Today we remember the end of the first world war. In the folk idiom, war has always been an inspiration for songs of loss, sorrow and disillusion, sometimes veering into the overtly political. I’ve compiled a little playlist to keep you down throughout the day. You’re welcome.
The titular Faded Coat of Blue is that of a Union Soldier during the American Civil war (the Confederates wore gray.) The unidentified narrator, who only speaks of the soldier as “my brave boy”, dwells on his lonely an anonymous death on the battlefield (being buried in a “lonely grave unknown”.) The last words of the dying soldier go to his family: “And tell my sweet sister, so gentle, good and true,/ That I’ll meet her up in heaven in my faded coat of blue.”
Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier is very probably of English origins, and sounds very similar to Siúil A Rún, an Irish ballad popularized by Clannad. AA Bondy’s version on the album Divided and United, which aims at gathering music from both sides of the Civil War that tore America apart, relies on a spare electric arrangement that strays from the usual traditional approaches. Yet, the minimalist melody and heavy percussive beat give this lament all the emotional force needed to accompany the desperation of a young woman “crying her fill”, facing the double loss of seeing her lover go to war, and having to sell her possessions to help him by equipment “sell you wheel, sell your tin of silver, buy your love a sword of steel”.) From Ireland to England to the young United-States, the adaptations of this song have shown its universal appeal thanks to the narrative voice of a “collateral victim” of war (a them which modern artists will come back to as we’ll see further down.)
The Foggy Dew is much more linked to a particular context: that of the Easter Rising of 1916. With Britain at war on the European front, Irish rebels led an ultimately unsuccessful rising to free Ireland from British rule. Thought the song still extols the value of the rebels and the just cause of war, the narrator cannot help but notice the hefty price to pay to some measure of freedom (“For I parted then with valiant men whom I never shall see more/ But to and fro in my dreams I go and I kneel and pray for you,/ For slavery fled, O glorious dead, when you fell in the foggy dew.”)
While she refers to no precise conflict, the shadow of Vietnam looms over Joni Mitchell’s 1969 a appella dirge. Her addressee, “Johnny” or “America” itself, has betrayed its values, trading the beautiful “fiddle” pour the military “drums”, trading the “handshake” for the “fist”. Not totally disillusioned, she still tries to make overtures, as a Canadian, to “[her] friend” America, proposing to “help [America] find the peace.” In the final line, she highlight the then almighty position of America on global affair: when it goes to war, we “all […] fear the beating of [its] drum.”
Collateral damages are put back at the center by Malvina Reynolds when she writes What Have They Done to the Rain? in 1962. When she covered this song, Joan Baez warned her audience: “the gentlest protest song I know: it doesn’t protest gently but it sounds gentle”. And indeed, the end of the first verse sounds gentle enough for one who doesn’t know the message of the song: “Just a little boy standing in the rain/ The gentle rain that falls for years/ And the grass is gone, the boy disappears/ And rain keeps falling like helpless tears.” However, once you realize that the “rain that falls for year” is the fallout of nuclear testing, the disappearance of the little boy because as gruesome as it is poignant. Without ever mentioning war, Reynolds writes a devastating song about the consequence of arms race and unchecked technological development.
Once again, no specific war is mentioned in the song written by Ochs in 1963 and (hugely) popularized by Baez in 1964. War in itself is not the topic of the song, it is just one element in a list of many social ills. As he mentions crime, alcoholism, or vagrancy, Ochs reminds his listeners of the social realities that lead some to these situations. “Show me the country, where the bombs had to fall/ Show me the ruins of the buildings, once so tall/ And I’ll show you a young land/ With so many reasons why” sings Ochs (or Baez) in his final verse. As long as society doesn’t change, there is no hope to avoid wars. Like the two previous songs, it is hard not to see the influence of the Vietnam war creeping into the lyrics.
I’ve already written about how her anti-Vietnam War positions got Buffy Sainte-Marie blacklisted by the government. Yet, I couldn’t fail to include this song again in such a playlist. Her Universal Soldier is of all nationalities, religions, ages and fights with spears as well as missiles. He will never stop killing, for the sake of ideology as diverse as democracy, communism or fascism, for the fundamental reason that fighter always believe in the righteousness of their cause. The last verse is where the song becomes controversial: “His orders come from far away no more/ They come from him, and you, and me/ and brothers can’t you see/ This is not the way we put an end to war”. She points out our own responsibility in electing warmongers.
In 1985, Suzanne Vega wrote one of the most emotional song about war, The Queen and the Soldier. Reverting the trope of the female voice representing pacifism while the men wage war (as see above in Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier, and below in Travelin’ Soldier), we see this time a male soldier questioning a female ruler about the necessity of war. The Soldier manages to elicit a heartfelt response of the Queen who acknowledges she has no choice but to wage this senseless. However, the Soldier will pay a dear price for this rare moment of earnestness of the Queen when, “ashamed” of having shown her tue feelings, she puts back her iron mask at the expense of the Soldier.
The last song of this playlist is also the most recent one. Release in 2002 by the country-pop outfit Dixie Chicks, the tearjerker would trigger a shitstorm of epic proportions. Seemingly about the Vietnam war, the song follows the exchange between a “pretty little girl with a bow in her hair” and the eponymous travelin’ soldier until [SPOILER] his untimely death on the battlefront. The lyrics send us full-circle back to the oldest song of this playlist: Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier.
Yet, even if we could consider that the narrative isn’t really original, the story of the song itself makes it a powerful antiwar anthem: in 2003, lead singer Natalie Maines introduced the song to a London audience by expressing her shame to share common Texan origins with warmongering president George W. Bush who started a war Iraq that very year. Of course, Southern fans didn’t take it too kindly and went as far as organizing event in which they brought their Dixie Chicks albums to have them rolled over by a bulldozer (!!) Although Maines apologized about attacking the president (still maintaining that “[she] just want[ed] to see every possible alternative exhausted before children and American soldiers’ lives are lost”), and Bush himself spoke up about the singer’s right to her freedom of speech and opinion, the Dixie Chick’s career never quite recovered and they’ve only recently been back in the spotlight.
This playlist can be found here, on my YouTube channel here, with a British bonus, courtesy of Kate Bush (which sadly didn’t fit the specifics of this blog.)