When I was young my father, knowing of my interest in music and war, gave me a book entitled “Singing the Vietnam Blues: Songs of the Air Force in Southeast Asia.” Actually, he had it hidden so well he lost it and gave it to me years after he intended. I ended up losing it again while in college before reading it, a missed opportunity I’ve always regretted.
Later on in life, I discovered a folk song through a project at Buffalo State University called Vietnam Veterans Oral History and Folklore Project. I found the song instantly haunting. Recalling my father’s gift, I have always yearned to share it with my father to get his opinion. Unfortunately he died before I could. The song is titled “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” although the tune is identical to the old country song “Billy the Kid” (this adds extra layers of meaning if you know the lyrics). The song describes the point of view of an American pilot trying to stop North Vietnamese trucks on the trail while facing anti-aircraft defenses and his own fears.
While participating in the National Humanities Institute on Contested Territory: America’s Role in Southeast Asia, I have gained an appreciation for the layers within the song and parallels to Vietnamese culture. Obviously the Trail was a “contested territory,” with the North Vietnamese on the ground and Americans in the air above. This difference of space itself is a reflection of the technological and cultural divide between the two sides. The author describes a pilot struggling in the dark while fighting to stay in the air. This recalls to me American administrations creating policy, struggling with their ignorance of Southeast Asia, while fighting to keep South Vietnam afloat. This song also represents a contested cultural territory in America. Folk songs were typically used by American protesters in the 1950s and 60s, but here the form is used to describe a military experience. The last verse of the song, about an overconfident youth, seems a fitting metaphor for America as a whole in the mid-20th Century. Finally, this song brings to mind the Vietnamese Ca Dao poetry, or folk poetry used by the Vietnamese peasants to describe and give meaning to their lives. This song is an American equivalent of Ca Dao; it would have been sung by and to other American pilots before they met their destiny in the contested space above the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The song makes me think of lost opportunities for communication between people divided by space, technology, politics, and culture, just as my opportunity to play this song for my father was lost by his death. Listening to this song, I am haunted by that realization of loss. As we hurt each other, we all lose opportunities to understand. We lose our youth, we lose our fathers, and we lose ourselves.
“Ho Chi Minh Trail” by Toby Hughes
Come along, boys, and I’ll tell you a tale,
Of the pilots who fly on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Of Covey and Moonbeam and Nimrod you’ve heard,
Of Hobo and Spad and of old Yellow Bird.
The trucks load in Hanoi and Haiphong by day,
In singles and convoys they start on their way.
South by southwest in an unending stream,
Reaching the border at day’s fading gleam.
They stop at Mu Gia or at Ban Karai.
And wait for the last of the daylight to die.
Under cover of night through the pass they set sail,
Out on the roads of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
As they roll on through darkness, not stopping to rest,
Miles away are the pilots whose skills they will test.
Who’ll soon face the darkness, the karst, and the guns,
In the grim cat and mouse game that no one’s yet won.
When you fly on the Trail through the dark and the haze
It’s a thing you’ll remember the rest of your days.
A nightmare of vertigo, mountains, and flak,
And the cold wind of Death breathing soft at your back.
But the trucks must be stopped, and it’s all up to you,
So you fly here each night to this grim rendezvous.
Where your whole world’s confined to the light of the flare,
And you fight for your life just to stay in the air.
For there’s many a man who there met his fate,
On the dark roads of Hell, where the grim reaper waits.
Where a man must learn quickly the tricks of his trade,
Or die in the dark for mistakes that he’s made.
And there’s many a lad in the flush of his youth,
Who’s still yet to meet with his moment of truth.
With wings on his chest and the world by the tail,
He’ll grow up fast on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.