People have always written songs about war. It’s an important subject, it’s emotive and when one country is at war with another, everyone is affected.
What has changed over the years is the way the songs are angled.
It used to be songs of support for the brave lads going off to be slaughtered. There was whistling and optimism and hope.
The American Civil War inspired some of the most notable and enduringly popular, such as Patrick Gilmore’s rousing When Johnny Comes Marching Home.
When Johnny comes marching home again
We’ll give him a hearty welcome then
In the First World War the troops and the folks back home kept their spirits up with such ditties as It’s a Long Way to Tipperary and Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag. Okay, you’re heading for the trenches and if the Boche don’t get you, disease will, but smile, smile, smile anyway.
When Europe succumbed to strife again little more than 20 years later, Britain had a “forces’ sweetheart”, Vera Lynn, reminding the boys of what delights awaited them when they got back, in lyrics such as The White Cliffs of Dover and We’ll Meet Again.
As the century rolled on, protest songs came to prominence in the 1950s. Even as the world was dusting itself down after 1939-45, folk singers and country artists were doing the talking while the rock’n’rollers just got on with enjoying their freedom. When the Korean conflict raged, Wilf Carter issued Goodbye Maria I’m off to Korea, while Jimmie Osborne gave the nation God Please Protect America, followed by Thank God For Victory in Korea.
Thank you very much, said Elvis and Bill and Gene and Eddie. Now Honey, will you turn off the radio and help me undo the studs on my Levi’s?
There, in the middle of the 20th century, the common man had access to recording contracts and the right to express his opinion, and the tone of the songs started to change.
Going to war was no longer seen as an honourable thing to do, and as hippies urged us to love one another, they began to point out what was wrong.
At Woodstock in 1969, Country Joe and the Fish gave us the anti-Vietnam war tirade I Feel Like I’m Fixing To Die Rag, with lines such as
Be the first one one your block
To have your boy come home in a box
And there was it’s ironically jaunty chorus, ending with:
There ain’t no need to wonder why
Whoopee, we’re all going to die
Kenny Rogers got in on the act with Ruby Don’t take Your Love to Town, about a paralysed veteran trying to hang onto his red-blooded woman.
Years later, in the late 80s, Paul Hardcastle would compose a strikingly catchy dance song with lyrics about Vietnam. 19 took its name from the average age of combat soldiers in the conflict.
The 70s gave us Pink Floyd’s Us and Them, written by Roger Waters, whose father had died in the Second World War. This was no jolly, do-your-duty number, but a heavy indictment of the way young soldiers were used as cannon fodder by senior officers.
“Forward he cried, from the rear
And the front rank died”
Waters returned to the subject with a song, When The Tigers Broke Free, regarded by his bandmates as too personal for their album The Wall. But this tale of the loss of British lives caused by German Tiger tanks did make it into the soundtrack of the film.
“And that’s how the High Command
Took my daddy from me”
Other writers have taken very different standpoints. In the mid 60s, when everything was rosy and world wars were just the bad old days, a sizeable pop hit made fun of WWI air combat as imagined by a cartoon character with Snoopy vs the Red Baron.
The MASH film and TV series popularised a theme song apparently by a suicidal GI filtered through a haze of marijuana smoke.
“Suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it
If I please”
And then there are the songs that are not about war at all but just adopted by servicemen and women and their loved ones.
Oleta Adams had a massive international hit with Get Here, the listeners seeing a desperate side to it concerning soldiers somehow returning from the danger zone, this case the Gulf War. As affecting as the song is when taken in that way, it was actually written by writer and singer Brenda Russell after she saw hot air balloons in Stockholm and thought what a novel means of transport it was.