Howard County Times
Howard County

Columbia music historian compiles Vietnam War songs

Nearly 40 years ago, a haunting photograph of a naked Vietnamese girl running in anguish after being severely burned in a napalm bomb attack on her village became an iconic image of the Vietnam War.

But most who have seen the Pulitzer Prize-winning shot probably haven't heard the obscure song it inspired more than three decades later, says Hugo Keesing, a self-taught music historian.

"The Girl in the Picture (Napalm Girl)," released by Yanah in 2004, is one of more than 300 famous and not-so-famous songs and spoken-word tracks about the war that are included in a 13-CD anthology assembled by Keesing, a Columbia resident. He will discuss the collection Tuesday with the aid of slides and songs at the 50+ Center at the East Columbia branch of the Howard County Public Library.

"There has been a renewed interest in Vietnam since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan bear similarities to it," said the producer of "Next Stop is Vietnam: The War on Record, 1961-2008," which is accompanied by a companion book and a 14th disc that contains song lyrics.

"In today's generation, many students have parents, uncles or grandfathers who served in Vietnam," said Keesing, who took his anthology's title from the popular anti-war anthem "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag," released by Country Joe and the Fish in 1967 and performed at Woodstock.

For someone who has never studied music, Keesing has attracted the attention of such notable publications as Rolling Stone for his 2010 effort, which one reviewer described as "essential American history in sound — and a lesson in the art of morale."

Lisa Bankman, Howard County library's events and seminars manager, called the anthology "one of a kind" for its approach to chronicling "the historical, cultural and emotional aspects of the Vietnam War" and advancing understanding of the war's place in American history.

"When vets experience [Keesing's presentation], they often offer up their thoughts and anecdotes through tears," she said.

The compilation of songs ensures that Yanah's tune and dozens of other little-known protest songs of all genres have taken their rightful place next to the famous music of the era.

Mixed in with songs that defined the war — such as "The Eve of Destruction" by Barry McGuire, "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" by The Animals, and "The Ballad of the Green Berets" by Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler — are unknown songs about topics such as post-traumatic stress disorder, Agent Orange and homelessness among veterans, Keesing said.

There are also excerpts from speeches by President Richard M. Nixon and Gen. William C. Westmoreland, who led U.S. troops in Vietnam.

"That's what makes this anthology so very different from the commercial stuff," Keesing said, even though such artists as Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen and Joan Baez are featured.

Some of the lesser-known songs were written and performed by Vietnam veterans such as Phil Ferrazano, whose song, "Bobby's Saigon Boogie," made the cut on disc 12.

Reached at his home in Clearwater, Fla., Ferrazano, now 62, said his song details the exploits of a wounded soldier who gets separated from his buddies in town and ends up singing and playing guitar in a bar to escape the war for a day.

"Writing songs is a therapeutic thing, and it made me feel good to be included in this," he said, noting he has released a CD and also written a book. "I'm still dealing with the war today, but I still hear from other vets who have been helped by my writing."

When Keesing began stockpiling his favorite records in the 1950s, he did not know he was laying the foundation for a lifelong hobby.

"I took my records to parties and acted as an amateur DJ," Keesing recalled. By the time he entered Duke University, he had collected 400 records. When he graduated with a bachelor's degree in psychology in 1965, he owned 700.

"A lot of them were topical records, one-hit wonders that said something about the time," he said.

Keesing's love of music and the impulse to collect have stuck with him through the years, but it was his love of history that tied all of his interests together.

As an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, he noticed that students sat up and took notice in class whenever he cited song lyrics to bring home a point.

In 1975, his proposal to teach a contemporary U.S. history course based on popular music was approved by the university's American studies department, and three years later he was pulling in 75 students per class. By 1980, he averaged between 280 and 300 students, and the class was one of the university's most popular electives, he said.

He stopped teaching the course in 1991 after 16 years because he "couldn't relate to heavy-metal and rap music," he said.

When he completed the anthology, Keesing had amassed 2,000 songs from which to pick and choose. Since the anthology's release, he has more than doubled that number to an inventory of 5,000 recordings, he said.

"What I've found is music is a vehicle that gets vets to talk about their experiences," he said, noting he sent invitations to his talk to eight area chapters of the Vietnam Veterans of America. And with an ever-expanding selection of stories "that could otherwise be lost or never told," Keesing is planning a second compilation.

"We now know more about Vietnam's role in shaping our country's history and foreign policy," he said. "We must look back to learn and relearn the lessons of war."

If you go

Hugo Keesing will discuss the roots, content and educational potential of his anthology from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday in the East Columbia 50+ Center, 6600 Cradlerock Way, Columbia. Audience members will listen to song excerpts while viewing popular-culture images. Registration is required; call 410-313-7700 or go to