While it's far from a hard and fast rule, during the past few decades overseas companies have more often than not done the most thorough job of archiving American music, at least in part due to more relaxed copyright laws. A longtime leader in carefully compiled sets has been Bear Family in Germany, one of the pioneers of multi-disc sets dedicated to single artists or labels in rock and country music.
The label's 35th anniversary year included one of their most elaborate productions ever, the 13-CD set Next Stop is Vietnam: The War on Record, 1961-2008. The collection will be the starting point of a symposium about music during the war, running November 18-20 at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum and Monona Terrace.
So, how did a German album release generate a symposium in Madison? It was a combination of factors coming together, writes Wisconsin Veterans Museum curator Jeffrey Kollath via email: "We first found out about Next Stop is Vietnam from Doug Bradley and Craig Werner, who have been working on their own Vietnam music project for over five years now. They got hooked up with Hugo Keesing, the producer of the set, early in 2010 and ended contributing an essay on the soldiers' reaction to the music of the era to the liner notes. "
Kollath continues: "Doug participated in a panel discussion with Hugo and Lauren Onkey from the Rock Hall at Kent State in May 2010 and made some initial contacts, although this idea had been percolating for some time before that. No one has ever done this for a Bear Family release before, so the label has been quite supportive of our efforts."
The massive box set includes more than 330 tracks, from familiar songs by legends like Bob Dylan and John Lennon to performances by soldiers recorded in-country and even some historical sound bites. There's also a 300-plus page hardcover book chronicling the Vietnam War and the cultural response to it in the United States.
Despite focusing on a subject with international reverberations, there should be a good opportunity to get a perspective on how the war related to Wisconsin. Werner is a professor in the Department of Afro-American Studies at UW-Madison, and Bradley a Vietnam veteran and assistant director in the university's Office of Corporate Relations. Other familiar Madison names among the panelists include drummer Clyde Stubblefield, country historian and WORT-FM radio host Bill Malone, and music writer/UW Ph.D. candidate Charles Hughes.
"With the exception of Art Flowers," notes Kollath "all the veterans who are participating in the event are from Wisconsin or have lived here for a while."
With five talks over three days, and some falling during the standard 9-to-5 workday, it may be hard for interested folks to attend the entire event. Kollath offers some pointers: "Well, all the events are going to be great, but if you had to pick one, I'd go with the 'Does Anybody Know I'm Here: Black Music and the Black Experience in Vietnam' panel on Friday at the Monona Terrace. [The panel includes:] William Bell, a 25th Infantry Division veteran who contributed three great songs to the Vietnam canon after getting out of service in 1966; Clyde Stubblefield, who played with James Brown's band on his historic mini-tour of South Vietnam in 1968; and Art Flowers, a drafted grunt whose life since the war has been heavily influenced by the music of the era; all have different interpretations of the war years and the meaning of the music."
Kollath says organizers are particularly excited about bringing William Bell to Madison. "He was the 'it' performer on Stax Records until he got drafted in 1962," the curator explains. "When he got out of service, some guy named Otis Redding had taken the mantle from him, but Bell still made a great career for himself as a performer and a songwriter."
The "Next Stop is Vietnam" symposium is free and open to the public; a complete schedule of events is available here or from the museum. The symposium is spearheaded by the museum, in conjunction with Integrated Liberal Studies program and Department of Afro-American Studies at UW-Madison, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Wisconsin Public Television, and Monona Terrace.