On Monday morning, like many Americans in many towns, I’ll wander down the block with my son to watch the Memorial Day parade. For him it will be about the candy the paraders throw at the crowd (and it is a crowd). For me, though. it’s always about something more profound.
War is an ugly word. It draws out the worst in us and rarely is there one that doesn’t embolden all sorts of accusations and dismissals, charges and counter-charges.
The parade reminds me that whatever I think of policy, real people put themselves in harm’s way. I never needed to do that. I pray my kids and yours will never have to either. But those marchers, the young and the old, did. So let’s set aside the acrimony and remember there are people involved. These tunesmiths did:
There is Nothing Like a Dame, Rodgers & Hammerstein (1958)
I honestly debated whether starting here would be considered sexist. The other choice was ‘This is the Army, Mr. Jones,’ but Irving Berlin is not a great singer. And unlike the wars associated with numbers that appear below, WWII , while not without some protest, was considered by many a just war. So, let’s drop presentism and enjoy the lush Technicolor as Ray Walston (whom I first met in childhood as Uncle Martin) and the lads lament the biggest sacrifice they’ve been asked to make.
Fortunate Son, Creedence Clearwate Revival (1969)
In some ways the arguments we’re still having started with the Vietnam War. In many ways CCR was among the least political of the late-60s Bay Area bands. But when they did add their voice the guys drafted from towns like mine took center stage. Still relevant as those who were fortunate seek the highest offices in the land.
Ohio Machine Gun, The Isley Brothers (1971)
Of all the Motown acts, The Isley Brothers get far less credit than they deserve. In the early 1970s they released self-produced albums that were absolutely brilliant in their reworkings of other people’s songs. Here, with the addition of Jimi Hendrix–trained/inspired brother Ernie, they combine Neil Young and Hendrix to devastating effect.
Lady With a Fan (Terrapin Station), Grateful Dead (1977)
Including this will be a stretch for some and yet right at the center of this ballad-whose-end-is-never-told lie a solider and a sailor. Of course they’re allegorical. And I have no patience for exegesis Deadhead-style. But I’ve always had a weakness for this record despite it’s more lamentable moments. It was worth giving up better (and worse) live video to get a soundboard recording in good voice.
Love Vigilantes, New Order (1985)
The English bands of my youth had their own national adventurism to address. Some of that, maybe too much, looked back to the Vietnam play book. So it was a surprise when Manchester’s brilliant avatars of post-punk, pre-EDM penned a song with a narrative line and their trademark ambiguity. At its center, a serviceman.
KMAG YOYO, Hayes Carll (2011)
You want a good story song you need to find one with country roots. Hayes Carll, a Texas singer-songwriter who has a way with a funny lyric, tells a more modern tale of just what happens in a modern war with a ‘professional’ army. You know I have to love a band with a Tele-toting lead player who can wring the s*** out of an E chord and a female bassist holding down the bottom. (Want to know what the acronyms mean? Click here.)
BONUS TRACK: Memorial Day, James McMurtry (2012)
Every holiday should have a song and James McMurtry, the king of the song-based storytellers (I think he gets that from his dad) gave us one for Memorial Day. Chorus lyrics conveniently provided so you can sing along. Enjoy the long weekend. “Y’all be sure and drive slow.”
For you streamers, here’s the Spotify playlist with Mr. Berlin included: