I once wanted to be a protest folksinger, going throughout the country to rally the people for social justice, but two things kept me from that. I couldn’t sing and there wasn’t much call for a protest clarinetist.
But there was journalism-which, I sometimes point out, became my profession because I wasn’t good at anything else. Nevertheless, many of the people at the forefront of social change have been journalists; the revolution of the 1960s, with journalists of an alternative media at the forefront, was built upon the base of a revolution two centuries earlier. Sam Adams, Ben Franklin, Tom Paine, and dozens of newspaper editors and writers helped unify a minority of colonists to rise up and create a new nation, founded in liberty and justice. Journalism seemed like a good place to learn more about people, government, and different cultures, while also fighting for truth, justice, and the American way. After all, wasn’t Superman a journalist?
I didn’t mind being exploited by long work days, low pay, and weak benefits. I was an idealist who would help effect change and improvement-even if I had to spend all day balancing demands of police reports and city council meetings, while also rewriting press releases and covering supermarket openings.
I also found myself in the company of greatness, of singers and musicians just starting out and others desperately holding on to their fame. While some journalists reveled at being able to attend parties with the rich and powerful, I preferred listening to and talking with the singers and musicians I met.
Later, I developed expertise in multimedia production, but that’s for another day.
Please, over the next weeks, search out and play some music of protest, of social justice, of the stories of those killed in war. Anything by Judy Collins is wonderful. Check out Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” and “If I Had a Hammer,” Barry McGuire’s and P.F. Sloan’s “Eve of Destruction,” Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter’s “One Tin Soldier,” Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “The Universal Soldier, CCR’s “Fortunate Son,” Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” John Fogerty’s “Déjà vu,” Pink’s “Dear Mr. President,” Joan Baez’s “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again,” and some of Pink Floyd’s, Anti-Flag’s and Green Day’s songs. There are so many that weren’t included in this series, but deserve your time and thought.
A brief special dedication: This eight day series (yes, eight has a special meaning) is for every person who lost a friend or relative in war . . . and for every person who marched for peace so that some day we could celebrate Memorial Day with fewer and fewer flags on graves of those killed in battle. And it is also dedicated to Apryl, David, Sam-and, especially, Rosemary.
For today, the eighth and last day of the Memorial Day Week, I have three musical selections that sum up what Memorial Day should be about-if only we could shut up the politicians from their jingoistic crocodile-teared speeches that invoke God and America, and who seem never to really understand the sacrifice made by those whose lives were cut short because of war.
The advance in battlefield medical practices has led to fewer deaths. But soldiers are still coming home wounded, and thousands a year are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Better psychological evaluation is helping many. But, for Ira Hayes, his death was just delayed many years after he came home.
Peter LaFarge (1931-1965), a Navy veteran and folk musician who was a part of the Greenwich Village life in the ’50s and ’60s, wrote about the life of Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian from Arizona, who was one of six Marines to erect the flag at Iwo Jima. Possibly today, in the atmosphere of hate that has tried to engulf Arizona, Ira Hayes might be stopped and searched for possibly being an illegal Mexican. This version of the “Ballad of Ira Hayes” is from Johnny Cash. Most people know he was active with groups less fortunate than most of us; few, outside his friends and family, also knew he didn’t support the Viet Nam War.
In today’s Act I, please listen to a ballad of a hero.
Act II: Many of the songs of the Civil Rights era had origins in the songs of West Africa and American slavery. Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972), a descendant of slaves, was the “Queen of Gospel,” and one of the more active Americans in the fight for civil rights. In her career, she won six Grammys, including one for Lifetime Achievement. She influenced more than a generation of singers. Dinah Shore (1916-1994), the daughter of immigrant Russian Jews, was one of the Big Band era’s most popular singers. During the 1950s and 1960s, her variety television show was one of the most popular on air-and also brought to a national stage many persons who were discriminated against by other shows and other media.
Please take a few moments to hear Mahalia Jackson and Dinah Shore sing a Gospel spiritual that long before the ’60s became an anti-war anthem.
Act III: Ed McCurdy (1919-2000), from Willow Hall, Pa., began his career as a romantic ballad singer, and then became a popular radio DJ, song writer, and folksinger in Canada His most popular song is “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” which became the official song of the Peace Corps. It has been recorded in more than 70 languages, and covered by almost every major folksinger of the 1960s and 1970s, and is still being sung today. John Denver (1943-1997) is well known for both his singing and songwriting. His causes were for the environment and the homeless. In this special video, John is at the Capitol Mall during a 500,000 person peace march against the Viet Nam War.
For Act III of the final day of the Memorial Day Week series, let’s hear John Denver’s version of Ed McCurdy’s dream about the end of war, and dream that the sentiment of this song may yet come true.
Thank you for listening