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Music in Wartime

Call In Your Request Now!

by RON JACOBS

I was looking through a box of old books the other day and came across a copy of Barbara Garson’s 1965 satirical antiwar play, MacBird! Synchronistically, I happened to be listening to Country Joe and the Fish’s masterpiece album, Electric Music for the Mind and Body, which includes the antiwar/anti-President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) tune, "SuperBird." Both the play and the song laid the US war on Vietnam in LBJ’s lap, pinning him with the lion’s share of the blame for that murderous exercise. When "SuperBird" finally comes up on the track list, the chorus reminds me once again of the similarities between that war and the debacle in Iraq. "Send you back to Texas, Make you work on your ranch" are the words County Joe chooses to make his point to that president, yet they work just as well today.

MacBird utilizes the form of Shakespeare’s MacBeth to skewer Johnson’s lust for power and insistence on fighting a war that had more to do with the bloodlust of Shakespeare’s character than much of the US was willing to admit. Although not the best of satire by any standard, the play struck a chord among its audiences, of which there were many. Country Joe’s song, like much of his work with the Fish, is humor that draws blood. The president and his cohorts become SuperBird and his Super Dogs, yet a piece of kryptonite brings them down. A fantasy meant to be taken metaphorically, of course.

Other cultural pieces from that period were less figurative. One song that comes to mind immediately is "Fortunate Son," by Creedence Clearwater Revival. John Fogerty wrote lyrics that left little doubt in the listener’s mind about where he drew his line in the sand. This tune is about those people-the rich and the politicians who serve them-that send young men (and women) off to kill and die for their interests. It’s a musical demand to the rest of us to refuse these folks lies and pleas. Country Joe spoke to this same crowd when he wrote the GI anthem "I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag"-a darkly humorous ditty that echoes not only the pointlessness and hopelessness of the mission those men faced, but the cold-blooded calculations of those who sent them.

What’s unique about the songs of Country Joe and the Fish and Creedence Clearwater Revival is that they were immensely popular. Creedence often had two or three songs in the Top Forty at a time. Country Joe’s material was heard all over underground FM radio and in college dorms and GI barracks incessantly. This was markedly different from the songs of someone like Phil Ochs, whose politics may have been clearer but whose music was not as popular. I honestly believe that Creedence changed people’s minds about the war and, for those of us listening who were still in junior high and high school, their songs about the war and US politics ("Run Through the Jungle," "Bad Moon Rising," to name two more) helped us form our views.

John Fogerty recently released a CD titled Déjà vu All Over Again. The title song is an antiwar song about the newest deadly adventure from Washington.

The music is signature Fogerty and, for the most part, the lyrics stay away from the politics of the war and talk about the human issues involved. Or do they? Fogerty sings about the Big Muddy-an allusion to Pete Seeger’s song about the insanity of the chain of command and the thought process that tells the common citizen that once the military is in a place that they don’t belong, they need to stay and complete their job-and the song harpoons the media as it counts the bodies in a war that they helped promote. The song also challenges the idea that this war is somehow different-"It’s like déjà vu all over again." yet the most heart wrenching lyric is the one that goes:

Day after day another Momma’s crying
She’s lost her precious child
To a war that has no end.

So why don’t we hear this song on the radio. Is it because of the monopoly the rightwing Clear Channel media giant has on the nation’s radio stations? Is it because people don’t want to hear the stuff? Are we so supportive of or (perhaps even worse) apathetic about Washington’s latest war that antiwar music and literature has already reached its maximum audience? Is there no room on the charts for these kinds of songs to counter the jingoism put out by the likes of country star Toby Keith and Charlie Daniels? Or, perhaps more insidiously, is it part of a campaign to isolate these kinds of sentiments and thereby prevent them from becoming the prevailing public will? One might look at the fate of the Dixie Chicks back in 2002 after they challenged Bush and his war for a hint at what I mean.

Or, they could listen to this story about country singer Chely Wright and her fans manipulating the request lines at local country stations across the nation. Her song "On the Bumper of My SUV"–a little ditty about the tribulations of having a bumpersticker supporting the US Marines on one’s sports utility vehicle–was recently pegged by the music industry magazine Billboard as the fastest selling country single in the nation. Much of this support appeared to be grassroots, with emails and phone calls coming into country radio stations urging these broadcasters to play the song. Many requesters even claimed to be from families with members in the military who were stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. As it turns out, the campaign was a sham. It wasn’t military families who were making the requests. In fact, according to The Nashville Tennessean, a few members of Wright’s fan club, who sent emails to other members urging them to request the song, organized the call-in campaign. Now, this type of campaign is not that unusual, but the other part of the request was. Not only were these fans encouraged to request the song, it was suggested that they lie to the various radio deejays and tell them they were either in the military or had a family member currently serving in Iraq. Some of these "fans" even went so far as to assume multiple false identities, thereby making it possible for them to call stations multiple times under different aliases. Like so much else in this war, things are not what they appear to be.

Just like Steve Earle’s latest album, The Revolution Starts Now, which I reviewed in CounterPunch a couple months ago, this music needs to be heard. Hip hop artists have antiwar material out, too, yet very little of it is being played either (Mos Def and the Beastie Boys come to mind first in this regard.) Now, I know that Vietnam and Iraq are not only two different places; the wars being fought on their turf are also different. Yet, they are similar in the death and misery they create, and they both were designed to enhance the US Empire. Likewise, the movements against these wars are similar, yet different. The bulk of today’s military members primarily come from working class communities, just like they did during Vietnam. Consequently, so do most of the wounded and dead soldiers. One need only look at the bios of the more than 1300 dead soldiers to see the reality of this economic draft. These folks listen to the radio and watch the music channels when they are in parts of the world where they can do that. If they heard these songs and saw the videos, perhaps they would challenge their role in this latest war waged for the fortunate sons. Call your local deejay (but tell them the truth).

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: rjacobs@zoo.uvm.edu