Torturing others with Barry Sadler


barry Sadler.Green BeretsI had a grand time after church in late October. And I had S/Sgt. Barry Sadler to thank.

A group of us were talking about music. For some reason, the truly awful song The Men In My Little Girl’s Life came to my mind. Pure treacle. It was sung by Mike Douglas, the TV host. The very title made my companions shriek. I remember it went to #6 in ’66. – sign of the devil. So yeah.

One of my buddies was talking about how they had gone through all of the songs that had reached #1 on the pop charts. The discovery was that some of the ones before the rock and roll era weren’t very good.

I wondered if The Ballad of the Green Berets by Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler was an outlier, but they didn’t remember it. This surprised me because it’s so different than most of its contemporary tunes. I confidently said it was the #1 tune of 1966, which was true if being #1 for five weeks is the measure. We Can Work It OutSoul and InspirationMonday MondaySummer In The City, and Winchester Cathedral all topped the charts for three weeks that year.

But they were young and didn’t understand its impact until I asked someone younger than I, I think, but older than them about the song. She immediately launched into “Fighting soldiers from the sky…” This generated a look of utter disbelief, and I had to laugh. You did not need to be a supporter of the Vietnam war to have that song stuck in your head for decades without having heard it again.

A new verse?

The song was so ubiquitous in the day that I could have, but didn’t, recite the lyrics of the last verse.
Back at home, a young wife waits
Her Green Beret has met his fate
He has died for those oppressed.
Leaving her his last request…

I knew the song was controversial at the time, of course. What I didn’t realize until recently is that there is a new, more inclusive version that has this verse:

Delta Force and CIA
They clear the way.
Covert missions are now in play
These special ops
like the Green Beret

Some in the military apparently hate the additional words. I think they’re clunky.

I blame Chuck Miller for getting the original song stuck in my head. On his radio show, he played the B-side of Ballad of the Green Berets, a song called Letter from Vietnam, right before that church discussion.

The movie

Oh, yeah, I also saw the movie The Green Berets (1968), starring John Wayne, and fresh off the TV show The Fugitive, David Janssen. It also starred Jim Hutton of Binghamton, NY as Sgt. Petersen, which may have been a factor in me seeing it at the time.

Janssen’s character, George Beckworth, was a newspaper reporter cynical about the war until seeing Col. Mike Kirby (Wayne) and his troops in action. That’s a little oversimplified, but so was the film, which was pilloried by the critics as a WWII film.

Songs of war and the protest of same

When I watched The Vietnam War, the PBS series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, in October 2017, I was naturally drawn to the music. Here is the list of the 120+ songs that were included in the 18-hour program, which you can listen to at Spotify, or find on YouTube.

Some were very familiar, others not, but I was fascinated that there were at least five Beatles songs – Tomorrow Never Knows, Revolution 1, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Blackbird, and Let It Be, which can be expensive to license. (I swear I also heard Piggies, but maybe I was just hallucinating.)

Coincidentally or not, Robert S. Hoffman posted Protest music: Music you can resist to, which include three of the songs on the Burns/Novick roster: Eve of Destruction by Barry McGuire, For What it’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield, and Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, the powerful outro for episode eight.

As Dustbury pointed out: “For about as long as there have been protests, there have been protests of protests. This 1966 wonder, on the real-life Are You Kidding Me? label, lays out its agenda before the very first verse… The Beach Bums were Doug Brown and the Omens, plus a different frontman than usual: Bob Seger, who probably wrote this under the ‘D. Dodger’ pseudonym.”

But The Ballad of the Yellow Berets was WAY too close of a ripoff of the tune that was #1 for five weeks on the Billboard pop charts in 1966, longer than any song that year.

The Ballad of the Green Berets [listen] was co-written and performed by Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler, From the Billboard Book of Number One Hits by Fred Bronson: “He was sent to Vietnam, where his fellow soldiers showed little interest in his songs…

“His Vietnam duty was cut short when he fell into a booby trap while on patrol….Lapsing in and out of consciousness, he treated the [leg] wound himself.”

Robin Moore, author of the book The Green Berets, got hold of Sadler’s 12-verse song about the army combat unit and edited it down. Initially released to the military, it was so popular, Moore took the track to RCA, which “agreed to finance a full recording session, complete with orchestra.”

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