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Let Freedom Ring – But Truly
About two months ago, I was listening to Pandora and heard a mournful cry in a haunting tune that was labeled 'country' but didn't quite sound like country. It wasn't Luk Thung – the Thai version of country music inspired by Johnny Cash and other American artists – but it may as well have been. It was "Let Freedom Ring," the ending track of Terry Allen's Amerasia, an alt- country album that was part political statement on the botched aftermath of the Vietnam War in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam; part country album; and part experimental album with World music. It appears that Allen worked over a decade on the album; he recorded with Laotian musicians in Thailand a decade prior (engineered by Supod Sookkald, Witan Tuwatchhai) – and the album incorporates SE Asian songs with English songs which condemn both the Viet Nam war and war in general.
country musician and anti-war activist Natalie Maines' father (Lloyd) and uncles (Kenny and Donnie) backed up Terry Allen on this album as they have done on others – I can see where Natalie gets it from. They not only play traditional country music instruments such as guitar and fiddle, but Thai instruments as well, including trupbra (drum) along with other Thai drums, chimes, and various other noisemakers.
While targeting war, the album also strives to demonstrate how friendship can come out of war from the opposing sides and that friendship can unite us in the end – that may seem corny, but this album makes a case that maybe there is truth to it.
Terry Allen's concept album is worthy of a ciccerone – it starts off with the whirring helicopters of the title track "Amerasia" (American meets Asia – oh, now I get it) – and a foreboding narration from Terry Allen on how the war in Vietnam has changed Thailand for the worse; has possibly conquered this unique nation in a strange way despite the fact that they were our allies at the time – this ancient land that never been conquered or changed by any outside force prior. It is disturbing to note that Thailand was basically used as an aircraft carrier from which to bomb the neighboring countries of Laos, Cambodia, and, of course, Vietnam.
The second track is a couple of seconds of "My country, "Tis of Thee," which in this context serves to suggest that patriotic violence is not very patriotic in its swath and path of destruction.
The third track, "The Burden," actually reprises the first musical track – a traditional-sounding country song – but this time uses it to weave an anti-war, tragic lament honoring the thousands of nameless fallen, with Thai drums pounding in the background behind country instruments. It is a far cry from the awful rah, rah, dry, patriotic, pro-Iraqi top-40 country songs of a decade ago.
"Back Out Of The World" is kind of honky-tonk, about a dissatisfied solider returning home and trying with difficulty to readjust to society. In the background are female country vocals purposely and intriguingly trying to sound Southern and Oriental at the same time.
"Swan Lake" is a gritty instrumental, almost blues-like, that just goes to show you that when you combine good music from two cultures, better music is the result (and the question of what country the music originally came is forgotten). Allen works with Laotian musicians Surachai Janyimathorn (guitar, Singha beer bottle); Mongkol Utog (on Paen, aThai Mandolin); Tong Kran Tanaa (phenomenal acoustic slide guitar); and Veersak Sunitohnsri (guitar, Singhai beer bottle), as he does on a variety of tracks.
"Display Woman/Displaced Man" is a lively, action-packed song that sounds like it could have been in a Chuck Norris '80s action movie, about the sex trade created from the Vietnam War (an activity that is world-famous and still thrives today). I should note that because of the kathoey (transsexual woman), the displaced man has become the display woman.
The Cajun-sounding "Lucy's Tiger Den" is an homage to an infamous bar that was a hangout for former soldiers, ex-CIA pilots, construction workers and assorted other military types that closed in 1987 and gave Americans a way to spend holidays with each other away from home during the war. Kind of reminiscent of M*A*S*H* in that respect.
Most of the songs to this point sound American with hints of Asian, but the record kind of reverses that, starting at an American/Thai amalgam of "Chopsticks" at the album's midway point.
"Nobody's Goin' Home," weighing in as the last American music-dominated number and true to its pessimistic title, is a stark criticism of how the US treated Thailand, who was its ally, by destroying the country in the very act of building its infrastructure – and at the same time betraying its own, American citizens by not valuing its soldiers" lives.
Songs like "Metrapab" are what make Amerasia an inventive country album ahead of its time – this song could have easily been just Terry Allen singing in outcry against the Vietnam war; but instead Surachai Janyimathorn sings several songs critical of the War from his point of view. I think Surachai is Laotian, but he sings in the Thai language. Perhaps coincidentally (though perhaps not), both Allen and Janyimathorn share a similarly dry, nasal-sounding voice, so that they almost sound like the same person singing about the same events in the "same voice," but from two opposite worlds.
"Metrapab" represents a complexity of thought regarding Americans during this timeframe, expressed in simple poeticism worthy of Willie Nelson. The message is hard-hitting and laden with irony: Americans have come to Thailand in order to use it as a way to defeat Americanism, killing everyone in their wake, including their Thai allies and their own citizens, heedless that their casualties extend even to children as the mess they leave behind in Thailand for that country to clean up includes children that are "left behind" from either hooking up with or raping local women. But yet, despite all of this, there still somehow remains a transcendent respect for the Americans and a desire to make peace and friendship.
The next three tracks – "Church Wall," "Food Stall," and "Canal" – are all instrumental tracks that try to capture the memories of the ex-soldiers who may still be wandering around Thailand. The melodies used in all three are essentially the same, with the mood and instrumentation being tweaked a bit from track to track.
"Sawahadi" ("Christmas Song') is a short Christmas reflection sung by Terry Allen; and it is lonely – a couple of tracks earlier "Lucy's Tiger Den" mentioned Thanksgiving. The plaintive situation faced by the individual Americans there for that time is not lost sight of in this deeply human musical work.
In "Orphans" we have a mesmerizing, haunting instrumental (possibly one of the best tracks on the album), from Terry Allen's Laotian crew; Terry Allen was doing this even a couple of years prior to Ry Cooder's going to Cuba to record Buena Vista Social Club and to Mali to record sessions with late bluesman Ali Farke Toure.
"Pataya" (sic) sounds a note that is almost patriotic and is written and sung by Terry's Asian vocal "double," Surachai Janyimathorn. Pattaya was a fishing village that was turned into a resort town by American soldiers and remains a bustling tourist spot today. In this song it sounds like Pataya is being attacked and plundered by American marauders, as if they were fighting them instead of Viet Nam and warns Thailand not let this happen. That the Thais and Americans were allies one would never know, based on these lyrics.
"Let Freedom Ring," the final and perhaps the best track on this album, is a round sung by Terry Allen and Surachai Janyimathorn doing the same lyrics in English and in Thai – here, especially, when I first heard the song, I thought it was the same person. This one is an optimistic tune that sounds something like an ending to a Kurosawa film – you know, where the idea is we must unite and trust each other despite all of the war, chaos, and destruction.
Amerasia, twenty years later, is worthy of a review – and while the Vietnam War is now nearly forgotten and buried, replaced by the events of 9/11 and the decade plus-long war that followed, Terry Allen's experimentation with world music, which neither at the time nor since was ever really given its full measure of discovery or appreciation, has never rung more true.