In many ways, the Vietnam War was one of the most politically charged and socially divisive conflicts in American history. So it's not too surprising that much of the music of that era, be it rock, pop, country, blues or soul, was spiced with social commentary and imbued with unintended emotional impact.
The music of that era will be showcased this Thursday, Oct. 10 in a 7:30 p.m. tribute show at Detroit Lakes' Historic Holmes Theatre. Titled "What's Going On? Songs from the Vietnam War Era," this two-hour, mixed media concert experience features the St. Cloud-based band The Fabulous Armadillos, with special guest narrators who will share their experiences as combat veterans.
Though he did not serve during the Vietnam era, retired U.S. Army Major John Donovan was one of the instigators for the creation of this show, which is being presented at venues throughout Minnesota in October.
"In 2017, (renowned New York filmmaker) Ken Burns came out with his documentary series, 'The Vietnam War'," Donovan said. "Burns posited that it was the most divisive time in American history since the Civil War, and issues from that time still echo and reverberate in society today."
As part of the process of releasing the 10-part, 18-hour public television series, Donovan added, Burns encouraged people in communities across the United States to engage in discussions about the war, and how it has influenced American society.
Burns' message hit home for Donovan, who is a veteran of the Iraq War.
"On the heels of (the release of Burns' documentary series), I approached the Fabulous Armadillos with this idea of maybe doing a few songs during one of their shows as a tribute to the soldiers who fought in Vietnam, and to those who fought against the war," said Donovan. "They responded, 'A few songs? Why don't we do a whole show?' — and so the idea of 'What's Going On' was born.
"The manager for the band came up with the concept of this multi-media show," Donovan said. "He consulted me on it and asked if I could reach out to some Vietnam veterans to ask if they would share their experiences."
The group worked together on polishing the script of these veterans' narratives which included stories about how certain songs had influenced their thoughts and emotions, both during and after their time in combat. In addition, Donovan said, they were able to gain access to photos and film reels from the Vietnam War era that were shared with them by the U.S. Army's public affairs division — including some images and film footage that had never before been viewed by the public.
"Some of the scenes made available to us were of Vietnam soldiers engaged in combat and soldiers coming home (after being discharged), as well as hundreds of photos from the home front," Donovan said — including images and video of war protesters, students rioting at Kent State, etc. "There was a lot of civil unrest."
Over the course of the next several months, the band and the group of veterans who had shared their stories shaped the multi-media concert experience that Holmes Theatre concert goers will see and hear on Thursday.
Donovan himself will be one of the narrators the audience will hear, he said.
"I talk about my experiences as a war veteran of the current generation, and how the Vietnam veterans were instrumental in getting the public to embrace the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan," he said. "Today, it’s very commonplace for a soldier like myself to have both a sending off ceremony, and a coming home ceremony — but it’s only commonplace because our Vietnam vets stood up and said, 'No longer are we going to send men and women off to war without a proper ceremony, or (greet them with) a 'thank you' when they come home."
Some of the songs included in the concert will be those that were written with the intent of being a form of social commentary on the war, Donovan said — such as Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" or Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" — while others, such as Peter, Paul and Mary's "Leavin' on a Jet Plane" or The Animals' "We Gotta Get Out of this Place," were not written with the war in mind, but came to be strongly associated with it because of the emotions they evoked, both for the soldiers and the people back home.
"We all kind of bookmark our life that way, with music that we associate with certain events," he added. "But then when you add in war and the intensity of emotions and experiences it evokes, these songs take on a larger than life meaning."
As an added incentive to bring audiences in to participate in this thought-provoking and emotional concert experience, Donovan said, the St. Cloud-based HomeFront Resource Center obtained a grant from the "Community Thrives" program, a joint project of the USA Today Network and the Gannett Foundation, that will enable those who purchase a ticket to any of five upcoming "What's Going On" concerts (at the full, adult price) to obtain a second, free ticket for any U.S. Armed Forces veteran or active military service member.
Other concerts in this tour will take place at Brainerd's Tornstrom Auditorium on Friday, Oct. 11; Grand Rapids' REIF Center on Saturday, Oct. 12; Worthington's Memorial Auditorium on March 28, 2020; and St. Cloud's Paramount Theater on May 16, 2020 (matinee performance only).
"I think it's appropriate for audiences of all ages," Donovan said of the show, adding that many of the songs included in "What's Going On" are enduringly popular with music lovers both young and old.
If you go
What: "What's Going On? Songs from the Vietnam War Era," featuring music by The Fabulous Armadillos
When: Thursday, Oct. 10, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Historic Holmes Theatre, 806 Summit Ave., Detroit Lakes
Ticket Info: Admission is $28 for adults, $14 for students — but for every adult ticket purchased at full price, you can obtain a second ticket for any U.S. military veteran or active service member at no additional cost. To purchase tickets, call 218-844-7469, visit www.dlccc.org/holmes-theatre.html, or stop by the Holmes Box Office at 806 Summit Ave., Detroit Lakes.