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 singing "I Kill Therefore I Am" and 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.

Look no further than Ani DiFranco, whose talking "Self Evident" off her album So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter is little more than nine minutes of onstage spoken-word jive that works the brainwashed crowd into a frenzy. The crowd cheers the words "Palestine" and "Afghanistan" like she's a late-night TV host mentioning their hometowns. DiFranco, with her bad beat poetry, comes off as a Star Search contestant as she rambles on and on about false presidents and the lying media and corrupt elections and evil oil companies. If you wonder why the pro-war faction--the coalition of the willing to follow--takes the anti-war folks so lightly, it's because of lines like these: "Get our government to pull its big dick out of the sand/Of someone else's desert put it back in its pants/And quit the hypocritical chants of freedom forever." Awright, already--I surrender.

Better, because it has to be, is Billy Bragg's "Price of Oil," which, like DiFranco's, 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"). Still, it's the worst anti-war song in a repertoire stacked with them ("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.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky