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A Veteran Traces America's Biography In Music, From Coney Island To Vietnam
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A Veteran Traces America's Biography In Music, From Coney Island To Vietnam


War veterans often struggle to explain their experience to civilians. That was especially true when Vietnam veterans came home. They were not, after all, welcomed as heroes the way today's vets are.

NPR's Quil Lawrence has the story of one Vietnam veteran who couldn't talk about the war, so he composed symphonies about it instead.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: One summer night in 1969, Kimo Williams went to a rock concert in Hawaii. That led to one of the two most important decisions of his life.

KIMO WILLIAMS: I started on guitar. I wanted to be Jimi Hendrix.

LAWRENCE: The next day, after he saw Hendrix play the Waikiki Bowl, Williams made the other decision. He joined the Army. He spent the following year in Vietnam.

WILLIAMS: I was a combat engineer, January 1970 to November 1970.

LAWRENCE: His musical career started there with a band of GIs touring South Vietnam.

WILLIAMS: They would put us in the middle of a firebase just before they got attacked, for us to give them some music. So we were up in Da Nang and we would set our guitars down in mud. And I knew that I was making a difference in the lives of these soldiers.

LAWRENCE: Williams got out and used GI bill money to attend the Berklee School of Music in Boston, and he started composing. In 1990, his "Symphony for the Sons of Nam" premiered in Savannah, Georgia.


LAWRENCE: A march gives way to silence and then blasts the sound like mortars landing.


LAWRENCE: Then a quiet horn survives.


LAWRENCE: The symphony was performed all over the country. Williams started writing more music inspired by his time at war. But conductors and composers told him, no, do something else.

WILLIAMS: It's time to move on, Kimo. Now, you did your Vietnam piece. Now you need to move on and do something else. And I said, yeah, you know, you're right. Then I sat down and I thought about it. And then it hit me that I can't get away from it; that Vietnam is a part of who I am.

LAWRENCE: Combat veterans say war defines their identity. And it's hard to explain the experience to someone who hasn't been there, even more so for Vietnam vets.

WILLIAMS: It's entirely different than Iraqi, Afghanistan vet because we had to shut up. Now they are allowing these veterans to talk about their service. The Vietnam vet was a problem that you just didn't talk about.

LAWRENCE: Williams says those pent-up feelings came out in music. And his experience, his identity as a vet, still comes through even when he sets out to write about something else. Most recently the Ethel String Quartet, in New York City, commissioned a piece from Williams based on a government photography archive from the 1970s called "Documerica." The images of lakes and rivers and coasts inspired Williams, but also reminded him of Vietnam.


WILLIAMS: This is coming back from Vietnam... coming back, I'm flying back, then I land back home.

LAWRENCE: Williams played the score off his computer.

WILLIAMS: And this is a motif that starts with the first violin melody.

LAWRENCE: The result is a piece called "A Veteran's Lament."

WILLIAMS: ...very hard to do; I can't wait to hear these guys do it.


LAWRENCE: The Ethel String Quartet has been practicing "A Veteran's Lament." Williams will get to hear the quartet premiere his piece tonight at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Ralph Farris, on viola, says he knew he wanted Williams for a piece about the fabric of America.

RALPH FARRIS: You know, actually, he came as a real revelation, as the perfect guy for this project. I just - there's an American flavor to his work, clearly underscored by the fact that he is a veteran.

LAWRENCE: Decades after Vietnam, the country is different. You can talk about war now. But Williams prefers a different language.

WILLIAMS: You know, I want to leave something with you that helps you to understand deeper than words what that experience meant to me. And so I was able to do that through music.

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News.


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