Singing Vietnam

Singing Vietnam

Lydia Fish, folklorist and professor of anthropology, made an essential contribution to the forthcoming CD box set, Next Stop Is Vietnam 1961–2008. From her personal archives, Fish contributed recordings of music made, not by the big-name musicians of the Vietnam era, but by the soldiers and civilians who were actually serving in Southeast Asia.

The long-awaited collection of 14 CDs, plus a 360-page book, is scheduled for release in August by Bear Family Records of Germany, which is a world-renowned reissuer of top-shelf music and multi-artist themed compilations for collectors and archivists.

Fish received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before earning her Ph.D. in folklore from Indiana University. Prior to starting her doctorate in 1965, she accepted a position teaching history for North Carolina State’s extension division at Fort Bragg, headquarters of the 82nd Airborne and the 5th Special Forces. “They wanted someone who would live on the base,” said Fish, “and I had a year before starting my doctorate, so I took the job.”

At the time, Fish was a folksinger, and she played at the 82nd Airborne Officers’ Club at Fort Bragg. “I sang mostly traditional folk songs,” she said, “and I listened to the songs the soldiers sang.” During that time, she became interested in military folklore. “Every occupation has its folklore,” she said.

When she came to Buffalo State in 1967, she focused on the urban and industrial folklore of Western New York, amassing with her students a collection of 5,000 fieldwork projects. Her focus shifted back to the military when she received a phone call from a former student, Michael Licht, ’73.

“Mike was working at the Library of Congress in the American Folk Life Center,” said Fish. “He called and told me he’d found tapes of music made by soldiers serving in Vietnam. I was interested, so I obtained copies of them.”

The tapes had been compiled by General Edwin Lansdale, who recorded the first collection of 51 songs, In the Midst of War, in his villa in Vietnam between 1965 and 1967. The second collection, Songs by Americans in the Vietnam War, was compiled stateside several years later. Fish set out to track down the musicians. The result became the Vietnam Veterans Oral History and Folklore Project, which includes her research into the music and the soldier-singers who made it. One contact led to another, and she amassed what is now more than 500 hours of music. “People still send tapes to me,” she said. “I’m so familiar with the music, I can often tell by listening which version of a song is the earlier.” The archives also contain letters, articles, and hundreds of photos; about a dozen are included in the hardcover book that is part of Next Stop Is Vietnam.

Hugo Keesing, former adjunct associate professor at the University of Maryland, is the reissue producer of the upcoming CD set and author of the accompanying book. He met Fish in 1993 when they both attended an oral history symposium, “Vietnam 20 Years After: Voices of the War.” When Bear Family Records asked him to produce this collection, he contacted Fish for assistance with an “in-country” disc. “We spent days listening to my tapes,” said Fish. “I had songs I thought absolutely had to be included, and Hugo and I chose the songs from which Bear Records made their final choices.”

Of the 29 selections on disc 7, Goodbye Travis Air Force Base, 20 are from Fish’s collection. “Another three are included elsewhere in the set,” she said. Not all of them are archival; some have been commercially produced. In fact, Fish is especially proud of the CD In Country, produced by Flying Fish (no relation), a record label since sold to Rounder Records. She wrote the CD’s liner notes, which were nominated for an Indy music award. The CD’s name is slang for being on the ground in Vietnam.

Fish’s years of research have made her one of the world’s experts on Vietnam war music created by soldiers, and a member of a small global network of researchers studying military folk music. She can rattle off names of divisions, generals, and field commanders as well as the names of the singers she has worked with. She has served as consultant for the National Archives, the BBC, PBS, the Army Times, and Penthouse. Her work has been published in New York Folklore and the Journal of American Folklore. “I may be the only academic published in Journal of American Folklore to have an article vetted by the director of the CIA,” she said. “William Colby asked to read it. After he said he liked it, I sent it off.”

With Next Stop Is Vietnam 1961–2008, Fish’s work reaches an even wider audience. “The box set will belong not just to collectors, but also to archives around the world,” she said. That suits her. Throughout the years, she has worked diligently to make the soldiers’ music available, first, to the original musicians, and then to scholars and to others who want a glimpse of what it was like to be serving in Southeast Asia in the middle of the twentieth century.