Bob Dylan in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (And what does it really mean?)

Bob Dylan played yesterday, April 10th, in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Vietnam. He delivered a set list that was in keeping with the kinds of shows he’s been doing the last couple of years. Reportedly, the venue was “half-empty” (or, as one may prefer to think, half-full) but this didn’t prevent Bob from delivering a relatively rare second encore, with the song Forever Young. This is the full list of songs he played:

1. Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking
2. It Ain’t Me, Babe
3. Beyond Here Lies Nothin’
4. Tangled Up In Blue
5. Honest With Me
6. Simple Twist Of Fate
7. Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
8. Love Sick
9. The Levee’s Gonna Break
10. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
11. Highway 61 Revisited
12. Spirit On The Water
13. My Wife’s Home Town
14. Jolene
15. Ballad Of A Thin Man
16. Like A Rolling Stone
17. All Along The Watchtower
18. Forever Young

Predictably enough, quite a lot of the coverage in the media has been centered on finding meaning in the notion that Bob Dylan — allegedly associated with anti-Vietnam war protests in the 1960s — was now actually getting to sing his anti-Vietnam war songs in Vietnam. From the Associated Press, in Forbes, for instance:

After nearly five decades of singing about a war that continues to haunt a generation of Americans, legendary performer Bob Dylan is finally getting his chance to see Vietnam at peace.

Back in February when the concert in Vietnam was first announced, Yours Truly anticipated this kind of thing, and what was written then seems to fit the bill just as well today:

BOB DYLAN IN Vietnam, huh? That seems like it ought to have some kind of great symbolic significance, but what exactly it is, I’m not sure. I bet Bob can’t wait to get on stage and do all his songs against the Vietnam war … except, ah, what were all those again?

If you search the BobDylan.com database, just one song comes up with the word Vietnam in it, which is the mid-1980s soundtrack throwaway Band Of The Hand (It’s Hell Time Man!). (I’m proud to say I own it on an original vinyl 45 rpm single, complete with picture sleeve! All reasonable offers considered.) The song is about drug dealers, gangs and corrupt politicians, conspiring to destroy the lives of the young. There’s a spirit of vigilantism, and one verse goes:

For all of my brothers from Vietnam
And my uncles from World War II
I’ve got to say that it’s countdown time now
We’re gonna do what the law should do

So the warriors of old are invoked and saluted by the song’s protagonist, who seeks to dish out his own kind of justice on the streets. Not exactly an antiwar song, I guess.

The word Vietnam is also mentioned in the unreleased song Legionnaire’s Disease from around 1981:

Granddad fought in a revolutionary war, father in the War of 1812
Uncle fought down in Vietnam and then he fought a war all by himself
But whatever it was, it hit him like a tree
Oh, that Legionnaire’s disease

And the word appears one more time in a song Dylan did with the Traveling Wilburys in 1988, called Tweeter and the Monkey Man.

Tweeter was a boy scout before she went to Vietnam
And found out the hard way nobody gives a damn
They knew that they found freedom just across the Jersey line
So they hopped into a stolen car took Highway 99

Finally, although the word itself isn’t used, the song Clean-Cut Kid from Empire Burlesque appears to be about a Vietnam veteran — one who “couldn’t adjust,” and “took a dive one day / Off the Golden Gate Bridge into China Bay.”

Maybe Bob will put together a never-before-performed medley of all his Vietnam songs! I’m sure these four tunes are very well known to his Vietnamese fans.


One thing which undoubtedly is symbolized by Bob Dylan even being able to play this year in Vietnam, and in China too, is this: Both nations, where so much blood was spilled in the name of compelling people into the communist way of life, are now roaring capitalist economies. And that is why entertainers can now go there and perform before paying audiences.

It’s often been asked in America regarding the Vietnam War, “What were we fighting for?” (Dylan himself used this line for a little bit in the late 1980s, when he inserted a verse about Vietnam into live performances of With God On Our Side.) We might forget that the same question ought and must hold far more ironic weight in the country of Vietnam itself.