Monday 11 January 2010

War and Pop Music

Prompted by the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood visited China in 1937. Isherwood reported from what they hoped would become the centre of the conflict: 'Today Auden and I agreed that we would rather be in Hankow at this moment than anywhere else on earth.' So these soi-disant 'lunatic English explorers' observed a distant replay of the Spanish Civil War, which pitted fascist aggressors against a leftist alliance. The literary product of their journey was the co-authored Journey to a War, an eccentric collaboration between Isherwood's prose, Auden's verse, and photographs taken mainly by Auden.

I have written elsewhere about 'In Time of War', the sequence of 27 sonnets and long concluding 'Commentary' which make up the bulk of Auden's contribution. One sonnet, XXII, speaks pointedly to our own time, its sestet accusing a popular culture which is too frivolous to consider necessary matters:

Think in this year what pleased the dancers best:
When Austria died and China was forsaken,
Shanghai in flames and Teruel retaken,

France put her case before the world: 'Partout
Il y a de la joie.' America addressed
The earth: 'Do you love me as I love you?'

Popular songs, in this case by Charles Trenet and Cole Porter respectively, are seen as conniving in a decadent obliviousness. War is approaching, but rather than paying attention, those 'dancers' succumb to the enticements of cheap music. Rudyard Kipling had made similar complaints during the Boer War, attacking those who 'content their souls' with sporting idols --- 'flannelled fools' and 'muddied oafs' --- while their armies fight abroad.

Does the pop music of the last several decades make any greater recognition of war? I don't mean those protest songs which easily insist that war is bad, but rather songs which take as their subject the experience of war. There are other kinds of popular culture --- film, television, video games --- which lend themselves much more obviously to such an engagement; even so, it would be a serious failure of pop music if it could not accommodate much more than 'Do you love me as I love you?'

If you have any suggestions, please post them in the comments below. Let me start with Marillion's 'Forgotten Sons', a wild concoction of lyrics about the British soldier's experience serving in Northern Ireland. As the title suggests, its point is not that different from Kipling's and Auden's: our soldiers are forgotten by the society which sends them to fight.


  1. There are a couple of songs by Billy Bragg which might fit the subject of 'experience of war': 'Everywhere' and 'Island of No Return'. The latter even mentions Kipling. Maybe worth a look/listen...

  2. Two Kent/Ace anthology CDs probably fulfill your criteria handily--A Soldier's Sad Story: Vietnam through the Eyes of Black America 1966-73 and Does Anybody Know I'm Here?: Vietnam through the Eyes of Black America 1962-1972 (even if a few of the tunes are not really Vietnam-specific). Also, many blues singers recording approximately 1941-1954 had thoughts on fighting for Uncle Sam in WWII and Korea. White country musicians had their say during those periods too, albeit much more pro patria (so to speak).

  3. Very interesting question. I will check my collection to see what I can find. Songs by soldiers describing their experience have a long tradition going back centuries. I have many examples however I am not sure what you mean by "pop"

    This is a start to give a recent example from Iraq. A 2006 CD called "Voices from the Frontlines" from Crosscheck records.

    "This ain't for a paycheck
    This aint for us to be known
    This is for somebody to understand
    a soldier's life."

    I guess the "Ballad of the Green Beret" doesn't count however it was definitely pop and written by a wounded Vietnam Vet.

    A broad review of the subject from WW 1 to Iraq, including songs by soldiers from the Soviet Union and Northern Ireland can be found in "Country Music goes to War" Charles Wolfe (ed) University of Kentucky Press 2005.

  4. mean to say "about" not "from" the soviet union"

  5. I forgot this one... It's by Radiohead and is called 'Harry Patch (in memory of). Link to lyrics here:

  6. In the U.S., few pop songs in my recollection have dealt with combat experience. One that comes to mind, regrettably, is "The Battle Hymn of Lieutenant Calley," which seemed to suggest that the stresses of training and Vietnam made him the saddest victim of My Lai. Set to the obvious melody, it sold, they say, 2,000,000 copies.

    "The Ballad of Rodger Young," lyrics by Frank Loesser, was a hit during World War II. It celebrated the battlefield death of a Medal of Honor winner with the predictable level of sentiment.

    Loesser's "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" suggested in awful rhymes (including "not a-goin' fishin'") that the Pearl Harbor was less of a debacle thanks to the fightin' sky-pilot (chaplain) who manned a naval gun (at least in the song) and uttered those immortal words. The lyrics imply that the situation was desperate but enjoyable.

    "The Battle of New Orleans," by Johnny Horton, was a smash in 1958 and is still remembered. It described the 1815 battle as an epic comedy, when the redcoats "ran so fast the hounds couldn't ketch 'em" - understandable, since Andy Jackson was usin' a alligator fer a cannon.

    The antiheroic "Mr. Custer" (1960) turned the Little Big Horn into farce:

    "Please, Mr. Custer, I don't wanna go!/ Somebody yelled 'Attack!'/ And there I stood with a arrow in my back!"

    I am now strangely depressed. But perhaps I've overlooked something brilliant.

  7. Floyd Westerman's 1969 song, Custer Died For Your Sins, is a memorable tune reminiscent of Johnny Cash's best. This may not be the original, but still...

  8. OK - The present conflict in Iraq has I'm sure inspired hundreds of "pop" songs, but one serious contribution has to be Neil Young's record Living with War - not his best work by a long shot, but a passionate response to the situation. Falklands - there are at least three great Falklands songs: Billy Bragg's Island of No Return (already mentioned), Elvis Costello's Shipbuilding, and Martin Carthy's South Atlantic Company Store. Vietnam - too many songs to mention, but what about John Prine's Sam Stone? Also, Steve Earle's Johnny Come Lately, which contrasts the welcome home of GIs from WWII and Vietnam? And of course, The Great War and Modern Memory being what it is, loads of songs about WWI. The Pogues recorded a great version of The Band Played Waltzing Matilda by Eric Bogle, about Gallipoli, and their main songwriter Shane MacGowan has written several songs with a WWI theme, notably A Pair of Brown Eyes (which nods to Owen's Strange Meeting). Not many songs glorifying war, but I do have a fondness for Warren Zevon's blackly amoral Roland the Headless Thomson Gunner, about mercenaries in the Congo. The most affecting song about modern war is probably Andy White's Speechless (about the Americans in Somalia, I think), though the song is in two parts so you have to wait till halfway through before the war theme emerges.

  9. interesting topic.whats left of us if the war continues

  10. I think we can just console ourselves that the end of this war is in sight. I'm sure there will be a lot of insightful poetry written by those who were caught up in it.