U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“Do You Remember When We Used to Sing?”

This summer I am teaching the second  half of the U.S. history survey.  Instead of assigning a survey textbook, I am having the students read the late Paul Boyer’s marvelously concise sketch/summary of U.S. history from the Oxford “Very Short Introduction” series.  The five or six pages they read from this for each class give a basic chronological / thematic scaffolding to help them situate their main readings, which are all taken from primary sources.*

However, I am assigning my class one substantial reading from a secondary source:  the fourth chapter of Michael J. Kramer’s Republic of Rock. This chapter, titled “A Soundtrack for the Entire Process,” details the journey of rock music and rock culture from the streets of San Francisco to the battlefields of Vietnam.  Kramer writes:

Rock was a crucial cultural  form that linked the two places. From the escalation of American intervention in Indochina in the middle of the 1960s to the end of the war in 1975, the music circulated from the home front to the war zone.  GIs brought recordings, instruments, and rock paraphernalia with them, plugging rock into the daily waging of war at unofficial levels….The music also arrived on official frequencies: on the airwaves of the Armed Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN), in programs organized by the Entertainment Branch, and even among non-Americans who listened to and played the music. Never banned or forbidden, rock was encouraged as a leisure activity. Tolerance, even support, for it by the Armed Forces revealed how the managers of the US military transferred the latest consumer strategies from domestic culture to military life.  Paralleling the appearance of hip capitalism at home, what I call hip militarism emerged in Vietnam as a tactic for raising morale within the U.S. Armed Forces.  It turned out there was much more to entertainment during the war than just Bob Hope’s famous Christmas Tours. (135)

There is much more to Kramer’s chapter, of course.  Thankfully, he writes with unpretentious expert clarity, so this should be not only an interesting read for my students, but a pleasant one as well.

Nevertheless, one of the reasons I am assigning this chapter is not for its fair prose but for its wonderful photos, from wire service stock shots to GIs’ snapshots.  There’s a photo of a GI listening to LPs on a portable record player; the soldier’s gun and ammo vest are propped up against the wall nearby.  But my favorite photos in the chapter, the ones that I think will help most in conveying the distance and difference between the present and the past, are the shots of GIs, kicking back in their down time, listening to their transistor radios.

Before music “in the cloud,” before satellite radio, before YouTube, the iPod, the Walkman, the battery operated cassette player — before all these technologies, the transistor radio made music portable past the reach of a power cord.  Portable, and only minimally personalizable.  Turn the dial, tune in to a different frequency, and take what you get.  If it’s not what you want, turn the dial some more.  That was how soldiers and civilians alike took their music with them to the mountains, to the beaches, to the parks, groovin’ in the grass, or goin’ down the Old Man with a transistor radio.

One of the things I struggle with as an intellectual historian is how to be attentive to materiality in the ideational environment without drifting into materialism.  To teach my students that rock music was an important cultural influence in Vietnam and San Francisco alike, without teaching them anything about the channels and devices through which that influence flowed would be to give them only the part of the story which they already assume:   people need their jams.  Instead, attention to the technology of music transmission allows us to emphasize those aspects of youth culture and rock culture and counterculture that are experientially inaccessible to 21st century music aficionados — the heavy reliance upon alternative stations and astute DJs to spin the good stuff, the much greater commonality and simultaneity of the listening experience that came from tuning in with others to the same channel.

The material conditions of music transmission were not identical to the ideas conveyed in the songs — or, to be duly logocentric, in the lyrics.  But to what extent did they shape or reshape those ideas?  What does due attention to the transistor radio render legible about this cultural moment?  One answer, I think, has to do with that sense of commonality that comes from a shared listening experience.

During the height of the Occupy protests, there was a rash of internet memes with captioned / labeled photos with arrows pointing to all the iPods, smartphones, iPads, laptops and other portable (and presumably pricey) technologies in the possession of the protesters.  The implication, I think, was that these protesters were affluent hipsters with money to burn on their toys.  But another implication of the infinitely customizable and personalizable portable music library is the unlikelihood that one particular kind of music might symbolize or mobilize a shared political movement.  This raises some interesting questions:

Does an effective political movement require a shared soundtrack for the entire process?  Does a shared soundtrack signify anything beyond the realm of taste?  What makes music matter?  What work does it do?  What work does it undo?

These are questions for the present, but for the past as well, and Kramer’s study explores them masterfully.  I will be interested to see what my students make of his answers, and what answers they arrive at on their own.  What I wonder is this: will they arrive at their own answers together?  And what difference, if any, would that make?


*I am posting links to selected primary sources on my personal blog, Saved by History.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks LD for another thought provoking post. I look forward to reading Kramer’s book and would also strongly recommend Jefferson Cowie’s “Stayin Alive” if you want to read another author who uses music as a cultural mode to explore politics. I have two observations about points you make in the post:

    1) I don’t know if I totally buy the claim that the anti-Vietnam counterculture shared a single soundtrack. While historians – both academic and popular – tend to look at the San Francisco music scene and major concerts like Woodstock as forming the musical canon of the counterculture, there were other parallel music movements like the remnants of folkie culture concentrated to NYC and Newport and black power themes in post-bop jazz that were equally countercultural and tuned-in to events in Vietnam, but don’t receive the same attention. I think there is a tendency to overemphasize the unity of the late-1960s protests that flattens the movement. This flattening is also demonstrated in the depiction of the era’s music culture.

    2) I see more commonality than difference when I look at popular depictions of 1960s counterculture and the Occupy Movement as spoiled beneficiaries of American largesse. Hippies, Beats, and Folkies were frequently depicted as spoiled, lay-abouts who protested during the day while partying all night and living off their parents’ hard earned money. I have had numerous professors and friends who talk about the joy the Boston and Cambridge police department displayed in putting down university protests because they would get an opportunity to beat up and physically intimidate the children of their resented social superiors. I’m not sure how music fits into the paradigm of 60s privilege, but it seems like music taste was another arena which divided the working class – which the counterculture at times tried to ally with – from the counterculture.

    I would also say it isn’t too late for a unity of music and protest to occur. I am very curious to see if discontent yesterday’s controversial Treyvon Martin decision will find popular expression in Kanye West’s racially-charged “Yeezus”.

  2. Firstly, another great ( as always) post. Your point about technology and the role it plays in creating a broad based music culture is fascinating, and also quite important. I wonder, however, how much of that was soldiers in the field getting new music versus what they were already listening to before they left the United States. In other words, how much did the civilian life they were leaving impact what they were listening to? It probably depends on what part of the war we’re talking about: maybe the early troops in Vietnam, say, about 1965-1966 have a different music experience from those in the field in 1968-1969. Then again I could be completely wrong.

    To echo Matthew Linton’s point as well, I wonder how much race played a role. And not just in genres of music being listened to being different. In fact, in the early Sixties you have not just folk being listened to by many younger Americans, but also the rise of Motown. I wonder if the relationship (if there is one) between early Sixties Motown and later rock is explored? As in, were there black and white soldiers listening to both? I’m sure there probably were. But, as I said in the previous thread on this book, there’s also country music floating around, and the late Sixties also sees what Linton’s talking about.

    One last thing: are soldiers being exposed to other music, from outside the United States, while in Vietnam? That’s a question that suddenly popped in my head. Are they being exposed to music from, say, Europe, Africa, or Asia while serving in Vietnam?

    I can’t wait to get my hands on this book. It should come in for me later this week. But right now, I’m very intrigued by it. Reminds me in some ways of the conversations we’ve had about Penny Lewis’ book on the anti-war movement, and as Matt said, Cowie’s book on the working class 1970s comes to mind too (it’s why I keep bringing up country music).

  3. L.D.,

    Thanks for the fascinating rumination on Chapter 4 of The Republic of Rock. It’s an honor to have you and others engage with the book and with the people about whom I write along with the sounds that mattered so much to them.

    I appreciate your turn to the materiality in which ideas are experienced. Typically, historians—save intellectual historians, of course—tend to tilt in the other direction, reducing everything to material conditions, structures, and a kind of rudimentary technological determinism. You ask us to place ideas and their material environments in play and in tension, with each other. Exactly!

    Matthew Linton is right: rock was far from the only soundtrack to Vietnam. “Shit kicking” country music was popular among white GIs from the south, and among a certain cadre of officers with roots in that region. Soul, from Motown to Stax, mattered a lot to African-American soldiers (and to many white soldiers too). Mainstream pop and other sounds swirled through the war zone. Traditional Vietnamese music was there too, as well as numerous Asian cover bands who could play anything from Jimi Hendrix to Frank Sinatra to Hank Williams. But rock mattered, I argue in my book, because it was during the late 1960s that it was heralded as “the new mod sound.” Rock was perceived as the hip new thing and thus carried extra power within the context of Vietnam as a sound of the cutting edge of what was going on “back in the world,” as GIs called it, which is to say back in the US. To wit, by 1970 record labels were marketing something close to eighty percent of new recorded music as rock. The eagerness to cash in on rock’s trendiness meant that genre categories and sounds were much more ambiguous than we now think when we talk about genres. Rock was at once a niche market and, many thought, given the huge baby boomer generation, the new mass culture. That’s what makes it interesting, and what makes it important. It was at once the sound of distinction from the mainstream and, weirdly, the new sound of the mainstream. Tom Frank’s famous hip capitalistic “conquest of cool” at work. The confounding of rebellion and incorporation. In this context, boundaries between “black” soul music and “white” country music were rendered rather, er, psychedelically fluid by the rock label. This isn’t to say rock was the clarion call of some kind of new integrated utopia of sound, but rather than rock mattered in Vietnam because of its peculiar genre qualities, which have since dissipated as it has solidified into one, rather vanilla-flavored marker of sonic and social meaning and away from what it was from roughly 1965 to 1975: a problematically interchangeable label for almost all pop music in toto.

    Robert Jerome Greene asks about race and music in Vietnam. I examine the topic a bit in Chapter 4, but also in Chapter 5, which explores the story of the Command Military Touring Service rock bands, groups of GIs recruited by the Entertainment Branch and equipped with electric guitars, etc., to entertain fellow troops. In this chapter, the strange interplay of rock and race emerges, and to my mind it’s not the typical story of sixties rock as a usurpation of rhythm and blues by whites. It is that, but it was also something far weirder, particularly in relationship to the aforementioned new modes of niche-market consumerist tactics such as hip capitalism—and the military’s own strange efforts to import these new kinds of hip consumer styles into the war zone in a futile attempt to raise troop morale.

    These are just a few quick thoughts and responses. Glad to clarify them and of course I welcome additional reflections, critiques, objections, responses, and thoughts from you and others. Thanks again for your eloquent engagements with the book and its topic.

    Rock on!

    • Michael, thank you for your response! I’m looking forward to reading your book and may post further once I have read it.

    • Thanks for the reply! I’m hoping to get my hands on the book this week, I’ve already enjoyed reading about it through the posts here and your replies.

  4. Thanks everybody for the comments, and thanks especially to Michael for joining the discussion.

    This whole materiality thing is weighing on me in terms of methodology. I am aware of our disciplinary tilt, and I am mostly on board with it. But as you can see, I occasionally wander, or at least wobble, in my orbit.

    I think my students are really going to like this chapter — especially if I put together a playlist to go with it. Recommendations?

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