18A025 Music of the Wars by Jim Davies, 6/19/2018    


Progress is glacial, compared with what can be achieved with the TOLFA method, but by looking back a century we can see some headway in popular anti-government sentiment as revealed by what people sang.

My own taste in music is traditional; any composer beginning with "B" is great, particularly Brahms and Bruckner; and I can enjoy Darius, Milhaud, Saint-Saëns, Vaughan-Williams, Elgar (whom my great-uncle once met) certainly Shostakovich and of course Copland, especially when enhanced by ELP. But generally, most of what's been written since 1950 is off my radar.

However, that's just taste. Attenborough's movie of the musical "Oh! What a Lovely War" captures well the songs that were popular in England during WW1, and they reveal first a gung-ho jingoism that stirred the blood and persuaded patriotic young men to waste theirs. Its shows some chorus girls repeating:

On Saturday I'm willing if you'll only take the shilling / To make a man of any one of you

and the sexual innuendo helped send a generation to their pointless deaths. What goes around, comes around, though; for one or two decades following, Britain was a country of young widows and spinsters.

A year or two into the conflict, enthusiasm faded fast into despair at the utter futility of it all:

We're here because we're here, because we're here, because we're here

and later yet a hopeless, cynical but hilarious humor appeared, from Aussie voices as Attenborough reports it:

They were only playing leapfrog

Songs in WW2 didn't follow that pattern. By then, people knew what war was like. Unhappily they had been persuaded, largely by Churchillian propaganda, that Hitler was evil incarnate and must be put down, or else civilization was doomed. So the songs avoided flagrant jingoism in favor of sentimental lyrics like that of Vera Lynn, now aged 101:

White Cliffs of Dover

augmented of course by the great Glenn Miller's "Big Band" sound, and, with victory in sight, even capturing and Anglicizing the German soldier's lament for the girl he left behind and hinting (what heresy!) that beneath the uniforms, soldiers are all very much the same:

Lili Marlene

The biggest and best change came, though, during the Vietnam War - and on this side of the Ocean. Bob Dylan asked in Blowin in the Wind how many deaths will it take till he knows / that too many people have died; and Phil Ochs wondered What Are You Fighting For, without seeing an answer. In Saigon Bride the haunting voice of Joan Baez asked how many dead men it would take / to build a dike that would not break. Evidently she supposed that Communism was an unstoppable flood, and so showed a weakness of the genre; it collapsed a quarter of a century later under the weight of its own false premises. But no matter; the folly of fighting it with guns was made plain; we can Imagine, with John Lennon, a warless world.

Technology progressed, and when government saw that evidence that the (1970) rising generation was hostile to war, and knowing that always, war is the health of the state, it put three and two together and made five - in the shape of warfare that required very few grunts. The drone was born, and is busily creating hatred of America worldwide.

What, then of music in the current era, of remote-controlled wars?

The focus has shifted, from foreign wars to the domestic sort - in which police are the enemy. The "music" style is hip-hop, which I think execrable - it fails in my book to qualify as music at all. But the lyrics often deserve attention.

From a long list on Anti-Police Rap, I took a couple at random: 911 is a Joke, which scorns the slow response when an emergency arises in a black neighborhood, and has video in German, starting "Polizei Staat" but applied to the USA. Nice touch. Another is Prince Paul's The Men in Blue, which rather accurately portrays cops as people who corrupt the "Miranda Warning" into "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be twisted around and used against you in the court of law" and "We're the Police Department, we're like a crew / We do whatever we want to do!" It's notable that scorn is heaped on cops not because of their skin color (many are black, after all) but because of that of their uniforms - their supposed status. A good sign.

Hostility to the police hasn't spread much to non-Black communities, nor (if those lyrics are typical) does it so far understand that police are just a symptom of government, its bleeding edge; those hard pressed folk are not anarchists. Yet.

But it's not a bad start. In a single century, American pop music has moved from the absurdly pugilistic Over There to The Men in Blue. The changed perception tells us, as did Politico about the election of Donald Trump, that the American public is angry with government. That spells Opportunity.

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