Saturday, November 11, 2023

Songs about soldiers

Marilyn Monroe entertains troops in Korea in 1954.

     Today is Veterans Day. Thank you to all the men and women who have worn a uniform in defense of our great country. Your service is greatly appreciated.
     This year, I found myself thinking of entertainers who thanked the troops — perhaps because my mother was a singer with the U.S.O., and went overseas to put on shows for soldiers in Europe in 1952, when she was 16. Flying aboard an Army Super Constellation.
     There are a lot of good songs about soldiers. I thought immediately of slightly before her era, the Andrews Sisters singing "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy from Company B" — "a famous trumpet man from out Chicago way." There is a good version on YouTube with Katie Perry, Keri Hilson and Jennifer Nettles, of all people. My wife loves Cher, so I have to mention the video for "Turn Back Time" shot aboard the U.S.S. Missouri at dock in San Diego. While not necessarily military, we can't forget Gang of Four's "I Love a Man in Uniform."
     Military families also make sacrifices, which often get overlooked. Though musicians take notice, such as the melancholy "Gun Shy" by 10,000 Maniacs, Natalie Merchant's half salute, half criticism to her little brother, who had enlisted in the U.S. Army. She recorded it on a cassette and sent it to him in Germany:
I always knew that you would take yourself far from home
As soon as, as far as you could go.
By the 1/4 inch cut of your hair and the Army issue green,
For the past eight weeks I can tell where you've been.
     A lot of people confuse Memorial Day — to honor the military dead— and Veterans Day, to honor the living; so "Billy Don't Be a Hero" wouldn't count, since young William never comes home. Of course some songs do both, like Big & Rich's "8th of November," is about soldiers lost in Vietnam, but focuses on a survivor. The Vietnam era was a confusing time, and some military-themed songs are just obscure, like Neil Young's "Soldier."
     Elton John's "Talking Old Soldiers" captures the struggle of vets growing old alone.  Reservists are sometimes seen as second tier, but Toby Keith's American Soldier gives them their due. Just as most soldiers don't see combat, so most songs involving soldiers skip that experience, though the trippy "Three-Five-Zero-Zero" in the musical Hair doesn't mince words (including the n-word, so be forewarned before you click). And Jacques Brel's queasy "Next" is a reminder that military awfulness isn't confined to battle. 
     That should do — I'm sure I've overlooked some, and feel free to mention them in the comments. I put my flag out yesterday, but if you have one, fly it, and if you know a vet, you might want to give them a call and see how they're doing. 



  1. There's an even better "Boogie Woogie Bugel Boy" on Youtube (not great quality), the Devine Bette Midler singing all three parts.

    1. I saw that, but the not-great-quality is why I kept looking.

  2. Reckless Kelly - American Blood, "George is a real go getter and he's runnin' the show, and he should have known better, but his old man told him to go. He sits at home with his feet on his desk while the boys got theirs in the sand, a million miles away with American blood on their hands..."

  3. Don't miss "Dress Blues" by Jason Isbell. One of his best, and he wrote it when he was just a kid with Drive By Truckers.

  4. "A lot of people confuse Memorial Day — to honor the military dead— and Veterans Day, to honor the living."

    Thank you for pointing this out. Countless small-town papers today will have a photo of a cemetery and an article with family members of the deceased.

  5. Ruby, don’t take your love to town. Masterpiece.

  6. Some Mother's Son by The Kinks is a very moving song

    1. My picks to click:
      "Sailor (Your Home is the Sea)," 1960, by Lolita. I refer to the original German version that was on the WLS Silver Dollar survey for a few weeks.
      "Soldier Boy," 1962, the Shirelles.
      "Navy Blue," 1963, Diane Renay.
      "I Ain't Marching Anymore," 1965, Phil Ochs.
      "Sam Stone," 1971, John Prine. Best song ever wrtitten about a veteran home from "the conflict overseas."

  7. I’ve always resented the “thank you for your service” seemingly required by etiquette these days. My service was self serving at best, non serving eventually when circumstances seemed to demand that I quit serving political and military principles that I disagreed with. I did serve faithfully as long as my conscience allowed, but it would have been the same had I served by working in a factory or a newsroom.


    1. Me too! Especially when you can just tell it was scripted by the Human Resources Department at Basic Training for new employee indoctrination. ("Thank you for your service?") "You haven't earned the right to thank me!" And the mere fact you made a point of it, knowing I'm a veteran already tells me you're not about to take that into consideration for why I called anyway, who T.. F... do you think your fooling? ("Now, how can I NOT help you!?")

    2. I read that about 50 per cent of vets are not comfortable being thanked.

  8. In Europe especially of course, this day is seen as Armistace day (for WW1) and Flanders Field and those cemetaries there are shown with poppies.

    That's great about your mom but thought one would have to be 18 to join the USO.

    1. Different time. Remember, you could get married at 12 back then.

    2. Can't do that anymore, Mr. S, but in five states--Hawaii, Kansas, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, 15-year olds can still get married with parental consent, judicial approval, or both. And we fly the flag on all mandated holidays. We put ours out yesterday, along with the Ohio state burgee.

      I have a cousin who served for 37 years--Navy, Army National Guard, Regular Army). A lifer who went to Vietnam, the Southern Border, (to build a wall in California), and Iraq.

      The Army needed warm bodies so badly in 2005 that he was able to be transferred, at 56 (!!!), from training recruits in the South to driving trucks in Iraqi combat zones. He said that if he was training them to get blown to bits, then he ought to be putting his ass on the line, too. The brass readily agreed with him.

      He saw a lot of bad stuff, and came home so messed-up in the cabeza that I no longer knew him. We used to be like brothers. We didn't communicate for the next 14 years. When we finally reconnected, I sadly learned that he'd retreated into the bottle, and had become even more right-wing than before. That's why I don't want to see him anymore.

      Not the praying type, but I do pray that my Cuzz doesn't get behind the wheel of his pickup and end up killing somebody, something which almost happened last spring. I don't need to give him a call to see how he's doing. I already know.

  9. I was curious about the sculpture so I had a rummage around the Internet. Took me a while to notice the signature on the trouser leg of the solder in the foreground, but then I was able to find out it's the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. by Frank Gaylord. Thanks, Neil.

  10. I can’t get through Veteran’s day without “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”. Love the Liam Clancy version.

    1. That's the one I thought of first, even though it's not an American tune.“The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” describes war as futile and gruesome, while criticizing those who seek to glorify it The song also reflects on the fading memory and recognition of the veterans as they grow old and die.
      But the band played Waltzing Matilda, as they carried us down the gangway
      But nobody cheered, they just stood and stared, then they turned all their faces away

      And so now every April, I sit on me porch, and I watch the parades pass before me
      And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march, reviving old dreams of past glories
      And the old men march slowly, old bones stiff and sore, the forgotten heroes of a forgotten war
      And the young people ask, what are they marching for? ...and I ask myself the same question

    2. I’ve always been partial to the version by the Pogues.

  11. We all can serve in our own way and to our ability. Some with a gun on the front lines, some by staying at home working in defense factories or building the CCC roads! Lest we forget the list, of World War II songs that is way too long to put here. "I'll Be Seeing You", 'The White Cliffs of Dover', etc. For more than 5 years the top charted songs always included several war related hit tunes. From the American Revolution, the Civil War, to The Ballad of the Green Beret and protest songs. Hollywood too, 'The Longest Day', by Paul Anka, no less! When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, they all jump on the bandwagon! Too bad we need a war to find a morale booster. Do you realize every branch of military service has its own official song! Pretty soon we're gonna need more service branches or more wars to keep up! Not to worry, Congress isn't working on that right now! Congress isn't working, PERIOD! OK, so who's working on 'From the Ocean to the River' right now? Let's hear a few bars?

  12. Thanks everybody for your suggestions. "Ruby" and "Waltzing Matilda" are better than anything I thought of. Tom Waits has a beautiful version of the latter.

    1. ah, a tom waites song, what better way to bring cheer to bring cheer to the heart of this old viet nam vet. actually, i noticed another u tube vid while listening to the song of a waites interview with david letterman. in it (it's only about 5 minutes long) it finishes with a gadget waites bought and brought to the show-and it's an absolute hoot. this is the cite:
      Tom Waits - Interview on The Late Show With David Letterman (2009) and here's the link if you want to copy and paste:,vid:rKB5QiM249E,st:0
      paul w
      roscoe vil

    2. True story: When she traveled to Korea, Marilyn's military ID was issued under her real (and married) name--Norma Jean DiMaggio.

      It was after Korea that Marilyn told her brand-new husband:
      "It was wonderful, Joe. They loved me. You never heard such cheering."

      Joe DiMaggio's clipped reply:
      "Yes, I have..."

      Not hard to see why they lasted only nine months.

  13. One tune that stuck with me (I think it was Louden Wainwright III) was: "Lyndon Johnson told the nation: Have no fear of escalation. I am trying everyone to please. Though it isn't really war, we're sending fifty thousand more to help save Vietnam from Vietnamese." Danny M

  14. 🚢🏽‍♀️Trans John/Karen 3/22November 11, 2023 at 1:28 PM

    ‘Three-Five-Zero-Zero’ at its final climax broke into one of Shakespeare’s soliloquies from Hamlet. ‘What a piece of work is man…’. The rest of Hamlet’s musing evokes mocking sarcasm opposite the body of the song. Rightly so, whether Hamlet (Shakespeare) meant it that way or not.
    There’s also ‘The Ballad of Penny Evans’ from Steve Goodman’s second album, although this would probably fall under the Memorial Day category. He always sang it a cappella, and it never fails to bring a tear, at least to me. The young woman was a real person that poured out her soul to Steve one night after he finished a set in upstate New York. The basic facts were true, even if the woman turned out to be less than she presented herself - as Goodman, to his surprise, found out by accident a couple years later.
    There’s also John Prine’s ‘Sam Stone’. I knew a few people who came back from Viet Nam totally messed up (one who used to police the area for body parts
    after the fighting had let up and toss them into bags), bouncing from one job to the other, mellowing out with alcohol more than drugs in their cases.
    Veterans’/Armistice Day celebrated the ‘War to End All Wars’. ‘What a piece of work is man’.

  15. Lou Reed’s Xmas in February is very damn good.

  16. Drive On by Johnnie Cash is an excellent veteran song.

  17. Thanks for all the memories of those songs. And thanks too for pointing out the diff between Memorial Day and Veterans Day. My Dad was a Captain in WW2 and my Mom was a Lt. in the Army Nurse's Corp; she never saw action because she was released pregnant with me! My husband was a Captain and helicopter pilot in Viet Nam; he served 8 years and we were married for 7 of those. We don't fly the flag (the ignorance of flag protocol bothers me-people leave the flag flying night and day, in all kinds of weather) I say when asked we lived the flag-no need to fly it. Thanks for all the great comments too.

  18. (Dixie) Chicks Travellin' Soldier, their Bush era cover of a song written about a Vietnam draftee. I think the imagery of the high school football stadium played very differently in the era of Yellow Ribbons and "I SUPPORT OUR TROOPS" bumper stickers, which makes the Chicks' version that much more poignant, as does their fall from grace with that Friday Night Lights/Sunday morning church audience

  19. Why not consult with Eric and Ben Zorn for traditional tunes on the topic. Also listen to The Midnight Special 11/11 at 9 pm on WFMT for songs about peace for soldiers --- now there's a concept.

  20. Trace Adkins..Til the last shots a good one.

  21. “ Fighting soldiers from the sky
    Fearless men who jump and dive
    Men who mean just what they say
    These are the men of the green beret”

    Cool song

  22. Ooh! Here’s an old folklore song we sang at camp too…”Where have all the flowers Gone?”

  23. My all time favorite soldier song is the tear jerking “Two Soldiers”, a traditional song that I discovered on Bob Dylan’s album World Gone Wrong. In the liner notes he credits Jerry Garcia for introducing it to him.

  24. I spent 3 years in the Army in Germany during the Vietnam War, my brother was there and a cousin was killed there in 1967. Such a waste, as was every life taken on both sides. When the French left, we should have followed.
    As far as songs go, the saddest at least to me is Sam Stone by John Prine. The line there that always gets me is "While the kids ran around wearin' other peoples' clothes." Children robbed of their Dad. Happened too often then and does today as well whether overseas or on our streets.

  25. "Day After Tomorrow" by Tom Waits.

  26. "Universal Soldier" by Buffe Saint-Marie.
    "My Heart Lies Across the Ocean" by Bob Bennett
    "Volunteers" by Mark Erelli
    "Talking Vietnam Potluck Blues" by Tom Paxton
    "Willing Conscript" by Tom Paxton
    "Thanks for the Support" by Roy Zimmerman
    "Trooper's Lament" by Utah Phillips
    "Ballad of the Ship of State" by David Ackles
    "Meeting Stucky at the Gas Station" by Kat Eggleston
    "Veteran's Big Parade" by Dory Previn
    "Start the Parade" by Phil Ochs and Bob Gibson
    "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," trad.
    "Johnny, I Hardly Knew You" trad.
    "Bring Them Home" by Pete Seeger

  27. "It Makes a Fellow Proud to be a Soldier" by Tom Lehrer
    "Christmas in the Trenches" by John McCutcheon
    "At the Elbe" by Fred Small
    "Pinkville Helicopter" by Thom Parrott
    "First Battalion" by Shel SIlverstein
    "Born on the Fourth of July" by Tom Paxton
    "When a Soldier Makes It Home" by Arlo Guthrie
    "The Cruel War is Waging" trad
    "Reuben James" by Woody Guthrie
    "Ballad of Ira Hayes" by Pete LaFarge

  28. "We'll Meet Again" by Vera Lynn It captures the bitter emotions of death and hope for a people at war.


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