When the music legend Charlie Daniels passed away earlier this week at age 83, every obituary mentioned his iconic song, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
Many mentioned some of his other songs, such as “Uneasy Rider” and “The South’s Gonna Do It” and “Long-Haired Country Boy.”
Many also mentioned his early career session work for Bob Dylan — what a combination that must have been! — and his latter-day political activism for conservative causes.
Not that many, though, mentioned the song that, based on chart position, was his second-biggest hit — and had a more enduring cultural impact than any of the others.
We refer to “Still in Saigon,” Daniels’ tribute to a Vietnam vet with post-traumatic stress disorder, which came out in 1982 and peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock charts but apparently never made the country charts at all — a sign of how Daniels, like many Southern musicians, straddles a lot of different genres.
The song was significant because it was one of the first big hits with a Vietnam vet as a sympathetic figure — and came after a long period in which the military, in general, had fallen into popular disfavor. It’s hard to trace cause-and-effect — sometimes great minds really do think alike — but “Still in Saigon” came before a flurry of other songs in the ’80s about Vietnam vets. Among those: Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” Billy Joel’s “Goodnight Saigon,” Huey Lewis’ “Walking on a Thin Line” and, eventually, Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road.”
Rolling Stone magazine, to its credit, lists “Still in Saigon” as one of Daniels’ “10 definitive songs” and calls it “a stark, unflinching look at PTSD.” The song is notable because it’s the rare song that deals with a touchy social topic, yet manages to appeal to both ideological wings of a polarized nation (although we weren’t as polarized in 1982 as we are in 2020). Daniels’ conservativism was front-and-center in many of his songs — some have even been called jingoistic —but “Still in Saigon” was sometimes described as an “anti-war song.” Whether it’s really an anti-war song is a matter of some debate — technically it never addresses the rightness or wrongness of the Vietnam War, but simply looks at the effect it had on the Vietnam vet depicted in the song. You can infer from some of the lines that the protaganist grew up in a conservative household — “I could have gone to Canada or I could have stayed in school / But I was brought up differently. I couldn’t break the rules.”
Now, as Paul Harvey used to say, here’s the rest of the story. Daniels didn’t write the song, but he certainly made it his in popular culture. The song was written by Dan Daley, who is often described as a New York-based folksinger but who has written songs in lots of genres and gone on to a career as a record producer, music journalist and author (“Nashville’s Unwritten Rules: Inside the Business of Country Music”). Daley’s first song-writing hit was the disco-infused “This Could Be The Night,” which R.B. Hudmon recorded in 1977 and turned into a Top 10 song on the R&B charts that year. In 1981, Daley wrote “Still in Saigon.” The song was unusual for him, Daley told Song Facts a few years ago, because “in general my writing was not overtly political by any means.” This one, though, grew out of being a war movie buff. ‘’I didn’t start out to write a song about Vietnam,’’ Daley once told the New York Times. ‘’I started out trying to write a song about what combat must really feel like.”
At the time, Daley was working the clubs in New York with his own band hoping for a recording contract — but also had a song publisher who was pitching his work as potential cover songs for other musicians.
Daley’s publisher recognized the potential in the song but knew it needed to be in the right hands — a musician who had been speaking out on behalf of Vietnam vets. The first pitch went to Bruce Springsteen. Daley told Commercial Integrator that Springsteen listened to the song — but obviously passed on it. He rarely records anything but his own songs. The next pitch went to Charlie Daniels — and Daniels originally passed, too. He also had never recorded a single he hadn’t had a hand in writing. But something changed. The next thing Daley heard Daniels had already recorded the song, played it at the CBS Records convention “and gotten a real powerful response.”
Before long, “Still in Saigon” was No. 2 on the Mainstream Rock charts, beaten out only by “Heat of the Moment” by Asia. We’ll let you decide which song had the most cultural impact.
Daley donated part of his royalties to Vietnam Veterans of America. He got to meet Daniels a few times — Daniels invited him to play at the Volunteer Jam in Nashville — but never really got to know him. Daley went on with his career and Daniels went on with his.
“Only years later did I become aware of the full impact of the song and what it meant to people,” Daley told Song Facts in 2014. “That’s when the letters started accumulating from people who would somehow find me in an era before the Internet. People would somehow find out where I lived and send me a letter. I never had a single negative letter. I never had a letter that said, ‘How dare you.’ What did wind up happening about 20 years after the song came out, in the ’90s and early 2000s, was that I began to get emails from kids. Kids were doing reports for school about the Vietnam War and either they were talking about the war itself or they were talking about some of the art that came out of the war, whether it was [the movie] “The Deer Hunter” or “Still in Saigon.” . . . Basically, I went from getting input from the veterans themselves to getting input from their kids. Now, it may not have necessarily been the kid of a Vietnam veteran, but it was someone from that generation, which was pretty amazing.”
Today, you won’t hear “Still in Saigon” very much. One of the commenters on that Song Facts article claims the song is banned by many radio networks. Whether that’s so is hard to say. Lots of songs from that era don’t get played much anymore for different reasons — we haven’t heard “Heat of the Night” lately, either. In any case, Saigon today is Ho Chi Minh City and Daniels now is, ideally, playing for the angels, who we hope like a song about the devil getting outfoxed and outfiddled. But you can find “Still in Saigon” on streaming platforms, where Spotify tells us listeners today still rank it as one of Daniels’ most popular songs.
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