First Friday: March 1968

Originally posted March 7, 2008

As had been the case for many of the months preceding it, and as would be the case for many of the following months, the month of March 1968 was dominated – in the U.S., at least – by news of the Vietnam War and of the presidential campaign just getting under way.

During the month’s first week, what is now called the First Battle of Saigon ended. The battle had started in January as part of the Tet, or New Year’s, offensive of the army of North Vietnam and the guerrilla Viet Cong. During the First Battle of Saigon, thirty-five battalions of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces attacked six specific targets in the capital of South Vietnam, then called Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City.

As I’ve mentioned before, the fighting – in Saigon and elsewhere in South Vietnam – ended in a clear military defeat for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces, but those forces won the war of perception, as U.S. military and civilian leaders had been telling us here in the U.S. for some time that the enemy no longer had the ability to mount major military operations. Oops.

Back in the U.S., the war was the major topic of conversation in the presidential election, then just getting underway. President Lyndon Johnson won the Democratic side of the March 12 primary election in New Hampshire, the first in the nation. But the president’s slender victory – 49 percent to 42 percent – over anti-war candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy was received by the president as a repudiation of his policies, especially in Vietnam. Consequently, on the last day of March, he announced to a nation-wide television audience that he would not seek re-election.

Between the end of the Tet Offensive and the end of President Johnson’s presidential campaign came one of the U.S.’s darkest days in Vietnam. On March 16, a battalion of American soldiers was told to enter the villages Sơn Mỹ and find the hamlets called My Lai 1, 2, 3 and 4, where Viet Cong and North Vietnamese sympathizers had been reported. Their orders, according to Wikipedia, were to “burn the houses, kill the livestock, destroy foodstuffs, and perhaps to close the wells.” The battalion’s Charlie Company was told by its commander, Captain Ernest Medina, that nearly all the civilian residents of the village would have left for the market that morning by seven o’clock, meaning that anyone in the village when the company arrived was almost certainly an enemy.

Wikipedia says that, in a later court martial, some of the soldiers in Charlie Company testified that they understood their orders as being “to kill all guerilla and North Vietnamese combatants and ‘suspects’ (including women and children, as well as all animals), to burn the village, and pollute the wells.”

And that’s what they did. The toll? Even today, forty years later, it’s unclear. Wikipedia says that the number of civilian deaths at My Lai was either 347 (according to the U.S. military) or 504 (according to a memorial at the site in Vietnam). The consequences? The U.S. military quickly initiated a coverup of the massacre a coverup that eventually unraveled, thanks largely to a whistle-blower in the U.S. Army and to investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. Eventually, the U.S. Army tried one general for the coverup and one soldier – Lt. William Calley – for the massacre. The general was acquited; Calley was convited and would up serving four and one-half months in a military prison at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, during which time he was allowed routine and unrestricted visits by his girlfriend, according to a book by Aryeh Neier on war crimes and their effects.

By utter coincidence, on the same day as the massacre, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy entered the presidential race.

Also in March 1968, according to Wikipedia:

A demonstration against American policies in Vietnam took place March 17 in London’s Grosvenor Square, site of the U.S. Embassy, and turned violent. A total of ninety-one people were injured and 200 were arrested.

From March 19 through March 23, students at Howard University – a traditionally African-American university in Washington, D.C. – “staged rallies, protests and a five-day sit-in, laying siege to the administration building, shutting down the university in protest over its ROTC program, and demanding a more Afrocentric curriculum.”

In Nanterre, France, on March 22, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and seven other students occupied the city’s administrative offices, an action whose consequences eventually brought France into a state of revolution in the month of May.

It was a grim month in a grim year. Even so, there was always music for solace, though any kind of solace was becoming more difficult to find. Still, we listened, and in the first week of March, these were the top fifteen songs on WDGY in Minneapolis:

“Simon Says” by the 1910 Fruitgum Company
“Valley of the Dolls” by Dionne Warwick
“Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” by the First Edition
“Nobody But Me” by the Human Beinz
“I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonite” by Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart
“I Wish It Would Rain” by the Temptations
“Spooky” by the Classics IV
“(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” by Otis Redding
“Everything That Touches You” by the Association
“I Can Take Or Leave Your Loving” by Herman’s Hermits
“Goin’ Out Of My Head/Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” by the Lettermen
“Too Much Talk” by Paul Revere & the Raiders
“Baby, Now That I Found You” by the Foundations
“Sunshine Of Your Love” by Cream
“We’re A Winner” by the Impressions

That same week, the top albums in the U.S. were:

Blooming Hits by Paul Mauriat & His Orchestra
John Wesley Harding by Bob Dylan
Magical Mystery Tour by the Beatles
Axis: Bold As Love by the Jimi Hendrix Experience
Aretha: Lady Soul by Aretha Franklin
Herb Alpert’s Ninth by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass
Are You Experienced? by the Jimi Hendrix Experience
Their Satanic Majesties Request by the Rolling Stones
Greatest Hits by Diana Ross and the Supremes
Disraeli Gears by Cream

(The top fifteen singles are not bad, maybe a little gooey in spots, especially the top spot. The albums are a great set, except for one. And no, it’s not the Paul Mauriat I dismiss. That’s still a pretty good album, for what it is. It’s the Rolling Stones’ record that doesn’t fit. I have all of those ten albums except for the Supremes [although I have a later anthology that includes the same music], and the only one I never, ever listen to is Their Satanic Majesties Request. It’s a mostly inconsequential album, with only “She’s A Rainbow” and, maybe, “2000 Light Years From Home” having any weight.)

The album shared here today, Tom Rush’s The Circle Game, was not nearly that large a seller. I’m not sure where it ranked in sales when it was released in 1968; all I can safely say is that it did not reach the Top 40 album chart. Nor did its creator ever have a Top 40 hit.

Rush, a native of New Hampshire, came to public attention through the folk scene in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, during the early 1960s. His early work, according to the first edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide, “placed him squarely in the folk-blues vein of contemporaries John Hammond and Koerner, Ray & Glover.”

A move to Elektra Records for 1965’s Tom Rush brought some experimentation with song choices and performing styles. The 1966 follow-up, Take A Little Walk With Me, which featured one side of rock-styled performances and one side of country/folk blues, was well-received, though sales of Rush’s albums have never been large.

It was in 1968, with The Circle Game, that Rush hit his high-water mark, according to the Rolling Stone guide. Rush’s choice of songs is impeccable: The record draws from the catalogs of the then-unknown trio of Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and James Taylor, and Rush provides a couple of good originals, with one of them – “No Regrets” – being one of those songs a writer hears once and immediately wishes he had written.

Beyond “No Regrets,” the record’s highlights include two of the Mitchell compositions – the title song, which Mitchell released on Ladies of the Canyon in 1970, and “Urge for Going,” which the Rolling Stone guide says sums up the album’s atmosphere, saying that the song’s “low-key, spare arrangement characterizes the educated, wistful and warm style Rush had evolved.” Rush’s performance of Taylor’s “Something in the Way She Moves” is also effective.

If I have a quibble about the album, it’s that sometimes the arrangements behind the songs are a bit lush. It’s a mood that works for the most part, but sometimes I’d like something a little more spare. But that’s a minor quibble about a very good record.

Tracks:
Tin Angel
Something in the Way She Moves
Urge for Going
Sunshine, Sunshine
The Glory of Love
Shadow Dream Song
The Circle Game
So Long
Rockport Sunday
No Regrets

Tom Rush – The Circle Game [1968]

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