't dealt honestly with Vietnam. We
have sound bites and ideology, lots of sound and fury about hawks and
doves. But the real story of Vietnam, from the vets' perspective,
hasn't been put together in quite the way we're doing it.

While we have our politics, we're contacting people from all over the
spectrum, male and female, early Vietnam and late Vietnam, Central
Highlands and Mekong Delta, black, Chicano, white, Native American.
And there's obviously a need for figuring out more honest ways to deal
with war and the experience of returning vets now that Iraq is
providing so many eerie echoes.

DOUG: All I would add is that this book and, hopefully, some of the
insight, understanding and healing it will provide should have
happened a long time ago. America still hasn't dealt honestly with

How do you find vets to interview? Are they eager or reluctant to talk?

CRAIG: We tap every network we can find. Vets are much more eager to
talk about the music than they are about Vietnam when asked directly.
We really find the music opens up stories and memories and emotions
that have been locked up.

A lot of our interviews are set up on the "someone tells someone about
what we're doing" and they have a story they want to put in the mix.
For me, students' parents and uncles, and now grandparents, are a
piece of it. Doug does a lot of vets' network stuff.

DOUG: Oftentimes, they find us (like reading this article and
contacting us). Trust is a very, very critical element in this veteran
relationship and once you build/establish it, the vets will open up,
especially about the songs!

Do vets tend to look at the era's music differently from nonveterans?
What about male and female vets?

CRAIG: Definitely. One interesting thing is vets tend to put a lot
less emphasis on the explicitly political, '60s soundtrack stuff and a
lot more on songs that remind them of home and their desire to go
home: "Detroit City," "Sloop John B," "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the
Bay," songs that don't look like war songs from outside, but were
deeply involved in the experience.

Other songs, like "Purple Haze" and "Chain of Fools," simply had
different meanings for vets. Purple smoke, the chain of command,
images just read differently sometimes.

DOUG: Curiously, we all had a shared "top 20" back in those days
(pre-hippy FM radio and narrowcasting), so most vets are familiar with
many of the same songs. But your perspective was shaped, as a soldier,
from where you were in Vietnam, when you were there and what you did.

Is there an overall theme in the songs that resonated with vets?

CRAIG: Yep, this place is profoundly screwed up, followed immediately
by I want to be anywhere else, preferably home.

DOUG: For those who remember the songs from being in Vietnam, it was
to keep yourself and your buddies alive and get the hell back to the
USA. For those who remember the songs more as vets back home, it's a
sense of "why didn't anybody listen to these songs (like 'What's Going
On?' and 'Born in the U.S.A.') and understand what the hell we had to

What's the hardest part about writing this book? What goes easier?
What's the division of labor?

CRAIG: Time. We work beautifully together (I don't think Doug will
disagree), but we both have day jobs and it's damn difficult to find
the time to do the interviews, much less process the results.

DOUG: Definitely having the time to do it. We both have demanding
full-time jobs, families, community work, etc. Craig's right, we're a
great team!

What's been your main finding and how is it relevant to Iraq vets?

CRAIG: Music opens up the complexity of experience in ways that
politics and conscious thought can't. It can help people find
themselves when they're lost and come back home. It's not the whole
answer, but it's a big piece.

DOUG: Music connects us in ways we can't explain, but we feel. It
is/can be the same for people any place, anywhere, especially when
they're under stressful situations.

There's nothing more stressful than war, and there was nothing more
distressing than Vietnam.


Rapping straight outta Iraq

Marines returning from the war go into the studio to deliver raw insights from the front.
By Tony Perry, LA Times Staff Writer
April 28, 2006

CAMP PENDLETON: War and poetry have long been comrades, and for the war in Iraq, much of the verse is rap.

For Marine Cpl. Michael Watts Jr., whose rapper name is Pyro, the creative muse struck while he was riding an assault vehicle back to a base camp after an exhausting 72-hour combat operation in Najaf.

For the 21-year-old from Benham, Texas, it was an experience unlike any other — one that cried out to be captured in a rap.

"There's a big difference between staying up for three days making music and being in Iraq for three days straight getting shot at," said Watts.

From those kinds of experiences in Iraq, Watts and eight other Marines and soldiers have created "Voices From the Frontline," a rap CD released this week in which troops use the lyrical word to explain the death, boredom, joy, fear and brotherhood of the war in Iraq.

The compilation is the brainchild of Joel Spielman, 33, president of the punk label Crosscheck Records. He put out a call on Internet chat rooms frequented by military rappers and picked the best submissions for re-recording in a Hollywood studio. The performers (some of whom have already returned to Iraq) will share in the royalties, and 5% will go to Operation AC, a nonprofit group supporting troops in Iraq with CARE-style packages.

Spielman calls the CD "an audio documentary" containing real, uncensored voices. "It was important for them to share their experiences and important for the public to hear what it's really like there," he said.

The language is direct but, by rap standards, not particularly shocking. The f-word, the patois of both rap and military life, is present but not in overabundance. The media take a beating for misunderstanding the war, but the songs are not anti-military.

Sometimes poignant, sometimes laced with bravado, the lyrics capture the apprehension and tension of the ongoing violence directed at American troops and Iraqis alike.

In "First Time," Watts and Navy corpsman Quentin Givens (called Q as a rapper) explain the stomach-tightening uncertainty of deployment to Iraq.

Well we going to Iraq for the first time

I can't explain exactly what's on my mind

So many thoughts runnin' all through my head

Will I come back alive

Or will I come back dead.

The apprehension begins with the convoy from Kuwait:

I see a lot of muzzles of these M16s

While we're in a convoy with a 100-plus Marines

Iraqis lookin' at us with that fear in their eyes

Cause they know in the palm of my hands

Is their lives

So please realize I don't really want to die

And you need to hear the voices

Coming from the front lines.

For Cpl. Kisha Pollard (Miss Flame), rapping about her experiences in Fallouja was only natural. Iraq is the perfect place to rap, said the 21-year-old Nashville resident.

"The reason people freestyle in Iraq or a war zone is to take their mind off a lot of things," she said. "Any chance I got, on patrol, or with other Marines, or by myself, I'm freestyling, I'm hooking and jabbing."

In "Girl at War," she raps about the daily dread of convoys through streets infested with improvised explosive devices, called IEDs, and insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades, called RPGs:

Step one, set up for the convoy

Get the brief

Float up in the Humvee now

We're rolling on the streets

And now hopefully it won't end in a beef

Cause if we do, it could possible be a IED

Things are getting hasty, my body feeling nervous

Iraq is shooting at us

RPGs is what they serve us

Stay cool and confident, air support is right above us.

And now we're shooting back

that what you get for ------ with us.

If there is anger and fear in many of the songs, there is also sorrow, at the injuries inflicted on innocent Iraqis in fighting between insurgents and U.S. forces.

Witness Cpl. Anthony Alvin Hodge (Amp) in "Condolence":

I see the light in this war

nobody wins...

I've committed many sins

And I'm far from perfect.

I can't word it any better

But to tell you this

If it was up to me

It never would have came to this

But it ain't so I gotta keep my

Feet in the paint. If I had

A wish I wish I had never seen

Those tanks.

And they say a bullet don't got a name on it.

When the bullets hit the kids, who

They gonna blame for it?

There is a kind of desperation among the rappers that unless they tell their story the truth will never be known.

"I just want the message out, not the way TV has it, the real way," said Watts.

"People need to know what it's like when you live with mortars going off and your friends dying," said Pollard.

Music is a way out of the drudgery and danger of a war seemingly without end.

"In "Don't Understand," Pyro, Amp and Q tell of the divide between the civilian and military communities. Like several other songs, it explains that troops fight to protect their buddies, not necessarily out of support for U.S. foreign policy.

Don't try to play us down

Cause you don't know what we're about

So alpha company open your eyes, never despise

And realize

It's not only the training

But it's the brotherhood

That keeps us alive,

So we need to stay together and

Combined as one

And you need to keep trying till your enlistment is done.

The song titles speak of the intensity of the Iraqi experience: "Do the Damn Thing," "Some Make It, Some Don't," "Ain't the Same." Army Staff Sgt. Devon Perrymon, a.k.a. Deacon, who's been writing poetry since his teen years, wants the public to know the reality of Iraq from the perspective of the individual soldiers, not the generals in Washington or the reporters. In Iraq, he turned to rap, in the company of other rappers in uniform.

"We're putting it out there for everyone in a way they can relate to," said Perrymon, 25, who grew up in the Crenshaw district and will soon return to Reseda as a recruiter. "When it's in rhyme, they remember it."

In "Five Days in the Wakeup!" Perrymon sings of the anxiety of the short-timer, ready to go home, changed forever.

I see the storm over the horizon in Iraq

Mad people dying

Family getting a folded flag and they're crying

I'm not denying the fact I've changed

I just don't think people are ready for the change

I'm seeing faces in the rain --

I'm tired of seeing comrades getting slain.

(via rock rap confidential. Thanks, Dave)

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Compiling the best online articles about music so there will be more of both in the future. In periods of drought, the reader will be innundated by my own blogs on the matters.

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