By Jack Sharkey, May 29, 2017

 

As Memorial Day approaches this year and we gear up for the “unofficial start of summer,” we would like to extend our heartfelt thanks and gratitude to the soldiers who sacrificed their lives for us in all of the conflicts in which they have answered the call. For every soldier, now and throughout history, who has sacrificed their life for us, for their brothers-in-arms and the call for their service there is a family who continues on without a precious loved one, and they are also in our thoughts.

This Memorial Day, as we pause to reflect on the sacrifices of those who died in the line of duty to their country, we can take a journey through the history of the soldier’s story as told with music. The selected songs embody the story of the soldier through the eyes of the contemporaneous culture and hopefully it’s an interesting look at how music has told the soldier’s story from the present back to the American Civil War.

 

Fallen Soldier – written and performed by Nathan Fair

After four tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Nathan Fair speaks eloquently and truly of the experience. A first person account of the conflict in Iraq, Fallen Soldier tells the story of every soldier, regardless of theater, with all the power and majesty a good, true song can evoke.

 

 

You’ve Got To Stand For Something – written and performed by Aaron Tippin

Released in October of 1990, this song became an accidental anthem in January of 1991 during Operation Desert Storm and the conflict to free Kuwait from Iraq. Not a song about the military in any sense, soldiers involved in the conflict and those who supported them back home took this song as symbolic of the military efforts at the time in the Middle East. Unlike some other songs on this list, its meaning is taken as an affirmation of the fight as well as support of the soldiers fighting it.

 

 

Vietnam – written and performed by Jimmy Cliff

The juxtaposition of the happy and lilting rhythms of ska and the horrific story of a soldier who writes a letter to a buddy back home telling him how much he is looking forward to the end of his hitch, only to have the story conclude with a letter informing everyone back home of his death in Vietnam is striking. The most powerful war songs are rarely political but almost always speak to the truths of the soldier in the field. Bob Dylan called this the greatest anti-war song in history.

The difference in tone between You’ve Got To Stand For Something and Vietnam gives us a good look into the cultural views at the time the songs became popular. In the former there is a sense the fight is good and just while in the latter the only examination is of the individual tragedy and sadness.

 

 

 Uncle Sam Has Called My Number – written by Leon Kelly and performed by Arkie Shibley

Released in 1951 as the Korean War heated up and American soldiers once again found themselves engaged in conflict on foreign soil, Uncle Sam Has Called My Number uses the country stylings of Hank Williams, which were at their zenith at the time, to tell the story of the mixed emotions and fears of a soldier who is leaving his love at home while he girds himself up for the fight. He tells her is certain he won’t return home but that her love strengthens him while also expressing his fear that she will forget him while he's gone. The country was still fatigued after World War Two, and now in the throes of the Cold War that fatigue was turning to a sense of resigned numbness. As we look back through history this is a common theme – the soldier who is away fighting hoping and praying those he is separated from will keep him in their thoughts while circumstances far bigger than he uncontrollably swirl around him.

 

 

Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree – performed by the Andrews Sisters

The Big Band era and Word War Two coincided with an explosion of patriotic – and often light-hearted – songs. There was very little in the way of dissent regarding the war effort and that is reflected in the common cultural and artistic references of the period. Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree is the plea of a soldier separated from the love of his life that she will be faithful and waiting for him when he returns. The losses in the early stages of World War Two were staggering beyond belief and light-hearted songs such as this were an attempt to temporarily lift the spirits of the people on the battlefield and the home-front.     

 

 

Keep the Home Fires Burning – performed by John McCormack

Written and released in 1915, Keep the Home Fires Burning is a British patriotic song urging the folks on the home-front to keep the men fighting in Europe foremost in their minds. Let no tears add to their hardships, As the soldiers pass along, And although your heart is breaking, Make it sing this cheery song. War, this song tells the citizenry, is serious business and even as dark times prevail, stubborn faith and good cheer will pave the way to victory.

 

 

Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight – as performed by Bessie Smith

Written in 1896 by minstrels who upon arriving by train at their next stop saw some young boys lighting a bonfire by the railroad tracks, Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight became a military anthem when Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders adopted it as their theme song during the Spanish-America War. Not a military or “war” song in the least, Hot Time In the Old Time Tonight is a great example of how the culture appropriates what it needs to communicate a particular time and place within itself.

 

 

Do They Miss Me At Home – as performed by Tom Roush

Written in 1852 by Caroline Atherton Mason and S.M. Grannis, this song became popular during the American Civil War. Mason wrote the lyric as a homesick lament while at boarding school, but by the time of the Civil War, soldiers on both sides took it up as wistful prayer of battlefield isolation. The song was what we would consider today a mega-hit and maintained its complete saturation throughout the cultures of the North and South until long after the war was over.

 

 

This Memorial Day, remember those who never came home and to the loved ones they left behind.