By Tom Burke / Herald columnist
“Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” “We Shall Overcome.” “Marching through Georgia.” “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”
Recognize any (all?) of these songs? They were among the anthems marking struggles during World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, the Civil War, our Revolution, and the Great Depression.
Throughout American history music has helped define the time and bring people together.
But today, with well over 500,000 souls lost (more than our combined death toll from World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam), there has barely been a stanza written commemorating our current loss, or our struggle, and I don’t understand why.
Cultural literacy (a persistent interest of mine) says we should be knowledgeable about older, socially relevant music, as well as be up-to-date on the new stuff.
Let’s take a look:
During the American Revolution “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Chester” were the vastly popular rebel songs. (For those mystified by the lyric “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni;” it satirically references 18th century Italian high fashion, and how those rube American colonists thought feathering a hat would make them “macaroni” or stylishly fashionable.)
The War of 1812 didn’t leave us much notable music, but a poem by a Baltimore lawyer, Francis Scott Key, written during the bombardment of Fort McHenry, yielded our National Anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” although it wasn’t adopted as such until 1931.
The American Civil War spawned many “anthems,” including the partisan (for the North) “John Brown’s Body,” plus the “Battle Hymn of the Republiv” and “Marching Through Georgia.” For the southern, slave-owning traitors such tunes as “Dixie” and the “Bonnie Blue Flag” was the hit-of-the-era; while both sides sang “Goober Peas,” “Tenting Tonight,” and a tune that was so forlorn and dispiriting that military commanders forbad its singing: “Weeping, Sad and Lonely.”
During The Great War, there’s a bunch we can highlight as anthems including “Over There,” “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag,” and “Mademoiselle from Armentieres.”
The Great Depression sired both songs and song-writers (Woodie Guthrie most notably) and a new medium for sharing the music: radio. Guthrie’s songs about the Dust Bowl and hard times, such as his “Do Re Mi,” which famously spotted California as a very unfriendly place for desperate Okies. “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” epitomized the era’s desperation while the Carter family kept spirits up with “Keep on the Sunny Side of Life.” Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats’ “Happy Days are Here Again” signaled new hope for a new deal, while another version, “Happy Days are Beer Again” signaled the end of Prohibition.
The Great Depression was, in part, ended by the Second World War in 1939. American manufacturing and farming came back to life, as life was crushed in Europe. But in December 1941 America went on a war footing and so did its music. “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” “Remember Pearl Harbor” and “Com’n in on a Wing and a Prayer” bucked up wartime martial spirits; Bug Bunny singing “Any Bonds Today” helped finance the war; while the Andrews Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” made the Army a bit less foreboding and a bit more swing’in.
As the war progressed, music changed with the personal overtaking the patriotic. So “As Time Goes By,” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree with Anyone Else but Me” signaled the desire to see war’s end and bring the “boys” home.
Korea birthed some war-related music, but with none of the fervor of WWII songs.
It wasn’t until Vietnam that music again became a major component reflecting America’s attitudes from the pro-side “Ballad of the Green Berets” to “Four Dead in Ohio” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” sung by those opposing the war (or fighting in it).
Music also helped galvanize the Civil Rights movement with “We Shall Not be Moved,” “We Shall Overcome,” “Strange Fruit,” and “Oh, Freedom” putting steel in the backs of those sitting-in in segregated restaurants, marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, or registering voters in Jim Crow states.
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young made an anthem out of “Four Dead in Ohio” about the Kent State massacre. But we’ve had 1,100 a day die, and barely a note of note, except Alicia Keys’ “Good Job,” dedicated to the “front line” saviors of the pandemic:
“The Mothers / The Fathers / The Teachers / that reach us / Strangers to friends / That show up in the end / From the bottom to the top / The listeners that hear us / This for you / You make me fearless.
Good Job / You’re doing a good job, good job / You’re doing a good job / Don’t get too down / The world needs you now / Know that you matter Matter, matter, yeah, now.” (YouTube: tinyurl.com/AKeysGoodJob.)
But, just maybe, that song is all we need.
Stay safe. Mask up.
Tom Burke’s email address is email@example.com.