Songs of war and American culture

Henry Srebrnik
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You can tell quite a bit about a country’s political culture by the songs it produces during wartime.

In the United States, the trajectory has been from songs celebrating religious patriotism through nationalistic tunes to more nuanced views of conflicts to outright anti-war lyrics.

The American Civil War produced the stirring Protestant anthem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” American writer Julia Ward Howe wrote the lyrics after visiting a Union Army camp on the Potomac River near Washington D.C. in November 1861 and they were first published in February 1862.

The song is full of Biblical imagery. Here are the first and fifth stanzas and the chorus:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
 He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
 He has loosed the fateful lightening of His terrible swift sword:
 His truth is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
 With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
 As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
 While God is marching on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Our God is marching on.

 

The popular martial song “Over There,” penned by George M. Cohan in April 1917 as the United States was entering the First World War, was designed to galvanize American young men to enlist in the army and fight Germany. The two stanzas are aggressively buoyant, patriotic but not particularly religious:

 

Johnny, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun.

Take it on the run, on the run, on the run.

Hear them calling you and me,

Every Son of Liberty.

Hurry right away, no delay, go today.

Make your Daddy glad to have had such a lad.

Tell your sweetheart not to pine,

To be proud her boy’s in line.

 

Johnny, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun.

Johnny, show the “Hun” you're a son-of-a-gun.

Hoist the flag and let her fly

Yankee Doodle do or die.

Pack your little kit, show your grit, do your bit.

Yankee to the ranks from the towns and the tanks.

Make your Mother proud of you

And the old red-white-and blue.

 

The refrain sends out a warning to America’s enemies:

Over there, over there,

Send the word, send the word over there

That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming

The drums rum-tumming everywhere.

So prepare, say a prayer,

Send the word, send the word to beware

We’ll be over, we’re coming over,

And we won’t come back till it’s over, over there.

 

Second World War songs are less nationalistic and more sentimental. “When the Lights Go on Again,” written by Bennie Benjamin, Sol Marcus and Eddie Seiler in 1942 is wistful, making no mention of German “Huns” or other enemies. The song, made famous by Vaughn Monroe, expresses the hopes for an end to the war.

When the lights go on again all over the world
 And the boys are home again all over the world
 And rain or snow is all that may fall from the skies above 
A kiss won’t mean “goodbye” but “Hello to love”

 When the lights go on again all over the world
 And the ships will sail again all over the world
 Then we’ll have time for things like wedding rings and free hearts will sing
 When the lights go on again all over the world

By the 1960s, an unpopular conflict led to the predominance of anti-war songs.

The poignant ballad “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” became a hit during the Vietnam War. The first three verses were written by Pete Seeger in 1955, with further verses added by Joe Hickerson in 1960. It was popularized by, among others, the folk song group Peter, Paul and Mary.

The first stanza asks:

Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing? 
Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago? 
Where have all the flowers gone? 
Young girls have picked them every one. 
Oh, when will they ever learn? 
Oh, when will they ever learn?

And it slowly works its way up to the “message,” in stanza four:

Where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing? 
Where have all the soldiers gone, long time ago? 
Where have all the soldiers gone? 
Gone to graveyards, every one.
 Oh, when will they ever learn? 
Oh, when will they ever learn?

By 1967, the Kingston Trio had performed it on NBC-TV, one of the many indications that the American public was turning against the war.

All these songs can be heard on You Tube.

It’s interesting that the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have produced no songs of note – perhaps because these conflicts, fought by an all-volunteer military, have had little impact on average Americans.

 

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

 

Organizations: NBC, University of Prince Edward Island

Geographic location: United States, Potomac River, Washington D.C. Germany Vietnam Afghanistan Iraq

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