Masters of war and songs of protest

Published on July 30, 2014

By Richard Deaton  Henry Srebrnik is to be heartily congratulated for his genuinely insightful and fascinating piece, "Songs of war and American culture" (Journal Pioneer. July 28, 2014, p. A6). He raised many interesting issues.

Who woulda thunk: Henry an old folkie! Wonders will never cease.

Alas, his thoroughly entertaining op-ed article opened the flood gates to many personal memories from my own background, ranging from folk cafes in Greenwich Village in NYC, to the March on Washington with Martin Luther King, to campus riots protesting the war in Vietnam.

Folk music, as a musical genre, has always been labelled "the people's music" and with good reason. As a musical form, folk music goes back to at the least the Middle Ages as musicologist A.L. Lloyd had pointed out. Folk music has also influenced many classical composers such as List, Brahms, Bartok, Kodaly and others.

Contemporary folk music can be divided into at least four different categories, although these forms often overlap, namely, traditional ballads about life and love; labour and work songs, such as traditional sea shanties, or more recent songs by Stevedore Steve; songs of protest, such as labour songs promoting unionization or anti-war songs, and social commentary or topical ballads dealing with the controversial political issues of the day by people like Marvina Reynolds, or Phil Ochs, my own favourite folksinger.

Folk music is often associated with revolutionary or progressive political causes, ranging from the great French and Russian revolutions to the Spanish Civil War, and has inspired many causes ranging from unionization to the peace movement. Here in North America a generation of so-called Red Diaper babies were brought up on The Weavers, Pete Seeger, Odessa, and Harry Belafonte, long before the Kingston Trio, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and The Chad Mitchell Trio came along.

And if you don't recognize the names there is clearly a generation gap here, but you have many hours of musical pleasure ahead of you.

During the 1960s two issues consumed American politics and resulted in extensive civil strife: the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam; this became all the more socially explosive given the changes in lifestyle and sexual politics. The popular and folk music of that era reflected the politics and the tensions of that period.

In the public mind, and among many of the participants, the folk music of the two causes often blended together.

While some have simplistically reduced the so-called counter-culture of the 1960s to "Sex, drugs and rock and roll", it was much more than that. It was a profoundly political period in U.S. and Canadian history, and students often walked around with Marx, Mills, Marcuse and Vallieres in their hip pocket. Cinemagraphically, the zeitgeist or spirit, of that era was best caught in Robert Redford's recent film, "The Company You Keep".

However, I would suggest, with respect, that while the well- known folk song, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone", written by Seeger and Henderson, reflected the deep anti-Vietnam war sentiment of many people, Bob Dylan's grittier and sparser "Masters of War", with its accusatory opening line, "You masters of war", that rang out like an indictment, perhaps better captured the politics of the period.

To the best of my knowledge, there was only one popularized song supporting American policy in Vietnam and that was Moore and Sadler's, "The Ballad of the Green Beret" (1966); John Wayne played in a Hollywood propaganda film by the same name.

The war in Iraq and Afghanistan has generated few films and fewer songs; out of sight, out of mind. 

While some high profile pop groups such as The Stones in their "Street Fighting Man", "Factory Girl" or "Sympathy for the Devil", or John Lennon in "Tax Man" and "A Working Class Hero" attempted to interject some social commentary and politics into their music, they ultimately made peace with the system.

In general, the folk music tradition and its aficionados have tended to be left-of-centre or progressive, pro-union, pro-civil rights, anti-capitalist or at least anti-corporation, anti-nuke and pacific.

But as the headlines of our daily newspaper inform us of the continuing carnage in the Middle East, the masters of war are still in control.



Richard Deaton, Ph.D., LL.B., is a resident of Stanley Bridge, P.E.I.