Songs and war go together like John Philip Sousa and the Fourth of July.
Boots marching in the street, jets screaming overhead, and all the ships awash at sea, songs accompany our troops wherever they’re sent in times of war and peace. “Follow Me,” “Those Caissons Go Rolling Along,” “Wild Blue Yonder,” “Anchors Away,” and “The Marines’ Hymn” – all uplifting anthems of pride and military might.
Every service has its band – The Marine Band, the Navy Band, the Army Band (“Pershing’s Own”) and the U.S. Air Force Band. There is even a U.S. Navy School of Music, originally in Anacostia, now in Virginia Beach.
Wartime is especially productive for song mills. From the Revolutionary War to the War in Vietnam, music has been the sound of men and women on the march. The wars in Iran and Afghanistan, though, failed to inspire a memorable tune. Korea was described as a “police action” and hardly qualified, though one wit observed at the time, “then send the police.”
Those twin barbarians, Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin, had their soft cream-filled centers, too. Hitler was fond of Beethoven and Wagner, especially Wagner. To quote auteur Woody Allen, “Every time I listen to Wagner, I get the urge to invade Poland.”
Stalin, whose tastes were conservative and classical, is said to have owned 2,700 recordings. Stalin was especially moved by Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 23.”
And so it was with “Maryland, My Maryland,” an ode to the Confederacy, or a Civil War regional fight-song, a seventh-rate poem by a third-rate poet, set to a plagiarized melody, “Lauriger Horatius,” or “O Tannenbaum,” better known to American ears as “O Christmas Tree.” Take your pick.
This is the state’s anthem, sung every year by the Naval Academy chorus before the running of the Preakness, one of Maryland’s showcase events, televised globally.
But none of this sing-along stuff reached the patriotic heights of George M. Cohan, whose Yankee doodling was dandy.
The Maryland General Assembly, thus, has finally decided, after um-teen tries, to retire “Maryland, My Maryland” as the state’s official song since it was formally adopted in 1939. This is not a case of the legislature suddenly being “woke.” Legislation often meets its fate, one way or the other, out of pure fatigue of having to deal with it repeatedly.
The consignment of “Maryland, My Maryland” to the dead-song reliquary needs Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) signature to be complete.
What caused the dissonance were such jarring, out-of-tune and out-of-times phrases as “thy despot’s heel,” “patriotic gore,” “the tyrant,” and “northern scum.”
Decidedly pro-south and anti-Lincoln, the banal compulsive lyrics, all nine verses, reflected the schizophrenic sentiments of Maryland at the time, equal measures of pro-slavery and abolitionist, passionately wrapped in one divided state.
The City Baltimore served as a north-south railroad center and pass-through for troops headed off to the Civil War, occasionally brother against brother, and the trains often the object of attacks by both Union and Confederate troops. Through James Ryder Randall’s poetry grinder, we get:
“The despot’s heel is on thy shore,
His torch is at the temple door,
Avenge the patriotic gore
That flecked the streets of Baltimore,
And be the battle queen of yore,
That was hardly the pen of T. S. Eliot or Robert Frost. But it was, thankfully, not the only song the Civil War produced. There were others, a couple of them memorable: ”Dixie,” “Bonnie Blue Flag,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Nearly a century earlier, the Revolutionary War – which inspired generations of fife-and-drum re-enactors, produced at least one song that has survived the ages – “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Others, less inspired but dripping in patriotic fervor, include, “Dying Redcoats,” “Free America,” and “Poor Old Tory.”
Skip forward to the War of 1812. The bombardment of Fort McHenry by British ships in Baltimore’s harbor produced the most durable piece of Americana of any of the nation’s wars, “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Written as a poem by Francis Scott Key, the lyrics were set to the borrowed music of an English drinking song, “Anacreon in Heaven,” in honor of an ancient Greek poet noted for his praise of love and wine, the theme of a British gentlemen’s drinking club.
It’s a terrible piece of music, difficult to sing, hard on the ear, neither as nationalistic as France’s “Marseillaise,” nor as lyrical as Italy’s “Inno di Mameli.” But it’s been our national anthem since 1931. Congress said so. And every year at the Super Bowl a pop singer of some renown adds a flourish or two and gets panned for messing with the sacrosanct but dreadful original. It’ll melt the wax in your ears.
Other tunes that emerged from the War of 1812 include, “The New Deserter,” “The Soldier Cut Down in His Prime,” and “The Girl I Left Behind.”
World War I, often characterized as the “great war,” was the deadliest in history. Its proximate cause was the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, though European expansionism was the war’s festering point.
World War I was also, in a sense, a romantic war, one in which American “doughboys” were off by the boatload to foreign soil in a land they’d never seen and probably knew only from geography and history books, if at all. They were among the 70 million military personnel that were mobilized to slay, or defend – what? – nobody was really sure except the songwriters, who had finally come into their own as a wartime industry:
“Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag,” “Over There,” “Till We Meet Again,” “Till the Clouds Roll By,” “American Patrol,” Colonel Bogey March,” ‘Hinky, Dinky Parlay Voo,” “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” “Who Put the Germ in Germany,” ‘Mademoiselle from Armentieres,” and “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.”
World War II was the last great patriotic war. There was widespread resistance to entering the war, but Franklin Delano Roosevelt was prepared for the engagement against the boisterous arguments that the conflagration was none of America’s business. But it was the business of songwriters in one of their most prolific and durable periods. A sampler:
“Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer,” “Don’t Be Beastly to the Germans,” “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” “There’ll be Bluebirds Over/The White Cliffs of Dover,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Lilli Marlene,” “When the Lights Come On Again,” “You’ll Never Know,” “This Is the Army, Mr. Jones,” ‘G.I. Jive,” “Hot time in the Town of Berlin,” “Bombs, Bombs, Bombs From the Bombardier,” and the upbeat spoof from the madcap Spike Jones, “In Der Fuehrer’s Face.”
The War in Korea, which, technically, wasn’t a war, was a fallow period for sentimentalist songwriters atuned to war. But musically, at home, the early Fifties were the beginning of the wind-down of the big band era and the brash entry into musicology of the pioneers of the Be-Bop era of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. The Flatted Fifth was finally tamed. Rock-‘n-Roll, too, was emerging, but still almost a decade away.
Only two standout songs identified with the Korean War are tagged – “Old Soldiers Never Die,” and “Heartbreak Ridge.”
By the time the war in Vietnam began to escalate, American counterculture was making itself felt, not only on the streets but in the music studios that began to turn against authority as well as the war.
America was fighting two wars simultaneously – the war abroad and the war at home. The Civil Rights and anti-war movements joined on the streets to form one massive social protest. Anti-war sentiment was a full-chorus lament.
The fog of war was an anodyne haze of blue-smoke – “Puff the Magic Dragon” – home grown in the poppy fields and jungles of “Platoon” and “Apocalypse Now,” and the soundscape of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
Give a listen: “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Purple Haze,” “Fortunate Son,” “Green Grass of Home,” “All Along the Watch Tower,” “Gimme Shelter,” and “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.”
Against the grain, “The Ballad of the Green Berets” was a push-back against the counterculture forces of the tormented Sixties. It extolled the Green Berets as the exemplar of American military excellence and might at a period when servicemen were being spat upon.
Or, perhaps most unforgettable of all, a musical score that was not original to the Vietnam War but adapted to a film, the background music for the movie “Platoon,” the lugubrious and brooding “Adagio for Strings,” by Samuel Barber.
The wars in Iran and Afghanistan – the longest in our history – have produced no music at all.
But there was an appropriate line in the movie, “The Princess Bride” – “Never start a land war in Asia.”