Thursday, June 25, 2009

Songwriters React To War

My parents came of age just in time for World War II. They used to tell me how the whole country united behind the war effort. My Father was proud of his small part in helping to defeat the Nazis; he saw it that way, even though he served in the Pacific. And the history books reinforce the fact that this was a war that everyone in America believed we had to win.

But my coming of age occurred during the Vietnam War. That same father took me to my first peace march. The country was sharply divided over whether we needed to win or leave. And it has been this way, in varying degrees, for every war the US has been involved in in my lifetime.

So just as does the public at large, songwriters feel a mix of emotions when their country goes to war. The emotions are always running high, and often drive the creation of some of their finest work.

The songs I am presenting do not present a balanced survey of songwriters’ responses to war. There are songwriters whose work on the subject suggests that they believe that the country is always right in wartime. But the examples of songs that I have heard from them seem to me lacking in nuance. Or perhaps, it’s just a question of my personal biases. In any case, I stand by my selections as showcase of the variety of ways songwriters deal with what is for many people a difficult subject to discuss.

Norman Blake: Graycoat Soldiers


Norman Blake wrote Graycoat Soldiers in the shadow of the Vietnam War. But Blake evidently wanted some distance from his subject. So the song, about the homefront, takes place during the Civil War. The song is an eloquent depiction of those who get left behind in war.

Gray coat Soldiers is a first for me, and something you won’t see very often. I posted the song some time ago on Star Maker Machine. I won’t normally repeat myself this way, but I couldn’t see addressing this theme, and leaving this one out.

Tom Waits: Soldier‘s Things


Tom Waits writes about the effect of war on people in a unique way. He imagines a war widow holding a yard sale, and selling all of her soldier husband’s decorations from the war. “Everything’s a dollar in this box”, she croons. By not specifying which war this was, Waits crafts a song which describes the pain of losing a loved one in a war in a universal way.

Peter Gabriel: Games Without Frontiers


Peter Gabriel takes a mix of characters who represent current and historical figures, and makes them children on a beach. Their fight for territory is just a game to them, but Gabriel reminds us that the consequences are all too real. Gabriel is not writing about a specific war, but the attitude of the song is reflective of British attitudes about World War I. It would seem that this is a war that has cast a long shadow on the Brittish psyche. Some of the character names Gabriel uses also suggest World War II, but I think Gabriel did this to make the song more universal.

XTC: Generals and Majors


XTC’s Generals and Majors appeared the album Black Sea. Much of this album was XTC’s response to the Falklands war. But Generals and Majors is about war in general. The band is criticizing the elements of society that seem to always want to lead us into war.

Richard Thompson: Dad‘s Gonna Kill Me


Richard Thompson is not interested here in universality. Dad’s Gonna Kill Me is about the Iraq war. “Dad” is what the soldiers over there call Baghdad. Thompson takes the role of a soldier stationed there, and depicts him as believing that he will never return home alive.