The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War

There is a major new documentary about the Vietnam War that is about to be broadcast on TV in the US. It is called The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick.

Burns and Novick have made some very successful documentaries together, but they are not experts on Vietnamese history, and while experts were consulted during the making of this documentary, I think it will be safe to assume that this documentary will essentially be a documentary about “what the Vietnam War means to a certain segment of the American population.”

That is fine. As long as educated viewers understand what this documentary is, and what its perspective is, then they can appreciate it for what it is.

With that attitude in my mind, last night I watched an extended preview of the series on PBS (it will start showing on September 17). Everything that I saw fit what I expected to see. . . until the topic of the music that is included in the documentary started to be discussed. At that point I realized that even my low expectation for this documentary was not going to be met.


Some of the music for the documentary was composed and performed by “Grammy Award-winning cellist Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble.”

Ambient music that will play in the background was created by David Cieri and Doug Wamble, two (superb) musicians who have contributed to other film scores.

And finally, “the series features more than 120 popular songs that define the era, including tracks from The Beatles; Rolling Stones; Bob Dylan; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; The Jimi Hendrix Experience; Simon & Garfunkel; Big Brother & The Holding Company (feat Janis Joplin); B.B. King; Creedence Clearwater Revival; Barry McGuire; Buffalo Springfield; The Byrds; Otis Redding; Santana; Marvin Gaye; Ray Charles; Nina Simone; The Temptations; Booker T. and the M.G.s; Pete Seeger and more.”

In other words, this is a documentary about the “Vietnam” War, but none of the sound in the documentary comes from “Vietnam” or Vietnamese musicians.

Yo-Yo Ma is of course an extremely accomplished musician, but HE’S CHINESE, and the The Silk Road Ensemble is also very CHINESE in the instruments it uses and the style of music it plays.

Hearing that Yo-Yo Ma has composed original music for this documentary reminds me of one of the first Hollywood productions on Vietnam, “China Gate” (see the video above), which starts with. . . (Hollywood-style) Chinese music.


There is an article on this documentary in Vanity Fair that states that “Burns was conscious of avoiding ‘the old tropes and invented tropes’ of Hollywood’s Vietnam.”

The author of that article (David Kamp) clearly didn’t listen to what he was hearing, as this documentary looks like it must completely reproduce what Hollywood has already produced: namely the idea that Chinese music can stand in for “generic traditional Asian music,” and that the only music that was heard in Vietnam during the war was the music of Western musicians.

Thanh Tuyen

Even if we accept that this documentary is 100% from an American perspective, I really doubt that the American soldiers who served in Vietnam never heard any Vietnamese music. When they were in taxis or restaurants or bars or shops, could it be possible that there was never a radio playing the songs of Duy Khánh, Chế Linh, Thanh Tuyền, Hoàng Oanh, Hương Lan, etc.?

And how about Trịnh Công Sơn and Khánh Ly?

I can’t believe that the music of South Vietnamese musicians was not part of the “soundtrack” of the Vietnam War. American soldiers might not have known the names of the singers or the songs, but my guess is they must have heard that music, and those sounds must be part of their “soundtrack” of the Vietnam War.

Yo-Yo Ma, Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Marvin Gaye are Hollywood’s “soundtrack” of the Vietnam War.

It’s a shame that Burns and Novick did not attempt to move beyond these old worn-out Hollywood tropes.

Khanh Ly

Doing so would not be difficult. It would be easy to figure out which Vietnamese songs were popular (and blasting from radios) during the 1960s and early 1970s.

Using today’s technology, it would also be easy to get David Cieri and Doug Wamble to work with sampled sounds of 1960s South Vietnamese music and sounds to create a “sonic texture” that would capture something that American soldiers heard and felt, and that goes beyond Hollywood tropes.

And if one needs some “generic Asian music” for the soundtrack, then enlist talented Vietnamese artists who engage with traditional music in contemporary and sophisticated ways, like Ngô Hồng Quang and Nguyên Lê.

They might not be recognizable to American viewers like Yo-Yo Ma is. . . but at least they’re Vietnamese.

9 thoughts on “The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War

  1. It makes sense that they would “feature more than 120 popular songs that defined the era.” I’m sure that part of series’ raison d’être is boomer nostalgia. It’s not surprising that they did not choose Vietnamese popular songs — they would not appeal to the boomers. It would also require some knowledge to select them. But a further factor is the matter of royalties. The process of paying U.S. rights holder is very straight-forward and well-known to film production companies. I agree that commissioning Yo Yo Ma seems wrong. In addition to the musicians you mention, Vanessa Võ Vân Ánh could have creatively and competently created a soundtrack. I’d love to hear what Tôn Thất Tiết would do, although it would probably be too avant-garde (and he’s not American). But Yo Yo Ma is a star, and star power is also part of the equation. I look forward to seeing what the filmmakers have come up with.

  2. I think your first paragraph here should be the disclaimer for this documentary. I cringed when I heard Ken Burns said that he will be presenting an aspect of the war that people didn’t know about, like it’s some kind of hidden secret. It reminded me of a documentary that Oliver Stone did about American history. Don’t get me wrong, I love new and different perspective, but the way it sound kind of stoking the tin foil hat wearing crowd. It’s marketed like it is some kind of Exposé but it is but no mean a piece of investigative journalism. Frankly I’m sick of seeing the Vietnam war presented through an anti-war perspective, not that I’m pro-war, but it often misses the people, the Vietnamese, who were often regarded by anti-war scholars as on the side of the Communist. As if the population of South Vietnam all yearning for a liberation from the North. Just like you have point out that there isn’t any Vietnamese music of the era used in the film; this is just another Eurocentric or American-centric perspective, and we got too many of those already.

    IMHO, I think there’s should be a focus on the post war era when millions of people fled for the sea–Northerners and Southerners, Communists and non-Communists–because that is another perspective there that haven’t been fully considered for the American public.

    Ken Burns has such great notoriety that his documentaries are shown in the secondary school classrooms; this is an issue because students at that age tend to have the affect of historical fundamentalism–they’ll take whatever shown to them in class to be the whole truth. This is why there should be a disclaimer, especially when the a piece like this is trying to speak with a voice of authority on the subject.

  3. The music and sound in the first episode worked well enough in creating a conventional documentary. This episode tried to do a lot and was very kinetic. The music did a lot to propel it along. The purpose was to say that the Americans were retracing the steps of the French (without giving a very nuanced sense of why the French were there). I wonder if we’ll every hear the sound of a đàn bầu in the series?

    One very interesting moment for me didn’t make it into the subtitles. Nguyen Ngoc spoke of singing the songs “Suối mơ” and “Thiên Thai” as he left for the maquis. Both are very peaceful love songs composed by the man who wrote the blood-filled national anthem. Imagine if “Thien Thai” had been playing in the background of his narration. Whenever I think of the evacuation of Hanoi for the maquis I think of Phạm Duy’s song “Nhạc tuổi xanh.” When I think of the scenes like those for Điện Biên Phủ I think of two songs – the “Hò kéo pháo” by Hoàng Vân and “Chiến thắng Điện Biên” by Đỗ Nhuận. All of these songs could have worked very well in the documentary. But it would give the film a less American feel.

    1. I just went and checked what they do there. For the fall of DBP and the immediate aftermath they have a stringed instrument playing in the background. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s meant to sound “Asian.”

      So in terms of sound, it’s interesting that they decided to put “Asian” music there. From the point of view of storytelling that makes sense. But the fact that it is just “generic background music” created by Yo Yo Ma and his ensemble also, I think, says a lot about the thinking of the people behind this film.

  4. I am currently teaching a general interest class on South Korean history as seen via its popular culture. Yes, this is driven by the need to attract students to the history program! So I can confirm, at least, that US soldiers on rest leave in South Korea would have heard music by South Korean musicians, including music in Korean. In fact, most of the pioneers of Folk Rock and Psychedelic Rock in South Korea in the 1960s and 1970s began their career as entertainers for the US military.

    My class is actually tomorrow, and I am preparing a minor rant on the subject of the term “K-Pop” and the attitude (which I have noticed among some well-educated and seemingly progressive people in academia) that East Asian versions of popular music genres are somehow inauthentic. I will quote you as well on the exclusion of Vietnamese music, as it is just this sort of tiresome, North America-centric narcissism that I will be ranting about. So, I thank you again!

  5. Which is to say – I even expect that quite a number of US soldiers would have known the names of both Vietnamese and South Korean musicians – and those who didn’t know the names would certainly remember the tunes. But left or right, actually learning about these songs and these singers well enough to include them in a documentary would require digging one’s head out of ones navel.

    1. In American-occupied Japan, US soldiers would go to places where music was performed and request to hear “Shina no Yoru” (China Nights), a famous song at that time.

      However, they couldn’t remember the Japanese name, so they gave it an English one and would call out to the singer, “Play ‘She Ain’t Got no Yoyo’!” This song became popular among GIs at that time.

      There must be equivalents for Korea and Vietnam. So yes, even if you just look at everything from an American perspective, the “sound” of the Korean and Vietnam wars included non-American music.

      As for things like psychedelic rock emerging, it did in VN (and Thailand) at that time, but I don’t know much about that, and am not sure if they were performing for soldiers, or for a domestic youth audience, or both.

  6. You are dead on with reference to Nguyên Lê, Professor! If there was any justice in this world he would be a much more well-known and successful musician than he in fact is, and he would have been an absolutely perfect choice to score this documentary any way you look at it. I still remember how impressed I was when I first became aware of his music in the early 1990s. If memory serves, I heard him on some late-night radio program, probably on CJAM, which is a college station in Windsor, Ontario that has a long history of playing a variety of eclectic & adventurous music. This was years before he released his homage to Jimi Hendrix, but he was already doing jazz arrangements of some of Hendrix’s songs; I thought then and still think now that he is the only guitarist who has ever played those songs at the same level as Hendrix himself. The only other living guitarist I know of who has a style even remotely resembling his would be Vernon Reid, though both of them are also somewhat reminiscent of the late Sonny Sharrock. On that note, it is absolutely tragic that Nguyên Lê and Miles Davis never had the opportunity to work together, that would really have been amazing… I couldn’t even begin to count how many times over the years I’ve answered people who think Stevie Ray Vaughan’s version of ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’ is some sort of masterpiece by telling them they should hear Nguyên Lê’s version; the response is invariably the same: “Who the hell is ah, whatever you just said?”.

    The music scene in SEA must have been incredibly exciting during the late ’60s & early ’70s. Just as in Africa during the same era, there was an extraordinary melange of influences swirling around in that time and place, and I’ve heard some amazing psychedelic rock & funk tracks from both Saigon & Phnom Penh. Thanks primarily to the band Dengue Fever (who are actually not bad in their own right), there has been an enormous amount of attention focused on the Cambodian music of those years, and many tracks by artists like Ros Serey Sothea are on YouTube. One of her songs, ‘ផ្ការីកលើមេឃ’ (the English-language title is supposed to be ‘Paratrooper’, but according to the translation software it is actually something like ‘Blazing In The Sky’) has some cool footage of FARK paratroopers doing training jumps, and she apparently jumped with them! You can find that here: ( There was also a documentary about Cambodian rock’n’roll produced a few years ago; the website for the film is ( There seems to have been a bit more of a French influence on popular music in Viet Nam; I’ve read things in various places about French chanson artists like Juliette Gréco & Mireille Mathieu playing gigs in Saigon clubs during the mid-1960s, which obviously means there was an audience big enough to make the trip worthwhile (or perhaps just an ambitious promoter with more money than sense). You can hear the same type of arrangements used by the more “modern” chanson artists on some of the Vietnamese pop songs which were roughly contemporary. In 1968 or 1969 my father bought a Mireille Mathieu LP in Cholon, to which he used to listen quite a bit when I was a child; I’ve always particularly liked a song of hers called ‘Celui Que J’Aime’ (, which is a good example of the sort of arrangement I’m talking about. There is also an excellent compilation of the “heavier” sort of late ’60s & early ’70s psychedelic rock & soul tracks on YouTube ( which is well worth the time to listen…

    1. Wow!! Thanks for the comments!! That’s cool that you discovered Nguyen Le way back in the early 1990s. If I’m not mistaken, his father is the well-known historian Le Thanh Khoi. These days I know that he’s been touring with Ngo Hong Quang, who is an incredibly talented musician who brings a modern feel to traditional Vietnamese music. If you haven’t come across those two, here is a taste:

      Yea, I love the types of 60s-era Cambodian and South Vietnamese music that you mention. The music industry in Thailand was big at that time too. I’ve always thought that it would be cool to look comparatively at the music and music industries in those three places. Each place, for instance, had a male “superstar” at that time: Pham Duy or Trinh Cong Son in Vietnam; Sinn Sisamouth in Cambodia, and Suraphol Sombatcharoen in Thailand. It was a defining moment in the emergence of popular music in all of these places.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s