War on War Songs

War, as it turns out, is good for absolutely nothing when it comes to anti-war songs. At the risk of sounding like Bill O'Reilly (who, no doubt, listens only to Wagner), it's time to protest the protesters, most of whom are blowin', all right, just not in the wind. The road to hell is paved with myriad anti-war tracks floating around the Internet and on compilation discs being handed out at protests across the country and around the world. (They have to be given away, because Corporate Radio won't play them--Clear Channel's CEO Lowry Mays is close friends with fellow Texan President Bush--and people wouldn't buy them.) Some are brand-new, some got hauled out of the dustbin when lefties realized they were getting left behind, and no doubt there's some real rage here, some deep-felt caring that led to such generous online sharing, but the answer, my friend, is too often a little career resuscitation for those craving a little time on the frontline of the pop charts.

It's hard to tell which are worse: the gung-ho war cries from the redneck retributionists ("Iraq, I rack 'em up and I roll," snarls Clint Black, "I'm back and I'm a high-tech G.I. Joe") or the whimpering protestations of the peacenik brigade, most of whom seem to write songs that contain variations of the phrase "blood for oil" in every chorus. It's either black or white with these artists, and what they usually wind up with is a pile of gray mush: the rabble-rousing anthems of the hawks or the wimpy-whiny moans of the doves, both preaching to the deaf, dumb and converted.

Then, the modern-day anti-war song's always had a somewhat tortured history: In March 1941, Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers cut "Ballad of October 16," which took Franklin Roosevelt's isolationist "I hate war" comments from 1940 and used them against him when he decided to begin the draft. A few months later, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, "this song was...held against" Seeger and the Almanac Singers, wrote Jeff Place and Guy Logsdon in the liner notes to That's Why We're Marching: World War II and the American Folk Song Movement. Not long after the United States entered the war, Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and others began writing fight songs with such titles as "Hitler Song," "Move Into Germany" and "If You Want to Do Your Part." (As it turns out, Darryl Worley, Toby Keith and Clint Black have their antecedents after all, though the Smithsonian-Folkways archives reveal Leadbelly actually deleted the phrase "I'll put a boot in yer ass" from "National Defense Blues.")

Vietnam, of course, spawned the franchise; you had Dylan damning the masters of war who "build to destroy" (written in 1962), Phil Ochs condemning the U.S. government as "cops of the world," Gil Scott-Heron shouting down a commander-in-chief bearing "messages of grief," Country Joe and the Fish asking what are we fighting for and Marvin Gaye wondering what's going on. Back then, the anti-war movement had a decent soundtrack, plenty of gimme-an-F shout-along anthems provided by the tie-dyed, acid-washed Woodstock Generation; ah, those were the good ol' daze.

But the heroes armed with barbed words and weapons of mass instruction have been replaced by hacks and harpies shelling us with bad poetry (Joan Baez has plenty to answer for). For every great song like Sleater-Kinney's furious and urgent "Combat Rock" off last year's One Beat (sample lyric: "They tell us there are only two sides to be on/If you are on our side you're right if not you're wrong"), there are handfuls of sophomoric offerings that sound like something dashed off during a junior-high songwriting competition.

Billy Bragg's "Price of Oil" is available on the Internet at www.peace-not-war.org--alongside previously available contributions from Public Enemy ("Son of a Bush"), Midnight Oil ("US Forces"), Alabama 3 ("Woody Guthrie") and Ms Dynamite ("Watch Over Them"). It's his worst anti-war song in a repertoire stacked with good ones ("Like Soldiers Do," "Between the Wars," his cover of Eric Bogle's "My Youngest Son Came Home Today"); it proves he's no Woody Guthrie after all (his guitar wouldn't kill lest it fired bullets), just decent with a campfire melody.

The amplified folkie returns to roots--one-man Clash, though more Paul than Mick or certainly Joe--but treads lightly with kind words sent to soldiers; worse, he even tosses in a reference to the 2000 Florida vote, which is this close to a Lewinsky reference. "Don't give me no shit about blood, sweat, tears and toil/It's all about the price of oil," sings Bragg. "Now I ain't no fan of Saddam Hussein/Oh, please don't get me wrong/If it's freeing the Iraqi people you're after/Then why have we waited so long?" Bragg, a noble and sincere man, just comes off sounding like every other celebrity who's read a New Republic headline.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky