Because I don’t watch much television these days as an aging curmudgeon, I have turned to Podcasts for my entertainment and/or edification.
Today I was treated to a brand spanking new entry “Now and Then,” not “Then & Now,” featuring history professors Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman. I tuned in because I’m a regular listener of Ms. Richardson’s Internet offerings.
The two historians discussed the concept of U.S. foreign policy being divorced from domestic politics and how that all changed a little more than a century ago with President Theodore Roosevelt. It seems Teddy was the first U.S. president to drag the U.S. kicking and screaming onto the world stage.
But what I found most interesting was their exchanges on the matter of the role of popular music during war years. The greatest focus, naturally, was the late 1960s and early ‘70s, during the Vietnam Conflict.
Both agreed the two most controversial and influential war songs of that era were Country Joe & the Fish with “I Fell Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” and Merle Haggard’s “Fightin’ Side of Me.” Obviously, they were on opposite sides of political discourse.
I guessed both of the songs even before they picked them.
I’ll never forget the spring of 1968 when a friend brought in Country Joe’s second album that featured the song:
“Come on all of you big strong men Uncle Sam needs your help again
He’s gotten himself in a terrible jam. Way down yonder in Vietnam
So throw away your books and pick up a gun. We’re gonna have a whole lot of fun.
“And it’s one, two, three, what are we fightin’ for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam
And it’s five, six, seven, open up the pearly gates
Well, no time now to wonder why, we’re all gonna die.”
Many years later, Wayland High history teacher Brian Pavey insisted on playing that tune in class to give the children 30 years later an accurate picture of the counter-culture complaint about the Vietnam War.
But on the other hand, two years later, I gave a listen to Haggard’s serious warning to long-haired hippie freaks protesting the war:
“If you don’t love it, leave it
Let this song I’m singin’ be a warnin’
When you’re runnin’ down my country, man
You’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.”
So Merle threw down the gauntlet and told them protesters they just might get an ass whuppin’ for engaging in such offensive activities.
My friends and I at Grand Valley, as a result, curbed our appearances at bars, fearing physical retribution from the redneck followers of Mr. Haggard.
Yet later in this song, he sang:
And I don’t mind ’em switchin’ sides
And standin’ up for things they believe in
When they’re runnin’ down my country, man
They’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.”
That didn’t seem to make any sense, saying it’s OK to stand up for things we believe in, but it’s open season on us when we do.
Mr. Haggard just six months before became very famous for his anti-hippie anthem, “Okie from Muskogee.”
“We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee
We don’t take our trips on LSD
We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street
We like living right and being free.”
Imagine my surprise not long ago when I learned from the Ken Burns documentary on country music that Merle was smoking weed all along. And some of you who read this rag complain about the hypocrisy of Gretchen Whitmer.
Merle, in an interview not long ago before he died, said of Willie Nelson:
“He told me, and I don’t disagree with him, that had we not smoked pot during our life, then we would probably be dead from drinking whiskey or smoking Camels. It’s debatable. And there’s a lot of reasons they don’t want you to smoke it. The people who make the valium, they don’t want you smoking something you can grow in your f*ing garden, and the whiskey people don’t want you doing something you can do without using their brand. And, hell, there’s the timber people and the oil people, they’re all against for their own selfish reasons.”
Both of Merle’s offerings made No. 1 on the country charts.
I propose a few honorable mention controversial songs that helped divide us 50-plus years ago:
On the patriotic pro-war side: Sgt. Barry Sadler with “Ballads of the Green Berets,” The Spokesmen with “The Dawn of Correction” an answer to Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” and Bobby Vinton’s “Coming Home Soldier,” a sequel to “Mr. Lonely.”
On the anti-war side: McGuire’s Eve of Destruction,” Buffy St.-Marie’s “Universal Soldier,” sung by Donovan, and “War!” by Edwin Starr.
The two historians discussed folk singer Pete Seeger’s controversial TV appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour singing “The Big Muddy.”
Though Merle could sing about not smoking marijuana, Phil Ochs could not about enjoying it. His “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends” was the first song to be banned from the radio airwaves because of the following:
“Smokin’ marijuana is more fun than drinkin’ beer
But a friend of mine was captured and they gave him 30 years.”
In the end, the most lesson-filled song was from Mary Hopkins in 1968:
“Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end.”