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Bob Bloom
Bob Bloom

Songs of the soldier

Alumnus, Vietnam vet examines impact of war on popular music

By Nancy Wesenberg

Bob Bloom knows that many people in the Chippewa Valley associate his name with the Vietnam War. He's a veteran who spoke about his experiences to students in his social studies and history classes at Eau Claire's South Middle School and Memorial High School before he retired in 2002, and for years he's been a guest speaker for UW-Eau Claire's history course on Vietnam.

In 1997 The View ran a story about Bloom's first visit back to Vietnam with his wife, Ellen, and now-retired UW-Eau Claire political science professor Leonard Gambrell, and last spring he began hosting a Tuesday afternoon radio program called "Songs in the Key of Nam" on Eau Claire's new independent radio station, WHYS-FM 96.3. He's in the process of researching and writing a book of the same name - a book that examines more than 350 popular songs written about the Vietnam War. A portion of the book appeared as an article in the December 2005 issue of Vietnam magazine.

But Bloom would like people to know that although the Vietnam War had a lasting impact on his life, that's not all he's about, and his life and thoughts don't center on the war. He said his latest two ventures, the book and radio show, are really more about his lifelong interest in popular music and his fascination with how particular songs come to be associated with both the larger historical and smaller personal events in people's lives. The Vietnam War struck a chord in American popular music that continues to reverberate today, said Bloom, who received bachelor's (1970) and master's (1992) degrees from UW-Eau Claire.

"The key is that it's popular music we're talking about - rock 'n' roll, country, rhythm and blues, all different genres - but music that was heard on the radio regularly," he said.

If you ask Bloom about the songs that personally bring him back to that time, he has a ready answer. In late 1970, when Bloom himself was at Fort Dix preparing to be sent overseas, George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" had just been released, and Bloom remembers hearing it played over and over again on the radio. When he arrived in Vietnam and was waiting in a replacement battalion, once again it was "My Sweet Lord" he remembers hearing. Not surprisingly, it became the song that ran through his head most often then and is forever linked with that time in his life when he was moving toward the unknown.

In contrast, the song that most symbolized the war for many soldiers was the Animals' hit "We Gotta Get Out of This Place."

"That song became the anthem for a lot of veterans," Bloom said. "Even though it wasn't written about Vietnam, it was one of those songs whose message resonated powerfully with many soldiers, and it got airplay continuously for about seven years."

Bloom's attention to music quite naturally continued after the war when he returned home to attend graduate school and begin teaching.

"The things I'm doing now, the book and radio show, are really a natural progression of my use of music in the classroom," Bloom said, noting that back before there was MTV, he began using popular music as a hook to get his students more excited about the history and social studies topics they were discussing in class.

"One of the first songs I remember using was the Beatles' 'Back in the USSR,'" Bloom said, explaining that over the years he's used music to pique his students' interest in a variety of topics and social issues.

But at the same time, Bloom became aware of what a lasting impact Vietnam had had on popular American music, and he began to categorize and analyze songs in his own mind.

"In the earliest years of the war, 1962-64, songs that related to the war were more subtle, typically referring to warfare in general in either positive or negative terms," Bloom said. "But as the war escalated and the nation became more divided, the songs became more direct and began to refer to Vietnam in particular."

Bloom cites Barry Sadler's "The Ballad of the Green Berets" and Merle Haggard's "Fightin' Side of Me" as examples of songs that supported the American military and its efforts in Vietnam. He lists "War" by Edwin Starr, "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival and "What's Going On" by Marvin Gaye as examples of the many songs that were critical of the conflict.

Eventually, Bloom amassed information about hundreds of songs, and the idea for the book he's currently writing was born. When the number of songs that had become associated with the war became unmanageable, he decided to limit the book to songs written specifically about the war, either during the war years or later on, when the country continued to struggle with its view of the war and the soldiers who had fought in it.

Bloom explains that after the Paris Peace Accords of January 1973 ended America's combat role in Vietnam, there was a lull of about eight years when few new war-related songs were released. But that changed in the early 1980s when funds were being raised to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

An excerpt from Bloom's Vietnam magazine article puts it this way:

"It is quite apparent that with the dedication of the Wall in 1982, a renewed and vivid accounting of the war's personal and tragic cost helped alter the perception of many Americans toward the conflict and toward those who fought it. Passions it had generated, while by no means gone, had subsided to a degree that allowed Americans to better understand their country's involvement. Popular music would reflect that new awareness, with songs that focused on the results of the conflict as opposed to judgments on the war itself."

Bloom's article goes on to describe and analyze songs released during the 1980s, 1990s and beyond, including Billy Joel's "Goodnight Saigon" (1982), Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." (1984), Paul Hardcastle's "19" (1985), Johnny Cash's "Drive On" (1994) and the Dixie Chicks' "Travelin' Soldier" (2002).

Since the United States is once again involved in a controversial war, an obvious question to put to Bloom is, "What about now? Are there songs being written and performed about the war in Iraq?"

"Yes, of course," Bloom said. "But there are some important differences between that time and now. There were many independent radio stations back then that could play whatever they wanted. Now large corporations control most of the stations, and you just won't hear many of these songs. For example, have you ever heard Willie Nelson's 'Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth?' It was released in early 2004, and yet most people have never heard it on the radio and don't even know it exists."

The song, in fact, includes a line that says, "Now you probably won't hear this on your radio, probably not on your local TV, but if there's a time, and if you're ever so inclined, you can always hear it from me."

And Bloom points to yet another important difference between the present and the Vietnam era.

"I think we've learned to separate the war and the warrior," he said, noting that this began to be evident after the end of the first Gulf War. "Whatever people's opinions are about the war in Iraq, I think it's clear that concern for the soldiers and for human life is uppermost in many people's minds."

Residents of Eau Claire have been tuning in to hear Bloom host "Songs in the Key of Nam" on WHYS radio again this spring, and he plans to teach a graduate workshop on the same subject this summer through UW-Eau Claire Continuing Education. Those who live further away will just have to wait for his book.

Nancy Wesenberg is a writer for the UW-Eau Claire News Bureau.


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