There hasn’t been a day since the invention of the phonograph record when the world has not been at war someplace.
We are told that the world stands on the edge of a precipice, and there is very little we can do so instead of a fallout shelter I’ve built a list of the ten best anti-war songs ever.
By Stan Denski
Starting at number ten we have….
10. ‘The Ballad Of Penny Evans’ – Steve Goodman
The best ‘one guy with a guitar’ performer who ever lived, Goodman’s music was primarily in the ‘good times and more beer’ zone peppered with moments of genuine pathos but rarely political. On a 1973 album on the Buddha label he included a powerful acappella treatment of a song sung by a 21 year-old woman whose husband has been killed in Vietnam and whose rage against the government who sent him there can barely be contained:
“And now every month I get a check from an Army bureaucrat / And it’s every month I tear it up and I mail the damn thing back / Do you think that makes it all right, do you think I’d fall for that?”
In his clear voice, loud with anger, it’s an amazing performance.
9. ‘Jimmy Newman’ – Tom Paxton
Paxton’s ‘Talking Vietnam Pot Luck Blues’ about a young soldier’s discovery that everyone on both sides is smoking dynamite dope is almost as funny as this song about a hospitalized soldier’s slow realization that his friend has died during the night before they are scheduled to be shipped back home is emotionally devastating.
“Get up damn it Jimmy! They’re loading us next, and you’ve only to open your eyes.”
8. ‘And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ – Eric Bogle
An Irish songwriter’s story about a soldier returning home from the battle of Gallipoli in 1915. The song is in the voice of a soldier whose legs have been blown off
“I never knew there were worse things than dying”
who watches as all the people who’ve come to greet the returning soldiers turn away in silence as the injured are brought off the boat. There are a million or more ways to ruin this kind of song and Bogle avoids every one. The song’s been done by many people including The Pogues but this version is beautiful and heartbreaking.
7. ‘Machine Gun’ – Jimi Hendrix
All the elements of a great screenplay are here. New York City, New Year’s Eve, hours from the end of the 1960’s, The Fillmore East and the greatest electric rock guitarist in history is a black man, a former US Army paratrooper. Pressured by a growing black militancy, he’s fired his white British backing band and has formed his ‘Band Of Gypsys’ with Billy Cox (bass) and Buddy Miles (drums). He knows he has to address Vietnam somehow, and in the twelve minutes and thirty-nine seconds of ‘Machine Gun’ Jimi says as much about the war as John Coltrane said about God in ‘A Love Supreme’. Here’s the audio footage from that New Years Eve Fillmore show.
6. ‘Universal Soldier’ – Buffy Saint-Marie
This is the anti-war song that speaks an awful truth that we would really prefer to ignore: while we can point fingers at the presidents and generals all we want, it is the individual soldiers who feed the war machine. The fact that these are our sons and brothers and sisters and daughters (and fathers and mothers) makes it a horrible and ugly truth (and, who knows, maybe some truths are best turned away from) but the Lysistrata solution offered here is a hard one to ignore.
5. ‘Between The Wars’ – Billy Bragg
Billy Bragg was to Margaret Thatcher in the 1980’s what Phil Ochs was to Richard Nixon in the 1960’s. Far from his most vitriolic political song, ‘Between The Wars’ examines the British working-class experience with verses like
“I kept the faith and I kept voting / Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand / For theirs is a land with a wall around it / And mine is a faith in my fellow man / Mine is the green field and the factory floor / Theirs are the skies all dark with bombers / And mine is the peace we knew / Between the wars.”
4. ‘I Feel Like I’m Fixing To Die’ – Country Joe And The Fish
The archetypal 1967-San Francisco-LSD-hippie-band led by a psychedelicized and politicized US army vet, ‘Country Joe’ McDonald. I remember in 1968 or 1969 sitting behind a row of guys in Navy uniforms either on their way to or back from Viet Nam at a Country Joe And The Fish show in Philadelphia as they played this song
“Be the first one on your block to have his boy come home in a box.”
Watching them cheer every line was around the time I began to suspect that the world was, well… complicated. Bring back the draft and we’d have this again in twenty minutes, half hour tops.
3. ‘Masters Of War’ – Bob Dylan
The studio version from 1963 is brilliant, but the live-in-Italy version on 1984’s ‘Real Live’ with former Rolling Stones’ guitarist, Mick Taylor, on a distorted, almost heavy metal, lead guitar is 1,000 times angrier than Johnny Rotten ever was or will be. There’s a talk that the critic Griel Marcus gave to the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley called ‘Stories Of A Bad Song’ that is really worth reading.
“Come you masters of war, you that build the big guns / You that build the death planes / You that build the big bombs / Not even Jesus would forgive what you do / I hope that you die”
2. ‘What’s Going On?’ – Marvin Gaye
“Father, father, father we don’t need to escalate / You see, war is not the answer / For only love can conquer hate”
wasn’t the kind of rhyme one expected to hear in 1971 from a million-selling soul artist who had earned the title ‘Prince Of Motown’. The title track from an album that his label flatly refused to release at first, calling it commercial suicide, became the crown jewel in what Smokey Robinson still calls ‘the greatest album of all time’. This version is all the evidence of his incredible power over audiences anyone should require.
1. ‘I Ain’t Marching Anymore’ – Phil Ochs
In 1976 Phil Ochs, the best ‘Protest Folk’ songwriter of his (or maybe any) generation, hung himself at his sister’s home. The victim of the sort of clinical depression we now have the drugs to treat and feelings of despair in the aftermath of Watergate, the rise of disco and the failure of the 1960’s to live up to its grand promises of social change (let’s face it, if the 60’s had succeeded Nixon would have died in prison and Kissenger would have gone on trial). Put simply, any top-whatever-list of anti-war songs that doesn’t start with Phil isn’t worth the ether it’s printed on. The solo acoustic version on the 1965 album of the same name remains the finest two minute and thirty-two second lesson in the history of international conflict ever recorded on to a roll of magnetic tape.
To be honest, “best of” lists are almost always a bit of a sham and Bob Marley, Elvis Costello, The Clash, R.E.M., Edwin Starr, The Dead Kennedys, Sun Ra, Fred Small, Richie Havens, Neil Young and, OK, even the Sex Pistols are all absent here. But these ten songs collectively represent a diverse body of response to our shared history and any one you may not be familiar with is deserving of your time and attention.
First published on These Things Too. Thanks to Stan.