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The Origins of Memorial Day

Dave Brubeck on the Hypocrisy War in the Name of Freedom

by LEE BALLINGER And DAVE MARSH

Where does Memorial Day come from? Why do we celebrate it?

Memorial Day began as a holiday called Decoration Day. It was established on May 5, 1868 by an organization of Union veterans: the Grand Army of the Republic. Although almost certainly a coincidence, it’s interesting to note that Decoration Day was announced on May 5. That day is now celebrated as Cinco de Mayo, the date when Mexican forces defeated the French at Puebla in 1862 and shortened the Civil War, meaning that thousands fewer soldiers lay in cemeteries to be memorialized.

In any event, Maj. Gen. John A. Logan set the actual celebration of Decoration Day for May 30 because flowers would be in bloom all over the country. Local springtime tributes to the Civil War dead had already been held in some cities. One of the first–on April 25, 1866–was held in Columbus, Mississippi. A group of women visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen in battle at Shiloh. Nearby were the graves of Union soldiers, neglected because they were the enemy. Disturbed at the sight of bare graves, the women placed some of their flowers on those graves as well.

Eventually, Decoration Day became Memorial Day and was set for the last Monday in May. This year, Memorial Day weekend was chosen to unveil the new World War II memorial in Washington D.C. That occasion led to some public discussion of the importance of defeating the Nazis. That is all to the good. But World War II, as the following article illustrates, was about much more. Thus, by extension, Memorial Day is about more than its traditions of placing flowers on the graves of our loved ones, having picnics, or watching the Indianapolis 500.

On this Memorial Day, we should pause to reflect on the fact that while Memorial Day arose from the struggle to end slavery, in 2004 slavery is again rampant throughout the world and growing very rapidly. We should pause to ask ourselves how we can build upon the embryonic unity between North and South expressed by those women in Columbus, Mississippi in the spring of 1866. We should also frankly acknowledge that Memorial Day tends to reinforce the traditional American assumption that we can have both guns and butter, even though that is no longer true (yesterday’s LA Times highlighted the fact that 25% of the homeless in the U.S. are veterans).

Finally, on this Memorial Day we should ask ourselves: What was there in the carnage of World War II, a war that filled so many of the cemeteries we will visit today, that points us toward the lasting peace we all want so much? The following article from the May issue of Rock & Rap Confidential attempts to answer that question.

PASS THE BUTTER, PLEASE

On the eve of the 60th anniversary of D-Day, Dave Brubeck has released the solo piano exploration Private Brubeck Remembers (Telarc). Brubeck served in Europe during World War II as an infantryman, although he was usually playing for the troops, music such as the songs heard here: "You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To," "Where or When," "Something to Remember You By." Placed in a wartime context, these tunes transcend nostalgia and become often-intense expressions of yearning, loneliness, and fear.

In his liner notes, Brubeck places the war in a context of both hypocrisy and heroism. He notes how his Japanese-American friends were placed in Stateside detention camps while also describing the liberation of slaves who worked in Nazi factories.

As Brubeck indicates, World War II did indeed have an agenda, one that FDR summarized as the Four Freedoms: freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom from want, freedom from fear.

Discussion of the need for those four freedoms was driven underground by McCarthyism in the early 1950s, only to be resurrected by rock and soul music. The civil rights movement–greatly accelerated by the return of black World War II veterans–spurred a nearly two-decade explosion of socially-conscious music that remains the moral axis of our popular culture.

That music also sprang from the fact that America was almost continuously at war–Korea, Lebanon, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam. Yet even though music inspired and infused anti-war protest, it couldn’t change the reality that the economy was booming and could provide both guns and butter.

Today, the boom in the economy is the sound of its implosion and Dave Brubeck must be experiencing déja vu. Once again, American soldiers in foreign countries are turning to music to combat fear and loneliness. Once again the U.S. has internment camps (for suspected "terrorists" or people who are illegal only because they’re immigrants). Slave labor has returned to factories around the world, which are often used to produce music-related gear.

Once again, discussion of the four freedoms has been driven underground, this time more by music industry cowardice and the likes of Clear Channel than by government edict. All we hear is the sound of guns when what we want is butter. We can no longer have both. If we allow another world war to take place, no one will be around to make an album to commemorate its 60th anniversary.

Lee Ballinger and Dave Marsh produce of one of CounterPunch’s favorite newsletters, Rock and Rap Confidential, where this article originally appeared. For a free copy of the issue, email your postal address to: RRC, Box 341305, LA CA 90034 or send an email to: Rockrap@aol.com