b. traven, Greg Laxer, and Mike Murry
Editor’s note: We wanted to share with our readers an off-line conversation some of our regulars had regarding protest songs and the Vietnam War. Back then, songs really meant something. We encourage you to write about your own favorite protest songs in the “comments” section below. Thanks.
b. traven: I was opposed to the Vietnam war and was attracted to the new lifestyle arising among our county’s youth. So I went to rock concerts with my kids, worked with BEM (Business Executives for Vietnam Peace), and loved the music of that time.
One particular piece of music combined all of these things. I recorded it on my tape player for which I had built a slot on the cabin hatchway on my racing yacht. When we were on a long night race I would play this piece over and over because its drive, melody, and words kept me ginned up when I was alone at the helm at midnight.
I’m talking about Les McCann’s anti-Vietnam war song, “Compared to What.” It had the passion that was needed back then to deal with that catastrophic war. Five decades later its words and passion still resonate.
Les McCann, Compared to What
“The President has got his war…” The song was bitter, sardonic, and as true then as it is today.
Greg Laxer: “The President, he’s got his war; Folks don’t know just what it’s for; They never give us rhyme or reason; Havin’ one doubt, they call it treason!” I pretty well know that one by heart, traven, and quote it in my memoir! Actually, it was written by Gene McDaniels–had pop music hits with “A Hundred Pounds of Clay” and “Tower of Strength.” The song came to the jazz world’s attention from the live rendition at Montreux Festival, 1969, Les McCann with saxophonist Eddie Harris. The album was called Swiss Movement (Atlantic Jazz) and is still available on CD.
There have been fairly recent recordings of the song, since it doesn’t lose its relevance (sad to say). I once found the record (as a “single”) on a California jukebox, but since Ronald Reagan was governor at the time, the word “Goddammit” was bleeped out every time! Ain’t that a hoot? True story, my friend.
Mike Murry: Thanks for the link to the song, Compared to What. It has a real jazzy feel to it, which I enjoy but do not especially relate to satirical or polemical songs, generally. Regarding the period in question — and afterwards — I have some favorites that now have YouTube videos to accompany the music and lyrics.
First off: after the National Guard shooting of protesting students at Kent State, we got “Ohio,” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. My favorite lyric from that song:
“What if you knew her and/Found her dead on the ground? How can you run when you know?”
I think of those lines whenever I see again in my mind that picture of the little Syrian boy washed up dead on the beach after trying to escape with his family from the American-produced and -conducted carnage and chaos in his country.
I feel like I knew and loved him. I know, and I’ve nowhere to run from the awful image.
Ohio – Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
As I may have related to you previously, I used to serve on a submarine tender, the U.S.S. Sperry, moored at Ballast Point, San Diego back in 1968. A friend of mine had rented a little houseboat at a local marina and some evenings after knocking off ship’s work we would go over there to relax and have a beer while watching TV or listening to music on the stereo. Whenever President Lyndon Johnson would come on the television, though, my friend would turn down the volume to zero and put a record on the turntable, a song called “Nothing,” by The Fugs. Then we would sit back and watch that motherless Johnson moaning his inane lies with that hound dog face and southern-drawl shit in his mouth while the stereo screamed out: “NOTHING! NOTHING! NOTHING! NOTHING!”
Nothing – the Fugs
Also from the late nineteen-sixties, a real, rousing anthem called “Fortunate Son,” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. That one still plays well today.
“Some folks inherit star-spangled eyes/Then they send you down to war.
And when you ask them ‘How much should we give?’ All they ever answer is MORE! MORE! MORE! MORE! MORE!”
Precisely my summation of the U.S. military in a single word: “MORE!”
Fortunate Son – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Finally, something from later on towards the end of the 1980s, something of a great trash job on those evangelical Christian preachers exhorting war. You know, like the ones who pretty much form the heart (if not the spleen) of the Republican Party:
Defenders of the Flag – Bruce Hornsby and the Range
This year’s U.S. election cycle will do little but determine which war-slut or warlock to keep funneling “MORE!” to our inept, blundering military.
b. traven: Thanks for the song links, Mike. My favorite of CSN&Y was “Wooden Ships.” I turn that song on now and it transports me to those days. The melody is haunting and the words mysterious. The times were tense but there was hope in the air. I was in my forties and feeling that anything was possible.
I started “Communication workers for peace,” which involved young people from all the big advertising and PR firms. I was very active in BEM (Business Execs for Vietnam Peace) writing our ads and lobbying in Washington. Things were changing for the better. There was a lot of hope in the air in spite of the catastrophe of the war.
Today, young people aren’t organized sufficiently to meet the oppressive state. As a Jew I can’t help noticing that Jews, who were a big part of the backbone of the anti-Vietnam war effort and many other social justice issues, are largely absent from the trenches of opposition. All I see around me are greed, fear, and ignorance of history.
I do not have a very upbeat view of what lies ahead. There will be war, chaos, and violent social unrest. Nothing good can come of that, history has shown. I am glad I have lived this long to see and live in two centuries. But I am very sad to see our country and the world move back to the dangerous world fascism brought in 1939.
Nowadays in America, ignorance is king and knowledge is kaput.
Greg Laxer: Sad to say I think your vision of what’s coming down the road is pretty firmly baked in the cake, traven. Our fellow citizens would rather embrace any kind of right-wing lunacy–like Obama conspiring to take their guns away, or targeting Muslims (“the new Jews”?) as the cause of all our problems–than suck it up, find some internal backbone, and take on the real enemy, which is the Established Order.
I have one more protest song to add to our list: Country Joe & The Fish’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” which many, many GIs were familiar with and fond of.
“I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die,” Country Joe & The Fish
The next stop is Viet Nam – or is it Afghanistan? What are we fightin’ for, indeed.
I don’t know how many more years on Earth I’ll be allotted, but I’m very confident I won’t see a utopia erupt before my eyes. Good health to you.
Greg Laxer and Mike Murry are veterans of the Vietnam War era, and b. traven is co-founder of The Contrary Perspective and a World War II veteran.