Southern songs in Vietnam

Frank CagleFrank Talk

Ken Burns and his PBS miniseries on country music evoked a strong memory.


Bob Hope and Ann-Margret didn’t find their way out to the far fire bases in South Vietnam. They played the big airbases, literally surrounded by an army. Which was the way it should have been. A mortar round dropped in the middle of a warren of Playboy Bunnies would have been very bad for morale.

Frank Cagle

What we did get was Filipino bands. Usually a guy on guitar, a guy on bass, a drummer and two pretty girl singers. They would set up on a plywood stage one cinder block high and plug into electrical outlets powered by a generator far enough away to only provide a dull roar as background for the music. We’d gather in front of the “stage” on a large area of flat, beaten down earth that in any other army in any other war might be called a parade ground. No one in Vietnam could call it that with a straight face.

We’d sit on the ground, on sand bags or on cheap PX lawn chairs and listen to what later generations might call a mix tape. A little rock, a little rhythm and blues. The girls did a lot of Motown. The polyglot that was the American army had a wide and divergent taste in music. But, oddly enough, if the troops in South Vietnam had an anthem it was a county song and toward the end of the night the girls would always sing it. It was written by Mel Tillis and made popular by Bobby Bare.

The first chords and first verse had all the Southern boys singing along.

Last night I went to sleep in Dee-troit City.

I dreamed about those cotton fields and home.

I dreamed about my mother, dear old papa

sister and brother. And I dreamed about the girl

that’s been waiting for so long.

At this point every throat in hearing distance joined in one long primal scream:

I wanna go home. I wanna go home. Oh, how I want to go home.

And in the darkness, there were often tears flowing down cheeks, eyes being wiped.

The country classic had an added dimension for Southern boys. Hardly a family in the rural south went through the 1950s and early 1960s without having friends or family members in Chicago, Cleveland or “Dee-troit City.” I recalled the summers of my youth when we would load up and light out for Cleveland to visit uncles, aunts and cousins. They were there because that’s where the jobs were. The rest of the country might have believed the Depression to be over, but in the deep south we knew better. World War II revived the economy and brought jobs, but the jobs weren’t in cotton country. Or in the tobacco patch. Much has been written about Southern blacks fleeing poverty and racism and heading north. But there were white ghettos too, and into those northern climes they also carried their music. And Mel Tillis captured the homesickness and loneliness of men who by day made the cars and by night they made the bars.

By the middle 1960s many of the Southern refugees came home. Everybody in my family came home. In one case eight people in a 1949 Plymouth with three bald tires. Job growth in the South was slow, but jobs did come along.

Many black families did not return. There might be jobs in Alabama and Mississippi, but there was also the Ku Klux Klan.

While a country song might have been popular in Vietnam, country music fell on hard times during that era. It’s quite a stretch to call Elvis, the Everly Brothers and Jim Reeves country singers. My generation discovered the Beach Boys, Motown, the Beatles and Southern teenagers were just as much of the Woodstock Generation as teenagers anywhere else.

I recall my wife and I and another couple driving up to Nashville on Saturday night in the early 1970s. If you think downtown Knoxville was dead back in 2000, Nashville was worse back then. You had no trouble getting a seat at the Ryman Auditorium for the Grand Ole Opry. Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, across the alley behind the Ryman, was open for Opry stars to have a few beers between sets. Down on Printer’s Alley there was a sleazy strip club. The rest of downtown Nashville was dark.

But the music came back, like downtown Nashville came back. Today both are thriving. And that’s a good thing. But while the music waxes and wanes its power remains. The best of it still provides solace when you need it. As Dolly says, “you can cry to it.”

Frank Cagle is a retired newspaperman and the former managing editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

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