How do you tackle a subject as divisive as Vietnam? Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s epic ten part series was ten years in the making and made a particular effort to interview those that had a direct involvement rather than have highly paid experts give the talking head led historical perspective. Instead this documentary series sees ground troops from both sides of the conflict interviewed, as well as the conflicting views of anti-war protesters and anti-communist supporters. It was a well made series that gave very much a bottom-up view of the near two decade conflict, instead of the usual top-down high level over-arching approach that so many history documentaries takes. This is a documentary about the everyday humans caught up in the conflict, and so it’s only fitting that it was given a pop music soundtrack, given that so much music from the period was informed by the Vietnam War.
Apparently the full documentary soundtrack featured 120 different songs from the era, with the vast majority of them taken from the late 60s and early 70s, a period in which popular song was becoming ever-more socially aware. This two CD collect of songs from the series featured 37 songs, less than a third of those included in the documentary, however given the amount of legal wrangles, performance rights, various record labels and acts that must have been involved, 37 tracks is actually probably as much as one could reasonably expect to be included on a soundtrack CD.
The songs on the double CD are a mix of the well known, the semi-obscure, anti-war anthems, pro-America posturing and lots and lots of Bob Dylan numbers, either performed by the man himself, or covered by others. As a collection of songs, it’s a fascinating time-capsule, and as the soundtrack to the era, it’s very effective, featuring key numbers by legends of the era such as Marvin Gaye, Simon & Garfunkel, Creedence Clearwater Revival and, yes, Bob Dylan, and dotted among these are relatively obscure acts, such as The Youngbloods and Barry McGuire. However, as a soundtrack to a documentary about one of the darkest periods of 20th century history, it will also inevitably cause many listeners to be psychologically to psychologically couple the individual songs to footage from the documentary. If you’re listening to this soundtrack in isolation without realising its context, it’s a well chosen selection of popular music from the late 60s to early 70s, however as soon as the listener realises that it is the soundtrack to a documentary about one of the most divisive conflicts in the 20th century, it looses its lightness and becomes a much more ‘heavy’ listening experience.
I’m sure if the listener had the opportunity to make up a playlist of the 120 songs used in the documentary soundtrack, it may very well be a different track listing to the one on this double CD, however this collection as it stands is both effective, evocative, and even outside the context of the documentary, just a fine collection of music.