While critics debate what’s good and bad about the recently-released James Brown biopic, Get on Up, they’re missing something that those of us who grew up with Mr. Dynamite in the 1960s know better than most.
Especially those of us who served in Vietnam.
(MORE: 1964: The Year America Lost It)
James Brown’s willingness to perform for U.S. soldiers in Vietnam in June 1968 had a significant impact on easing racial tensions overseas and at home.
You get a brief, albeit flawed, sense of this during an early scene in the film, but it doesn’t do Brown’s deed justice.
The Context of the Times
Pause for a minute to recall all that was going on back then:
- The North Vietnamese/Viet Cong Tet Offensive of February and March reverberated in Vietnam and beyond
- It was barely two months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the riots that followed
- Presidential hopeful Bobby Kennedy had just been assassinated
Nowhere were America’s tensions, frustrations and disappointments felt more acutely than among GIs fighting in the jungles of Vietnam.
And that’s who James Brown decided to visit. In fact, Brown lobbied President Johnson and Vice President Humphrey for almost two years before they finally agreed to let him go.
“I volunteered, but the government didn’t want me to go to Vietnam,” Brown told Chris Appy, author of the monumental oral history Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides. “I just couldn’t make heads or tails of it. I’d met Humphrey in 1966 when I put out the song Don’t Be a Drop-Out. So, Humphrey agreed that yeah, we’d be glad to take James to Vietnam.”
But LBJ and his crowd took their sweet time deciding whether to let him go. Only a handful of well-known American musical acts had performed in Vietnam to this point, among them “Rebel Rouser” Duane Eddy, the Surfaris of Wipe Out fame and Nancy Sinatra.
Brown would be the first black performer, and, given that this was 1968 and race relations were at a breaking point, it was a risky proposition.
Brown had just released Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud) which quickly became a Black Power anthem. LBJ and the military brass did not want to throw gasoline on an already combustible race relations inferno.
A Different Kind of Hostility in Vietnam
“The death of Martin Luther King created a lot of hostility in Vietnam,” recalled Dave Gallaher, who, in addition to his duties as a photo specialist at Tan Son Nhut Airbase near Saigon in 1967-68, played guitar with The Rotations, a predominantly black band that played Sunday night shows at Airmen’s Clubs.
Gallaher is one of more than 200 Vietnam vets that my colleague, University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Craig Werner, and I have interviewed for our upcoming book, We Gotta Get Out of This Place: Music, Survival, Healing, and the Soundtrack of the Vietnam War.
“Things were always cool until the assassination, when the racial situation got tense and it was hard for people to get along,” he adds. “Even those who’d been friends had a hard time associating. There were several times I would be playing with the band and would be the only white guy in the place. Overall, when you were on stage, there was never a problem. But you get off to take a leak, someone would be in there drunk. They’d see your white face and would start trouble.”
A Calming Effect
Allegedly, the intervention of USO impresario extraordinaire Bob Hope finally helped get Brown overseas, into this volatile environment. The tour began on June 5, 1968. In one last assertion of either anxiety or authority, the U.S. military told Brown the day before he left that he could bring only six musicians with him, rather than the 22-piece orchestra he’d performed with at a stopover in Korea.
For the next 10 days, Brown and his group played three shows a day, each one at a different U.S. military base. Gallaher remembers the shows as having a “calming effect” on the tense racial situation, helped by the fact that one of Brown’s musicians, Tim Drummond, was white.
“With him being there, I think it did more good than anyone might realize,” Gallaher reflected on Drummond’s presence. “Because of the hostilities that had developed racially, I think James showing up with a white musician just put everyone on a little bit of notice about cooling out. Showing that a white man could get in there and play that music, I think it was very timely.”
The Power of Music
Despite the rigorous challenges, Brown remembered the tour fondly.
“It was harder than any tour I’ve ever done,” he confessed to Chris Appy in Patriots. “We’d ride from place to place in a Chinook, a big helicopter … the GIs treated me like God. It’s ’cause I came over there to perform for them and I didn’t have to.”
Brown could have been making hundreds of thousands of dollars at home on a concert tour. Instead, as he said: “I was out in the nitty-gritty, right out there in front of the people.”
And he heard directly from the enlisted men. He told Major General Robert C. Forbes, Commander of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade in Vietnam: “You can’t see nothing ’cause the cats can’t talk back to you, sir. But every time I go to a place they’d tell me about the blacks and the whites and people thinking they were better than the other one.”
But Brown’s tour had a unifying effect. “A lot of blacks and whites became better friends than they ever were in their life,” Brown told Forbes.
Score one for the power of music, amplified in a way that only Brown could, to make a difference.