Jim Guy Tucker and the Vietnam War


Jim Guy Tucker in Vietnam. Source: UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture.

Where I work, I’m the lead archivist on the Governor James Guy Tucker, Jr., processing project. The project hopes to process the personal and political papers of Tucker, which are housed at the UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture. Tucker’s papers consist of about 600 boxes of material that cover his days as governor, lieutenant governor, U.S. Congressman, attorney general, and prosecuting attorney. He also worked as a war correspondent in Vietnam. In 1968, he published a book on his experiences, Arkansas Men at War.

The Draft

To better understand Tucker and the war, I’ve been doing some background reading on the conflict in Vietnam. I have been surprised at some things I’ve learned about the war. Perhaps the most surprising thing I’ve learned is that most of the men who served in Vietnam were not drafted. The draft, of course, was very unpopular. We have images of protests and the burning of draft cards in our heads. And yet, more men were drafted during World War II than were during the Vietnam War.


Careful, smoking can kill you! Jim Guy Tucker (on right) with unidentified American. Source: UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture.

War Correspondent

Tucker was a correspondent, not an enlisted man. He was “in country” for a few months in 1965 and 1967. Tucker–who had served in Marines Corps Reserve before being discharged for a medical problem–was a sharp and objective observer of what was happening. His book, Arkansas Men at War, focuses on a cross-section of Arkansas men, from a helicopter pilot, to a sniper, to a boat driver. As a writer, Tucker composes prose in the tradition of Hemingway. His lines are direct and uncluttered, but also evocative of the time and place. Tucker was in danger much of the time, and the reader feels the tension on each page. Tucker’s writings on Vietnam will prove one of his most lasting legacies.

Race and the War

At one point in the writing of the articles that became the book, Tucker was told by an African American newspaper that his stories would have to examine more the role of the black soldiers in Vietnam. Most of the Marines in Arkansas Men at War are indeed white. And yet, so were most of the men who served in Vietnam.

I had always been under the impression that African Americans provided a disproportionate number of troops in Vietnam. The facts, however, are more complicated. In total, African Americans did not provide a significantly disproportionate number of men in Vietnam. But, this was not the case early on in the conflict. In the first years of heavy combat in Vietnam (1964-1967), black men had a better chance of serving in Vietnam–and dying there–than his white countrymen. Eventually, black leaders in the U.S.–among them Martin Luther King–saw racism at work in Vietnam. They demanded more equality in the military.

One of the reasons why blacks served in disproportionate numbers was the draft system itself. College students could receive deferments. And since whites on average were more likely to go to college, that mean many African Americans served who had no means of avoiding the draft. In the South, especially, draft boards were overwhelmingly white. In some former Confederate states, including Tucker’s home state of Arkansas, there were no black draft board members at all.

The Vietnam War was the first major U.S. conflict in which the military was completely desegregated: units consisted of black and white troops. Yet, there was no shortage of racial tension. Race riots erupted both in Vietnam and at bases back home.

By the end of the war, the government made better efforts at achieving equality in the military. Service became less deadly for African Americans as the war continued. Ironically, despite the racism embedded in the military bureaucracy, by the mid-1970s, African Americans signed up for extended duty at a higher rate than whites. As the war wound down, increasingly, blacks saw the military as a means of bettering themselves and achieving job security. The officer corps, too, opened itself to African Americans. General Colin Powell, one of the architects of the First Gulf War and later Secretary of State under George W. Bush, was a Vietnam veteran.


Jim Guy Tucker in Vietnam. Source: UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture.


A Complicated Conflict

Tucker’s book on Vietnam doesn’t portray the soldiers there as demoralized. At one point, a man says that the war was being fought “about as well as it could be fought.” Many people might dispute that. And regardless of how the war was fought, the American way of war did not lead to victory. But Tucker’s book, as well as other primary sources I have read on the war, suggests that soldiers were dedicated and professional, but their commitment was not enough.

The reasons for American failure in Vietnam were complicated. Indeed, some people assert that the war was not even lost. The U.S. certainly did not lose the war tactically (Americans suffered far fewer casualties than the Vietnamese). At a more controversial level, some have argued the war was not a strategic failure either. The logic goes like this: failure in southeast Asia only showed the U.S.’s long-term commitment to combating communism. The ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union and in eastern Europe, they argue, was a result of America’s Cold War policies, including a more than ten-year commitment in Vietnam.

Whatever the “larger” issues involved in the outcome of the Vietnam War, I am eager to learn more about it. And Tucker’s book (which, unfortunately, has been out of print since 1968) provides a compelling look at combat in the jungles and rice paddies of southeast Asia.

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Bobby Bare, Jr.: “Don’t Follow Me (I’m Lost)”


Every now and then I like to write about my favorite solo artist and native southerner Bobby Bare, Jr. In September, I caught Bobby again at the White Water Tavern, where he has played twice in the last few months. He had never visited White Water until earlier this year. In September, as always, Bobby put on an entertaining show.

A few years ago, his life on the road was filmed for the documentary, Don’t Follow Me (I’m Lost). The title comes from a song on his 2004 album At the End of Your Leash. It also serves as something of a warning for those who want to pursue a career in music.

I recently finished watching the movie for a second time. The documentary is a godsend for Bare fans, and it gives much insight into the life of a working musician. We see Bare hustling from gig to gig, dropping off a CD for a deejay (who isn’t even there to open the door to the front of the building), avoiding a pesky homeless person, and the anxiety of not sure some nights where you’ll be staying. Sometimes Bobby gets a few hundred dollars, another time as much as a thousand. But after a show, it’s back to the van, which Bobby shares with his underpaid backing players. At one point, Bobby is interviewed in a bar. He is  asked, “What’s your dream?” Bobby’s response: to make enough money so that people leave him alone.

His family is on the road

Amid the musical madness, Bobby, who has three children, juggles a home life. Early in the movie, we see him on stage, where he discusses his girlfriend going into labor. Why isn’t he home with his newborn child? He needs to keep gigging. The film understands the high-spirited nature of live music. But for Bobby and his band, there’s no glamor here, and not much money. Imagine the pressure of a job that provides you with no health benefits, retirement, or even job security.

Bobby lives gig to gig, but he was born into country music royalty. The movie opens with him singing with his father–who is in the Country Music Hall of Fame–at the Grand Ole Opry. Bobby might have become a Hank Williams, Jr., type. But he didn’t, thankfully. Bobby’s music has country flare, but it would leave most Opry types bewildered. And as much as Bobby tries to be a good father, his large family of touring musicians see him more often.


From alternative to alt-country

Bobby established himself in the 1990s alternative scene before taking a turn into what is now called alt-country. His first two albums were the fruit of the still vibrant grunge scene. Since then, he has become more eclectic and introspective. Bobby couldn’t become part of the Nashville establishment, even had he wanted to. And yet, one could say he has done for Nashville what Kurt Cobain did for Seattle. BBJ’s music can be twangy, but it owes more to the Pixies, the Smiths, the Who, and My Morning Jacket than to what you’re likely to hear on Music Row. Still, Bobby says for all the bad music Nashville produces, it also makes some of the best music anywhere. And he can claim much of that good music as his own. Nashville is lucky to have him.

Approach with caution

The film rarely strays from showing Bobby at work, and because of this, he succeeds in remaining something of a cipher. He has a great sense of humor and is passionate about his music. But he’s the kind of guy that a fan would be cautious to approach. When one woman in Richmond has him sign her copy of A Storm, a Tree, she says, “I had never heard of you before tonight.” Bare responds without missing a beat, “I had never heard of you either.” When another fan congratulates Bare on refusing to sell out, Bobby claims, somewhat testily, he would, That is, if he could only find the right person to sell out to.

More than one person the film wonders why Bobby isn’t more famous than he is. Bobby is probably tired of hearing such talk. He knows the music industry doesn’t owe him anything. he could be much worse off. Sure, there are much better paid musicians, but there are many more who can’t earn a living at all from their songs.

Niche music

The music industry has changed dramatically from where it was twenty years ago. Don’t Follow Me could serve as both an inspiration for musicians who stay true to themselves or a cautionary tale in how pursuing your art will destroy any chance you might’ve had at a normal, stable life. The movie illustrates well the highs and lows of being a niche musician. One minute, you’re flanked by people in animal costumes, playing for young kids who have never heard of you. The next minute your invited to a house party where the host has everything you’ve ever recorded. And he had plenty of free booze.

Bobby admits that he is not cut-out for a 9-5 job. He doesn’t say it, but he’s an artist. Music may not be the only thing he could make a living at, but it certainly is the only thing he wants to do. And it’s clear that it’s the only thing he should do.

Play. Repeat.

I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to Bobby’s albums. Hundreds of times, altogether. His music may never appeal to a wide audience, but it has an addictive quality. It hooks you. It’s rare for me to connect at a personal level with a rock musician. But I probably feel a lot like Hayes Carll, who was interviewed for the film and said he liked Bare’s music so much when he first heard it that he wanted to know everything about him.

Rock and Roll Halloween

If you like Bobby Bare, Jr., you may be somewhere in this film. I discovered Bobby’s music in Richmond back in October 2010. Much to my amazement, footage from that weekend was used in Don’t Follow Me. In Richmond, Bobby was in full rock star mode. He had an uncharacteristically heavy cough and looked like he hadn’t slept in days. The movie shows him downing lots of whiskey, and later, we see him “resting” on the ground outside the National Theatre. he was on the same bill that weekend with Drive-By Truckers. And Richmond was probably short of Jack Daniels come Monday.

Before that Halloween weekend, I didn’t know who Bobby was. Despite that, I could remember every song from the warmup set he played before the Truckers came on. The next day, I went to a record store and bought A Storm, A Tree, My Mother’s Head. I loved it. Still do. In fact, it’s one of my favorite albums.

Leave them wanting more

Don’t Follow Me gives one of the best inside looks at a touring musician you’re likely to see. But as for the personal Bobby, we don’t learn all that much. We see things get rocky with his girlfriend, but when pressed to give us details, Bobby declines.

At another point, he says that the ever-changing nature of his backup band has kept him back professionally. But why? Why has he chosen to work with so many different musicians over the years? Is he difficult to work with, or does he like the freshness that comes with so many different players interpreting his music? I’d like to know more.

What is certain is that Bobby’s music is ingenious. And the next time he’s playing in town, I’ll be there.

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Johnny Cash in Pine Bluff, October 1968

Johnny Cash chats with Arkansas’s Winthrop Rockefeller in Pine Bluff in October 1968. Cash was playing shows for Rockefeller, who was up for reelection as governor that year. You can read more in this Arkansas Times article. http://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/when-johnny-cash-campaigned-for-winthrop-rockefeller/Content?oid=3489017

To Cash’s left in the picture is his drummer, W. S. Holland. To his right is his guitarist Carl Perkins.


The photo is from the Winthrop Rockefeller Collection at the UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture in Little Rock.

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Richmond Tobacco Field

This one of my favorite photographs of my former home, Richmond, Virginia: tobacco growing on Monument Avenue in the early 19o0s. Courtesy: Valentine Richmond History Center.



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The W. S. Holland Band: Little Rock Show, Friday October 10


The W. S. Holland band.

On Friday night, the W. S. Holland Band will be playing at the Ron Robinson Theatre in the River Market district of downtown Little Rock.  The show is sponsored by the Artspree concert series and the UALR Department of Music.

W. S. “Fluke” Holland performed with Johnny Cash for decades before Cash’s retirement from touring in 1997. Holland was a fixture at Sun Records in the early days of rock and roll. Holland’s band will play classic Johnny Cash songs as well as other tunes from the Sun period.

The warm-up act on Friday night will be the Little Rock band Jeff Coleman and the Feeders, which will also perform songs by Johnny Cash.

The event is free and open to the public. The music is scheduled to start at 6:45. Those interested are encouraged to arrive early, as seating is limited.

The music on Friday night serves as an opening to the UALR exhibit, Johnny Cash: Arkansas Icon, which includes rare photographs and memorabilia concerning Johnny Cash’s days in his home state.

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Erskine College: 175 Years

Erskine College in South Carolina is celebrating its sesquicentennial. The college used one of my pictures I took of Gaines’ Mill battlefield (that I had posted on the Virginia Historical Society blog a few years ago) for a film they’ve made about their history. Here is the trailer.

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St. Francisville, Louisiana: More Southern than the South

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St. Francisville Inn. St. Francisville, Louisiana.

A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of returning to St. Francisville, Louisiana, after a ten-year absence. The town (which I will abbreviate as SF) is about 30 minutes north of Baton Rouge. And it is as charming as Baton Rouge is not. St. Francisville the epitome of the quaint southern community. When I had been there before, it was only for a few hours at  time. Never for three days. Having seen it again, it’s better than I remember it.

Waiting for Its Closeup

St. Francisville is something out of a movie. Maybe a story about a hardworking southern lawyer, a la To Kill a Mocking Bird. Someone could also film a great vampire movie there. The Grace Episcopal Church sits on breathtaking grounds, surrounded by a Gothic cemetery that is worthy of Faulkner. I’m surprised a great southern writer hasn’t claimed St. Francisville as his own. Should the town take bids for a writer in residence, I would gladly accept the post. The place needs a chronicler.

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Grace Episcopal Church.

The town is as dripping with history as it is Spanish Moss. The Mississippi River is not far from the center of town. And the Mississippi probably has had as much as anything to do with how its history developed. The town is also not far from Port Hudson, the last major stronghold the Confederates held on the Mississippi. The Confederates at Port Hudson surrendered a few days after the Rebellion lost Vicksburg. The loss of the Mississippi for the Confederacy sent the war into a second stage that would end at Appomattox Court House.

The Republic of West Florida

Like so many parts of our country, the town has a colonial heritage. SF was the capital of the short-lived Republic of West Florida that broke away from its Spanish rulers. This independent country–consisting of none of the territory that is now the state of Florida–lasted for little more than two months in 1810, not long before Louisiana became a state. The republic’s flag was blue with a white star. Some people still fly the flag in front of their homes.

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Antebellum Wealth

SF was one of the wealthiest towns in the South before the Civil War. Cotton flowed up and down the river in the antebellum period, and St. Francisville became one of the pistons in the economic engine that was American slavery.The place is not as well-known as Natchez, Mississippi, which had a large number of antebellum millionaires and had the distinction of being the wealthiest place, per capita, in the prewar era. SF wasn’t shabby either. Planters grew cotton and sugar and got filthy rich. Unlike Natchez, though, SF has not seen the kind of sprawl or racial problems that characterize much of the New South. If you’re interested in reading about modern day Natchez, I would point you to Tony Horowitz’s classic work of journalism-history Confederates in the Attic. SF wasn’t mentioned in his tour of the South. But someone could write a very interesting book about.

Grace Episcopal Church

St. Francisville is quiet. There’s not a lot “to do”–at least in contrast to a place like New Orleans, which is about two hours to the south. SF a place you could take a grandparent or history nerd looking for a good time. It’s also a geographic marker, serving as the place where northern Louisiana becomes southern Louisiana. North Louisiana is a Protestant and evangelical and non-denominational stronghold. The southern part of the state belongs to the Catholics–or at least in theory. SF is of course named after St. Francis of Assisi, who supposedly spoke to birds.  There’s a Catholic Church on a hill as you head toward Bayou Sara. But Grace Episcopal feels more like a Catholic church.

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Southern Louisiana not only has a different religious demographic from the northern part, it looks different. You won’t see many live oaks until you hit SF along highway 61. Live oaks are really what define the landscape of the Deep South. And not all live oaks have Spanish Moss hanging from them. SF does, and ambling through the town is like walking through some great southern novel.


The town has plenty of plantation homes to visit. I was able to see one last week, Rosedown, which was once owned by the Turnbull family, which lived in the house until the latter half of the 20th century. The Turnbulls were wealthy before the Civil War. Immensely so. The family owned 450 slaves, and the master of the house had four plantations. He was such a good businessman that he ran four plantations in addition to the ones he owned. Unfortunately, a hard rain storm kept me from seeing the gardens surrounding the house. Maybe next time.

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Rosedown plantation.

The war destroyed the master class, but not the plantations. The Turnbulls endured after the war, but the house was saved not by cotton but petroleum. The Turnbulls married into Texas oil money around the time of the First World War. And they were able to put gobs of money into restoring the house after WWII. Eight million dollars, if memory serves. Our tour guide at Rosedown said 90% of the furniture in the house was original. In contrast, Lakeport plantation in Arkansas has no original furniture (it’s resplendent all the same, though).

Sweat Management

I will never forget the heat or humidity of southern Louisiana. But I guess I had forgotten just how wet it could feel even on cooler days. For one of the days in SF, it rained for eight hours straight. It made the Spanish Moss drip even more.  The air conditioner had trouble keeping our room cool and dry. You begin to mold. Welcome to the subtropics. Drinking helps.

A Ghost to Most

But, you don’t go to southern Louisiana for comfort. You go there for atmosphere. You go there because you can feel like you’re in a different country, where things feel naked and wild. Barely civilized. In late summer, everything is green and wet. The vines and kudzu want to strangle trees and houses. Things are verdant, pregnant, oversized.

In south Louisiana, things feel heightened–the sun, the rain storms. The night feels darker somehow, too. I couldn’t help feel a little scared as I walked through the center of town late at night. Many houses had no lights on at all. By the Episcopal cemetery, I could hardly see the sidewalk as I stepped under the low-hanging oaks.

Were I a ghost, I’d live in St. Francisville. For sure.

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Abandoned home in Bayou Sara.

St. Francisville vs. Baton Rouge

While I was in Louisiana, I also managed to drive down to Baton Rouge. I lived there for eight years, but I was glad to leave. It didn’t take long for me to start feeling stressed out again. Every living thing drives everywhere in Baton Rouge, with the possible exception of a few misanthropic graduate students who can’t afford cars. The interstate is used as a crosstown thoroughfare. And the area around LSU is even more congested than I remember. Good food there, though.  I gorged myself on Cane’s chicken. Twice in two days.

It was good to get back to St. Francisville. It is as beautiful as Baton Rouge is ugly. It’s more southern than the South, which too often wants to be Atlanta or Houston rather than Charleston or Savannah. SF makes you want to live on a diet of pecan pie and Tennessee whiskey and write stories about a mentally ill Confederate colonel who sleeps with the bones of his long dead wives. Or something.

Southern Charm

Some southerners–when they wrap themselves in the Confederate flag or embrace the politics of obstructionism–are too tied to what has made their region infamous.  They seem to have forgotten that such a thing as charm still exists. I feel like St. Francisville, as charming as it is, deserves more visitors than it gets. But maybe its residents want it that way.

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