Willie McBride vs the fortunate sons -- anti-war song controversies prove popular culture matters

Some of the 'countless white crosses' at a World War I cemetery in Normandy, France.
November 28, 2014

Tom Waits once said that writing songs against war was like throwing peanuts at a gorilla. Which may be true, but no one said gorillas liked peanuts in their face.

After all, the veteran American songwriter made the comment as a self-deprecating reference to the anti-war songs on his 2004 album Real Gone ― inspired by the Bush adminstration's wars on Iraq and Afghanistan.

Waits noted: “But then I think, look how important soul music was during the civil rights movement.

“Sometimes I feel we are way outnumbered and the dark side has one more spear. But folks in the arts ― it's their job to put a human face on the war.”

Clearly no song, no matter how well-written, is going to stop a war. But that doesn't mean songs have no role to play.

Popular culture is an expression of how society views itself ― and a weapon in the struggle between contesting visions and memories.

And few aspects of society are more hotly contested than the matter of war ― and of how to remember those who die fighting them. Recent controversies over new performances of two iconic anti-war songs ― one in Britain and one in the US ― highlight the point.

The first case is outrage driven by anti-war sentiment over a new version of Scottish-born Australian-based folk singer Eric Bogle's 1976 song “No Man's Land” (also known as “Green Fields of France”).

The second is right-wing outrage over a rendition of Creedence Clearwater Revival's classic 1969 song “Fortunate Son”.

The context is the 100th anniversary of World War I ― a four-year-long bloodbath in which 9 million soldiers were slaughtered as Great Powers fought for control of lucrative territory and markets.

English soul singer Joss Stone recently released a version of the much-covered “No Man's Land”. Bogle's song was inspired by a visit to mass graves in northern France and Flanders of those who died in World War I. Recorded on behalf of the Royal British Legion (Britain's equivalent of the RSL), Stone's version was released to promote its “Poppy Appeal”.

In Britain, people are encouraged on Remembrance Day each November to wear red poppies to, in the words of the British Department for Culture, Media and Sport, “commemorate the contribution of British and Commonwealth military and civilian servicemen and women in the two World Wars and later conflicts”.

Given Britain's role as a colonial power, and the clearly imperialist nature of so many of its wars, it is no surprise wearing poppies remains controversial. For instance, Wigan footballer James McClean, who is from Derry in Ireland's north, received death threats last year when he refused to wear a poppy.

This year, he wrote a letter explaining his stance: “For people from the North of Ireland such as myself, and specifically those in Derry, scene of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, the poppy has come to mean something very different …

“For me to wear a poppy would be as much a gesture of disrespect for the innocent people who lost their lives in the Troubles.”

In 2010, fans of Glasgow's Celtic FC famously (or infamously depending on your stance) raised large banners during a football game that declared: “Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan. No bloodstained poppy on our hoops [in reference to their jerseys].”

Any version of a song about the horror of war released to promote the Poppy Appeal was always going to be controversial. But such was the level of outrage that Bogle himself felt compelled to write an article in The Guardian, expressing his disapproval of Stone's version.

The problem is not just that Stone's rendition is near unlistenable, it's that it completely guts the song of its anti-war content.

The song contains four verses that tell the thoughts of the narrator as he sits by the grave of 19-year-old Willie McBride ― among “countless white crosses”.

Bogle's lyrics shift from what could be mistaken for wistful nostalgia ― wondering whether McBride had left “a sweetheart behind” ― to denouncing the horror of “a whole generation that was butchered and damned”.

In lines that capture an almost unbearable sense of loss, Bogle poses the question: “Did you really believe them when they told you 'The Cause'? Did you really believe that this war would end wars?”

Bogle gives the brutally simple response: “Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame, the killing, the dying it was all done in vain.

“For Willie McBribe, it all happened again. And again and again and again and again.”

Followed by the chorus' refrain of “Did they beat the drums slowly, did they play the fife lowly?”, these lines are gut-wrenching. They are meant to hurt so badly that tears well in the listener's eyes.

These lines are as essential to the song as the second half of a film or the final chapters of a book. And those two verses were dropped from Stone's rendition.

“Believe it or not,” said Bogle in his response, “I wrote the song intending for the four verses of the original song to gradually build up to what I hoped would be a climactic and strong anti-war statement.

“Missing out two-and-a-half verses from the original four verses very much negates that intention.”

Stone reduces the song to an empty shell, transformed from a cry of horror into an over-produced piece of sentimentalist nostalgia ― bloodless in all senses.

It should be no surprise. The message pushed by our rulers ― busy waging fresh wars ― is that we must “remember the sacrifice” of dead soldiers without ever asking “sacrifice for what and for whom?”

Bogle's excluded lines are unacceptable because they pose the question of “us” versus “them” ― did you really believe them, he asks of McBride.

If World War I was not really a “war to end wars”, what was it actually for? Bogle's song does not try to answer that question ― the closest it gets is denouncing “man's blind indifference to his fellow man” (another line you won't hear Stone sing).

But across the Atlantic, a mirror opposite controversy broke out over a song that does.

In the US, November 11 is marked as Veteran's Day. At an official “Concert for Valor” in Washington DC in honour of US military veterans, Bruce Springsteen, Zac Brown and Dave Grohl performed Creedence Clearwater Revival's “Fortunate Son”.

The performance was predictably slammed by right-wingers, who insisted it was anti-patriotic and disrespectful to soldiers.

“Some are going, wait a minute, this is all about the vets, and that particular song was intended to be an anti-war anthem,” Fox News host Steve Doocy said, referring to widespread criticism of the performance on Twitter. “Is it really appropriate to be performing it in front of so many vets who volunteered to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan?”

Despite right-wing claims, the song is not “anti-soldier”. The song's author, John Fogerty, is himself a veteran, drafted into the army in 1966.

The real cause of the outrage is that the song nails the “born-to-rule” elites ― the “fortunate sons” ― who create and profit from wars they force others to fight on their behalf.

In fact, Fogerty himself said the song speaks “more to the unfairness of class than war itself”.

Unlike “No Man's Land”, the horror of war does not feature in the lyrics at all. In 1969, it didn't need to ― the horror was all over Americans' TV screens.

Instead, over three verses, the song caustically describes and denounces the political, business and military elites whose much-vaunted “patriotism” extends only as far as letting others die on their behalf.

As the third verse puts it: “Yeah, some folks inherit star-spangled eyes, oh they send you down to war. And when you ask them 'How much should we give?', they only answer, more, more, more.”

“It aint me, it aint me,” insists Fogerty in the furious chorus, “I aint no fortunate one.”

No wonder pro-imperialist right-wingers lost their minds at this song being sung at an “official” veterans' event. For all their claims of “honouring” the “sacrifice” of ordinary soldiers, their real cause is using propaganda to push permanent war.

The crime of Springsteen, Brown and Grohl was to actually sing a song truly on behalf of ordinary soldiers.

They spoke directly to the deadly hypocrisy that allows deaths in one war to be used to push fresh killing in others ― so Exxon-Mobil, Lockheed-Martin, Goldman Sachs and the rest can get richer.

Taken together, these two songs tell the story of the nightmare of capitalist-driven wars. The contrasting outrage reveals that popular culture remains a battleground between conflicting interests ― those of the Willie McBrides and those of the fortunate sons who profit from their death.

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