(Pictured: Lt. William Calley, in the center of the three soldiers, leaves his trial at Fort Benning, Georgia. A former colleague of mine, during his years as a military man, was one of the press officers at the Calley trial. I am guessing he was somewhere in the vicinity as this photo was taken.)
In April and May of 1971, the hottest record in America never got above #37 on the Hot 100.
The My Lai Massacre took place in Vietnam during March 1968, but didn’t become public until April 1969. That September, Lt. William Calley, leader of the company of soldiers that had attacked the village of My Lai, where up to 500 people were killed, was charged with murder. In November 1970, Calley went on trial. On March 27, 1971, he was found guilty of the premeditated murder of 29 civilians. Two days later, he was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor, but President Nixon ordered that he be placed under house arrest at Fort Benning, Georgia, instead. He was released in September 1974.
Calley’s conviction was widely unpopular. Millions believed he’d been unfairly singled out among his fellow soldiers at My Lai, and that he shouldn’t have been held criminally liable for following orders. And in true Vietnam Era-fashion, the case provided inspiration for songwriters and singers.
Between 1969 and the end of American involvement in the war in 1973, over 50 records touching on the Calley case were made, and most were supportive of him. The most successful was “Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley” by a group calling itself C Company Featuring Terry Nelson. Songwriters Julian Nelson and James M. Smith wrote what is mostly a spoken-word recitation to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, but one source says that the musicians were amateurs, so they weren’t the bigtime studio cats at FAME. The recording was picked up by Shelby Singleton’s Plantation label, which had enjoyed massive success with “Harper Valley P.T.A.” in the fall of 1968.
With the trial at its climax, “Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley” became a hot item, selling 200,000 copies in three days, according to one source. It first shows up at ARSA on April 11, 1971. It bubbled under the Hot 100 at #106 on April 17. The next week it rocketed all the way to #41. For the weeks of May 1 and May 8, it sat at #37 before slipping to #40 during the week of May 15—its final week on the Hot 100. It’s shown on only 15 ARSA surveys, from New Orleans, Orlando, Indianapolis, and a few other places. Its highest position was at KNAK in Salt Lake City, which showed it at #4 for the week of April 19. In Vietnam, the American Armed Forces Radio Network played the song for a while, before the brass declared on April 30 that it be “phased out,” claiming it was improper for air while Calley’s case was on appeal. Capitol Records used the same argument in deciding not to cut a version of the song with country star Tex Ritter.
So meeting demand for the song was left to Plantation, and the label struggled with it. By mid-April, one Atlanta distributor told Billboard it had orders for 100,000 copies and was having trouble getting them from the pressing plant. A competing version on another label, by a singer named John Deer, spent the weeks of April 24 and May 1 on Billboard‘s Bubbling Under chart at #114; an album featuring Deer’s record and other patriotic tunes moved some copies in some places. By summer a third version of “Battle Hymn,” by a North Carolina agglomeration called the Jones Brothers and Log Cabin Boys was released, although it doesn’t seem to have charted anywhere.
Despite its #37 peak, the C Company version was certified gold by the RIAA, the lowest-charting record to be certified gold since 1962, and the lowest until 1976. But 47 years later, “Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley” doesn’t play well at all. As I wrote in 2013, it “excuses the atrocities at My Lai by using the Nuremberg defense and blaming the goddamn hippies.” When I heard it again the other day, it struck me as positively vile. However: today we hear “Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley” after Vietnam has been judged at the bar of history. In 1971, that judgment was incomplete. A poll that spring showed 65 percent of Americans disagreed with the Calley verdict. And at least a half-million Americans put down money to buy a song in support of Calley.
You can hear “Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley” and several other My Lai-themed songs as part of this excellent PBS piece on the music of My Lai.